Islam and Gender Roles

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When I told my sister-in-law that I had converted to Islam, she wondered how I was going to reconcile my feminist principles with my new religion. Believe me, I went into this conversion with my eyes wide open. I know the cultural baggage that is associated with Islam. But one distinction I’ve been careful to make is between the religion itself and the behavior of its adherents. I wouldn’t have become a Muslim if I hadn’t been convinced that Islam is inherently fair and just–not only to men, but also to women.

To understand where Islam is coming from in its treatment of women, you have to first examine the two main attitudes held by the larger society about gender roles. Some people believe that there is no difference at all between the sexes. This is the view of radical feminism. It was extremely popular during the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the ’60s and ’70s. Men and women were seen as interchangeable. One reason feminism gets a bad rap from conservatives and even moderates is because most people think that’s where the feminist movement is coming from today. It isn’t.

However, that doesn’t mean that today’s feminists have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and the other main attitude held by some in our society: which is that the sexes are locked into their gender roles. These people believe, for example, that only a women can properly care for children and support the family emotionally, or that only a man can adequately protect and support the family financially.

There are also two main theories about how men and women get locked into these roles: One is by biological hard-wiring. The other is by socialization (or brain-washing?).

What feminists often overlook is just how many people are comfortable with gender roles. They like knowing where they belong and how they’re supposed to act. Imagine being born into a world where there were absolutely no expectations as to how you were to behave. Feminists see that as a utopia; most people see that as a nightmare. The problems come when an individual doesn’t fit the norms: the homosexual or transgendered person, the effeminate man or masculine woman, the man who isn’t ambitious as well as the woman who is, the woman who doesn’t want children and the man who doesn’t want to play sports.

Once you realize that these exceptions represent millions of people, it is clear that rules of behavior based strictly on one’s gender (i.e., gender roles) can do a lot of damage. And this is where feminism stakes its flag: societal rules should be flexible enough to accommodate all the members of society. It is not so much that feminists are against gender roles per se; it is that they are against gender roles that imprison people, male or female.

Now, where does Islam stand on this continuum? At this point in my life as a Muslim, I can only give my impressions. I would say that Islam believes that there are inherent differences between males and females, but that there are more similarities than there are differences. Men and women stand equal before God. They are equally and individually answerable to Allah for their behavior. It is not how a person fulfills his or her sexual roles that determines how Allah views him or her; it is how faithfully each person lives the life that is set before him or her.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be Muslims who feel that gender roles are sacrosanct. There are Christians and Jews who also feel that way. There are people who aren’t even religious who believe the same. What it does mean is that Muslims believe that Allah understands us better than we understand ourselves. He does not lock us into roles against our will, but He may test us to help us to determine what our roles in life are to be.

I see no contradiction between that and feminist ideology. We may differ, even within the feminist camp, on how we view gender roles, but all of us would agree that we should have the right to live the lives we were meant to live and to live them to the best of our abilities. Some of us may choose a religion to help us to accomplish this. I have chosen Islam.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

15 thoughts on “Islam and Gender Roles”

  1. I’m sorry, but while what they do in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is all very real, it’s based on false principles. You shouldn’t leave your religion because others are misreading it. No where in the Quran does it state you have to cover your face. For further proof, the prophet’s daughter, Fatima, would associate with men but in a respectful way. People can go overboard a lot of the time when it comes to religion, and that does tend to piss me off, but what are you gonna do about it? You can’t change how people were brought up and how they think.

    Also, in the Quran, if your husband beats you, you are permitted to leave and divorce him without his consent because what he’s doing isn’t right and there’s no way God would allow that to happen if he sees us humans as equals.

  2. I am an ex-muslim female myself.
    You have no idea what your getting into.
    The only reason your muslim is cause your living in a western society. Come live in pakistan or saudi arabia where sharia (Islamic law) is implimented.
    You have to wear hijaab. Your husband can beat you. You have to stay at home or wear a niqaab when going outside because in islam its not permitted to show your face to a non mahraam.
    Im so sorry for you.
    I just hope you can open your eyes.
    I dont think your a femenist after all.

    1. We all have personal reasons for our choices. I have no idea what made you leave Islam, but it obviously left a bitter taste in your mouth. Don’t feel sorry for me–I’m very happy with my choice. I can’t respond to what it would be like to be a Muslim in a Muslim country; all I can do is work out what being Muslim means to me as an American and a world citizen.

