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Women and Islam

To consider the place of women in Islamic tradition, this entry comprises two articles. The first article examines the role and status of women in Islamic law and summarizing twentieth‐century legal developments that have specifically affected women. The second article provides an overview of women's religious activities in contemporary Muslim societies. For related discussions, see Women and Social Reform.

Role and Status of Women

The Qur'ān, Islam's holy book, and the sunnah (traditions of the Prophet) considerably improved women's status by comparison to the pre‐Islamic (Jāhilīyah) period. Before Islam, men treated women as their property, to be married or divorced at their pleasure. Women were subjected to polygynous practices and female children to infanticide. Women generally had no voice in the selection of spouses and, once married, lacked financial security, as the dower (mahr) was paid directly to their male guardians. However, apparently some pre‐Islamic women practiced polyandry and also selected and divorced their own husbands. As a rule, these women were neither veiled nor secluded; some were poets and others even fought in wars alongside men.

Role and Status in the Qur'ān and Sunnah.

Islamic holy law (sharī῾ah) addressed some of the more flagrant gender inequities of the pre‐Islamic period. For instance, Islamic regulation proscribed female infanticide; abolished women's status as chattel; emphasized the contractual, rather than the proprietary, nature of marriage; mandated that the wife, not her father, directly receive the dower; enjoined that a woman retain control and use of her property and maiden name after marriage; guaranteed her financial maintenance by her husband; accorded her the right to privacy; prohibited her husband from spying on or entrapping her; and prevented a woman's eviction from the house after divorce by requiring the husband to maintain his ex‐wife for three menstrual cycles (until childbirth if she were pregnant).

To develop a clearer picture of the status and role of women in the Qur'ān and sunnah, one should distinguish between Islam as religion and Islam as culture. Islam as religion refers to regulations pertaining to piety, ethics, and belief. These spiritual aspects of Islam are considered duties of worship (῾ibādāt) and hence called “roots” or “foundations” (uṣūl) of the faith, for instance, Allāh's uniqueness, the final prophecy of Muḥammad, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. On this religious level, men and women are moral equals in the sight of God. Evidence for this is found in numerous Qur'ānic verses (2.187, 3.195, 4.1, 4.32, 9.71–72, 24.12, 30.21, 33.35–36, 40.40, 48.5, 57.12), which render the only distinction between women and men to be their piety, not their sex.

Islam as culture refers to the ideas and practices of Muslims in the context of changing social, economic, and political circumstances. People not only worship God but also interact in social relationships (called mu῾ā‐malāt, or “transactions”). They make contracts, trade, fight, arbitrate disputes, collect taxes, and so on. Collectively, these constitute the furū῾ (the branches, or “superstructure”).

On this cultural level, women have not been treated as men's equals. Such inequality has evolved largely as an artifact of the preferences and actions of patriarchal authorities (termed scripturalists here) after the Prophet's death, including certain rulers and administrators, most jurists, and some intellectuals. They justify this system of inequality by reference to certain verses of the Qur'ān and traditions of the Prophet. However, modernists, including a number of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century political leaders, government bureaucrats, intellectuals, leaders of women's movements, and a minority of ῾ulamā' (religious scholars), believe that many of these verses and traditions do not support such categorical claims.

Thus, the comprehensive veiling and seclusion of women would appear to have no warrant in the Qur'ān and the sunnah. However, Qur'ānic verses do assign women's testimony half the value of men's; permit men to unilaterally divorce their wives; deny women custody rights over their children after they reach a certain age; (see mingly) permit polygyny; and favor men over women respecting inheritance. But modernists hold that stipulations in the Qur'ān itself and existing legal principles adduced by jurists may be invoked to maintain that, since the social, cultural, and economic context of those verses has changed, the sanction for gender inequality is no longer legitimate.

Modernists support their argument by reference to holy law itself. First, in surah 3.7 the Qur'ān specifically distinguishes between two kinds of verse: (1) those that are unambiguous (muḥkamāt), and (2) those that are subject to interpretation (mutashābihāt). Hence, anti‐scripturalists may claim that verses appearing to confer superiority upon men over women (for example, surahs 2.223 and 2.228) ought not be taken literally but, rather, allegorically. Second, the Qur'ān not only conditions polygyny on the requirement of equitable treatment for all wives (4.3), but explicitly asserts such treatment to be impossible (4.129). Third, Allāh says that He will not change a people's condition until they change what is in themselves (13.11). According to modernists, this verse calls upon Muslims to use their intrinsic endowment of reason to maximize their welfare. Fourth, a sound tradition ascribed to the Prophet maintains that “as for matters of your world, you know better.” Modernists interpret this to mean that Muslims should use reason—repeatedly upheld in the Qur'ān as a meritorious human attribute—in pursuit of their welfare. Thus, it would be offensive to human reason to accept gender inequality when Allāh Himself enjoins spiritual equality of all Muslims. Finally, over the centuries reform‐minded jurists have employed a number of legal devices that vindicate the use of reason in pursuing the welfare of Muslims, including: (1) public interest (maṣlaḥah mursalah); (2) the common expression, “necessities make permissible what are forbidden” (al‐ḋarūrāt tubīḥu al‐maḥẓūrāt); and (3) the application of discretion (istiḥsān) in reaching a ruling.

