Women in Arab societies

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For the position of women in Islam and in the Muslim world, see Women in Islam.
Three Algerian women in the 1880s, the front girl holds a cigarette. The girls are from Algiers

Women in the Arab world, as in other areas of the world, have throughout history experienced discrimination and have been subject to restrictions of their freedoms and rights. Some of these practices are based on religious beliefs, but many of the limitations are cultural and emanate from tradition as well as religion. These main constraints that create an obstacle towards women's rights and liberties are reflected in laws dealing with criminal justice, economy, education and healthcare.[1]

Arab women before Islam[edit]

Costumes of Arab women, fourth to sixth century.

Many people / writers have discussed the status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and their findings have been mixed.[2] Under the customary tribal law existing in Arabia at the advent of Islam, women as a general rule had virtually no legal status. They were sold into marriage by their guardians for a price paid to the guardian, the husband could terminate the union at will, and women had little or no property or succession rights.[3] Some writers have argued that women before Islam were more liberated drawing most often on the first marriage of Muhammad and that of Muhammad's parents, but also on other points such as worship of female idols at Mecca.[2] Other writers, on the contrary, have agreed that women's status in pre-Islamic Arabia was poor, citing practices of female infanticide, unlimited polygyny, patrilineal marriage and others.[2] Saudi historian Hatoon al-Fassi considers much earlier historical origins of Arab women's rights. Using evidence from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Nabataea, she finds that Arab women in Nabataea had independent legal personalities. She suggests that they lost many of their rights through ancient Greek and Roman law prior to the arrival of Islam and that these Greco-Roman constraints were retained under Islam.[4][5] Valentine M. Moghadam analyzes the situation of women from a marxist theoretical framework and argues that the position of women is mostly influenced by the extent of urbanization, industrialization, proletarization and political ploys of the state managers rather than culture or intrinsic properties of Islam; Islam, Moghadam argues, is neither more nor less patriarchal than other world religions especially Christianity and Judaism.[6][7]

In pre-Islamic Arabia, women's status varied widely according to laws and cultural norms of the tribes in which they lived. In the prosperous southern region of the Arabian Peninsula, for example, the religious edicts of Christianity and Judaism held sway among the Sabians and Himyarites. In other places such as the city of Makkah (Mecca) -- where the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born—a tribal set of rights was in place. This was also true amongst the Bedouin (desert dwellers), and this code varied from tribe to tribe. Thus there was no single definition of the roles played, and rights held, by women prior to the advent of Islam.

In some tribes, women were emancipated even in comparison with many of today's standards.[8][9] There were instances where women held high positions of power and authority.

Pakistani lawyer and expert on Sharia law Sundas Hoorain has said that women in pre-Islamic Arabia had a much higher standing than they got with Islam. She describes a free sex society in which both men and women could have multiple partners or could contract a monogamous relationship per their will. She thus concludes that the Muslim idea of monogamy being a post-Islamic idea is flawed and biased and that women had the right to contract such a marriage before Islam. She also describes a society in which succession was matrilineal and children were retained by the mother and lived with the mother's tribe, whereas children are always given to the father after a divorce, under Sharia law. Hoorain also cites problems with the idea of mass female infanticide and simultaneous widespread polygamy (multiple women for one man), as she sees it as an illogical paradox. She questions how it was possible for men to have numerous women if so many females were being killed as infants.[10]

In pre-Islamic Arabia, there were patterns of homicidal abuse of women and girls, including instances of killing female infants considered to be a liability. The Qur'an mentions that the Arabs in Jahiliya (the period of ignorance or pre-Islamic period) used to bury their daughters alive.[11] The barbaric custom of burying female infants alive, comments a noted Qur'anic commentator, Muhammad Asad, seems to have been fairly widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. The motives were twofold: the fear that an increase in female offspring would result in economic burden, as well as the fear of the humiliation frequently caused by girls being captured by a hostile tribe and subsequently preferring their captors to their parents and brothers.[12] In his book Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, Glenn Hausfater details how Qais Bin Assem, a leader of the Tamim tribe, killed every daughter he had for fear of their capture (and his disgrace) in the inter-tribal wars that dominated Arabian society at that time. According to some scholars; during times of famine, especially, poorer families were likely to kill a daughter, regarding her as a burden on a starving family.[citation needed]

It is generally accepted that Islam changed the structure of Arab society and to a large degree unified the people, reforming and standardizing gender roles throughout the region. According to Islamic studies professor William Montgomery Watt, Islam improved the status of women by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce."[13][citation needed]

The Hadiths in Bukhari suggest that Islam improved women's status, by the second Caliph Umar saying "We never used to give significance to ladies in the days of the Pre-lslamic period of ignorance, but when Islam came and Allah mentioned their rights, we used to give them their rights but did not allow them to interfere in our affairs", Book 77, Hadith 60, 5843, and Vol. 7, Book 72, Hadith 734.

