Muslim female political leaders

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Movements for Muslim women to seek roles in national leadership have increased rapidly. Greater opportunities for women in education have further encouraged their involvement in politics.[1] The most prominent Muslim female leaders are former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto (served 1988-1990 and 1993-1996), Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri (elected 2001), former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller (served 1993-1995), former Senegalese Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye (appointed 2001), Bangladeshi Prime Ministers Begum Khaleda Zia (served 1991–96 and 2001–06) and Sheikh Hasina Wajed (first elected in 1996), former Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar (served 1997–2005), Malian president Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé (elected in 2011), Kosovan President Atifete Jahjaga (served 2011–16), and current President of Mauritius Bibi Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakim (elected in 2015).

Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an Islamic institute that advises Egypt's ministry of justice, issued a fatwa stating that female rulers and judges are allowed in Islam.[2]

The Qur’an contains verses that appear to support the role of women in politics, such as its mention of the Queen of Sheba, who represented a ruler who consulted with and made important decisions on behalf of her people.[3] Further, the Hadith provides numerous examples of women having public leadership roles. Muhammad’s first wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid was his chief adviser as well as his first and foremost supporter. His third wife Aisha Abu Bakr, a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric, often accompanied the Prophet to battles, even leading an army at the Battle of the Camel.[1] However, it is also within the context of this battle that a famous hadith is ascribed to Muhammad where he says "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler."[4][5][6][7]

Though leadership opportunities for Muslim women are cemented in religious text and continue to expand today, earlier generations had different understandings of women’s roles.[1]

Despite modern developments and greater inclusion of Muslim women in political life, there are a few Muslims in certain countries who maintain that the ideal Muslim woman should confine herself to the role of mother and wife.[1] However, there have been scholars in a variety of religious faiths and cultures that have advocated for the same thing.

Islamic texts[edit]

Islamic scholars argue that the Qur'an gives women the right to participate in public affairs as there are examples of women who took part in serious discussions and argued even with Prophet Muhammad himself.[8] In addition, during the Caliphate of Umar, a woman argued with him in the mosque, proved her point, and caused him to declare in the presence of many people: "A woman is right and Umar is wrong". However one of the major problems with the ability for women to lead in Muslim-majority countries stems from differences in interpretation of the textual foundations for Islam, the Qur'an and Hadiths. This problem is exacerbated by the complexity of the Arabic language, the different sectors of Islam, such as the differences between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, and the difference that occur across the different regions.[9] There is not a singular interpretation of the Qur'an that defines Islam. Therefore, the role of women as leaders cannot be definitively found in the Qur'an. The role of female leaders is constantly evolving depending on interpretation. Through new modern interpretations from the "progressive Islam" movement women have gained more freedom and power as leaders.[9]

Sections of the Qur’an used to limit women's power:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)” (4:34)[10] This verse however is often misinterpreted.[11]

Chapter 2 verse 228 says that men are a degree above women, however this again is often misinterpreted.[12] In Chapter 27, verses 29-44, the Qur’an references female leadership with the Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) who had a role similar to head of state.

Sections of the Qur’an used to equate women's power:

"Hence, do not covet the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on some of you than on others. Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn. Ask, therefore, God [to give you] out of His bounty: behold, God has indeed full knowledge of everything."(4:32)[10]

"Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward."(33:35)[10]

See also: Women as imams


The female role has been constructed throughout history. Historically in Islamic societies, women's role has been within the home which has limited and created obstacles for female leaders. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad and throughout the early and per-Islamic period, women were given a great sense of freedom and power. The wives of Prophet Prophet Muhammad referred to as the "Mothers of the Believers" were considered the ideal way for women in Islam to behave. Many of his wives and women within the early Islamic period were widely important in different leadership areas. Khadija bint Khuwaylid was not only economically successful prior to her marriage to Prophet Muhammad, but is also considered the first convert to Islam, aiding the Prophet during the revelations and the tumultuous history of the early Islamic period. His wife Hafsa bint Umar was entrusted with keeping the Qur'an safe, and his favorite wife Aisha bint Abi Bakr led an army in the Battle of the Camel. The Prophet also appointed Umm Waraqa as a female imam of both men and women.[13] The Prophet allowed women to take on these powerful leadership positions, however after his death the role of women in society became dictated by an onslaught of Hadiths and interpretations of Qur'an verses from a male dominated and patriarchal society. However the role of women in all of Islam is difficult to generalize as there are many different sectors of Islam and different interpretations of Qur'an verses which place the role of women in Islamic societies in different ways.

