Gender roles in Islam

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This article is about gender roles in relationships between Islamic men and women, and their families. For related topics including Islamic women's clothing and juridical differences between the genders, see Women in Islam.

The Quran, the holiest book in Islam, indicates that men and women are spiritual equals. The Quran 4:124 states:

"If any do deeds of righteousness be they male or female and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them."

But this notion of equality has not been reflected in many of the laws in Muslim-based institutions.[1]

The Quran does not specify specific gender roles for women.[2][3][4] However, in Islamic practice, gender roles manifest themselves, partially because men and women are sometimes allotted different rights and different cultural expectations.

Traditional gender roles[edit]

Cultural traditions of nonreligious origin impact gender roles, prevailing cultural norms, and the interpretation of the Quran and other Islamic texts.[5]


Some Reformist and feminist scholars have argued that the concept of guardianship has formed the basis of particular gender roles in Muslim societies. Women are often expected to be obedient wives and mothers staying within the family environment and men are expected to be protectors and caretakers of the family.[1] However, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that women are not obligated to serve their husbands or do housework or do any kind of work at home.[6][7]

According to Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 60s, the Quran "gives the man the right of 'guardianship' or 'superiority' over the family structure in order to prevent dissension and friction between the spouses. The equity of this system lies in the fact that God both favoured the man with the necessary qualities and skills for the 'guardianship' and also charged him with the duty to provide for the structure's upkeep." Qutb's ideologies are still impactful today, influencing such prominent Middle Eastern leaders as Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.[8]


Several passages of the Quran deal with acceptable dress for both men and women. Sura 24, Verses 30-31 states:

Women wearing burqas in Afghanistan

"And tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to [those relatives who fall within bounds of close relationship explained in the Qur’an]..." Chapter 24, Verses 30-31.

However, there are many different interpretations of what “modesty” requires. The Quran requires Muslim women to dress modestly and to, at the very least, cover their breasts and genitals.[9]

The law of Hijab, on the other hand, states that the whole female body (not including the face and hands) should be covered, when a woman leaves her home.[10][11]

Prayer and worship[edit]

For Friday prayers, by custom, Muslim congregations segregate men, women, and children in separate groups. On other days the women and children pray at home.Men are expected to offer the five daily prayers at the nearest mosque. Muhammad specifically allowed Muslim women to attend mosques and pray behind men.[12] Mohammad said 'Do not prevent your women from going to the mosque, even though their houses are better for them." which implies it is better for women to stay at home. "A woman’s prayer in her house is better than her prayer in her courtyard, and her prayer in her bedroom is better than her prayer in her house." (Reported by Abu Dawud in al-Sunan, Baab maa jaa’a fee khurooj al-nisaa’ ilaa’l-masjid. See also Saheeh al-Jaami‘, no. 3833).[better source needed]

Women are prohibited from praying at a Mosque in Surinam.[13]


Sexuality as discussed in Islamic texts is generally confined to the context of heterosexual marriage, and in all cases modesty and chastity are strongly encouraged. Pre-marital sex and homosexuality are forbidden, and abortion is largely discouraged except in cases where there are medical risks for the mother. Sexuality in Islam is often separated in terms of male versus female sexuality, marital versus pre-marital versus extramarital sexuality, and heterosexuality versus homosexuality as is pointed out by Abdessamad Dialmy.[14]

Male and female sexuality[edit]

The Islamic tradition recognizes the sexual desires of both men and women. In many classical arguments, it is the husband's duty to fulfill his wife's sexual needs, which are part of her rights as a married woman. This argument is often paired with the statement that this is how society prevents social unrest (fitna). According to Kecia Ali, "Classical texts note the importance of female fulfillment, while stressing the wives' duty to remain sexually available to their husbands...whereas contemporary authors, focus on women's sexual rights within their marriages, attempting to prove the importance of female pleasure by highlighting the separation of sex from reproduction and the importance of the female orgasm."[15] Classical authors also stress the importance of male guardianship as the required to protect the chastity and modesty of women in their care.

Heterosexuality and homosexuality[edit]


Traditional Islam considers the heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman the only acceptable relationship. Within this traditional relationship, the male is allowed more room for expression of his sexual rights than the female is as mentioned above. There are three types of heterosexual relationships: pre-marital, marital, and extramarital.

Marital, pre-marital and extramarital sex[edit]

Pre-Marital Sex: Pre-marital sex is frowned upon in general; however, there are strict regulations on men and women to keep their virginity. Men and women are advised to abstain from indulging in indiscriminate sexual relationship for mere satisfaction of carnal desires. Marriage is the only acceptable means to indulge in sexual relationships, any other is considered as "Zina", one of the major sins in Islam. In Islamic marital practices, the male pays a dower for his wife, which is one of the essentials of a valid marriage. Other essentials are the presence of witnesses and 'Waliy' guardian. Muhammad was reported to have said: marriage is not valid without Sadaq, Waliy and Shahidain (Dower, Guardian and Witnesses respectively) The dower is a fixed amount of money or a gift of jewellery or property equivalent to it to the bride as her own. A Muslim marriage is a marriage is there usually solemnized in the mosque before an imam where guardians of both parties appear on their behalf(usually that of the female)and the marriage pronounced after payment of the Sadaq. It is not a contract that needs to be signed by the either of the parties.

