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Hamideh Mohagheghi {*}

Only Obedient Wife and Good Mother?

The Position of Women in Islam


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2007, P. 423-427
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    There are people who criticize the missing equal rights of woman in Islam. In opposition to that numerous Muslim women of note are convinced that in Islam men and women have the same fundamental rights. Today various women's organizations in Germany do what they can for the interests of the women in Islam.


Muslim women, their position in the sources of Islamic teachings and their situation in the Muslim moulded world are much discussed at present, when there is talk about Islam. About it the opinion is widely spread Islam was a religion that women hardly offer any possibilities to for an independent and self-determined way of life. For the Islamic doctrine the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad are the primary sources. In them statements are to be found that can be quoted for the confirmation of this opinion as well as for the equal value of the sexes.

The Koran in general speaks to human beings. The statements mostly begin with the formulation "you human beings" or "you faithful", and thus women as well as men are meant as persons addressed. Man's origin from one single being nafse wahida (Sura 4:1) makes clear the equality of origin. From it is derived that all human beings are of equal value before God. In the Koran the differences are called signs that should be recognized and acknowledged (Sura 30:22), man and woman as pair complement each other and the foundation of their living together should be love and security (Sura 30:21). As human beings they have the same responsibility and duties and have to take the consequences of their actions (Sura 16:97; Sura 33:33).

At that time those passages in the Koran were revolutionary and tried to change the prevailing opinions on women. The Koran questioned the habits of the men of the seventh century on the Arab peninsula, but also showed consideration for the then valid customs, which were moulded by tribal customary laws. The texts of the Koran about women must be unfolded in their meaning and on the basis of their effect on that time, instead of accepting only the outward wording.


Sources are to be Understood in their Historical Context

Since then the realities of women's life have fundamentally changed. The Koran can nevertheless still exist as source of wisdom and orientation, if it is read, understood and interpreted from today's perspective. The basis for the contemporary interpretation is given in the Koran itself and in the tradition of the Islamic sciences.

There are some inequalities between men and women in the two sources, especially in the regulations from which civil laws are derived. These statements show the social realities of the time of revelation and can only be read and understood in their historical context. A generalization of these passages up to this day prevents the equal right of women in some Muslim moulded societies.



An example for this is the arrangement by law of contract for the debt relationship in case of money lending, which needs witnesses for the fixing of the rights and duties of the debtors and creditors. This regulation has its basis in the Koran. In Sura 2 verse 282 is described that either two men or one man and two women must be present as witnesses, "so that if one of the two is mistaken the one of them can remind the other". This verse for the first time gives women the legal status to be allowed to make a statement as witnesses. In the time before the revelation they did to a large extent not have this right.

In Islamic law witnesses must fulfil criteria, so that their statement is valid in court - knowledge of the subject and experience is an important criterion. Since most women were not acquainted with the legal regulations of contracts two women were to appear as witnesses, so that they could mutually support each other. That means that in this verse it is not about a sex-referred criterion but about competence. Consequently the testimony of a woman with knowledge of the subject can have the same standing as the testimony of a competent man. The Koran itself gives the basis for it, for in other cases it speaks of witnesses but does not make any difference between the sexes (Sura 24:4.13; Sura 5:106-107).

The tendentious interpretation of the verse mentioned above generalizes a concrete statement and does not consider the further statements about witnesses in the Koran. Annoying is the justification of that proceeding: With it the missing expertise of women and their emotionality are generally presented as basis for the different validity of the testimony. In Muslim moulded countries where an Islamic law applies that was developed in this direction up to this day the legal assimilation of woman is impeded.

Apart from prophets and envoys the Koran speaks with appreciation and respect also about female figures. Queen Sa'ba (Sura 27:22 - 44), Hagar and Sara, Mary (Sura 19), Moses' mother and sister and Pharao's wife (Sura 28:70 ff.) are excellent female figures whose stories disprove that women are only presented as dependent and subordinated. By the way, the Koran tells these stories not completely, it mentions only those aspects that timelessly want to be orientation and instruction to men. These aspects of the life of those female figures prove that God directly revealed himself to them (The tales of Mary and of Moses' mother), and that women in leading positions are definitely recognized (like the Queen of Sa'ba).