Scripturalists claim that the Qur'ān and sunnah mandate veiling and seclusion. However, modernists believe such arguments are tendentious. Of the seven Qur'ānic verses using the word “veil” (ḥijāb), six were revealed at Mecca (surahs 7.46, 17.45, 19.17, 38.32, 41.5, 42.51), and none of them refer to veiling Muslim women. The seventh verse (33.53), revealed at Medina, refers to the need for the Prophet's wives to be behind a ḥijāb when his male guests converse with them. Modernists hold that the verse does not pertain to Muslim women in general, while scripturalists, implicitly accepting this, argue that what applies to the Prophet's wives, examplars of chastity, inheres all the more for Muslim women, since they are less chaste.

But modernists declare that the verse lacks the quality of obligation (farḋ al‐῾ayn or farḋ al‐kifāyah), since there is no textual stipulation (naṣṣ) which makes it obligatory (wājib). Indeed, al‐Jāḥiẓ writes that women, with the knowledge of their kin, socialized freely and unveiled with men at the time of the early Islamic community. Furthermore, al‐Wāḥidī, in his Asbāb al‐nuzūl, and others maintain that the reference in surah 24.31 to scarves that should cover both head and bosom (khumur; in contrast to the full‐length ḥijāb) was based on the need to differentiate among free women and slaves. The story is told of the caliph, ῾Umar ibn al‐Khaṭṭāb, who slapped a female slave for wearing such a scarf. In the modernist view, if scarves were used to distinguish free women from slaves, then the abolition of slavery in the modern period has eliminated this reason for (partially) covering oneself.

Jurists differ as to the requirement of veiling and seclusion contained in the sunnah. References to veiling in the earlier, hence sounder, ḥadīths are vague and general; whereas the later, hence less reliable, ḥadīths are much more detailed. Historical evidence seems to indicate that veiling and seclusion were introduced after the Islamic conquests of Iran and Byzantium. As Muslims increasingly became urbanized, men veiled and secluded their women as a status marker of the family's wealth. Thus, in the modernist view, veiling had nothing to do with the requirements of the faith. [See also Ḥijāb.]

To modernists, the Qur'ān does not support or assert notions of inherent female inferiority, nor can women be judged less rational, more emotional, or less competent than men on the basis of holy law. Certain ḥadīths are sometimes cited to the effect that the Prophet regarded women as incapable of leadership. However, modernist scholars doubt the veracity of a number of these traditions and believe that they were invented by later generations to justify restrictions on the activities of women. It is clear from many sunnah that the Prophet consulted women and weighed their opinions seriously. According to Ibn Ḥanbal, founder of one of the four Sunnī schools of law, at least one woman, Umm Waraqah, was appointed as the imam of her household by the Prophet. Historical and other evidence indicates that women contributed significantly to the redaction of the Qur'ān and were entrusted with vital secrets affecting the Muslim community: women were first to learn of the revelation, they were told the location of the Prophet's hiding place prior to his escape to Medina, and they were vouchsafed with the Prophet's secret plans to attack Mecca. Upon the Prophet's death, the distinguished women of the community were consulted as to who should succeed him.

In spite of the claims of later traditions, then, modernists say that historical and canonical records demonstrate women's important and respected role in Muslim life, as reflected in the story of an older woman who corrected the authoritative ruling (fatwā) of Caliph ῾Umar ibn al‐Khaṭṭāb on the dower (mahr). They cite the fact that women prayed in mosques unsegregated from men, and were involved in the transmittal of ḥadīths (Ibn Sa῾d, the famous early biographer, records seven hundred cases of women who performed this important function). Women were known to give sanctuary (jiwār) to men. As an indication of their involvement in public matters, they owned and disposed of property and engaged in commercial transactions. Like men, they were encouraged to seek knowledge, which, indeed, they pursued in the Prophet's own home, and women were both instructors and pupils in the early Islamic period. The Prophet's favorite wife, ῾Ā'ishah, was a well‐known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric.

