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Beneath The Veil:

An Analysis of Gender and Scripture in Islam

by Katie Anderson

WOMEN AND GENDER IN ISLAM: HISTORICAL ROOTS OF A MODERN DEBATE. By Leila 
Ahmed. (Bethany: Yale University Press, 1992)

THE MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH. By Dale F. 
Eickelman. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002)

RETHINKING WOMEN IN ISLAM. By Amira El-Azhary Sonbol. (Gainesville: University of Florida


Press, 2001)

FEMINIST THEOLOGY AS A MEANS OF COMBATING INJUSTICE TOWARD WOMEN IN


MUSLIM COMMUNITIES AND CULTURE. By Riffat Hassan. (New York: Paragon House, 1997)

FEMINISM IN ISLAM. By Riffat Hassan. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999)

ISLAM, SOCIAL CHANGE AND THE REALITY OF ARAB WOMEN’S LIVES. By Nadia Hijab.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

MUSLIM SAINTHOOD, WOMEN AND THE LEGEND OF SAYYIDA NAFISA. By Valerie J.


Hoffman. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000)

RELIGION AND WOMEN: ISLAMIC MODERNISM VERSUS FUNDAMENTALISM. By Mansoor


Moaddel. (1998)

WOMAN, HALF THE MAN? THE CRISIS OF MALE EPISTEMOLOGY IN ISLAMIC


JURISPRUDENCE. By Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina. (London, I. B. Tauris, 2000)

ISLAM, GENDER AND RECONCILIATION: MAKING ROOM FOR NEW GENDER


PERSPECTIVES. By Tirza Visser. (New York: Rodopi, 2002)
Much of the modern debate surrounding the developments of the Islamic state have been treated

with great caution. Scholars have argued whether Islam truly is a universal body of faith that is capable

of withstanding centuries of technological and societal advancements, or whether Islamic societies

should choose modernization and question the legitimacy of historic scholarly interpretation of Islamic

scriptures. The goal of this paper is to analyze modern scholarship of the feminine and religious

discourses, and the historical and modern interpretations of Islamic scripture, which perpetuate an

immutable religious-state policy. I will discuss different approaches towards historical perspectives, the

interpretations of the Qur’an, Hadiths, and other Islamic scriptures in relation to gender roles, gender

and Islamic law, and lastly how all of the above have applied to the discourse of Contemporary Muslim

women’s lives. Future considerations will also be proposed herein.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

While it is important to have a firm grasp of the history of religion and society of pre-Islamic

and early Islamic Arab society, Leila Ahmed spends too much attention on the history of women and

gender in Islam. On the contrary, Tirza Visser addresses three different historical views regarding

gender and Islam.

First, that the rise of Islam benefited women because, unlike the previous system, Djahiliyya, Islam

introduced marriage and forbade infanticide. Second, that Djahiliyya was restricted by Islam, and the

rights women held in initiating marriage and polyandry (a woman’s right to have more than one

husband), retain membership within a matriarchy, and ability to divorce one’s husband. Islam imposed

patrilineal marriages and no other marriages were legal. Originally addressed to both sexes, polygamy

dates back to a time when wars were as prevalent as the taking of women as slaves. These slaves were

eventually made into secondary wives. Polygamy is reasoned through not only supporting and honoring

the first wife, but also through protecting a wife who cannot bear children, preventing a man from

committing adultery, which upholds social morality, and the deaths of men in war. Amira El-Azhary
Sonbol’s assertion of the historical marriage rights enjoyed by women supports Visser’s second theory

in which women experienced more freedoms when they functioned in tribal societies before the coming

of Islam.

The third view asserted by Visser, was that Islam took-over the cultural tradition in the region,

especially Mesopotamia. Byzantine and Sasanian women had few rights in marriage and were required

to veil. Pre-Islamic Arabia granted women a relatively large amount of power, enabled involvement in

tribal politics and granted them an individual voice in marriage. However, urban development led to

this system of patriarchy. When Muslim men invaded the tribes, they conquered the tribes and imposed

self-rule over the native women. The third perspective was essentially a combination of the first and

second perspectives.

