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Posted on Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 9:51 a.m.

The role of women in Islam misunderstood by many

By Ahmed Chaudhry


It is sometimes hard to tell just how photogenic some Muslim women are. | photo courtesy of

Last week, the Ann Arbor District Library hosted an event featuring five Muslim men with the subject of being Muslim in America in the spotlight. The event was a notable look into the diverse backgrounds incorporated in the Islamic faith and a great example of this diversity expressed on a local level in the Ann Arbor area. While this panel offered an excellent discussion on how Muslims deal with issues of multiculturalism and tensions that arise, a similar panel with Muslim women could and would have drawn equal interest from the attendees and might be a great idea for a future event.

The views of men and women in Islam on various subjects vary greatly just as they do in any religion or culture. In the case of Islam, the role of women is arguably one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted subjects throughout history. This subject, since the birth of Islam nearly a millennia and a half ago, has become more a product of the various male-dominated cultures the faith made its way into rather than the actual faith itself.

The focus of the media on Muslim women around the world is unflinchingly concentrated on the ones wearing hijab (voluntarily or not), being treated as second rate citizens by their male counterparts or, worst of all, falling victim to horrendous human rights violations. While these situations definitely deserve attention and (in many cases) an appropriate serving of justice, many people are left with the impression that Islam condones the oppression of women as an integral facet of the faith itself. The truth, in this case as in many, is overlooked: while males and females serve different roles in Islam, the Qur’an makes it clear that they are equal.

While it is true that women in some Muslim countries are denied basic rights like education, there are other countries in which women's roles and behaviors not unlike those in the U.S., and they even end up serving in high political office. In my home country of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto served as Prime Minister twice (non-consecutively), while the United States has yet to allow a woman into even the vice presidential position.

Another issue, which is sure to raise objections from many American Muslims, is the role and more specifically the placement of women in mosques. Saudi Arabia is one of, if not the worst, example of a country when it comes to the issue of women’s rights. Given this, why is it then that we see men and women praying in the same line and sometimes even physically touching each other during the Hajj in Mecca, the holiest site in all of Islam, while they are separated in almost all other locations? It becomes somewhat embarrassing for more progressive Muslims to have to explain why Muslim women are quarantined to the back corner or the basement in most American mosques (including the Ann Arbor Islamic Center).

 If you ask most men at these mosques why the women are subtly or unsubtly treated as inferiors, they will never be able to cite the Qur’an as a reason… only an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of a Qur‘anic verse, or they may be accepting of the situation just because they are just blindly following mosque rules. It also doesn’t say outright at any point in the Qur’an that women are to cover their heads or faces, but the interpretation made my several cultures (often male-dominated) is that we don’t want to see your hair or we might become sexually aroused by accident.


Nadine Chandrawinata, Miss Indonesia Universe in 2006, received death threats from a militant Islamic group for wearing a bikini during the swimsuit contest | photo courtesy of

So this is what it comes down to, as it does in most world faiths: cultural interpretation win out over the intentions of even the most blatantly obvious verses from scripture. On the other hand, there are several Muslim women that wear the hijab or seclude themselves to a particular part of the mosque voluntarily. Whether they are doing this as a rational autonomous decision or a result of fear tactics or a desire not to be the instigator in the larger community differs from case to case individually.

In the United States though, they live alongside other Muslim women who wear bikinis to pools and beaches, take on the consequences of entering a mosque through the “male entrance” and interpret the Qur’an in their own way.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a panel discussion from five women representing that spectrum of the Islamic faith? There is certainly no shortage of them, ranging from rightfully conservative women to bonafide Islamic feminists, in the Ann Arbor area.

Ahmed Chaudhry was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the Michigan in 1994. As a recent graduate of Albion College, where he received a degree in biology and religious studies, he plans to pursue a career in public health.



Wed, Nov 17, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

peacemaker...the rationale mr sultan cites for nearly pan -islamic sexual segregation in worship is similar to what was once practiced in many judaeo christian devotional settings, but not so much in recent decades...or even centuries. Much like a conservative judaeo-christian interpretation of 'the fall of eve'/original sin concept, much of Islam views humanity as torn between 'nafs' ( base desires ) and 'aqil' or rational and higher levels of thought/spirituality. So far so good, and something an evolutionary biologist would agree with, pretty least as a metaphor.. But in much of the Muslim world women are viewed as being lower on the 'nafs-aqil' scale than men, hence the widespead practice of segregating them, including by dress-codes ( from hijabs to full-blown burqas), architecture ( separate womens quarters in many settings) and in prayer contexts, all lest men be tempted into their own 'nafs'ishness. While culturally understandable in what have been often dangerous and volatile regions this is not particularly compatible with western, sexually egalitarian democratic the french have recently affirmed by the headscarf ban in schools.


Wed, Nov 17, 2010 : 8:30 a.m.

@Umer Sultan:" The reason is simple. When in the house of God, one needs to be focusing on his/her prayers not that the guy is cute or that girl is very pretty!" Why is it that the likes of you always have "physical attractiveness" top of your agenda...even in a mosque!!!!If you are "that distracted" in the house of God....where your soul purpose would be to focus on God and improving your relationship with God it sounds a bit absurd for one to get distracted. I am only trying to imagine your "distractibility" in social settings??