As to politics, the Qur'ān refers to women who, independently of their male kin, pledged the oath of allegiance (bay῾ah) to the Prophet (surah 60.12). Additional examples of women making such pledges to the Prophet occurred at al‐῾Aqabah, al‐Riḋwān, and al‐Shajarah. In a number of cases, distinguished women converted to Islam before their men did, again belying the traditional patriarchal view that women were incapable of independent action. As for public posts, Caliph ῾Umar appointed women to serve as officials (muḥtasibs) in the market of Medina, and Ḥanbalī jurisprudence upholds the qualifications of women to serve as judges.

In addition to all the foregoing, biographies of distinguished women, especially in the Prophet's household, show that women behaved autonomously in early Islam. These are the very women whom contemporary scripturalists invoke as models to justify women's seclusion and confinement today. The women about whom most data are available are Khadījah, the Prophet's first wife; ῾Ā'ishah, his favorite wife; Fāṭimah, his youngest daughter; Zaynab, his granddaughter; Sukaynah, his great‐granddaughter; and ῾A'ishah bint Ṭalḥah, the niece of her namesake. These women—artists, poets, cultural patrons, soldiers—challenged the wisdom of men, insisted upon marital equality with their husbands, and took initiatives sometimes directly counter to patriarchal authority. Contemporary exhortations to restrict the activities of women in public arenas by reference to the examples of these women, therefore, are invalidated by the reality of their lives.

Role and Status in Various Muslim Lands.

The seclusion and confinement of women in urban settings prevailed without significant change until the early twentieth century, but numerous attempts to modify personal status law have been made since then. These include the Ottoman Empire (1917), Algeria (1984), Egypt (1920, 1929, 1979, and 1985), India (1937, 1939, and 1976), Iran (1967, 1975, and 1979), Iraq (1959, 1963, and 1986), Jordan (1951 and 1976), Kuwait (1982), Morocco (1958), Pakistan (1961), South Yemen (1974), Sudan (1915, 1927, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1960, and 1969), Syria (1953 and 1975), Tunisia (1956, 1957, 1964, 1966, and 1981), and Turkey (1924).

Prior to the early twentieth century, the state left control over women and the family in the hands of patriarchal kinship groups. In contrast to its highly interventionist behavior in Islamic civil, commercial, and penal law, the state declined the very risky enterprise of tampering with personal status regulations, the very core of Muslim (masculine) identity. The patriarchal control of women's behavior and the family unit were central to the construction of this identity. Ultimately, however, the state's reluctance began to give way, not least because of the pressure brought to bear by women's groups under the leadership of prominent women in countries such as Egypt and throughout the Ottoman Empire.

In the past, inquiries into the role of women and the family often overemphasized the content of sacred texts, assuming these texts were the driving force behind people's behavior. In reaction to this “essentialist” approach, some scholars have stressed the relevance of conditions in “civil society” (for example, class differences) for understanding women's subordinate status. More recently, it has been suggested that neither the “sacred texts” nor the “civil society” approach are in themselves sufficient to explain the content of personal status legislation at any given time because they ignore the state's autonomy in pursuing its own agenda in this area.

For instance, the state has broadened its base of support by enfranchising women, in the process weaning them away from the kinship groups that traditionally have controlled them and redirecting their terminal loyalties to itself. Iran and Turkey at various times in this century exemplify this pattern. However, in doing this the state risks the growing disenchantment of the scripturalists, who generally view such developments to be “anti‐Islamic.” Thus, the state may attempt to conciliate such groups by enforcing modesty codes or curtailing women's public presence. Post‐1979 Pakistan and Iran, and Egypt after 1985, provide relevant examples of such conduct.

In balancing the conflicting demands of women and traditionalists, the state has generally followed a cautious policy of reform. Such reforms have made polygynous marriages more difficult or abolished them outright (notably in Turkey, Tunisia, and Syria); permitted wives to sue for divorce by having recourse to religious courts (shar῾), especially in cases of cruelty, desertion, or dangerous contagious disease; provided women with the right to contract themselves in marriage; required husbands to find housing for a divorced wife during her custody over children; increased the minimum marital age of spouses; limited the ability of guardians to contract women in marriage against their wishes; provided opportunities for minor girls wed against their wishes to abrogate their marriage upon reaching majority; enhanced the rights of women in regard to child custody; and allowed women to write clauses into marriage contracts limiting their husbands' authority over them, for example, by his ex ante grant to his wife of the right to divorce him.

The following case study from Egypt captures the dilemma the modern state faces when intervening in this arena. The 1971 Egyptian constitution holds in Article 11 that the state “shall guarantee” a balance between women's “Islamic” duties and their right to employment and participation in public life. This language, attempting to reconcile women's “Islamic” obligations and their rights in the secular domain, was fraught with ambiguity because it left unclear how this reconciliation was to be achieved. In 1979, amendments were made to the 1929 personal status law that aligned the state to a modest attenuation of scripturalist positions by: (1) holding that polygyny automatically caused “harm” (ḋarar) to the first wife and thus ipso facto constituted grounds for divorce; (2) abolishing the forcible return of fleeing wives to the conjugal home (bayt al‐ṭā῾ah); and (3) granting a divorced wife with custody of minor children exclusive right to the couple's conjugal residence during the custody period.