Valerie Hoffman cites a tale about Sayyida Nafisa, an early Sufi Muslim saint. She investigates

the spiritual worth of men and women as it is addressed in the Qur’an. In Arab society, honor is

conceived in a corporate sense in families, and the honor of men resides in the chastity of their women.

The creation of rigorous modesty codes to uphold their honor has often resulted in the deprivation of

women’s spiritual and intellectual lives. Through maintaining a life of celibacy, eighth century Sufi

women rejected the guardianship of men, the requirement of obedience to them, and the burdens and

responsibilities of being a wife and mother. Extreme abstinence from food inhibits menstruation, which

becomes a tool for ensuring their constant access to the presence of God on par with men. The idea of

some modern historians that a pious woman was a man sent to Earth in the form of a woman implies

the degradation of the female sex, as a whole, and that true spirituality is confined to the male sex. It

also implied that one’s biological make-up is not a barrier to spiritual inspiration. By the 10th century,

only women who had already completed their duty of marriage were free to devote themselves to the

mystical life.

Visser skips to the period of colonialism to focus on how women were denied the opportunity of

entering warfare and politics. In the 19th century, education and European gender roles were introduced
by the colonialists. Conservative Muslims fought against the modernization of women because they

believed it was a plot set by Western Imperialists to undermine Muslim culture. Industrialization made

some women completely dependent on male income, which is also a view that Ahmed addresses.

According to El-Azhary Sonbol, by the twentieth century women were bound by the laws ordained by

scripture and their societies’ understandings of the past. Islam and women’s rights have been part of an

ongoing dialogue regarding the interpretation of Shari’ah since the end of the nineteenth century. The

impact of westernization began to bring about deep structural changes in various Muslim countries. As

Visser points out, the historical roots of patriarchy categorizes women as respectable or disreputable

where the veil has become the divide among women. While elite women had a share in power,

exchanges of power diminished the status of women.

THE QUR’AN, THE HADITHS, AND GENDER ROLES

According to Riffat Hassan, a large proportion of Hadiths (scriptures or phrases attributed to the

prophet Muhammad) were judged to be spurious and forged by classical Muslim scholars themselves.

Much of Islam is based on the Hadith literature, and if the basis for its historicity is removed, it will

essentially make the entire religion invalid. The interpretation of the Hadiths has remained a mostly

male occupation, and Muslim culture remains overwhelmingly patriarchal, which inhibits the growth of

scholarship among women (particularly in the realm of religious thought). One reason that many

women are not aware of the misinterpretations of their discourse may be because the literacy rate of

Muslim women in rural areas, is the lowest in many Muslim countries. Hassan moves to address

contemporary Muslim women. Women who contribute towards national development think and behave

very differently from women who have no sense of their individual identity. Many contemporary

Muslim societies draw sharp distinctions between modernity as science, technology and a better

standard of life, and westernization as the degradation of society, which is not only colonization but

also as “the integrity of the Islamic way of life”.

Hijab argues that women maintain solidarity and transmit cultural values in how they are
perceived. She emphasizes that women who gain rights do not have the respect of Muslim men, but

women who have their respect also have gained no rights. In Arab society, women have advantages in

all spheres, but priority is given to women who choose traditional, or family roles, since such roles are

supported by the patriarchal government. Hijab states that redefinition of women’s roles are viewed as

an extension of Western efforts at cultural domination. Modernization is viewed as the destruction of

culture. However, if it were in the state’s interest to modernize, they would not hesitate to do so.

Hassan asserts that the Hadiths make all representatives of women ontologically inferior and

crooked, male-centered and male-controlled Muslim societies are not at all likely to acknowledge the

egalitarianism evident in the Qur’anic statements about human creation. The Qur’an, which does not

discriminate against women in the context of the “fall” episode, does not support the view, held by

many Muslims, that “woman was created not only from man but also for man”. On the contrary, from

a linguistic standpoint, the word “qawwamun” means “breadwinners” or “those who provide a means

of support or livelihood.” It refers not to those who are “protectors and managers (of women)”, but as

a normative statement pertaining to the Islamic concept of a division of labor in an ideal family or

community structure. Although Qur’anic scripture does not declare specific gender roles, it recognizes

that the burden of childcare is so great that women should not have to bear the burden of providing for

their families alone. Many conservative Muslims have falsely interpreted the above clarification as

certain proof for the assertion of such gender roles. Dale Eickelman explores the differences in the

socialization of the sexes, primarily how girls must be protected until marriage, lest they are

burdensome to the family and carry the burden of shame. Feminine status is tied to gender roles.