      As for my not being a feminist: I would NOT be a feminist if I didn’t care for the plight of all women everywhere. I would NOT be a feminist if I agreed with the patriarchy and went along with its precepts. I would NOT be a feminist if I weren’t trying to raise people’s consciousness about how far women still have to go to be considered equal to men. And I would NOT be a feminist if I didn’t try to fight injustice wherever I see it (including among Muslims).

      Make no mistake: I AM a feminist.

  3. To anon:

    I’m not trying to avoid responding to your comments but first I have a question for you. How much do you know about Sharia? Did you know that it is a reflection of God’s will for mankind, but that there is no universal agreement on exactly what the rules and laws of Sharia are? There is room for interpretation and innovation, particularly if you’re a Muslim of the Sunni tradition, which I am. I don’t believe in some of the adjudications that have been made in Sharia courts and would not live anywhere that practices things like stoning adulterers. But just the fact that these practices are not followed in every Muslim country should tell you that Sharia is not set in stone.

    Also, I’m a Muslim-AMERICAN. I don’t live in Yemen or Saudi Arabia or the like. I don’t have to live under Sharia. I chose Islam in the context of being an American. If Sharia law was suddenly thrust upon America (which it won’t be) or if I was to move to a country that is under Sharia law, I would have to deal with that as it happens. But I would have to say that I think you have a very black and white view of what it means to be a Muslim and of Sharia.

    I know many Muslim women who are perfectly free to work, to travel, to go without the hijab, to remain single, to study what they want to study. And these are Muslims from other countries. There are all kinds of ways to be a Muslim in the world. Perhaps you need to acquaint yourself with more of them.

    I am most definitely not closed to looking at Islam critically. I did the same with Christianity and when it failed to make sense to me, I left it. I still hold a lot of Christian-influenced views–Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the greater prophets after all–but I no longer feel that the Trinity is the best way to describe the nature of God. I wasn’t traumatized by things that happened to me in the Christian church–on the contrary, I believe that I found what I needed in the Christianity at that time in my life.

    I hope you don’t think that I’m trying to be flip in any way. I am more than willing to answer your questions. But I would like to know if you’re really interested in my answers or if you’re just trying to make a point.

  4. http://www.themuslimwoman.com/herrights/rightsofwife.htm

    “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc)…” (An-Nisa’ 4:34)”

    “When one of you inflicts a beating, he should avoid striking the face.”

    “She can not leave the house without his permission”

    “The wives have the right to equal number of nights and equal amount of wealth”.

    Here you have it ellen, you have to be obedient to your husband, he can hit you if you deserve it, you may not leave the house without his permission, and then only in a hijab, and he can have other wives. On top of that your beloved prophet killed the male relatives and kidnapped women and took a child bride amongst his many wives.

    Now please explain how your embrace of Islam fits in with your feminism.

      1. I’m not a Christian, but as far as I’m aware wife-beating, bigamy and enforced hijab are not sanctioned by the vast majority of Christian sects. In any case, you’re avoiding the issue. I”m just trying to understand how a feminist can buy into a religion that sanctions the near total or total control of a woman. And that is only the written law. The practice in many muslim countries is much worse: honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the dutch muslim “smiley”, and the “cultural defense’ to rape in australia.

        I

        1. I don’t know of one religion or culture that hasn’t used its own words or rules to justify the worst impulses of misogynist men who are bent on controlling women. I was married to a (Christian) minister who told me that I wasn’t allowed to speak in church. The Catholic Church painted women as either madonnas or whores and made sex seem like something disgusting.

          Mohammad was responding to and operating within a culture that buried female children alive and gave women no rights at all. The words of the Qur’an and the Sunnah make it clear that men are to treat their wives kindly and that men and women are valued equally in God’s eyes.

          As for honor killings, genital mutilation, etc., surely you realize that these are cultural practices that twisted, often ignorant and superstitious people have tried to enforce by saying that they are Islamic. No sane and enlightened Muslim practices such “traditions” that I know of.

          As far as my feminism goes, I can still be a feminist and believe in God. And even be a Muslim. I feel valued as a Muslim woman in ways that I did not always feel as a Christian. I firmly believe that Islam’s teachings about the place of men and women in the family and in society are both positive and practical. I’m not a feminist who believes that men and women are identical and interchangeable, but neither am I a Muslim who thinks that gender roles are set in stone. That may make me suspect as either a feminist or a Muslim, but it’s a truth that I adhere to and that makes sense in my life.