Overall women became regulated to positions within the household, becoming protected through seclusion, with men dictating the major decisions of their lives. Therefore, a separate movement for the rights and freedoms of females in Islam began to stir in the early 20th century. Two major figures who called for the liberation and education of women in Islamic societies were Rifa 'a al-Tahtawi and Qasim Amin. Qasim Amin "is considered the father of women's reform in the Muslim Middle East, challenging societal norms in his book "The Liberation of Women".[14] Amongst these two male leaders were also three Egyptian women Maryam al-Nahhas, Zaynab Fawwaz, and Aisha al-Taymuriyya, who worked for the Islamic feminism movement in the late 19th century. In 1956 Doria Shafik in led a suffrage movement in Egypt. The movement for women as political leaders in modern-day Islamic society was spearheaded by these modern day activists for gender equality. However the progress of this movement varies in different Arab countries and within different sectors of Islam, as new interpretations shape the gender construction for women in Islamic societies.[14]

The first female doctor in the Middle East was Dr. Khalda Zahir from Sudan who improved the field of Medicine and was an excellent professor in all the Middle Eastern Faculties of Medicine.

Political leaders[edit]

There are many twentieth and twenty-first century examples of women leading Muslim-majority countries. The majority of all Muslims in the world live in countries that have, at some time, elected women as their leaders. The three most populous Muslim-majority countries have had women as leaders including Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. As of 2007, women still face many pressures as political leaders, including arrests, imprisonments and assassination attempts.[15]


First female minister of Afghanistan. The third Afghan Constitution (in 1964 under King Zahir Shah) gave women the right to vote and enter parliament as elected candidates for the first time. As a result, in elections the following year three women were elected as members of the parliament and two appointed as members of the senate. Kubra Nurzai was appointed Minister of Public Health in 1965 and re-appointed in 1967.[16]

After graduating medical school in Kabul in 1988, she practiced as a physician until 1999 when the rule of the Taliban made this impossible. She began working for the women-led UN World Food Progamme (WFP) in 1999. After the Taliban was removed from power in 2002 she was one of 200 women who participated in the loya jirga. She ran for president in 2002, becoming the first woman to run for this position in Afghanistan. She won 171 votes (the second most ballots received) in the 2002 presidential election against Karzai.[17] She lost the election to Hamid Karzai but served within his cabinet as the Women's Affairs Minister from 2004-2006. Jalal was later nominated to study in Washington, DC at the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), which teaches women how to advance their leadership roles.[17]

One of 200 women who participated in the loya jirga after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. She is the first female mayor in Afghanistan. She is the current mayor of Nili, a town in Daykundi Province of Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton standing with Afghan female politicians, including Fauzia Koofi on her right and Sima Samar to her left.

In 2014 she became a candidate for President of Afghanistan after being elected as the Vice President of the National Assembly of Afghanistan in 2005. As Vice President she became the first female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament.

She served as the Afghanistan Ministry of Women's Affairs from 2001-2003.

Ran in the Afghan Presidential Election of 2009.

Ran in the Afghan Presidential Election of 2009.


She is a Professor and Doctor of medicine. She became the first female ambassador in Azerbaijan in 1993. She served as the Secretary of State in Azerbaijan from 1993-1994. She chose to resign from this position because of her dissatisfaction with corruption within the government. She founded the Azerbaijan Liberal Party in 1995 and has conducted Presidential runs as the head of this party.[18]


First female elected to the Council of Representatives of Bahrain in 2006 and is the only female to ever have been a council member.

First ever female cabinet minister when she was appointed as the Minister of Health in 2004. She also served within the upper house of parliament in the Consultative Council in 2007.


Popularly known as the "Battling Begums";[19] The two women have ruled Bangladesh as prime ministers since 1991.[20][21]

As the third most populous Muslim-majority country, Bangladesh has been ruled, as of 2016, for the last 25 years by female Prime Ministers[22] by electing Khaleda Zia[23] and Sheikh Hasina as prime ministers.

Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1996-2001 and 2009–Present. She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991-1996 and 2001-2006. When elected in 1991 she became the first female Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the second female leader in the Muslim world to be a leader of a democratic government.[24] She is also the chairperson and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and has been ranked by Forbes three times as the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. [24][25][26]


Nearly one-third of the Parliament of Egypt- the fifth most populous Muslim majority nation- also consists of women.[27]

In 1956 she became the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Liberation Army[disambiguation needed] of Egypt. She is considered to be a pioneer for female leaders in Muslim-majority countries. She was the first female Parliamentarian in the Arab world when in 1957 she served in the Parliament of Egypt.[28][29]


The most populous Muslim-majority country.