Found unconstitutional on procedural grounds in 1985, the bill was quickly reintroduced and passed by parliament, but its provisions were now less liberal. It required the wife to demonstrate harm caused by her husband taking another wife, and granted the husband exclusive right to his residence (although he would still have to find housing for his divorced wife during the custody period).


The Qur'ān and sunnah markedly improved women's role and status relative to the pre‐Islamic period by emphasizing the spiritual equality of women and men. Although certain social and economic regulations in the scripture seemingly favor men, the conditions prevailing at the time of the revelation, which seemed to justify such inequality, have lapsed. The Qur'ān, sunnah, and certain legal principles adduced by jurists provide mechanisms for reinterpreting, through the application of reason, those texts that putatively establish a categorical hierarchy favoring men over women. Twentieth‐century reforms in personal status law, achieved through recourse to such instruments and arguments, have gradually moved in the direction of gender equality, but a certain degree of backsliding has occurred as a consequence of the rise of militant scripturalism—that is, scripturalism based on unyielding, even violent, confrontation with the state and modernist groups. It is not clear what the future will hold, but it is likely that the conflict between reformist and scripturalist outlooks on the role and status of women will continue.


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Arabic Sources

English Sources

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Soraya Altorki

Women's Religious Observances

Although women and men are assigned the same religious duties and promised the same spiritual rewards in the Qur'ān, social conventions, illiteracy, and Islamic requirements of ritual purity have all tended to restrict women's access to many aspects of Islamic religious life. These restrictions are not uniform across the Muslim world, and neither are women's responses to them. Regional variations in women's religious lives have not been sufficiently documented to make it possible to provide a truly balanced description of women's religious observances. Furthermore, social changes in this century have radically altered the situation of women in society, opening new opportunities for women in the religious domain as well.

Women and Basic Islamic Obligations.

Although women are expected to perform the five daily prayers and the Ramaḋān fast, they may not pray, fast, or touch (or even, according to some interpretations, recite) the Qur'ān during menstruation or postpartum bleeding. According to ḥadīth, the exemption during menstruation denotes women's religious deficiency (just as the devaluation of their legal testimony, worth only half that of a man, denotes their mental deficiency). Women are rendered much more susceptible to ritual impurity than men, not only by menstruation and childbirth but also through their contact with young children, who may soil them. Although not required to fast while pregnant or nursing a baby, many women do observe the fast during these times, either totally or partially. Days of fasting that are missed because of these exemptions must be made up for later. Congregational prayer is said to be twenty‐seven times more meritorious than prayer performed alone, and ḥadīths from the Prophet enjoin men not to forbid women from praying in the mosque. Still, other ḥadīths encourage women to pray in their homes. In the Prophet's own day women performed the dawn prayer in rows behind the men, and, according to ḥadīth, left the mosque before the men. Thus, theoretically, all contact between the sexes was avoided. During the caliphate of ῾Umar ibn al‐Khaṭṭāb (634–644), women prayed in a separate room of the mosque with their own imam. Previously women had gathered for social purposes in the mosque as well, but ῾Umar forbade this activity and, according to al‐Ghazālī (d. 1111), women were banned from the mosque altogether in the generation after the Prophet. Al‐Ghazālī justified this reversal of the Prophet's edict by claiming that widespread moral deterioration made public spaces unsafe for any but elderly women, encouraging women not to leave their homes for any reason (Marriage and Sexuality in Islam, translated by Madelain Farah, Salt Lake City, 1984, pp. 100–101).

Ethnographic studies from a number of different Islamic countries indicate that women are commonly regarded as the initiators of illicit sexual relationships, and their presence in public is considered a source of temptation and social discord. The exclusion of women is thus considered necessary to preserve the holiness and dignity of religious ceremonies. For instance, the Friday noon prayer in the mosque is mandatory for men, but not for women, and according to Edward Lane (The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, London, 1836, p. 64), no women or young boys were allowed to be present in the mosque at any time of prayer. Although many mosques have segregated spaces for women, whether curtained areas, separate rooms, or balconies, until recently mosques have been considered male spaces to which a proper woman would not go. However, the Islamic resurgence that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s, enlisting the active involvement of women, has helped change such attitudes. Most recently constructed mosques provide considerably more space for women than earlier ones. However, the actual spatial arrangement of the architecture reinforces women's marginality to life in the mosque, often isolating them in areas where they cannot see or hear the imam or preacher.

