Gender roles in Islam

Gender roles in Islam are simultaneously colored by two Quranic precepts: (i) spiritual equality between women and men; and (ii) the idea that women are meant to exemplify femininity, and men masculinity.

Spiritual equality between women and men is detailed in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (33:35):

Verily, the Muslims: men and women, the believers: men and women, the Qanit: men and the women, the men and women who are truthful, the men and the women who are patient, the Khashi`: men and the women, the men and the women who give Sadaqat, the men and the women who fast, the men and the women who guard their chastity and the men and the women who remember Allah much with their hearts and tongues, Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward :33:35

Islam’s basic view of women and men postulates a complementarity of functions: like everything else in the universe, humanity has been created in a pair (Sūrat al-Dhāriyāt, 51:49) – neither can be complete without the other. In Islamic cosmological thinking, the universe is perceived as an equilibrium built on harmonious polar relationships between the pairs that make up all things. Moreover, all outward phenomena are reflections of inward noumena and ultimately of God.

The emphasis which Islam places upon the feminine/masculine polarity (and therefore complementarity) results in a separation of social functions. In general, a woman’s sphere of operation is the home in which she is the dominant figure – and a man’s corresponding sphere is the outside world.[better source needed]Women are highly respected in many aspects of domestic life such as being praised for their knowledge as ritual specialists, healers, caretakers, and those who arrange marriages in their community.

However, this separation is not, in practice, as rigid as it appears. There are many examples – both in the early history of Islam and in the contemporary world – of Muslim women who have played prominent roles in public life, including being sultanas, queens, elected heads of state and wealthy businesswomen. Moreover, it is important to recognize that in Islam, home and family are firmly situated at the centre of life in this world and of society: a man’s work cannot take precedence over the private realm.

The Quran dedicates numerous verses to Muslim women, their role, duties and rights, in addition to Sura 4 with 176 verses named “An-Nisa” (“Women”).

Female education

Both the Quran – Islam’s sacred text – and the spoken or acted example of Muḥammad (sunnah) advocate the rights of women and men equally to seek knowledge. The Quran commands all Muslims to exert effort in the pursuit of knowledge, irrespective of their biological sex: it constantly encourages Muslims to read, think, contemplate and learn from the signs of God in nature. Moreover, Muḥammad encouraged education for both males and females: he declared that seeking knowledge was a religious duty binding upon every Muslim man and woman. Like her male counterpart, each woman is under a moral and religious obligation to seek knowledge, develop her intellect, broaden her outlook, cultivate her talents and then utilise her potential to the benefit of her soul and her society. Copyists made it evident that women were entitled to seek an education just as much as any man by stating in hadith that it is everyone’s duty, whether you are a male or female, to seek knowledge. Along with these ideals came with hesitation from some who believed an educated woman who could read and write was described as poisonous. Many women throughout the Muslim world took this opportunity to receive as much education that was permitted under the law.

The interest of Muḥammad in female education was manifest in the fact that he himself used to teach women along with men. Muḥammad’s teachings were widely sought by both sexes, and accordingly at the time of his death it was reported that there were many female scholars of Islam. Additionally, the wives of Muḥammad – particularly Aisha – also taught both women and men; many of Muḥammad’s companions and followers learned the Quran, ḥadīth and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) from Aisha. Notably, there was no restriction placed on the type of knowledge acquired: a woman was free to choose any field of knowledge that interested her. Because Islam recognises that women are in principle wives and mothers, the acquisition of knowledge in fields which are complementary to these social roles was specially emphasised.

Financial and legal agency: The classical position

According to verse 4:32 of Islam’s sacred text, both men and women have an independent economic position: ‘For men is a portion of what they earn, and for women is a portion of what they earn. Ask God for His grace. God has knowledge of all things.’ Women therefore are at liberty to buy, sell, mortgage, lease, borrow or lend, and sign contracts and legal documents. Additionally, women can donate money, act as trustees and set up a business or company. These rights cannot be altered, irrespective of marital status. When a woman is married, she legally has total control over the dower – the mahr or bridal gift, usually financial in nature, while the groom pays to the bride upon marriage – and retains this control in the event of divorce.

Quranic principles, especially the teaching of zakāh or purification of wealth, encourage women to own, invest, save and distribute their earnings and savings according to their discretion. These also acknowledge and enforce the right of women to participate in various economic activities.