Legislative change does not always become active social change, although it depends on the population

and location of the region. Subordination is an ideological assumption shared by both genders – women

view it as social, while men view it as natural.

GENDER ROLES AND SHARI’AH
In the Qur’an, the sexes are equal but that’s not how it has been interpreted. Hassan, in her

article Feminist Theology as a Means of Combating Injustice Toward Women in Muslim Communities

and Culture, asserts that from a lingustic approach, translators of Qur’anic passages look at words with

multiple meanings and do not consider them all. Instead they only settle on those meanings that will

benefit them the most. Generally the skewed interpretation is used in support of a gender bias, which

perpetuates greater support for a patriarchal government or society. El-Azhary Sonbol seeks to uncover

how, in practice, women experienced a marked deterioration in gender relations under state patriarchy,

since the government extended its authority over all matters of family, gender and personal relations.

Shari’ah established systems and institutions that enabled the forcible incarceration of women by their

husbands. Courts committed women to these institutions of incarceration, and the police were used to

deliver them to husbands and fathers against their will. Eickelman argues that Shari’a is not simply

“law”, but one’s conduct as a Muslim. Nadia Hijab, on the other hand, questions how the identity in

independent Arab states will determine positions of interpretation of Shari’ah. Whereas the Shari’ah is

normally blamed for the unequal gender relations under which Muslim women live today, that Shari’ah

is interpreted and applied differently in the present, than other historical periods. El-Azhary Sonbol

suggests that by comparing the implementation of laws before and after the coming of the nation-state,

it is easier to determine the actual contribution of the nation-states to gender inequality.

Moral precepts presented by Islam are intended to assure the cohesion and equality of the

community. However, this equality is not extended to women. Judgment, as El-Azhary Sonbol states, is

based on the biological differences between the two, and particularly on the fact that women are suited

to bear children. It has also been the male view that men are designed to lend physical protection

towards women. According to the laws and requirements of the Qur’an (into two categories of rituals

and social relations), both men and women are required to follow the same moral code. It is not salient

with the foundations of Islam (as presented within the Qur’an) to assign a position of total dependence

to women and complete legal dominance and guardianship to men (over women).
However, as El-Azhary Sonbol points out, the advancement of firearms and security has made man’s

protection of women less important. It is, indeed, the male view of these roles that has determined the

legal rights and duties of Islamic societies. The public and private spheres may also be viewed as a

form of physical protection, but are another attempt at molding women into a specific role.

El-Azhary Sonbol addresses the public-private sphere as a grevious error. The public-private sphere

teaches that the public sphere is the domain of men, whereas the private sphere, or the home, is the

domain of women. Conservative authors often interpret these spheres as blending with the onslaught of

Western influences. El-Azhary Sonbol uses archival research to prove that the public-private spheres

have questionable foundations in Islamic history. Hassan asserts that in order for women to enter the

public domain or men’s space, they must make themselves “faceless”, through veiling, which serves as

an extension of the segregation of the sexes. This process of veiling, Hassan argues, is also aimed at

reducing the value and status of women. In many matters two women were regarded as being equal to

one man. El-Azhary Sonbol emphasizes that understanding the nature of women’s work is essential to

understanding gender relations before the modern state. In fact, many women produced silk products

at home, and organized into pressure groups, thus showing labor awareness. Many assumptions of

modern scholars and clergy have no legal basis, yet continue to influence the way in which the Qur’an

and other sacred scriptures have been used to build hegemonic patriarchy.

Honor codes and systems of marriage are a selection of Islamic law which has been forged by

the prior interpretations of scripture by clergy, that have shaped the ways in which women experience

life under the veil of patriarchy. Hoffman, in her article about Sayyida Nafisa, the Sufi Muslim saint,

addresses how honor is identified: through the Muslim male. As cited earlier in this paper, the honor of

Muslim men lies in the chastity of Muslim women, a view also supported by Hassan. However, the

lengths that Arab society goes through in order to maintain that sense of order has severe implications

regarding the Muslim woman’s sense of spiritual growth. Hassan asserts that the maintenance of honor

in Arab societies through honor killings, female circumcisions, and denying women the opportunity to
use birth control are ways in which Arab patriarchal societies exert control over women’s bodies, and in

effect, exercise power over them.