          I appreciate your comments. If you’re interested in learning more about how I became a Muslim and what I think of it, you’re welcome to visit one of my other blogs, http://muslimah.femagination.com. (I, Muslimah)

      2. My previous comment didn’t show. I’m not a Christian, and don’t have any particular feelings about that religion. You wrote an article about Islam and gender roles and I am genuinely trying to understand how a feminist can willingly submit to a religion that sanctions violence against women, in addition to requiring the wife’s obediance, and the enforcement of the hijab. And of course the wife has no right to refuse her husband sex. It is true that he may not refuse her sex either, but how exactly is the wife going to enforce that?

        Your comment did not answer my question as to how you reconcile your feminism with your embrace of a religion that sanctions the husband’s physical control of his wife.

          1. A few thoughts spring to mind:

            I read on your other site that it is only after you converted that you discovered that as a female Muslim revert you are required to divorce your non-Muslim husband. Overlooking something this major suggests to me that you did not adequately explore what you were converting to, or that it was hidden from you.

            Secondly, when I posted the rights of a muslim wife, taken from a Muslim site,, which include the right to be raped, to be beaten, to be one of several wives, etc, you completely avoided my comment, irrelevantly asking me how I feel about Christianity. This makes me feel that you are not truly open to a critical look at Islam.

            You also say “The words of the Qur’an and the Sunnah make it clear that men are to treat their wives kindly”. Given the above “rights” that women in Islam have, I guess then it is all an interpretation of the word “kindly”. And with even the kindest male relatives it still leaves women at the whim of the men in their lives. It’s one thing for a woman born a Muslim, to negotiate a religion/culture that she lives in, and quite another to choose to give up your freedom of movement and bodily integrity in order to become a Muslim woman.

            “Mohammad was responding to and operating within a culture that buried female children alive and gave women no rights at all.” So what? You are operating in a culture that gives you full rights, so why go backwards.

            You comment that you were not allowed to speak in church, and in the mosque you will be? And it seems that from several of your other comments that your conversion to islam is a rebellion against what you found in christianity. Maybe I missed it but I didn’t see where you said that you had found the truth in Islam as opposed to Christianity. You say that you feel valued as a Muslim woman in ways that you never were as a Christian. I don’t know who is valuing you or devaluing you, but you don’t need a religion in order to feel loved and important. Also, your value as a Muslim woman is also wrapped up with you being a convert. If a Muslim woman were to convert to Christianity, she would be highly valued. It’s a form of validation for the believers, regardless of the direction.

            “As for honor killings, genital mutilation, etc., surely you realize that these are cultural practices that twisted, often ignorant and superstitious people have tried to enforce by saying that they are Islamic.”
            You may have missed that I differentiated between the written law and what happens in practice. I agree with you that some things are the sharia, some are purely cultural practices, and some not clearly defined. However, you cannot say that what a sharia court decides is not actually the religion, (for example Nigeria, Iran, stoning for adultery). Do you agree that a woman, suspected of adultery should be stoned to death? This is your religion.

            A caveat; everything I write is about Islam as a religion, not about Muslims. Of course there are wonderful Muslims, just like any other people. But that does not change anything. Also most religions are patriarchal when it comes to ritual, and that does not interest me either. Nor do I have a problem with the differences between men and women. What most interests me is personal freedom, the right to bodily integrity, freedom of movement, of occupation, freedom to choose, the freedoms that we take for granted in the west, yet are restricted in sharia. Right now you have chosen Islam, but you are not living under sharia law. So you can pick and choose, as you please. But maybe you will feel differently when you are married to a Muslim man, subject to his wishes, and subject to a sharia legal system. Then your personal feelings about these and many other issues will simply be irrelevant.

          2. You’re taking this way out of hand.
            Many people state that all religions have been changed by the hand of people except Islam. That isn’t true. Islam has been changed very much by the hands of undereducated, ignorant people. Why do you think terrorists exist?

            As for the multiple wife thing, that was put into the Islamic religion as more of a gift to the women of that time- the muslim man who married her saved her from being poor, having an abusive family, or being seen as a whore (excuse my language).
            The site you have gotten your research from is most probably owned by a salafist, therefore rendering the information incorrect. They’re the people between being a muslim and a terrorist.

  5. Dear Ellen Keim

    i really appreciated your article and it is nice one,
    as student of peace and conflict resolution i like to
    read more about your articles.
    i would be grateful if you answer my comments

    1. Thank you for your comment! I have several more articles about Islam on this blog. Just search for Islam, Muslim or Hijab and you should find them.

      That’s wonderful to hear that you are a student of peace and conflict resolution. Feel free to comment at any time, or if you want to write me directly, go to Contact and write me there and I will answer you right away.

      Thanks again.
      Ellen

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