Arab women after Islam[edit]

See also: Women in Islam
A page from an Arabic manuscript from the 12th century, depicting a man playing the oud among women, (Hadith Bayad wa Riyad).

Islam was introduced in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, and improved the status of women compared to earlier Arab cultures.[14] According to the Qur'anic decrees, both men and women have the same duties and responsibilities in their worship of God. As the Qur'an states: "I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another".(Qur'an 3:195)

The Qur'an rejected the traditional and cultural practice of killing unwanted female children soon after birth. As it appears in (Qur'an 16:58-59),the religious message states: "When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief. With shame he hides himself from his people, because of the bad news he has had! shall he retain it (his face) (sufferance and) contempt, or bury it in the dust? Ah! what an evil (choice) they decide on!" The Prophet of Islam said that "one to whom a daughter is born and who does not bury her alive, does not humiliate her not prefer a son to a daughter, will be sent to Paradise".[15] Another tradition of Muhammad makes hell fire prohibited to he who undergoes trials and tribulations due to a daughter and yet does not hate her and behaves well towards her.[16]

The Islamic studies professor William Montgomery Watt states:

It is true that Islam is still, in many ways, a man's religion. But I think I’ve found evidence in some of the early sources that seems to show that Muhammad made things better for women. It appears that in some parts of Arabia, notably in Mecca, a matrilineal system was in the process of being replaced by a patrilineal one at the time of Muhammad. Growing prosperity caused by a shifting of trade routes was accompanied by a growth in individualism. Men were amassing considerable personal wealth and wanted to be sure that this would be inherited by their own actual sons, and not simply by an extended family of their sisters’ sons. This led to a deterioration in the rights of women. At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad improved things quite a lot. By instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, he gave women certain basic safeguards. Set in such historical context the Prophet can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women's rights. [17]

Early reforms[edit]

During the early reforms under Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[18] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[19] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[20] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property."[18][21] Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative.[18][21][22] "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[18] Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[23] William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women's rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[24] Haddad and state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."[25]


Main article: Madrasah

Women in played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[26] As a result, opportunities arose for female education in the medieval Islamic world. According to Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[27] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to Aisha, the wife of the Muhammed, "How splendid were the women of Ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith". According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge.[28]


The labor force in the Arab Caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[29] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[30] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[31] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[30] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dyeing, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[32] Women's economic position was strengthened by the Qur'an, but local custom has weakened that position in its insistence that women must work within private sector of the world: the home or at least in some sphere related to home. Dr. Nadia YousaF, an Egyptian sociologist now teaching in the United States, states in a recent article on labor-force participation by women of Middle Eastern and Latin American Countries that the "Middle East reports systematically the lowest female activity rates on record" for labor. This certainly gives the impression that Middle Eastern women have little or no economical role, until one notes that the statistics are based on non-agricultural labor outside the home.[33]

In the 12th century, the most famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[34] In early Muslim history, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah,[35] Aisha,[36] Kahula and Wafeira,[37] and Um Umarah.

Contemporary Arab world[edit]

Asmahan a prominent Arab singer and actress (1912-1944).


There have been many highly respected female leaders in Muslim history, such as Shajar al-Durr (13th century) in Egypt, Queen Orpha (d. 1090) in Yemen and Razia Sultana (13th century) in Dehli. In the modern era there have also been examples of female leadership in Muslim countries, such as in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey. However, in Arabic-speaking countries no woman has ever been head of state, although many Arabs remarked on the presence of women such as Jehan Al Sadat, the wife of Anwar El Sadat in Egypt, and Wassila Bourguiba, the wife of Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, who have strongly influenced their husbands in their dealings with matters of state.[38] Many Arab countries allow women to vote in national elections. The first female Member of Parliament in the Arab world was Rawya Ateya, who was elected in Egypt in 1957.[39] Some countries granted the female franchise in their constitutions following independence, while some extended the franchise to women in later constitutional amendments.[40][41][42][43][44]

Arab women are under-represented in parliaments in Arab states, although they are gaining more equal representation as Arab states liberalise their political systems. In 2005, the International Parliamentary Union said that 6.5 per cent of MPs in the Arab world were women, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000. In Tunisia, nearly 23 per cent of members of parliament were women. However, the Arab country with the largest parliament, Egypt, had only around four per cent female representation in parliament.[45] Algeria has the largest female representation in parliament with 32 per cent.[46][47]