Interpretation of the scriptures has imposed specific rules on women regarding their rights in

marriage and the marital system of polygamy. Hassan states that Muslim societies have never regarded

men and women as equal, particularly in the context of marriage. However, El-Azhary Sonbol argues

that, according to the Qur’anic scriptures, both men and women are required to participate in an equal

distribution of labor in a marriage contract. Another bone of contention in the Islamic marriage is the

demand of men to have their wives worship them. Hassan suggests that Islam cannot conceivably

permit any human being to worship anyone but God. Each person, man and woman, is accountable for

their actions, which is often highly contradictory to the declaration that women must worship their

husbands as an intermediary between the Muslim woman and God.

CONTEMPORARY DEBATES OF THE “WOMAN ISSUE”

Scholars who believe women had greater freedom and rights before the coming of Islam

represent a third point of view. They draw upon the Qur’an and medieval clergy, reinterpreting and

questioning the validity of the prophetic traditions; and study connections between Qur’anic verses and

discuss the historical context of each verse to determine the meaning and authenticity of traditions. This

is the basis for reform efforts by governments, individuals and Islamic groups (both Liberal and

Conservative).

Women have become a major issue of contention between Conservative and Liberal Muslim

groups. While both groups differ in their approaches towards women’s rights and gender roles, they

agree with one another in their desire for such an issue to be controlled at the level of the patriarchy.

Unfortunately both Liberal and Conservative Muslims favored more patriarchal interpretations of

Islamic laws dealing with “the woman problem”. Mansoor Moaddel explores the discourses of

modernity and fundamentalism, with respect to Contemporary women’s issues. Modernity, as Moaddel

implies, favors women’s rights to education, involvement in political affairs, and questioning attitudes
towards women and the rejection of polygamy. Fundamentalism, or Conservative Muslim groups, seek

to have women barred from social functions, held in an inferior status to men, and preach about the

acceptance of polygamy. El-Azhary Sonbol believes that the Conservative approach undermines history

by viewing Islamic law as an unchanging code. In Conservative methodologies, little importance is

given to research detailing the actual practices and application of laws. Textual discourses are given

greater validity than legal practices, and selected texts present an eternal, unchanging appearance of

Islamic law, fitting with modern state patriarchy. In example of this, stoning laws have arisen out of a

skewed interpretation of shari’ah, as it appears in the Qur’an. For instance, while the Qur’an lists

punishment for adultery, it mentions lash or exile, and only after a voluntary confession is rendered

numerous times, but never stoning. On stoning, El-Azhary Sonbol concludes that such legal

interpretations are based on gender bias and misogyny.

FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS

Although some modern scholars do not take historical evidence or new interpretations of scripture as

seriously as they should, Hassan notes that the Qur’an places great emphasis on the preservation of

“fundamental human rights”: justice and equity; privacy and protection from slander; the right to

acquire knowledge; to move freely; to leave a place of origin under oppressive conditions; and the right

to a good life, as is possible in a just society, for justice leads to peace, and peace to self-actualization.

All of which are goals in the contemporary world. As Hassan stated, very few women engage in

scholarly study. The subject practically demands a rise in feminine scholarship, especially among

Muslim women who experience the effects of mis-interpreted scripture as it fits into Islamic law and

their daily lives. All of the authors discussed present fine considerations of future research, however I

propose that the best course of future research would address a series of stages. Before Muslim women

will engage in more scholarly studies, I propose setting the stage for them to do so. In order to attain

this feat, more educational reforms need to be available to Muslim women. By making them aware of
the elements that have traditionally called for strict definition of the rights of Muslim women, and

presenting options of which they may be unaware. Such opportunities may help them realize how

greatly their contributions are needed to solving a problem often called the “woman issue”.

Bibliography

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University
Press. Bethany, 1992.

Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. Prentice
Hall. Upper Saddle River, 2002.

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