In contrast to many other cultures, a woman in Islam has always been entitled as per sharī’ah law to keep her family name and not take her husband’s name. Therefore, a Muslim woman has traditionally always been known by the name of her family as an indication of her individuality and her own legal identity: there is no historically practiced process of changing the names of women be they married, divorced or widowed. With the spread of western-style state bureaucracies across the Islamic world from the nineteenth century onwards, this latter convention has come under increasing pressure, and it is now commonplace for Muslim women to change their names upon marriage.

Property rights

Quran states:

“For men is a share from what the parents and near relatives leave, and for women is a share from what the parents and near relative leave from less from it or more, a legal share.” (Al-Quran 4:7)

Bernard Lewis says that classical Islamic civilization granted free Muslim women relatively more property rights than women in the West, even as it sanctified three basic inequalities between master and slave, man and woman, believer and unbeliever. Even in cases where property rights were granted in the West, they were very limited and covered only upper-class women. Over time, while women’s rights have improved elsewhere, those in many Muslim-dominated countries have remained comparatively restricted.

Women’s property rights in the Quran are from parents and near relatives. A woman, according to Islamic tradition, does not have to give her pre-marriage possessions to her husband and receive a mahr (dower) which she then owns. Furthermore, any earnings that a woman receives through employment or business, after marriage, is hers to keep and need not contribute towards family expenses. This is because, once the marriage is consummated, in exchange for tamkin (sexual submission), a woman is entitled to nafaqa – namely, the financial responsibility for reasonable housing, food and other household expenses for the family, including the spouse, falls entirely on the husband. In traditional Islamic law, a woman is also not responsible for the upkeep of the home and may demand payment for any work she does in the domestic sphere.

Property rights enabled some Muslim women to possess substantial assets and fund charitable endowments. In mid-sixteenth century Istanbul, 36.8% of charitable endowments (awqāf) were founded by women. In eighteenth century Cairo, 126 out of 496 charitable foundations (25.4%) were endowed by women. Between 1770 and 1840, 241 out of 468 or 51% of charitable endowments in Aleppo were founded by women.

The Quran grants inheritance rights to wife, daughter, and sisters of the deceased. However, women’s inheritance rights to her father’s property are unequal to her male siblings, and varies based on number of sisters, stepsisters, stepbrothers, if mother is surviving, and other claimants. The rules of inheritance are specified by a number of Quran verses, including Surah “Baqarah” (chapter 2) verses 180 and 240; Surah “Nisa(h)” (chapter 4) verses 7–11, 19 and 33; and Surah “Maidah” (chapter 5), verses 106–108. Three verses in Surah “Nisah” (chapter 4), verses 11, 12 and 176, describe the share of close relatives. The religious inheritance laws for women in Islam are different from inheritance laws for non-Muslim women under common law


Traditional jurisprudence:

Rape is considered a serious sexual crime in Islam, and can be defined in Islamic law as: “Forcible illegal sexual intercourse by a man with a woman who is not legally married to him, without her free will and consent”.

Sharī’ah law makes a distinction between adultery and rape and applies different rules. According to Professor Oliver Leaman, the required testimony of four male witnesses having seen the actual penetration applies to illicit sexual relations (i.e. adultery and fornication), not to rape. The requirements for proof of rape are less stringent:

Rape charges can be brought and a case proven based on the sole testimony of the victim, providing that circumstantial evidence supports the allegations. It is these strict criteria of proof which lead to the frequent observation that where injustice against women does occur, it is not because of Islamic law. It happens either due to misinterpretation of the intricacies of the Sharia laws governing these matters, or cultural traditions; or due to corruption and blatant disregard of the law, or indeed some combination of these phenomena.

In the case of rape, the adult male perpetrator (i.e. rapist) of such an act is to receive the ḥadd zinā, but the non-consenting or invalidly consenting female (i.e. rape victim) is to be regarded as innocent of zinā and relieved of the ḥadd punishment.

Islam’s position on domestic violence

Islam’s position on domestic violence is drawn from the Qur’an, prophetic practice (sunnah), and historical and contemporary legal verdicts (fatwas).

The Qur’an and prophetic practice clearly illustrate the relationship between spouses. The Qur’an says the relationship is based on tranquillity, unconditional love, tenderness, protection, encouragement, peace, kindness, comfort, justice and mercy.

The Muslim prophet, Muhammad, set direct examples of these ideals of a marital relationship in his personal life. There is no clearer prophetic saying about a husband’s responsibility toward his wife than his response when asked:

Give her food when you take food, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her.

Muhammad further stressed the importance of kindness toward women in his farewell pilgrimage. He equated the violation of their marital rights to a breach of the couple’s covenant with God.