In the pilgrimage to Mecca, on the other hand, the sexes are not segregated, and Islamic law stipulates that women not veil their faces during the pilgrimage. This integration of the sexes also occurs during festivities at saints' shrines, indicating that at the loci of most intense holiness and access to God, one is in a liminal state where gender barriers collapse.

Religious Education for Women.

Women have always played a role in the transmission of religious knowledge. The role of ῾Ā'ishah, Muḥammad's youngest wife, as a transmitter of ḥadīth was so important that Muḥammad is said to have told the Muslims they would receive half their religion from a woman. Muḥammad himself provided religious lessons for women, although later Muslims often complained that education would be used by women for unholy ends. Literacy was a rare achievement for women in later medieval Muslim society. Throughout Islamic history, some daughters of wealthy families have been favored with a private education in the home. More often, women were excluded from formal education, although women might serve as patrons or even supervisors of educational institutions. The Ḥanbalī jurist Ibn Taymīyah of Syria (d. 1328) lists two women among his teachers, and some female descendants of the Prophet, such as his granddaughter Zaynab and his great‐great‐great‐great‐granddaughter Nafīsah, are recognized as women of learning and wisdom, as well as piety. Although schools for girls in subjects such as midwifery, crafts, and housekeeping skills opened in the nineteenth century in many countries, and since independence secular education has been made available to girls as well as to boys throughout most of the Islamic world, religious education has lagged behind. Occasionally, women have become recognized as distinguished religious scholars through their writings alone, without attending institutions of higher Islamic education. ῾Ā'ishah ῾Abd al‐Raḥmān, the Egyptian Qur'ān exegete, and Khānum‐i Amīn, the Iranian mujtahid, are examples. As part of Egyptian president Nasser's revamping of the Islamic University of al‐Azhar, a College for Girls was opened in 1962, and graduates in the field of religion have been employed as teachers in religion classes in public schools. Al‐Azhar began a limited program to train women as preachers in 1988. Women are not generally deemed fit to teach men, so it is assumed that these women are being trained only to serve women's religious needs. In Iran, religious schools in the holy city of Qom were opened to girls in 1976. However, private education and apprenticeship has produced innumerable women who serve as Qur'ān reciters in both Sunnī and Shī῾ī communities, and as leaders of women's gatherings to commemorate the martyrdom of the imams among the Shī῾ah. [See also Education, article on Religious Education; and the biography of ῾Abd al‐Raḥmān.]

Ṣūfī Orders.

Mysticism is by definition a sphere that depends more on individual reputation for holiness and receptivity to spiritual impulses than on literacy and institutional certification. It is therefore not surprising to find that Sufism has been more open to women than the more legalistic and scholastic dimensions of Islamic religious life. The most famous Ṣūfī woman is Rābi῾ah al‐῾Adawīyah (d. 801), credited with introducing the concept of selfless love into Sufism. Her poems of love for God have inspired mystics to the present day, and Ṣūfī tradition depicts her outwitting her male colleagues. She is listed alongside the men in Farīd al‐Dīn ῾Aṭṭār's (d. 1220) Ṣūfī biographical dictionary, because “when a woman becomes a ‘man' in the path of God, she is a man and one cannot any more call her a woman” (Muslim Saints and Mystics, translated by A. J. Arberry, Oxford, 1966, p. 40). Rābi῾ah is not unique in Ṣūfī tradition. Javād Nūrbakhsh has translated into English the brief biographies of some 124 Ṣūfī women (Sufi Women, New York, 1983), including Fāṭimah of Nisapur (d. 838), who was described by Dhū al‐Nūn al‐Miṣrī as the highest among the Ṣūfīs of his age. The great mystic Ibn ῾Arabī (d. 1240) lists two women among his teachers (Sufis of Andalusia, translated by R. W. J. Austin, London, 1971), and claimed that the most perfect contemplation of God for a man is in woman.

In spite of its greater hospitality to female participants, Ṣūfī tradition is not uniform in its praise of women. Al‐Ghazālī (d. 1111) scarcely speaks of women in the mystical path except as assets or obstacles to the spiritual life of men. Although Muslim tradition recommends marriage, in imitation of the example of the Prophet, the Ṣūfī al‐Hujwīrī (d. about 1071) held celibacy to be the ideal, declaring that all the evils in the world had been caused by women (The Kashf al‐Maḥjūb, translated by R. A. Nicholson, 2d ed., London, 1976, p. 364).

Celibacy and rigorous fasting were practiced by many early Ṣūfīs. In addition to aiding in the training of the soul and spiritual concentration, these may have been tools for women to avoid ritual impurity—refusing intercourse and childbirth through celibacy, preventing menstruation by fasting—and thereby guarantee uninterrupted access to God (Jamal Elias, “Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism,” Muslim World 78 [1988]: 210–211).

