Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Mohammad Fadel
At the same time, however, for most pre-modern Muslim theologians, women were barred from holding political offices, such as that of a judge or head of state. This limitation, however, is one that has largely passed, as most Muslim countries have permitted women to hold political offices, and three Muslim countries—Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have even had women serve as their prime ministers. The Islamic Society of North America, one of the largest grassroots Muslim organizations in North America, recently elected a woman to serve as its president. Indeed, even many otherwise conservative Muslim theologians of the modern period do not have principled objections to women's participation in public political life as long as they observe Islamic norms of modesty. Women have played important roles as activists in many modern Islamic political movements.
Islam's role as a force for gender equality is most ambiguous in family law. Islam, like other pre-modern religions, began with a strong commitment to a gendered division of labor within the family, with the conventional expectation that the male is a breadwinner and the female is restricted to the household, as reflected in the rules of Islamic law. As a result, the male is given some privileges within a marriage that the female lacks. Among these is the right to initiate divorce unilaterally, while the female must obtain either a judicial divorce or her husband's consent if she wants a divorce.
Because the male is legally the head of the household, he is entitled to make decisions on its behalf, such as where the family will reside. He is also given decision-making power over the welfare of the children. While there may be a moral norm that he exercises these privileges for the good of the household and in consultation with the wife, the wife is expected to defer to her husband's decisions with respect to these decisions. The husband's prerogatives of control over the household do not entitle him, however, to interfere with his wife's personal rights, such as control over her own property.
Finally, Islamic law gives men (but not women) the right to contract up to four marriages simultaneously provided that certain conditions are met. The wife's primary legal obligation arising out of marriage is to make herself available to her husband for sexual intercourse. Whether the wife is obliged to perform housekeeping and other domestic chores is a matter of disagreement among Muslim jurists, but in any case, even for those who recognize such a duty, the duty is generally limited to the kind of household work she would do for herself.