In the UAE, in 2006 women stood for election for the first time in the country's history. Although just one female candidate - from Abu Dhabi - was directly elected, the government appointed a further eight women to the 40-seat federal legislature, giving women a 22.5 per cent share of the seats, far higher than the world average of 17.0 per cent. [2]

The role of women in politics in Arab societies is largely determined by the will of these countries' leaderships to support female representation and cultural attitudes towards women's involvement in public life. Dr Rola Dashti, a female candidate in Kuwait's 2006 parliamentary elections, claimed that "the negative cultural and media attitude towards women in politics" was one of the main reasons why no women were elected. She also pointed to "ideological differences", with conservatives and extremist Islamists opposing female participation in political life and discouraging women from voting for a woman. She also cited malicious gossip, attacks on the banners and publications of female candidates, lack of training and corruption as barriers to electing female MPs. [3] In contrast, one of UAE's female MPs, Najla al Awadhi, claimed that "women's advancement is a national issue and we have a leadership that understands that and wants them to have their rights." [4]

Women's right to vote in the Arab world[edit]

Women were granted the right to vote on a universal and equal basis in Lebanon in 1952,[48] Syria (to vote) in 1949 [49] (Restrictions or conditions lifted) in 1953,[50] Egypt in 1956,[51] Tunisia in 1959,[52] Mauritania in 1961,[53] Algeria in 1962,[54] Morocco in 1963,[55] Libya [56] and Sudan in 1964,[57] Yemen in 1967 [49] (full right) in 1970,[58] Bahrain in 1973,[59] Jordan in 1974,[60] Iraq (full right) 1980,[59] Kuwait in 1985[61] (later removed and re-granted in 2005) and Oman in 1994.[62] Saudi Arabia announced that it would give women the right to vote in 2015.[63]

Economic role[edit]

In some of the wealthier Arab countries such as UAE, the number of women business owners is growing rapidly and adding to the economic development of the country. Many of these women work with family businesses and are encouraged to work and study outside of the home.[64] Arab women are estimated to have $40 billion of personal wealth at their disposal, with Qatari families being among the richest in the world.[65]


Since Islam encouraged equality between the sexes, Islam has also encouraged equality in education. In all Arab countries, girls, just like boys, usually get their full education in highschool and even move onto getting a Graduate diploma, and this has been going on for a long time after the 1960s.


Women have varying degrees of difficulty moving freely in Arab countries. Some nations prohibit women from ever traveling alone, while in others women can travel freely but experience a greater risk of sexual harassment or assault than they would in Western countries.

Women have the right to drive in all Arab countries except Saudi Arabia.[66] In Jordan, travel restrictions on women were lifted in 2003.[67] "Jordanian law provides citizens the right to travel freely within the country and abroad except in designated military areas. Unlike Jordan's previous law (No. 2 of 1969), the current Provisional Passport Law (No. 5 of 2003) does not require women to seek permission from their male guardians or husbands in order to renew or obtain a passport." In Yemen, women must obtain approval from a husband or father to get an exit visa to leave the country, and a woman may not take her children with her without their father's permission, regardless of whether or not the father has custody.[68] The ability of women to travel or move freely within Saudi Arabia is severely restricted. However, in 2008 a new law went into effect requiring men who marry non-Saudi women to allow their wife and any children born to her to travel freely in and out of Saudi Arabia.[69]

Traditional dress[edit]

See also: Hijab and Sartorial hijab

Costumes of women in the Arab world during the late 19th century.

