What The West Gets Right (And Wrong) About Women In Islam

Published June 10, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017

Much has been said – and continues to be said – about the position of women in Islam. But how much does the West get right, and how much is a myth?

Women In Islam

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

THE ROLE WOMEN PLAY in Islamic society is much discussed — and criticized — in the West. Some of this criticism is badly informed, however, which leads to misunderstandings and conflict that could have been avoided. So just what exactly is the role of women in Islam? In short, it varies across societies — something you would expect for a religion with 1.7 billion followers.

Why Shariah Law Exists

Islam Women Kabaa


The first thing to know about Islamic rules for women is that it represents a huge step up from what came before it. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a wild and chaotic place: Female infants were routinely buried alive and the rules for marriage, and family life and commerce changed every few miles. Multiple religions and local customs made a hash of the local culture, and the only way to know what was permitted in a given tribe’s area was to go there and take your chances.

The seventh-century advent of Shariah changed all of that and imposed a (theoretically) standard set of rules for everyone to live by. Under this system, which is enshrined in both the Quran and in thousands of Hadiths, all people are described from Allah’s perspective and are subject to one law, and believers in Islam are morally superior to Christians and Jews, who are in turn superior to pagans and atheists.

Muslims are described in two basic terms: spiritually and temporally, with men and women being spiritually equal before Allah. Equal, but not identical – gender roles are precisely defined by Shariah, and they are strictly enforced in places that practice Islamic jurisprudence.

Unlike the pre-Islamic mishmash it replaced, Shariah provides a great deal of protection for women and children, who previously had been at the mercy of whichever man had the biggest scimitar. To this day, Shariah is attractive to countries where anarchy has broken out, such as Somalia, precisely because of the order and stability it promises.

What Happens To Islamic Women In Marriage

Islam Women Iranian Family


Islamic law treats marriage as the transfer of stewardship over a woman from her father to her husband. In liberal Muslim communities, this is mostly a formality, but conservative places such as Iran take women’s dependence very seriously in the marriage contract, which is usually negotiated between a girl’s father and her prospective husband.

During this negotiation, details get ironed out over the dowry and the potential divorce terms. Essentially, the marriage contract also functions as a prenuptial contract that will be enforced by an Islamic jurist.

Islam can’t say enough good things about marriage. Both the Quran and Hadiths address men and women as if they are husbands and wives, and the role each is expected to play is very sharply defined. Each party is assigned a duty, and crossover is mostly unheard of. Wives are responsible for homes and families, and they most definitely marry into their husband’s clan and become part of his family. Husbands are the public face of the family, and they are enjoined to earn an honest living and “lift food to [the wife’s] face.”

While some ambitious women can find this arrangement stultifying, the intent is clearly to create safe spaces where child-bearing women can be sure of shelter, food, and protection.

Where And Why Inequality For Women In Islam Exists

Islam Women Girl Rail


Wherever two groups of people are given radically different jobs, some inequality is bound to creep into the system. Islam is no exception. In the Quran, men are described as being “a grade above” women in matters such as law, religion, and society.

Husbands are the instructors and – essentially – supervisors of their wives. A wife controls the home, but her husband has final say over just about everything. Men are also usually held accountable for their wives’ actions, whether they’ve violated the law or just social mores.

Since men are responsible for the financial support of the family, they inherit twice what women do, and because husbands are responsible for their wives’ safety, they have some authority to control women’s movement.

In most places, this boils down to a wife’s duty to let her husband know where she’s going when she leaves the house, but very restrictive societies, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, take it to such an extreme that women must be accompanied at all times by a male relative. In Saudi Arabia, the government automatically sends an SMS to a husband or father’s phone when his wife or daughter tries to leave the country.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Stockton, Richard. "What The West Gets Right (And Wrong) About Women In Islam." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 10, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/women-in-islam. Accessed May 25, 2024.