Islam actually brought release from the yoke of men for women and made them legal persons. It gave them a voice they raised to demand their rights. The numerous noted Muslim women prove that, apart from biological differences, men and women have the same fundamental rights. Islam in itself is not contradictory to the essential human right to equal rights.


he passages in the Koran further prove that the ending of existing shortcomings is a duty that requires the commitment of human beings. Any form of suppression, patronizing, abuse and ill-treatment is an evil that is to be fought. People themselves are responsible for it: "God does not change the condition of a people until they themselves change their own situation" (Sura 13:11).


Partly bizarre statements in the traditions

Islam knows numerous ethical recommendations for all areas of life. Mutual esteem, respect and discrete dealings between man and woman are important principles in the code of behaviour between the sexes. This codex, which is of benefit for dignified dealings with each other, can in a wrongly understood and exaggerated measure lead to the exclusion of women from the public area. To legitimize this behaviour trivial arguments are called in that do not belong to the Islamic doctrine but are products of human imagination.

For example as answer to the question why the prayer rooms of men and women are separate or why in common prayer in one room women occupy the back rows one permanently hears from Muslim side, "so that the men are not distracted from prayer by the women!" Here the separate rooms are cemented as a form of the meeting of men and women prescribed by Islam. Whereas in the Koran little is to be found about a detailed code of behaviour, there are numerous and partly bizarre statements in the tradition, e.g. in handed down writings, the so-called Hadiths. They prescribe in details the behaviours of human beings, especially of women in public.

There are numerous traditions that literally try to substantiate the exclusion of women from the society with "religious and moral regulations". In these handed down writings the tradition of the early Islamic time is rarely considered, in which there were lively exchange and productive co-operation between men and women.



Co-operation was free from strict and Draconian constraints. From this time women are well-known who as teachers, theologians and lawyers passed on the doctrine of Islam (see A. Isafar, Bedeutende Frauen der Schi'a, Teheran 2002). Their models were the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima and his granddaughter Zeinab. Their commitment in social and political affairs is significant.

From their lives as faithful personalities can be gathered that they were always present in public life. At that time the place of women was not in the back corners or in cellars of the mosques. They were not refused to express their opinion or publicly to formulate their questions and criticism; they were visibly present in the community. To participate in the community and to take on responsibility is a duty. For it every man and woman must have the possibility to find out their own abilities, to develop them, and to act accordingly. For it an unrestricted access to resources and education is required for men and women: "To attain knowledge is a religious duty for men and women".

In the course of history the patriarchal traditions differing from region to region completely or partly refused Muslim women their rights. In Muslim moulded societies there are up to this day conditions for women that are neither compatible with the Islamic doctrine nor with human values. It is not in accordance with reality, if one attributes those conditions only to Islam or assumes that Muslim women passively allow to be treated as subordinated sex.

There were and are Muslim women who on the basis of their faith fight the suppression. They see their freedom in their religiousness, and claim their rights based on the Muslim basic values. The conscious life within the Islamic doctrine explains to them apart from the duties also their rights granted by God in his mercy and love to all human beings with the Creation. The social customs, an old-fashioned literalism, the inability of a theological-intellectual argument and the obligation opposite certain religious and political heads cause imbalances and injustices that contradict the Islamic basic principles.

In the western world it is suggested to the Muslim women that their "liberation" can be attained by adoption of the western models of emancipation. For many people it is strange to hear that the active Muslim women substantiate their emancipation with the Islamic doctrine of the Koran. Exchange and discussion between different views of freedom and emancipation is necessary and is beneficial for all participants. Whereas a claim to superiority creates distrust, boundaries and exclusion and so is not helpful to the common goal, namely the liberation of women.



In all problems of women it is important not to set up religious dogmas and rigid regulations or to use them to justify a political condition. The social life consists in the living together and cooperating of all women and men involved. The responsibility opposite God is manifested in the responsibility opposite others and the creation. In this sense each human being is free to decide how s/he does justice to her/his responsibility; each human being, man and woman, must personally face God and answer for her/his acts.

Muslim women have got a long way behind them - and still a long way ahead of them. Today in Muslim moulded populations women are present in many areas of the society, and nevertheless still remain dependent on men in substantial decisions of their life. So for example in some countries a woman in a leading position still needs the permission of her husband when she wants to go away. The society profits from the women's knowledge, competence and working power, and nevertheless time and again points out boundaries to them.