She served as president of Indonesia from 2001-2004, becoming the first female president of Indonesia and the fourth female to lead a Muslim-majority nation.[30]


She became Jordan's first female member of Parliament when elected in 1993. She faced lots of backlash as a female in this position, including arrests and mistreatment while imprisoned, causing a global outcry and the assistance of Amnesty International.


In the Muslim majority territory of Kosovo, President Atifete Jahjaga was unanimously elected by the Assembly of Kosovo on April 7, 2011.[31]


As an atheist,[32] she was sworn in as President of the Muslim-majority Kyrgyzstan on 3 July 2010, after acting as interim leader following the Tulip Revolution.


The second most populous Muslim-majority country.

The late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan.

In 1982 she became the first female in Pakistan to lead a political party, the Pakistan People's Party. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founded the Pakistan People's Party in 1968.[33] She was elected twice as the Prime Minister [34] of Pakistan. Her first election to Prime Minister in 1988 made her the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country. She served in this position from 1988-1990 and from 1992-1996. She was assassinated as a candidate in the 2008 election for Prime Minister.


She was nominated, but nerver served, as Prime-Minister in the country with by contrast, more than 80 percent of Romanians are Orthodox Christians, while fewer than 1 percent are Muslims. [35]


She was elected as the Minister of Justice in 2000 and was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2002. She is the first female in Senegal to hold this position.


Became Prime Minister of Turkey in 1993. Four Muslim countries have been or are currently led by women because of successions after deceased fathers, husbands, etc. Ciller, however, won her position as Prime Minister entirely on her own.[36] Ciller attended Robert College and later received her Master’s and Ph.D. Ciller returned to Turkey and taught economics at Bosphorus University after her husband was offered a good job. She entered politics in 1990 by joining the True Path Party (which she is now the president of) under Suleyman Demirel. Ciller quickly became assistant of the party, and then entered the 1991 election where she won and received the responsibility for ministry of economy in the government. President Turgu Ozal died in 1993, so Demirel took his position as president. Ciller saw her chance and took it, for she won the position as prime minister in June 1993. Tansu Ciller is one of Turkey’s most powerful politicians and is said to be the key to forming the next government. Ciller’s supporters favor her modernization/westernization ideas. Despite her followers, Ciller also had many people against her reforms. Ciller was forced to leave the government after she made some unpopular actions as prime minister. Her questionable decisions led to three different parliamentary investigations on her, so Ciller decided to leave office in 1995. Despite her mistakes, Ciller still remains very powerful today.[37]


Other Muslim female national political leaders include Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, Sitt al-Mulk (in eleventh century), Sibel Siber and Aminata Touré.


She was proclaimed Queen by her husband on 7 February 1999. She uses her position to advocate for better education, health, and tribal community empowerment. Attempting to empower women and the youth within her own country. Jordan has many laws which discriminate against women, this is at odds with the opinion of the Royal Family.[38] Globally she works with the United Nation's Children's Fund and the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative as well as promotes dialogues for tolerance between different cultures. She was also ranked in 2011 as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women by Forbes.[39]

Political history by country[edit]

Muslim women’s roles and opportunities in public office vary depending on the country/region and the type of government in power. For this reason, one cannot generalize the subject of Muslim female political leaders. It is best to look at the histories of each country to get a better understanding of how Muslim women’s roles have evolved over time.