Marital Sex: Sex is supposed to be shared between spouses (a man and a woman). Men are technically allowed to take more than one wife, up to four wives as long as he can provide for each wife equally and not differentiate between them in a practice known as polygamy. Polygamy, though technically legal, is not a recommended practice in Islamic culture. Many sectors of the Islamic culture use the life of Muhammad as an example to live by and therefore a justification to polygamous marriages. It is only allowed for men to have multiple wives. Women cannot have multiple husbands.

Extramarital Sex: Sexual affairs outside of marriage are prohibited in Islam, and result in severe punishment for the perpetrating husband or wife, upon rigid proof that they participated in an affair. The proof is given by four male witnesses or eight female witnesses (with clean background histories i.e. known to be pious Muslims), who testify to seeing the act of penetration between the extra-marital couple. Punishment for not being able to provide the required number of witnesses after accusing the defendants is eighty lashes of a whip.

The couple are given chances to plead for forgiveness to God before the punishment is carried out. If they do not, they will be punished. If both parties are married, they will both be stoned to death. If one is married, while the other is not, the former will be stoned until dead, and the latter will be given a hundred lashes. The severe punishment of an extra-marital are mainly to act as a deterrent to society from engaging in such relationships, as sex outside marriage is a major sin in Islam. The pain of the punishment is also believed to lessen punishment in the afterlife.

However, it is important to note that these punishments can only take place under a Muslim government implementing Sharia Law, and cannot be handed out in a non-Muslim country with a different legal system.


Traditional Islamic schools of thought as based on the Quran and hadith usually consider homosexuality to be a punishable sin.[16] In much of the Islamic world, homosexuality is not legal, and in Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen homosexual acts are punishable by death.[17][18][19][20] Most Muslim countries continue to oppose LGBT rights movements, with the exceptions of Albania, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique.[21][22][23][24] In Albania, Turkey, Bahrain, Jordan, and Mali, homosexual intercourse is legal, and there is some discussion of legalizing same-sex marriage in Albania and Mozambique.[23][24][25][26]

Additionally, guardianship, gender roles, and male control over women’s sexuality are also tools that allow for the enforcement of heterosexual norms.[1]

Female genital mutilation[edit]

Female genital mutilation is practiced in many Muslim countries, especially within the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia.[27] Opinions vary widely within and without the Muslim community as to whether female genital mutilation is condoned, condemned, or ignored by Islamic texts. Some quote a passage from Sunan Abu Dawood to tie the practice of female genital mutilation to Islam:[28]

“A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina [Madîna]. The Prophet said to her: 'Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.'”–Sunan Abu Dawûd, Book 41, #5251.

This passage has been used to justify female genital mutilation, as here Muhammad does not specifically prohibit the practice.[28] However, the Quran does not mention or prescribe female genital mutilation, and the acceptance and perception of female genital mutilation varies deeply among Islamic region, sect, location, and individuals.


At least some of what is deemed to be masculine in Muslim cultures stems from the life and actions of Muhammad as put down in the Hadith.[29] Muhammad was married to his first wife Khadija monogamously for 25 years. Upon her death he later married a total of fourteen women and had at least four concubines.[30] In Sahih al-Bukhari 7:62:142, it is said that Muhammad sometimes had sexual relations with all his wives in one night,[31] and in 1:5:268 he is described as having “the strength of thirty men.”[32] This, along with a Muslim practice of measuring a man by the number of his male offspring, suggests that virility is a large traditional component of what has long been deemed "masculine" in the Muslim tradition.[29] The idea of traditional masculinity is also strongly shaped by the tradition idea of femininity.[29] Several classic Muslim authors such as Sheikh Muhammad Nefzawi and Ahmed Bin Selman describe women as beings with insatiable sexual appetites.[29] It follows that a man who can satisfy multiple women is seen as incredibly powerful and masculine.[29]

In addition to the relationship between Muslim masculinity and female sexuality, some concepts of Muslim masculinity stem from the relationships between Muslim men. Prominent writer of “Islamic Masculinities”, Lahoucine Ouzgane, proposes the idea that masculinity is rooted in a fear of emasculation by other men.[29] Additionally, projecting homosexuality onto another man is often seen as a way to emasculate him while reaffirming one’s own superior virility.[29]

Modern viewpoints[edit]

Viewpoints regarding gender roles vary with different interpretations of the Quran, different sects of the religion, and different cultural and locational regions.


