Muslim Women and Gender Equality


This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

Key Facts

  • In 2007 the Philadelphian sexual abuse victim, and activist Tarana Burke first coined the term ‘MeToo’. (Cooney, 2017)
    • Originally focussed on women of colour in Philadelphia: the ‘Me Too’ message was seeking to encourage victims that they were not alone.
    • Following Alyssa Milano’s initial allegations against Harvey Weinstein and her encouragement of others to speak up, #MeToo went viral in 2017.
  • The Muslim women’s rights activist Mona Eltahawy coined the term ‘#MosqueMeToo’ to shine a spotlight on the sexual exploitation Muslim women experience at Islamic sacred places. (Eltahawy, 2020)
    • She was sexually assaulted in Saudi Arabia on Hajj in Mecca in 1982 at the age of 15 years old.
    • A Similar story is told by Hebah Farrag about her own assault in Mecca at the age of 13 years old. (Farrag, 2018)
  • Studies of violence and abuse of women are extremely limited and statistics are very hard to find. However, the following data is available:
    • The Women, Peace and Security Index 2020 (WPSI2020) found that 16 of the 20 worst countries to be a woman were Muslim majority countries (Yemen was the bottom). None of the top 20 were Muslim majority. (Conant, 2020)
    • 37% of Arab women say they have experienced some form of violence (UNWomen, 2020)
    • 14% Arab women are married before the age of 18 years old.
    • In Egypt 93% Women between age of 15-49 say they have experienced Female Genital Mutilation.
    • According to the UN’s Women website, rapists are often shown leniency in the Arab region if they marry their victim.
  • Muslim Feminists and equality advocates split into two principle groups: the Pietists – those who believe that the path to equality in Islam lies within the faith and the Secularists – those who believe that the faith is a barrier to equality within the Muslim majority world.
  • Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving in 2018 and a new law to curb Sexual abuse was enacted in June 2018.
  • The first Congress on Islamic Feminism was held in Madrid in 2005.
  • Riffat Hasan (from Pakistan) is considered one of, if not the pioneer of Islamic Feminism.
  • The wearing of the Hijab is a focus for disagreement with some (such as Read and Bartkowski, 2000) arguing that it is an example of male domination, whereas others (such as Ruby 2006) argue that the Hijab is a religious symbol which gives respect and dignity to the wearer.
  • Some key Qur’anic texts on the status of Women Islam are:
    • Surah an-Nisa, (The Women): 1, 11, 12, 34, 124, 176 - these ayat (versus) include inheritance principles for women and the declaration of male protection over his wife.
    • Surah at-Tawbah (Repentence): 71
    • Surah Ghafir, (The Forgiver) 40

According to Margot Badran, Islamic feminism dates back to the 19th century. (Badran, 2011). Yet, despite this seemingly long history, the statistics cited above would suggest that it does not appear to have had the lasting effect that feminist movements, or gender equality movements dating back to the Suffragettes in the early 20th Century have had in Western countries. Of course, Muslim majority countries are not the only ones which have poor records on gender equality and it is fair to say that there is no country which is completely perfect in the area of gender relations. Nevertheless, there is evidence such as World Bank data which shows that there are, for example, opportunities in the workplace and freedom of movement for women in the West that is not replicated in Muslim majority states. But there are signs that the gender equality movements are beginning to have more success in their demands for deeper change in the socio-cultural position of women across Muslim majority states.

The pressure for change is likely being driven by at least two fundamental dynamics: the first is the growing education of women and secondly the shifting economic needs of states traditionally reliant on oil income.

There are several of the Gulf and North African countries (such as Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE) which now have over 65% female graduates in tertiary education. In Muslim diaspora communities in Western countries, Muslim girls have consistently out-performed boys educationally for over two decades, meaning that they are now often earning the higher salaries. This financial shift has had an outworking in marital dynamics as seen in divorce rates amongst diaspora Muslims as well as in Muslim majority states. For average divorce levels in Muslim households are now broadly the same as for non-Muslim communities (between 35-40%) (Eltahawy, 2020). Furthermore, commentators have argued that the recent change in the law about women now being able to drive cars in the highly conservative state of Saudi Arabia was, in some measure, due to the growing demands of returning female citizens who had been sent to study in US, British and Canadian universities under the King Abdullah full-scholarship scheme the Kingdom had set up in order to upskill its young workforce.(Taylor and Albasri, 2014). This shows that the acquisition of qualifications and the careers which went with them was not the only outworking of the growing number of female graduates; it has also been the experience of the differing behavioural norms in the Western universities which the graduates have brought back to Saudi which has also been important.

The second (and connected) dynamic driving change is the need for Gulf economies, and other MENA economies to broaden their economic bases by diverging from oil to welcome in new investment streams. In order to accomplish that a far more open and modern face needs to be presented to potential investors and the expatriate communities who come with the new enterprises. Growing economic necessity is requiring an even greater need for diversity in commerce. Commercial companies are keen to show that they are not just turning a good profit, but are also bringing about positive social impact. In the modern context, attracting business into the region also therefore requires openness to social change. (Begbie and Mere, 2019)

These two factors are creating the fertile ground for the kind of social change which women such as Riffat Hassan and more recently, Mona Eltahawy have been calling for. The combination of these long-term drivers and the stories around #MeToo such as the Weinstein Scandal that have been beamed into the Muslim Majority world through news outlets such as al Jazeera appears to be starting to have the kind of impact on gender relations in Muslim majority states and communities which have been longed for by Muslim gender campaigners. For that reason, it can be reasonably hoped that appalling statistics such as those cited earlier on the rates of female genital mutilation will be much improved within the next decade.

But whilst initiatives such as the #MosqueMeToo have begun to shine a light on the roles women in society and their legal positions in Muslim communities and societies, fundamental debates around the role of women as interpreted in Muslim scripture will need to take place before lasting change can become engrained. In that context, the future direction of the nature of the changes around the role of women in Muslim societies will be, in large part, governed by who is able to dominate the narrative of Qur’anic interpretation: the Secularists or the Pietists.

Badran, Margot (2011) Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences London: OneWorld.
Begbie, Cordelia and Isabella Mere (2019) The Future of Gulf Diversification London: AsiaHouse.
Conant, Eve (2020) ‘The best and worst countries to be a woman’ National Geographic 15th October
Cooney, Samantha (2017) ‘Meet the woman who started #MeToo 10 years ago’ Time Magazine 19th October.
Eltahawy, Mona (2020) ‘#MosqueMeToo was about solidarity’ in Anon, (2020) ‘#MeToo is at a crossroads in America. Around the world it is just beginning’ The Washington Post 8th May
Farrag, Hebah (2018) ‘Sexual Assault during Hajj: Will #MosqueMeToo lead to reforms in Mecca?’ 20th August
Hasan, Riffat (1982) ‘On Human Rights and the Quranic Perspective’ in A. Swidler (ed.), Human Rights in Religious Traditions New York: Pilgrim Press
Mahmood, Sabah (2005) The Politics of Piety: Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.
Read, G. J. and P.J. Bartkowski, (2000) ‘To veil or not to veil? A case study of identity negotiation among Muslim women in Austin, Texas.’ Gender and Society, 14(3): 395– 417.
Ruby, T. F. (2006) Listening to the voices of hijab. Women’s Studies International Forum, 29: 54–66.
Taylor, Charles and Wasmiah Albasri (2014) ‘The Impact of Saudi Arabia King Abdullah’s Scholarship Programme in the US’ Journal of Social Sciences 2: 109-118 accessed 3rd June 2020. accessed 3rd June 2020