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 12:10 p.m.

kathy..i agree with you on the 'hands off approach'... but only up to the point where gender surpression has consequences/ramifications for international security, per one of my earlier posts on how jihadists, at least in part, can get to be that way ( i.e via a sometimes toxic family dynamic rooted in gender matters)..


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:45 a.m.

As in any culture it is up to the subjgated to learn to stand up for themselves. We, as bystanders may have our opinions but we cannot by force or force of "our" will make such dramatic changes for other peoples. As women, we have the greatest power in the world. Men may have bolstered thier own sense of importance by arming themselves with the power of death, but WE hold the power of LIFE. Until women unite and demand of men peace and equality there will be neither.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 7:07 a.m. argument with you ( for once) on the abstract big picture...but the 'small picture' ( i.e whats actually happening at a given point in time) is a bleak one in the islamic world, re the status of women, and getting bleaker in places like Iran, somalia,pakistan, gaza and afghanistan...especially if we disengage and leave it to al qaeda/taliban/hamas/al shabaab types.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 12:48 a.m.

I believe it was John Lennon who stated: "Women are the niggers of the world". My observations are that the major religions make sure women are kept that way.


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 8:52 p.m.

When a system of faith succeeds over time in growing from a small, devout cult into a major religion, it typically absorbs and filters the values of the larger culture. Core social values native to a particular region may be given a certain spiritual imprimatur as a result. The process of evolving into a dominant religion can impact the practices of a faith-based organization as much or more than its beliefs change the surrounding society. The long centuries of intense misogyny lasting throughout most of the history of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other religions reflects the various societies and time periods which produced or embraced them. But religions will begin to alter their seemingly 'timeless' beliefs or traditions when faced with significant, lasting shifts in social outlook. As the status of women and minorities gradually improves, religious institutions also experience the same general push toward acceptance and equal treatment. Also, for a bit of additional historical background, take a look at "Women, Religion and Social Change in Early Islam," a chapter authored by Jane I. Smith in a compilation entitled Women, Religion and Social Change. (See


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 4:28 p.m.

Muslims during Hajj in Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah do not gender segregate because its unrealistic. Islam is a realistic religion. However, if one would go to any Mosque besides Masjid Al-Haram (where Muslims perform Hajj) there would be a gender segregation. The reason is simple. When in the house of God, one needs to be focusing on his/her prayers not that the guy is cute or that girl is very pretty! I thought Ahmed Chaudry being a Muslim himself would know that!


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 4:22 p.m.

p.s my previous is an endorsement of the general point of the original article...sort of ( i guess! maybe.)


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 4:18 p.m.

In a book on pakistan i edited in the late 70's a pakistani friend/scholar /contributor predicted that rural pakistani women would be empowered ( ala "rosie the riveter" in WWII)to take on assorted reponsibilities left in their hands by their absent husbands,many of whom were off trying to make a buck in the burgeoning oil economies of the arabian peninsula. How wrong he was! Not much later we saw these same men returning filled with the ( even more ) gender repressive and bigoted views of arabias wahhabbi islam,and once pluralistic pakistan itself sliding into the sort of fundamentalism that provided fertile grounds for the emergence of taliban and al qaeda.....and still does, with gender repression often connected to a vicious cycle of women exerting the only power they have over their small sons...and these resentful guys growing up to be taliban types ( a phenomenon that has documentation in the anthropological literature)in assorted areas where islamic extremism flourishes.. Atticus: That cultural relativism is an undeniable empirical fact does not necessarily or automatically make it a praiseworthy moral doctrine. and others: whatever ancient and ambiguous, and often internally contradictory, texts say, how real people put them into real practice is what is the overriding relevancy.


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 12:16 p.m.

How tragic that we all fall so far from the tenets of our faiths. I'm sure that when people from other cultures read Jesus' espousal of giving all you have to the poor and loving your neighbor as yourself, they are astounded by our inequalities in wealth and hatred for each other. As Matthew said, if we took the plank out of our own eyes, then we will see clearly enough to remove the speck from our neighbor's eye.


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 11:23 a.m.

Indeed there is a need for greater understanding of the Qur'an and Islam in the U.S. Muhammad had multiple wives, and every Muslim man may have up to four wives with the sole ability to divorce, so I have a difficult time understanding about male/female equality. However, this may be an erroneous interpretation of the Qur'an.


Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 10:24 a.m.

" a similar panel with Muslim women could and would have drawn equal interest from the attendees and might be a great idea for a future event" There was one, headed by Dr. Jackson's wife, last winter at the same venue.

Atticus F.

Mon, Nov 15, 2010 : 10:05 a.m.

I have long thought that the concern about how Islamic women are treated, is nothing more than an excuse to be intolerant of other peoples religous beliefs. In particular, to be intolerant of muslims, who have been seen as an enemy by some, and have been heavily descriminated againts since 9/11.