Ṣūfī shaykhs were the most effective religious teachers in Muslim society and often served as popular counselors and healers, so it is not surprising that they touched the feminine world more than the mosque‐centered sphere of religious scholars. Some Ṣūfī shaykhs in the Mamlūk and Ottoman periods admitted women into their orders, although their participation in the orders and in dhikr, the distinctive Ṣūfī ritual of chanting the names of God with special breath control and movement, was controversial. Women sometimes founded Ṣūfī retreat houses for men as a pious act. Annemarie Schimmel documents an Anatolian woman of the late fourteenth century who was head of a Ṣūfī retreat center with male disciples (“Women in Mystical Islam,” Women's Studies International Forum 5 [1982]: 148). A Ṣūfī retreat house for women was established in Cairo in Mamlūk times in honor of a prominent woman Ṣūfī, Zaynab Fāṭimah bint ῾Abbās (late thirteenth—early fourteenth century), and according to Ibn Ḥajar al‐῾Asqalānī, there were women shaykhhs and scholars of the Law, most of them divorcees, who lived in extreme abstinence and worship in Ṣūfī hospices. In contrast to early Sufism, it seems that in the later medieval period only women who had already completed their duty of marriage were free to devote themselves to the mystical life.

Moroccan and Algerian orders frequently have women's auxiliaries with female leadership, and in many countries women's organizations with female leadership complement those of men. In contemporary Egypt, however, concerns with propriety in the face of reformist criticisms of Sufism have led to the official banning of female membership by the Supreme Council of Ṣūfī Orders, a government‐sponsored body. Women nonetheless continue to participate in all aspects of life in many Egyptian Ṣūfī orders. Some women become recognized as “spiritual mothers” to both men and women, or as heirs of the “spiritual secrets” of their fathers who were shaykhs. In this latter case, the official position of shaykh is inherited by the deceased's eldest son, although actual spiritual leadership may be exercised by the daughter. In some Egyptian orders, women participate in dhikr on a par with men, but in many orders, and in society at large, it is considered improper for a woman to expose herself by rising to join a dhikr. Women who do so often shroud their faces, but more often women participate silently, sitting among the observers. When women do participate in dhikr, they are rarely as vocal as men, and use smaller, more contained movements. This is in marked contrast to Shī῾ī commemorative assemblies in Iran, in which the women are said to be more emotionally expressive than the men (Anne H. Betteridge, “The Controversial Vows of Urban Muslim Women in Iran,” in Unspoken Worlds, San Francisco, 1980, pp. 141–155). Women seem to be caught between competing social norms which say, on the one hand, that they are more emotional than men and, on the other hand, dictate that they suppress all public displays of emotion.

In Egypt, and probably in other places as well, some Ṣūfīs believe that once they have entered into the spirit, they may transcend the barriers of the flesh; “male” and “female” become meaningless categories. Ṣūfīs in such a state may exercise freedom in interpersonal relations between the sexes, a sanction considered shocking to the society at large. Ṣūfīs are sometimes criticized as immoral for the way in which men and women mingle at their ceremonies, and women sometimes avoid saints' day celebrations because of the dangers presented to their modesty by the dense crowds.

Saints and Spirits.

Whereas ordinary mosques are usually regarded as male spaces, saints' shrines are traditionally open to women. Saints are men and women who are popularly recognized as walīs (“friends of God”). They are believed to be able to intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and miracles occur at their hands. After their deaths, their tombs or alleged tombs become shrines and places of refuge for their devotees and other troubled individuals. Because they are, in some sense, champions of the downtrodden, and because the rituals surrounding their cult require no education, women are frequent visitors to their shrines, where they feel themselves able to plead with the saints on a par with men. Fatima Mernissi wrote that saints' shrines in Morocco are more like a social space for women than a religious space where prayers are made, and that male visitors may feel like intruders (“Women, Saints, and Sanctuaries,” Signs: Journal of Women in Society and Culture 3 [1977]: 101–112). This is not the case in Egypt, where shrines are definitely sacred space in which it is considered appropriate to pray, and where women are seldom in the majority. Women are indeed very much in evidence (even in the small towns of Upper (southern) Egypt, where women are kept veiled and secluded, they might feel free to sit in the vicinity of the tomb, nursing their babies), but in some shrines special rooms are designated for women to prevent them from sitting by the tomb. The country's most important shrine of all, that of the Prophet's grandson Ḥusayn, does not allow women to enter after sunset.