Muslim women generally do not participate in public office in Afghanistan; however, there have been drastic changes and attempts throughout history to increase their participation in the government. King Amir Aman Allah (1919–29) was overthrown because he tried to liberate women, and Muhammad Dawud (1953–63) attempted public unveiling. In 1967, a delegated Afghan woman participated in a conference on Asian women in Ceylon, and in 1958 a female delegate was sent to the United States. King Zahir Shah (1933–73) formally announced voluntary end of female seclusion in 1959. During the constitutional period (1963–73), the liberal constitution accorded significant rights to women (i.e. right to vote and right to education). The king appointed two women to the Constitutional Advisory Commission, and the loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) included four women. Four women were elected in the 1965 elections, where Miss Kubra Nurzai became minister for Public Health (first female minister in Afghanistan), and Mrs. Shafiqa Ziayee became a minister who remained without portfolio in Etemadi’s second cabinet (1969–71). The People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) (a progressive agenda for women’s rights) and the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women were established in 1965.[16] The Taliban then emerged in 1996 and enforced a drastic reduction of women’s freedom. Women were not allowed to receive education or employment, and many women were fired from their government positions. Overall, it was very hard for women to work under Taliban rule. In December 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, the Bonn Process worked to make Afghan women a more active political force. The 2002 Loya Jirga endorsed the Transitional Administration, which included three women out of twenty-one commissioners. 12.5% of the delegates in the loya Jirga were women, and one woman was even elected as vice chair of the loya Jirga.[40] The Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) was established in 2002. The government of Afghanistan signed the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003. In 2004, Afghanistan reserved seats for female candidates in legislative elections for the first time. As a result, almost 30% of the women won their seats on their own (not because they were reserved), and 68 women (27%) were also elected to parliament.[16] Although there has been significant improvement of women’s participation in public office, men are still the majority in the government and therefore still tend to make the final decisions.

Arab States[edit]

Arab women today enjoy the smallest number of parliamentary seats around the world. For example, in 2005 women occupied 5.7% of all parliamentary seats in the region, as compared to 12-15% in other regions.[40] Some Arab countries have tried to adopt legislation to increase women’s participation, but the laws are never usually enforced. Some Arab countries have also adopted quotas that guarantee the representation of women. For example, Morocco reserves 30 seats of 325 and Jordan reserves 6 of 110 seats for women.[40] Although women are still underrepresented, their participation is rising. For example, the number of female politicians elected in Morocco in 2003 rose from 84 to 127 (out of 22,944 elected officials, though).[40] The King of Morocco appointed Zoulikha Nasri as first female royal counselor. The Arab states employ more women in key positions at a ministerial level. For example, Lebanon ranks fourth in the world and Jordan ranks eighth for most women employed at this level. The United Arab Emirate’s Ministry of education (UAE) reported that there were more female than male workers in more than 25 federal ministries. In 2001, there were 16,223 women versus only 9,518 men.[40] Although women are gaining more opportunities in public office, 68% of Arab women in political life now are dissatisfied with the current level of female political participation.[40] Women want to keep moving up and eventually hold key decision-making positions. Female candidates also have to put gender issues second and national issues first in order to get the male vote. Laws regarding women and their right to vote in office are still weak and not well-enforced. Many Arab people continue to exclude women from public/political positions and some political regimes promote this as well. Many familial dynamics still promote male over female political participation in the current century as well.

Central Asia[edit]

During the Russian Empire, the participation of women in public office was not possible in Muslim territories. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled after the Russian Empire, and the first women were elected to local and central governing bodies because of its new policies. This representation was low, however, until the end of the 1930s. In Turkestan, fewer than half the elected female delegates in 1926 represented the Muslim population.[40] In 1925, Soviets worked to create more opportunities for women to participate at all levels of public and political life. The Communist Party took steps to enable Muslim women to be active in public and political life. One requirement was increasing female representation in public office. Throughout Soviet history, only two women were appointed to the position of minister (culture and health). The Communist Party gave women secondary positions rather than top positions, so although their participation was increasing, their roles were not as important as their male counterparts. Only Yadgar Nasretddinova was able to achieve the highest levels of power in the Soviet system from the 1940s to 1970s. Yagar occupied Chair of Supreme Soviet in Uzbek SSR and Chair of Upper Chamber of Supreme Soviet of USSR. Women appointed by the Soviet government were not appointed for their educational or professional abilities, but rather by their social origin. This led to many non-professional women and men in positions of power, and as a result, women in politics and in power were seen in a negative light. Women in general were stereotyped as incapable of making decisions. Actual equality never was achieved, but the goal of changing historical traditions where women were not allowed in power was met. Despite its successes, this process, called Sovietization, had a lot of hidden barriers and regulations for women. The quota system practiced by the Soviet regime was abolished in 1989 and as a result many women lost their positions in the government. 26% of the members in the Turkish parliament during the post-Soviet period were women.[40] 9.9% of the parliament in Uzbekistan was also women.[40] 14.9% of the Tajikistan parliament was women in 2000.[40] Equal rights and opportunities laws have been drafted in most Muslim countries of Central Asia; however, women are still stuck in secondary positions because of traditional patriarchal views of women.