Adherence to traditional dress varies across Arab societies. Saudi Arabia is more traditional, while Egypt is less so. Women are required to wear abayas in only Saudi Arabia; this is enforced by the religious police. Some allege that this restricts their economic participation and other activities.[70] In most countries, like Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, the veil is not mandatory. In Tunisia, the secular government has banned the use of the veil in its opposition to religious extremism. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali called the veil sectarian and foreign and has stressed the importance of traditional Tunisian dress as a symbol of national identity. [5] Islamic feminism counters both sorts of externally imposed dress codes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 'Challenging Inequality: Obstacles and Opportunities Towards Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa'
  2. ^ a b c Turner, Brian S. Islam (ISBN 0-415-12347-X). Routledge: 2003, p77-78.
  3. ^ Beck, lois. and Keddic, Nikki. " Women in the Muslim world", Harvard University Press, London, 1978, p.37.
  4. ^ Hammond, Andrew; Sara Ledwith (2008-04-30). "Saudi scholar finds ancient women's rights". Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on 2011-05-29. Retrieved 2011-05-29. 
  5. ^ al-Fassi, Hatoon (2007-07-15). Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea. British Archaeological Reports International Series. British Archaeological Reports. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-4073-0095-5. 
  6. ^ Unni Wikan, review of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 1078-1079
  7. ^ Valentine M. Moghadam. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, USA, 1993) p. 5
  8. ^ Islam and Women Dr. Younus Shaikh
  9. ^ Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian Society
  10. ^ "Sundas Hoorain at LSE". youtube. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  11. ^ The Qur'an, 4 : 19
  12. ^ Engineer, Asgar Ali, "the Rights of Women in Islam", C. Hurst and company, London, 1992, p.21.
  13. ^ Maan, Bashir and Alastair McIntosh. "'The whole house of Islam, and we Christians with them...': An interview with 'the Last Orientalist' - the Rev Prof William Montgomery Watt." Internet version from www.alastairmcintosh.com. Also published in The Coracle, the Iona Community, summer 2000, issue 3:51, pp. 8-11.
  14. ^ From article on Women and Islam in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  15. ^ See Sunan Abi da'ud, "Kitab al Adab, bab fadl man ala yatama
  16. ^ See Sahih Bukhari, "kitab al-Adab, bab rahmat al-walad wa taqbilihi
  17. ^ Interview with Prof William Montgomery Watt
  18. ^ a b c d Esposito (2005) p. 79
  19. ^ Jones, Lindsay. p.6224
  20. ^ [1] Oxford Islamic Studies Online]
  21. ^ a b Khadduri (1978)
  22. ^ Esposito (2004), p. 339
  23. ^ Schimmel (1992) p.65
  24. ^ Maan, McIntosh (1999)
  25. ^ Haddad, Esposito (1998) p.163
  26. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 197. ISBN 0-313-32270-8. 
  27. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 196 & 198. ISBN 0-313-32270-8. 
  28. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 196. ISBN 0-313-32270-8. 
  29. ^ Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 6–7.
  30. ^ a b Maya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09896-8, pp. 400–1
  31. ^ Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 350–62.
  32. ^ Maya Shatzmiller (1997), "Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (2), pp. 174–206 [175–7].
  33. ^ Frfnea, Elizabeth warnock. and Bezirgan, Basima Qatta, "Middle Eastern Muslim women speak", University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994, p.25
  34. ^ Ahmad, Jamil (September 1994). "Ibn Rushd". Monthly Renaissance 4 (9). Retrieved 2008-10-14. 
  35. ^ Girl Power, ABC News
  36. ^ Black, Edwin (2004). Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict. John Wiley and Sons. p. 34. ISBN 0-471-70895-X. 
  37. ^ Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell (1853). Woman's Record: Or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning Till A.D. 1850, Arranged in Four Eras, with Selections from Female Writers of Every Age. Harper Brothers. p. 120. 
  38. ^ Roald, Anne Sofie. "Women in Islam", Routledge, London, 2001, p.185.
  39. ^ Karam, Azza M. (1998). Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers (snippet view). Handbook series. Vol. 2. Stockholm: International IDEA. p. 44. ISBN 978-91-89098-19-0. OCLC 186101396. 
  40. ^ Legislative Section in the 1950' Constitution of Syria (in Arabic)
  41. ^ Legislative Section in the 1970' Constitution of Syria (in Arabic)
  42. ^ Item 21, Section 2 Chapter 1 of the Lebanese Constitution since 1926 (in Arabic)
  43. ^ Item 62 of the 1971' Egyptian Constitution (in Arabic) inherited from previous versions
  44. ^ Item 50 of the 1996' Algeria Constitution (in Arabic) inherited from previous versions
  45. ^ BBC News - Arab women increase MP presence
  46. ^ http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/05/16/214420.html
  47. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2013/dec/02/quotas-more-women-parliament
  48. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Lebanon
  49. ^ a b Women's Suffrage
  50. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Syria
  51. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Egypt
  52. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Tunisia
  53. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Mauritania
  54. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Algeria
  55. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Morocco
  56. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Libya
  57. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Sudan
  58. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Yemen
  59. ^ a b Women's Suffrage
  60. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Jordan
  61. ^ Apollo Rwomire (2001). African Women and Children: Crisis and Response. p. 8. 
  62. ^ Reuters AlertNet - Oman
  63. ^ Saudi king: Women will be allowed to vote and run for office, CNN News, September 25, 2011.
  64. ^ "Women's Empowerment, Arab Style". Economica: Women and the Global Economy. October 2009. 
  65. ^ "The Business of Women Slideshow". Economica: Women and the Global Economy. October 2009. 
  66. ^ People's Daily Online - Saudi princess, at Davos Forum: ' I'd let women drive'
  67. ^ http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=174
  68. ^ U.S. State Department profile: Yemen
  69. ^ U.S. State Department profile: Saudi Arabia
  70. ^ cantonrep.com