Some shrines cater specifically to women's needs, such as fertility. In India, some Muslim saints' shrines are designated as women's shrines, while others are for men. In Iran and Iraq, Shī῾ī women visiting the tombs of the martyred imams acquire a prestige similar to those performing the pilgrimage. The great saints' day festivals (mawlids) that commemorate particular saints, usually on the anniversary of their death, form the major focus of Ṣūfī devotion in Egypt, as Ṣūfīs travel from one such festival to another, setting up hospitality stations and performing dhikr. During the mawlid of Sayyid Aḥmad al‐Badawī in Tanta, in the Egyptian Delta, the entire floor of the vast mosque associated with his shrine is transformed into a campground inhabited by a dense crowd of men, women, and children, without any segregation of the sexes. The activities at saints' shrines are a popular target of reformist criticism, and frequently the presence of women is deemed inappropriate, both for considerations of modesty and because the Prophet allegedly prohibited women from visiting tombs. The practice of saint shrine veneration has its defenders, however, who rely on the same type of scriptural sources used by its critics. Regardless of this criticism, the visitation of saints' shrines has formed an essential component of the religious lives of women all over the Muslim world. [See also Shrines; Mawlid.]

Women in many countries participate in spirit possession cults such as the zār of North and East Africa and the bori of West Africa. These cults are based on the assumption that both physical and emotional illness may be caused by spirits, whose anger must be appeased through the hosting of a feast and the performance of dances peculiar to the spirit in question. They often have both male and female functionaries, and the power and wealth of the “priestesses” may be considerable. While the cults are non‐Islamic in origin, the scripturally endorsed belief in spirits and their effects on humans make Islam a hospitable environment for the introduction and spread of such cults. Public zārs in Egypt utilize male musical troupes singing praises to the Prophet in Ṣūfī style, and some of the spirits are those of great Muslim saints. Women zār musicians use a more African beat. Public criticism of the zār cult in Egypt has been vociferous enough that even illiterate women are aware of it.

Twentieth‐century Developments.

Religious reformers of all types have criticized the saint cult as idolatrous and the spirit cults as un‐Islamic. The hue of illegitimacy has been cast over the very aspects of Islamic religious life that have traditionally been most open to women. In his book, The Emancipation of Women (1899), the Egyptian judge Qāsim Amīn (d. 1908) urged that women be educated in order to dispel the myths and superstitions they supposedly perpetuate among the young, and the Syrian‐born writer Rashīd Riḋā (d. 1935) urged in his journal, Al‐manār, that women be integrated into orthodox religious life, as they were in the days of the Prophet. Throughout the twentieth century, independently founded Islamic voluntary associations have assumed the task of providing religious education for women, in addition to offering courses in literacy and crafts. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Ḥasan al‐Bannā' in Egypt, had a women's auxiliary, the Muslim Sisters, which never succeeded on the level of its male counterpart. Zaynab al‐Ghazālī founded the Muslim Women's Association in 1936 as an Islamic response to the Egyptian Feminist Union. [See the biography of Ghazālī.] Today there are approximately fourteen thousand Islamic voluntary associations in Egypt, and many of them offer religious classes for women. In addition, many government‐operated mosques offer religious lessons to women. In many cases, the teachers are themselves women, although male instructors continue to predominate.

The university‐centered Islamist movement that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s has garnered the support of many women as participants and propagandists. Women in the movement wear Islamic dress, a loose‐fitting garment that covers the entire body except the face and hands. Although Islamic dress was an anomaly when it appeared in the early 1970s, by 1980 it became the uniform of the aggressively religious woman. The women who wear this dress are usually well educated, often in the most prestigious university faculties of medicine, engineering, and the sciences, and their dress signifies that although they pursue an education and career in the public sphere, they are religious, moral women. Whereas other women are frequently harassed in public places, such women are honored and even feared. By the late 1980s, Islamic dress had become the norm for middle‐class women who do not want to compromise their reputation by their public activities. Boutiques offer Parisian‐style fashions adapted to Islamic modesty standards, thereby subverting somewhat the original intent of the movement. [See Dress.]

Despite the high visibility of female participation in the Islamist movement throughout the Muslim world, it espouses a conservative ideology regarding women's social roles, idealizing their importance as mothers and stressing allegedly innate gender differences that make work outside the home unsuitable for women. This rhetoric, both incorporatist and exclusionary, may appeal to women who are doubly burdened when they take on jobs outside the home, perhaps out of economic necessity, and feel degraded by their “public” conditions. The Islamic movement also encourages women to struggle on behalf of Islam as their counterparts did in early Islam. The contradictory rhetoric of the Islamic movement has been particularly effective in Iran, where women have been incorporated into a nationalist movement through symbolic appeals to female purity, while at the same time employment and educational opportunities for women have been somewhat curtailed since the Revolution and modesty norms have been strictly enforced. Although the rank‐and‐file of the Islamic movement includes many women, its leadership remains largely male. Zaynab al‐Ghazālī of Egypt is one of the few women to attain prominence as an Islamic activist.


