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Lesson Plan: Perspectives on Women and Gender in the Muslim World

Corinne Blake
Associate Professor of History
Rowan University

Course: Women in Islam, Islamic Civilizations, Modern Middle East
Syllabus Section: Women and Gender from the Early Twentieth Century to the Present

Introduction

Students may begin class with negatives stereotypes about women in Islam, viewing Muslim women as a monolithic group trapped by an oppressive, normative, and unchanging legal code.

Objectives

This lesson plan aims to:

  1. 1. Provide students with an appreciation of the complexity and diversity of perspectives towards women and gender in the Muslim world from the early twentieth century to the present.
  2. 2. Familiarize students with political, economic, social, and cultural developments and challenges that have impacted women in Muslim societies from the early twentieth century.
  3. 3. Introduce students to the wide range of approaches that Muslim intellectuals, leaders, and religious scholars have utilized to engage with and reinterpret Islamic religious texts and traditions from the early twentieth century.
  4. 4. Show students how Islam may or may not shape Muslim women's lives, and the impact of other factors on Muslim women's lives such as nationality, class, education, individual personality, etc.

This lesson plan takes a modular approach, focusing on four important issues related to women and gender in the modern world: the status of women in Islamic religious texts, polygamy, the veil (ḥijāb), and women and politics. Through critically reading, analyzing, and comparing primary sources, students should become familiar with a variety of perspectives and learn how to contextualize diverse points of view.

Suggested Activities

If students have not already engaged in relevant outside reading, start by assigning introductory articles such as "Women and Islam," "Feminism," and "Women and Social Reform." Instructors may want to read Zayn Kassem's article, "Engendering and Experience: Teaching a Course on Women in Islam." Primary source documents with brief introductions are listed in chronological order, grouped by topic, below. Teachers may want to ask all students to read, analyze, and discuss a particular set of documents related to the main topic of the class or assign different topics to students and ask them to engage in small group discussions and/or prepare class presentations to compare and contrast the authors' perspectives within or across groups. Alternatively, students could be asked to focus on documents written during a particular time period, such as the early twentieth century, post-World War II, and/or the contemporary era.

Questions for Discussion

  • What challenges have women faced in different Muslim societies during the twentieth century?
  • What strategies have governments in Muslim-majority areas and activists harnessed to improve the status of women in various Muslim countries?
  • What issues related to women are addressed in Islamic religious texts such as the Qurʾān?
  • How have twentieth-century writers and religious scholars challenged traditional interpretations of these texts?
  • What factors other than Islam impact the lives of women in Muslim societies?

Interpreting Islamic Religious Texts

Students should begin by reading about the Qurʾān and ḥadīth; instructors could also assign articles such as "Women and Reform" and "Modern Legal Reform" to provide students with historical context.

Primary Sources

al-Maghribi, 'Abd al-Qadir (1857–1956), Muhammad and Woman, 1928. Al-Maghribi, a Syrian journalist, argues that the Prophet meant to honor and elevate women, then justifies traditional interpretations of practices such as polygamy, inheritance, and testimony.

Mernissi, Fatima (b. 1940), A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, 1991. A Moroccan professor and author of several books, Mernissi argues that ḥadīth literature needs to be read critically, as many ḥadīth reflect the misogynist views of ḥadīth scholars that the Prophet Muhammad was trying to change.

Wadud-Muhsin, Amina (b. 1952), Rights and Roles of Women and/or Qurʾān and Woman, 1992. Through carefully analyzing passages from the Qurʾān that are frequently cited to imply male superiority, Wadud-Muhsin, an American professor, argues that "there is no arbitrary, pre-ordained and eternal system of hierarchy" in the Qurʾān.

Questions for Discussion

  • What methods do these authors utilize to interpret Islamic religious texts?
  • How does their understanding of these texts compare to traditional interpretations?
  • How are their approaches to reading Islamic religious texts similar and different?
  • How are their interpretations of these texts similar and different?

Polygamy

Students should begin by reading about marriage laws and practices and polygamy.

Primary Sources

Sa'id, Mansurizade (1864–1923), The Muslim Woman: Polygamy Can Be Prohibited in Islam, 1914. Sa'id, an Ottoman religious scholar and politician, argues that according to the sharīʿah, the government has "full power to prohibit polygamy outright or to subject it to certain conditions."

The Minority Report, 1956. A Pakistani religious scholar presents a defense of polygamy in response to the 1956 Commission on Marriage and Family Matters report that recommended reforming marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws.

Sisters of Islam, Chronology of a Struggle for Equal Rights, 1990–2003. These press releases issued by SIS, a Malaysian group of professional women formed in 1988, advocate restricting polygamy, arguing that "the Qurʾān does not give men the blanket right to have more than one wife."

Questions for Discussion

  • How do these authors view polygamy?
  • On what grounds do they argue that polygamy should or should not be restricted and/or outlawed?
  • How do they use Islamic religious texts to support their arguments?
  • What similarities and differences can you find in their arguments?