Women actively participated in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905/06, which recognized all citizens as equal. The electoral law of 1906, however, denied women the right to vote. Women voted for the first time in the 1963 referendum on the White Revolution (reform introduced by Mohammad Reza Shah). Interestingly, the government did not allow women’s participation in the 1963 vote, but they also did not deny them the right to set up their own ballots and vote. Women also voted in the September 1963 parliamentary elections. For the first time, six women were elected to parliament, and Shah appointed two other women to senate.[40] The number of women deputies also increased in the following parliamentary elections. In 1978, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, 22 women were in the parliament.[40] Women retained the right to vote after the Islamic Revolution and four were elected to parliament under the Islamic Republic. In the 2000 Majlis elections, 13 women were elected to parliament.[40] In the 1960s and 1970s, Farrukhru Parsa was elected as minister of education and Mahnaz Afkhami as minister of state for women’s affairs. The position of minister of state for women’s affairs was abolished in 1978. Today, Iranian women are still working to gain more rights in the political sphere.


Women’s formal political participation began with the Turkish Republic. A group of women attempted to establish a women’s party after the rise of the Turkish Republic but were denied. The legal status of women changed between 1920 and 1935. Turkish women were granted political rights much earlier than women in other Islamic or European countries. They were allowed to vote for local elections in 1930 and national elections in 1934. There was also a lot of support from single party leaders for more women’s participation in government between 1930 and 1946. In the 1935 national elections, 18 women (4.6%) were elected to parliament.[40] There was, however, a decline in the participation of women after the multi-party regime. Until 1984, the percentage of women in parliament was between .61 and 1.76.[40] After 1984, there was a slight increase, but the percentage of women still never surpassed that of 1935. For example, in the 2002 election, 24 (4.5%) were women.[40] Thirteen of 365 women were in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and eleven of 177 were in the social-democratic Republican People's Party (CHP).[40] Between 1935 and 2004, 126 women were members of the parliament, but 48.9% of them did not get the opportunity for a second term.[40] Therefore, of 8,517 seats, only 183 (2.1%) women occupied them.[40] The few women who were elected to public office were generally there because of men (i.e. their family name).[citation needed] Another pattern of the women in power is that they were apolitical women.[citation needed] Although women parliaments were underrepresented, they were usually better educated and more professional than that of men.[citation needed] Women in Turkish government are generally concentrated in areas associated with traditional women’s roles (i.e. education and health).[citation needed] Only 14 women have taken part in 16 cabinets occupying 28 ministerial posts since 1971.[40] Tansu Ciller, leader of the True Path Party (DYP) became the first female prime minister in Turkey and served until 1996. It is statistically proven that the total number of women working in public office has been increasing at a faster rate than males.


By the nineteenth century, Muslim women began creating women's organizations aimed at including women as public leaders.[41] During this time, women began to advocate for higher education, along with protesting the full veiling they were forced to wear. Debate on such issues gave certain women access to public roles, specifically women of higher classes. Western ideals may be responsible for influencing certain women to become activists and obtain public leadership roles.[33] The nineteenth century also marked the reformation of certain social restrictions and oppression toward women, specifically education, polygamy, the arranged marriage of a young girl to a much older man[33]

Wardah al-Yaziji and Wardah al-Turk, two educated women in Syria, began writing Aishah al-Taymuriyah of Egypt during the 1860s and 1870s.[33] The women discussed potential reforms for their gender in hopes of raising awareness of gender inequality.[33] Around the same time, and in contribution to this publication, Hind Nawfal, an immigrant from Syria to Alexandria, published a monthly women's piece in Arabic called Al-fatah.[33] In 1891, Zaynab Fawwaz, also an immigrant to Alexandria, published the newspaper Al-nil.[33] Such actions are considered some of the first marks of Muslim feminism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, women began participating in national movements and campaigns. Women in Iran participated in the Tobacco Rebellion and the Constitutional Revolution in 1908.[33] As a result, upper-class women founded political societies that aimed at increasing rights for women in education and politics. Such national participation helped counter female seclusion in Muslim society.

Following World War I, gender issues were highlighted as an area to reform. Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt all addressed controversial topics of women's rights in divorce and child custody while reforming amendments. Iran and Turkey began strongly opposing the need of head scarfs.[33] Such reformations have continued through the twenty-first century.

See also[edit]


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  41. ^ Zuhur, Sherifa. "Oxford Islamic Studies". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 May 2014. 

Analyzing Muslim Women’s Leadership : The Contemporary Context