Liberation from Archaic Views

Muslim women unite world-wide in regional and supra-regional organizations and try to fight living conditions that are inhuman and far away from Islam. A first and most important step for this is the education of the women, both an education that enables them to achieve financial and existential independence and a religious education that gives them the certainty that misdeeds in the name of God must not be tolerated. An unjust, violent and inhuman behaviour is from Islamic view a crime and must be prevented. The access of women to the Koran as well as to the tradition and a critical examination of them make it possible authentically to learn and experience the faith. That gives them security to rise up more decidedly against injustices and discriminations.

Those Muslim women see their freedom in a faith that is freed from backward and archaic views, and that agrees to equal value and equal rights as inalienable good. They see their freedom to shape their lives independently as well as with self-confidence and insist on the right to participation and constructive cooperation in the society - a God-given right that must be respected and recognized. They see their religiousness not as obstacle but as driving force. With confidence in God and by maintaining ethical values they want to be recognized as active members of the community.

Exemplarily three Muslim women's organizations in Germany may be mentioned here which in different areas stand up for the interests of the women.

BFMF, the Begegnungs- und Fortbildungszentrum muslimischer Frauen e.V. in Cologne ( is a recognized further training institution offering apart from school education also integration- and language courses for women. Psychological consultation as well as family- and debtor consultation by specialists belong to the activities of BFMF. The co-operators are Muslim women from different cultural and inner-Islamic directions and offer many and diverse competency in Arab, Turkish, Persian, English and French. This institution in 1999 was awarded with the Karl-Kübel-Prize, and in 2004 honoured for its work and civil courage by the "Bündnis für Demokratie und Toleranz". As can be gathered from its Internet (side) page (shows) at present several projects cannot be continued because of missing financing.

The Institut für Interreligiöse Pädagogik und Didaktik, IPD, sees itself as research establishment that is engaged in questions of religious education ( The institute offers accompanying studies for teachers and interested persons who later teach Islamic religion in schools, as far as the subject is offered there, or also in mosques. The institute works out conceptions and teaching materials, offers training in self-assertion for Muslim girls, and promotes intercultural learning. One objective is to make it possible for children to work with the knowledge taught, and to discover one's own religion. The study of the Koran is to allow children the uninhibited approach.

Huda - Netzwerk für muslimische Frauen sees itself as information- and advice centre and wants to interlink the activities of Muslim women. In the Huda magazine, which appears four times a year, there are apart from an interpretation of the Koran also theological and social topics that are to stimulate thinking and discussing. The magazine is a forum in which the variety of Muslim thinking and of the ways of life finds a room for exchange. The consultation work via telephone and Internet pastoral care enable the women concerned to talk about their family and social problems, if necessary they are relayed to places where they can find practical support and assistance.

Apart from national organizations there are numerous regional formal as well as informal associations of Muslim women. They all have to fight for their religious, social, family and political right in different societies. The questions of Muslim women are the usual women's problems about occupation and family and how they can be made compatible with each other, in case the domestic chores and the bringing up of children are still seen as exclusive tasks of women.



Where do the children stay while the mother is working? What about the children's education if mother is working and father has hardly any time for the family? How can the financing of the children's future be organized, so that they can get a good education and a secure occupation? Those questions are the questions of many women who are working and nevertheless do not want to neglect their family and the duties of a mother.

Added are questions that, directly or also indirectly, dependent on the society they live in, demand an argument with the faith. There are religious practices due to tradition and culture that attribute to women the exclusive role of the obedient wife and good mother: a person who has a weighty role in the family, but must always live under the regimentation of her husband. It is a cumbersome process to revise this woman's image where it exists, in particular if it is justified with religious argumentation.

The key questions for the reorientation that men and women are of equal value and have equal rights lie in upbringing and education as well as in a reflected religiousness and theology. Equal chances for girls and boys enable them to become self-confident and independent human beings. It is a long and difficult way to knock the bottom out of the religious justification for the suppression of women; for it the commitment and engagement is required of all those who are convinced that man and woman must neither be preferred nor disadvantaged because of their sex: "And do not desire by what God the one of you distinguished before the other one. Men receive their share according to merit and women their share according to merit. And ask God for his grace. See, God knows all things" (Sura 4:32).


    {*} Hamideh Mohagheghi (born in Teheran in 1954) studied Law as well as Islamic theology, since 2007 she has been lecturer for Islam at the University of Paderborn. For 30 years she has been living in Germany and works in different study groups about intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Besides she is foundation- and board member of "HUDA-Netzwerk für muslimische Frauen e.V."


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