Salafiyyah literally means "that which pertains to ancestry".[33] It was first conceived by Muhammad Abduh and refers back to the first generation of Muslims who supported Muhammad during the seventh century.[33] It is an Arabic term that denotes fundamentalism.[33]

The ideas of Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz are characteristic of much of the salafiyyah sect. Bin Baz believed that the engagement of women in “male domains” separates them from their God-given nature, eventually leading to women's misery and demise.[5] He believed that women entering “male domains” posed a danger to Muslim society, eventually causing it to fall into moral decay.[5] Additionally, he asserted that a woman outside the home was a woman denying her true, God-given character.[5] He viewed the involvement of women in male domains as a detriment to the next generation, which he says may receive a worse education and less compassion from their mothers.[34][35] BinBaz also thought that women should only work in certain fields—those that are within a woman's domain—such as female education, nursing and medical care. But even these must obey a strict separation of gender.[35]


The Qur'anic and prophetic terms for "moderation" are reflected in the word "wasatiyyah," which means the "middle way between extremes" and "upright without losing balance."[36]

Muhammad Al-Ghazali's ( ) ideas characterize much of the wasatiyyah school of thought. His ideas are shared by other notable and influential people including Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Abdel-Haleem AbuShaqua, and Hasan al-Turabi.[5] Together they represent a growing modernist trend.[5] Al-Ghazali indicated that Islam suggest a significant sense of equality between men and women.[5] He maintained that there are traditions created by people and not by God that slow women's development and keeps them in religious ignorance, which he believes results in the degradation of the whole Muslim community.[5] Ghazali asserts that women have been denied a say in their communities and have been restricted to domestic service.[37] He also called for a change in Islamic thinking in general and the reevaluation of cultural traditions that are attributed wrongly as central to the Islamic faith.[5]

Fatema Mernissi[edit]

In her writings, Fatema Mernissi remarks that “if women's rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Qur'an nor the Prophet Muhammad, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite”.[38] She questions the social norm a man is “dishonoured” if a woman in their family works outside of a domestic space. She asserts that in the male mind society is divided into an economically productive section that is public and male and a domestic sphere that is private and female and that these two areas should not mix.[5]

Heba Ra'uf[edit]

Heba Ra'uf (born 1965) Ra'uf stresses the importance of new interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (traditions and sayings of Muhammad). Ra'uf argues that the advancement of women's causes in Arab and Muslim societies requires a reworking of Islamic thought. She criticizes the efforts of those who draw their inspiration exclusively from Western feminism.[5]

Ra'uf dresses in the Muslim veil.[5] This is a source of controversy within Islamic feminists. On the one hand, some feminists like Nawal El-Saadawi severely criticize the veil: “veiling and nakedness are two sides of the same coin. Both mean women are bodies without mind … ”.[39] But Ra'uf sees wearing a veil as a means of liberation: “the veil neutralizes women's sexuality in the public sphere, making clear that they are citizens – not sexual objects”.[40]

Ra'uf acknowledges that women belong in the public sphere, and she challenges any gender-based separation between the public and private spheres.[41] She emphasizes that women's work should extend both into the private and the public sectors. “Breaking the dichotomy would give housewives more social esteem and would encourage working women to fulfill their psychological need to be good mothers and wives” [41]


Saudi Arabia[edit]

Until at least October 2017, women are disallowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world with such a restriction.[42][43] In some areas such as Mecca they are expected to cover their hair as well.[5] While they have gained increased access to education and a few gender segregated job opportunities, their representation in the labor market rate was barely more than 10 percent in 2002.[44]

Women's development in Saudi Arabia has been relatively slower than in its neighboring Arab countries, especially regarding the improvement of female participation.[5] In 2004, the fifth Jeddah Economic Forum held in Saudi Arabia had its first ever woman in key activities, with Lubna Olayan delivering the keynote speech.[5] In the same year, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia reaffirmed in the 2004 hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) speech that “women should be grateful to the respectful role accorded to them by Islam as mothers”.[45]


The Islamic Republic of Iran has witnessed a number of advancements and setbacks for women’s roles in the past 40 years, especially following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Initially laws were enacted that restricted women’s freedom of movement such as a more strict enforcing of veiling and a segregation of the sexes in public space[46][47] Educational access was restricted and certain political positions and occupations were discouraged or barred to women.[48] Constitutional revisions that occurred in 1989 ultimately resulted in an improvement in the lives and opportunities of women.[48] Several women have been elected to the Iranian parliament, more women take advantage of higher education opportunities, and more women participate in civil service.[49]


During the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were severely limited in employment opportunities.[50] Women who had children were not allowed to work in any way, and other women were encouraged to do work only from home.[50] Women could work in health fields but only to treat female patients.[50] Initially, widows were hard-pressed to find any work, but an edict issued by the Taliban in 1999 allowed widows to work in a severely limited pool of employment opportunities.[50]

After the overthrow of the Taliban, education and employment opportunities improved. Women could again work as teachers, doctors, and civil servants. The Women Judges Association was established, and advocates female participation in the law and equality for women under the law.[50] Still, women remain underrepresented in education. In 2011, for example, 37% of students in Afghanistan were female, and about 15% of women can read and write.[51][52][53] However, literacy is improving with more schools open for girls and a higher attendance rate.

See also[edit]


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