Abusive behaviour towards a woman is also forbidden because it contradicts the objectives of Islamic jurisprudence – specifically the preservation of life and reason, and the Qur’anic injunctions of righteousness and kind treatment.

Domestic violence is addressed under the concept of harm (darar) in Islamic law. It includes a husband’s failure to provide obligatory financial support (nafaqa) for his wife, a long absence of the husband from home, the husband’s inability to fulfil his wife’s sexual needs, or any mistreatment of the wife’s family members.

In the 17th century, during the Ottoman Empire, legal verdicts were issued against abusive husbands in several domestic violence cases.

Islam allows an abused wife to claim compensation under ta’zir (discretionary corporal punishment). The 19th-century Syrian jurist Ib Abidin said ta’zir is mandatory for a:

… man who beats his wife excessively and “breaks bone”, “burns skin”, or “blackens” or “bruises her skin”.

What about Verse 4:34?

But if Islam condemns all forms of violence against women, what about Verse 4:34 of the Qur’an? One translation of this verse reads:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.

But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

This verse is specifically addressing the legal issue of nushuz, which is contentiously translated as a wife’s disobedience, flagrant defiance, or misbehaviour.

This is important because, as a general principle, a wife is entitled to financial support (nafaqa) from her husband as per Islamic jurisprudence guidelines. The only time she forfeits this right is if she is guilty of nushuz.

The contention about Verse 4:34 is particular to its English translation. There are no accurate translations of this verse, which compounds the issue for English-speakers. There are three particular words – qawwamuna, nushuzahunna, and wadribuhunna – that appear in this verse and are often mistranslated, mainly due to a lack of equivalent words in English.

Particularly problematic is how the word wadribuhunna is translated into English. A clear disagreement exists among English-language Qur’an commentators on how best to translate this word. All translations give an explicit negative connotation, and – when read out of context – further exacerbates any misunderstanding.

No classical and contemporary Muslim scholar has ever argued that wadribuhunna actually means “beat” your wives, despite how English translations render the meaning. Scholars have made every attempt to stipulate strict conditions that govern wadribuhunna, which is a last resort in a seriously dysfunctional marriage that is due to the nushuz of the wife.

So, any violence and coercion against women that is used to control or subjugate is considered to be oppression and is unacceptable in Islam – even if it is sanctioned by cultural practices.

Female employment 

Some scholars refer to verse 28:23 in the Quran and to Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife, a merchant before and after converting to Islam, as indications that Muslim women may undertake employment outside their homes.[disputeddiscuss]

And when he came to the water of Madyan, he found on it a group of men watering, and he found besides them two women keeping back (their flocks). He said: What is the matter with you? They said: We cannot water until the shepherds take away (their sheep) from the water, and our father is a very old man. Quran[Quran 28:23]

Traditional interpretations of Islam require a woman to have her husband’s permission to leave the house and take up employment, though scholars such as Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ebrahim Jannaati have said that women do not require a husband’s permission to leave the house and work.


During medieval times, the labor force in Spanish Caliphate included women in diverse occupations and economic activities such as farming, construction workers, textile workers, managing slave girls, collecting taxes from prostitutes, as well as presidents of guilds, creditors, religious scholars.

In the 12th century, Ibn Rushd claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case. In the early history of Islam, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah bint Ka’ab a.k.a. Umm Amarah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira.

Medieval Bimarestan or hospitals included female staff as female nurses. Muslim hospitals were also the first to employ female physicians, such as Banu Zuhr family who served the Almohad caliph ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur in the 12th century. This was necessary due to the segregation of male and female patients in Islamic hospitals. Later in the 15th century, female surgeons were employed at Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu‘s Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyye (Imperial Surgery).

Islam faith states that in the eyes of God, men and women should be equal and are allowed to fulfill the same roles. Therefore, they also are required to complete all the duties of a Muslim worshiper, including the completion of religious traditions, specifically the pilgrimage to Mecca. Islamic culture marked a movement towards liberation and equality for women, since prior Arab cultures did not enable women to have such freedoms. There is evidence that Muhammad asked women for advice and took their thoughts into account, specifically with regard to the Quran. Women were allowed to pray with men, take part in commercial interactions, and played a role in education. One of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, played a significant role in medicine, history and rhetoric. Women, however, did not hold religious titles, but some held political power with their husbands or on their own. The historic role of women in Islam is connected to societal patriarchal ideals, rather than actual ties to the Quran. The issue of women in Islam is becoming more prevalent in modern society.