Veiling/ḥijāb

Students should begin by reading about veiling (ḥijāb), and changing traditions of dress for historical context.

Primary Sources

Nazira Zein-ed-Din (b. 1905), Unveiling and Veiling, 1928. Zein ed-Din, a Lebanese writer, rejects wearing the veil, arguing that "honor is rooted in the heart and chastity comes from within and not from a piece of transparent material lowered over the face."

Džemaluddin Čaušević (1870–1938), Letter and Response, 1928. A newspaper letter from a Bosnian community council criticizing Čaušević, a Bosnian religious reformer, for advocating the unveiling of women, and Čaušević's response in support of his position.

Fatwā, The Islamic Veil, 2004. Fatwās from several religious scholars related to the debate over head scarves in France.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why did many "modern" Muslim women begin wearing Islamic dress beginning in the 1970s?
  • On what grounds do these authors support or criticize veiling?
  • To what extent do they ground their arguments in religious texts?
  • On what points do these authors agree and disagree?

Women and Politics

Students should begin by reading about the history of women's movements in the Middle East in the modern era, and European colonialism and the emergence of modern states, for historical background. Students could also be asked to read, individually or in groups, additional biographies of female Muslim political activists and leaders listed below to broaden their understanding of Muslim women's political involvement in the twentieth century.

Biographies

Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣif (1886–1918). Egyptian feminist who sent a list of feminist demands to the Egyptian Congress meeting in 1911.

Hudā Shaʿrāwī (1879–1947). Egyptian feminist and political activist who founded the first organized Arab feminist movement, the Egyptian Feminist Union, in 1923.

Durrīyah Shafīq (1908–1976). Egyptian feminist and political activist who worked for female suffrage in the 1940s and 1950s.

Zaynab al-Ghazālī (1917–2005). Muslim Brotherhood leader and political activist who approaches women's issues from an Islamist perspective.

Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī (b. 1931) Prominent Egyptian doctor, feminist, and writer who began her career working on issues related to women's health.

Djamila Bouhired (b. 1937) National Liberation Front (FLN) resistance fighter from Algeria.

Shirin Ebadi (b. 1947) Nobel Prize-winning lawyer and human-rights advocate from Iran.

Other Texts

Halide Edib Adîvar (1882–1964), Turkey Faces West, 1930. Halide Edib, a writer and political activist, begins by tracing the historical development of legal reform in the Ottoman Empire, then discusses how women in Turkey have benefited from the separation of church and state. To make her case, she examines the abolition of Islamic family law in favor of a legal code drawn from Swiss law.

Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007), Politics and the Muslim Women. Bhutto, who served as president of Pakistan two times before she was assassinated in 2007, argues that progressive interpretations of Islam "provide justice and equality for women."

Ahmed Zaki Yamini (b. 1930), The Political Competence of Women in Islamic Law. A former oil minister in Saudi Arabia and graduate of Harvard Law School, Yamini argues that based on Islamic religious texts and historical practice, "Islam does not minimize the political competence of woman or deny it."

Heba Ra'uf Ezzat (b. 1965), On the Future of Women and Politics in the Arab World. An Egyptian professor, Ezzat emphasizes the need to focus on the politics of everyday life and utilize a range of strategies to empower Arab women and integrate them into the public sphere.

Questions for Discussion

  • How have Muslim women been involved in the political sphere during the twentieth century?
  • According to these authors, in what ways should women engage in political activities?
  • To what extent do these authors ground their arguments in Islamic religious texts?
  • On what points do the sources agree and disagree?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

There is a vast literature about women and gender in Islam. For some additional sources, see the bibliographies listed below.

For a historical overview, see Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (1992); Nikki Keddie, Women in the Middle East: Past and Present (2007); Guity Nashat and Judith Tucker, Women in the Middle East and North Africa (1999).

On women in Islamic legal texts, see Judith Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law (2008); Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective (1999); Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam (1992); and Kiki Kennedy-Day's lesson plan: Women and the Qurʾān: Feminist Interpretations of the Qurʾān.

On polygamy and marriage, see John Esposito, Women in Muslim Family Law (2001); Amira Mashhour, "Islamic Law and Gender Equality: Could There Be a Common Ground? A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia," Human Rights Quarterly 27, no. 4 (May 2005): 562–596; and Shahla Haeri, Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran (1989).

Sources on ḥijāb and veiling include Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America (2011); Hilal Elver, The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion (2012); and Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance (2003). On the controversy over headscarves in France, see Joan Wallach Scott, Politics of the Veil (2010).

On women and politics, see Suad Joseph and Susan Slyomovics, eds., Women and Power in the Middle East (2001); Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1993); Janet Afary, "The Human Rights of Middle Eastern and Muslim Women: A Project for the Twenty-first Century," Human Rights Quarterly 26 (2004): 106–125; Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (2005); and Margo Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation (2006).

For an examination of women and gender issues in fiction, see "Another Evening at the Club," by Egyptian Alifa Rifaat, and "The Loss," by Saudi Arabian journalist Khayriyyah as-Saqqaf.

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