  • Azari, Farah, ed. Women of Iran: The Conflict with Fundamentalist Islam. London, 1983. Provocative set of articles by Iranian Muslims critical of the Islamic regime as oppressive to women.
  • Bellhassen, Souhayr. Femmes tunisiennes islamistes. Annuaire de l'Afrique du Nord, 1979, pp. 77–94. Paris, 1980. One of the few studies that includes interviews with ordinary women participating in an Islamic movement.
  • Berkey, Jonathan P. Women and Islamic Education in the Mamluk Period. In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 143–157. New Haven and London, 1991.
  • Clancy‐Smith, Julia. The House of Zainab: Female Authority and Saintly Succession. In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 254–274. New Haven and London, 1991. On a woman who became a Ṣūfī shaykh in colonial Algeria.
  • Dwyer, Daisy Hilse. Women, Sufism, and Decision‐Making in Moroccan Islam. In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 585–598. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. Information on women's auxiliaries in the Ṣūfī orders, and the influence wives have on the affiliation of their husbands with particular orders.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. The Emerging Islamic Order: The Case of Egypt's Contemporary Islamic Movement. Journal of Arab Affairs 1 (1981): 245–261. Reprinted in Political Behavior in the Arab States, edited by Tawfic E. Farah, pp. 55–66. Boulder, 1983.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth W., and Robert A. Fernea. Variation in Religious Observance among Islamic Women. In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, edited by Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 385–401. Berkeley, 1972.
  • Friedl, Erika. Islam and Tribal Women in a Village in Iran. In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non‐Western Cultures, edited by Nancy E. Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, pp. 159–173. San Francisco, 1980.
  • Haeri, Shahla. Obedience vs. Autonomy: Women and Fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan. In Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 181–213. Chicago, 1993. Rare comparative essay on the presentation of women by Islamic activists in two different countries, one Shī῾ī and one Sunnī. Particularly good regarding the use of important early female figures as models of courage and heroism in Iran.
  • Hoffman‐Ladd, Valerie J. Polemics on the Modesty and Segregation of Women in Contemporary Egypt. International Journal of Middle East Studies 19.1 (February 1987): 23–50. Discussion of Islamist perspectives on women's participation in public life.
  • Hoffman‐Ladd, Valerie J. Mysticism and Sexuality in Sufi Thought and Life. Mystics Quarterly 18 (1992): 82–93. Women and sexuality in early and medieval Sufism, highlighting the writings of Ibn ῾Arabī. Hoffman‐Ladd, Valerie J. Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, S.C., forthcoming. Includes a chapter on women and sexuality in the Ṣūfī orders of Egypt.
  • Lewis, I. M. The Past and Present in Islam: The Case of African ‘Survivals.' Temenos 19 (1983): 55–67. Study of the zār and bori spirit possession cults, making a good case for their compatibility with Islam.
  • Macleod, Arlene Elowe. Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo. New York, 1991. Excellent study of the social milieu of the lower middle class in Cairo that leads ordinary women to don Islamic dress.
  • Nelson, Cynthia. Self, Spirit Possession, and World View: An Illustration from Egypt. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 17 (1971): 194–209. On the zār in Egypt.
  • Rosen, Lawrence. The Negotiation of Reality: Male‐Female Relations in Sefrou, Morocco. In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 561–584. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.
  • Saunders, Lucie Wood. Variants in Zār Experience in an Egyptian Village. In Case Studies in Spirit Possession, edited by Vincent Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison, pp. 177–193. New York, 1977.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. See Appendix II, “The Feminine Element in Sufism.”
  • Sharī῾atī, ῾Alī. Fatima Is Fatima. Translated by Laleh Bakhtiar. Tehran, 1981. Important revisionist interpretation of women's role in society, by the man who inspired many young Iranian intellectuals to seek an Islamically oriented society in the decade before the revolution.
  • Smith, Jane I., and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. Women in the Afterlife: The Islamic View as Seen from Qur'an and Tradition. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (1975): 39–50.
  • Tabari, Azar, and Nahid Yeganeh, eds. In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran. London, 1982. Collection of translations from a variety of primary sources relevant to the status of women and feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Winter, Michael. Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt: Studies in the Writings of ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb al‐Sha῾rānī. New Brunswick, N.J., 1982. Contains interesting information on the participation of women in the Ṣūfī orders in Mamlūk and Ottoman Egypt.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Comparison of the opinions of women inside and outside the Islamic movement on the meaning of veiling and being religious, within the context both of Islamic paradigms and Egyptian feminism.

Valerie J. Hoffman‐Ladd

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