Muslim societies, like other human societies under the impact of modernity, have undergone profound changes in gender relationships in the last 150 years. Many of these changes, although controversial at the time, have proven to be durable. Other changes, or proposed changes in the name of greater gender equality, remain controversial, as evidenced by the fact that many Muslim countries have qualified their commitments to gender equality to the extent that such a commitment might conflict with principles of the shariah. Despite the fact that Muslim women have made enormous social progress in the last 150 years, the relationship of Islam to gender equality remains one that is extremely contentious. A more helpful way of understanding contemporary notions of gender equality among religiously committed Muslims is to begin with the contexts in which equality is being demanded. Accordingly, Muslims react to equality claims differently depending on whether the claim is made in a ritual context, a family context, or a public context.
Islam, like other pre-modern religions, took for granted that differences between men and women were fundamental, and thus it was perfectly appropriate to treat men and women differently. Indeed, because the assumption of inherent gender differences was so pervasive in the pre-modern era, commitments to gender equality, such as they were, are particularly important to highlight. Traditional Islam is interesting in this regard because it provides important support for the principle of gender equality in many cases even as it affirms traditional conceptions of gender.
The clearest context in which gender equality claims are most likely to be controversial is in ritual law. Muslims have traditionally viewed ritual law as something that, by definition, is not amenable to rational analysis, and accordingly is in principle impervious to principled change. At the same time, Islamic ritual law, while it promotes gender equality to the extent that it imposes the same ritual obligations on both men and women, uses gender to differentiate the ritual obligations of both genders. For example, menstruation is considered a bar to the performance of ritual obligations. In addition, the vast majority of ulama do not recognize as valid the ritual prayer of a man if the imam of the prayer is a woman. It may be the case that in certain Muslim communities, concepts such as "bid‘a hasana"—a praiseworthy innovation—could be used to justify greater involvement of women in the public ritual life of the Muslim community, but despite efforts of North American Muslim women to have women lead mixed-sex congregational prayers, it is unlikely that these efforts will bear fruit in the short-term, even among relatively liberal Muslim populations such as those in North America.
The clearest context in which Islam supports gender equality is the context of private law. As a general rule, gender was irrelevant to the capacity of a person to enter into contractual relations with others. While Islamic law did recognize the relevance of gender to questions of legal capacity, once a woman attained full legal capacity, she enjoyed the same rights in private law as did a man. Accordingly, she could buy or sell her own property without the consent of any third party including her husband or father. She could also engage in acts of charity without third party consent. It is probably the basic commitment to equality in the context of private transactions that prevents much opposition among Muslims to women serving in the learned professions such as academics, attorneys, engineers, and physicians.
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.