World Faiths & Religions

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Islam view women?

In responding to this question, we must distinguish between the questions ‘what does the high religious tradition of Islam say about women?' and ‘how do Muslims act and conceive of their religion influencing the status of women?' The second question often has little to do with Islam as a religion. From the perspective of Islamic law, both a Taliban man who refuses to let his daughters go to school and a French Muslim woman who chooses not to wear a headscarf are misguided - Muhammad instructed that women not be prevented from learning and also required them to cover their hair! If we are speaking about the high religious tradition of Islam, it views women and men as completely equal in the eyes of God but as different with respect to law. Women and men are both equally capable of being pious and attaining salvation, but in rituals differences appear. Women, for example, do not perform the required five daily prayers when menstruating. Women must cover their whole bodies except for their face, hands and feet when in public, while men must only cover from their navel to their knees. Further distinctions appear in law. Women and men enjoy the same rights to life, property, and honor, but a daughter receives half the inheritance of her brother. Furthermore, the majority of Muslim religious scholars have held that a woman's testimony in court is worth only half of a man's. Some of these distinctions are common sense. Women pray behind men, but this is due to the physical form of the Islamic prayer (bending over with one's buttocks in the air - why men should be in front of women in this case is understandable). Other distinctions are based in a larger Islamic vision of social relations. Although daughters receive half the inheritance of a son, in all other respects (such as what a father or mother inherits from a deceased child), Islamic inheritance law is gender-blind. Muslim scholars understand that brothers receive more because they are responsible for caring for all their unmarried female relatives, and that a brother will have to pay a dowry to his wife when he wants to marry. Other Quranic prescriptions regarding women have proven much more problematic. The Quran instructs (verse 4:34) men whose wives are disobedient to "admonish them, then abandon them in their beds (i.e., don't sleep with them), then strike them." Although Muhammad reportedly said that such a beating should be done incredibly lightly and himself never struck his wives, this verse remains a thorn in the side of Muslims trying to understand their religion in the modern world.