WOMEN, DISCRIMINATION, VIOLENCE AND SEGREGATION IN MUSLIM SOCIETIES

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN IN ISLAM

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Burqa in London
The rational for discrimination against women in Muslim countries takes two forms: 1) Qur’an and Islamic law; and 2) traditional beliefs. Many of the discriminatory practices against women are not based on the Qur’an but rather are based on Islamic law which was created after Muhammad’s death. The customs involving women are often based on local traditions and long-standing beliefs that women are weaker than men and inferior to them, rather than being based on the tenets of Islam.

One Egyptian feminist told the Los Angeles Times. "If the mentality of the society is molded by men with conservative, static minds, who hide behind the umbrella of religion than no law will helps us.” A professor of religion law in Kuwait told Elizabeth Warnock Fernea of the University of Texas that men are more rational than women.

In countries where women have been given opportunities they have prospered. In Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia women play a major role in their county's economies. There are many educated women working outside the home in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Bangladesh, women have been behind the micro-financing phenomena that took hold there. Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia Pakistan have all had female leaders. It has been argued that by suppressing women, the Muslim world is denying itself of the creativity and productivity of half of its citizens.

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org

Books: Qu’ran and Women by Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at Virgina Commonwealth University; Standing Alone in Mecca by Asra Nomani (HarpersSan Francisco); Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed; Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks was read by U.S. President George Bush.

Muslim Laws That Discriminate Against Women

In many Muslim countries, women's issues, marriage and divorces laws are based on Mudawana, Muslim family law, which has been incorporated into the civil code. One Moroccan pharmacist told the New York Times, "Legally we are still as helpless as illiterate girls on the farms. We are all legally minors, and we depend on the permission of our fathers, brothers and husbands."

The Qur’an states that men are the guardians of women. In many Muslim societies this means that women need the permission of a male relative to marry, name her children or work and justifies women being legally beaten up or even killed by their husbands or fathers. These rules and the unfair aspects of divorce, polygamy, inheritance, rape, adultery and legal rights for women are upheld by Islamic law.

Some of problems have blamed and exacerbated by the migration to the cities. Famima Zahra Ramouth of the University of Rabat told the New York Times, "In the countryside couples rarely live alone. The husband was accountable to the woman's family—to her father, her brothers...The problem is we've got a society based on individuals without the laws to go with it."

Prohibitions on Women in Saudi Arabia


gender segregation at a McDonald's in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, women are not supposed to leave home or travel without a male escort. Until recently they couldn't drive or ride bicycles. They can’t fly in a plane or check into a hotel without written permission from their husbands. They can’t be admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without a male relative.

Kristine Beckerle wrote in Newsweek, “The veto power a male guardian retains over a woman’s choices lasts throughout her life. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, usually her husband or her father, but in some cases, even her son. She must obtain his permission to travel abroad or to marry, and may be required to get his consent to work or get health care. She may have difficulty taking various other steps as well without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims. [Source: Kristine Beckerle, Newsweek, July 31, 2016]

“Guardianship doesn’t just hamper women economically. It can condemn women to a life of violence. Saudi Arabia has criminalized domestic abuse, but continues to recognize legal claims brought by guardians against female dependents for disobedience or fleeing the guardian’s home. The male guardianship system itself is inherently exploitative, according men an incredible amount of power. Some men have conditioned their consent for a woman to work or travel on her paying him large sums of money. One woman told me that her close friend, who worked at a prestigious university abroad, had to hire a lawyer to negotiate with her father, who was seeking financial compensation in return for granting his daughter travel permission.” [Ibid]

Women were banned from driving because it was believed by many that they would cause accidents through their own reckless driving and by distracting men who saw them. An Islamic cleric said that the veil gets in the way of driving and because the veil is required they can’t drive. Explaining why women don’t drive in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi executive said, "You wouldn't wear a bikini in the middle of San Francisco.”


Niqab-cald Yemeni doctor

A lot of Saudi women would like to drive. In November 6, 1990, a group of 47 middle-aged professional women in Riyadh protested the conditions of women in Saudi Arabia by staging a drive in in which the defied the ban and drove cars. Saudi society, which prizes discretion, was shaken by the boldness of the move. The women were punished and fired from their jobs for embarrassing the kingdom.

Muslim Women and Doctors

Muslim women are discouraged from having their children delivered by male doctors on the grounds they should not reveal their body to anyone other than their husbands. According to Muslims scholars in Saudi Arabia male doctors are to be called in only when there is an emergency.

Muslim women treated in Western hospitals sometimes object to the garments they are required to wear. They feel that the open back and short hem expose too much of their bodies. Some women chose to skip appointments rather expose so much of themselves to doctors and heath care personnel. Those that do come felt humiliated. To address these concerns some hospitals have special garments for Muslim women that cover them from their necks to their feet in accordance with Muslim laws and customs.

Segregation of Men and Women

In the Muslim world, women and men are often separated: in mosques, at political demonstrations, and on buses and ferries. In many places, women live in separate areas of a house. Men and women generally don’s swim together. Some banks have tried to woo women customers by offering separate facilities for them. Boys are girls are raised together until they are seven and are eased apart after that until they are separated when they reach puberty.

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no women sign at the Jeddah Marriott
There are many rules about what a woman can and can not do during menstruation, when they are regarded as dirty and impure. Women who are having their periods are not supposed to enter a mosque, fast, ritually pray, get divorced or eat from the same bowls of food as men. Some Muslims believe that if a woman touches a man before prayer, he has been dirtied and can’t pray, especially if the woman is menstruating.

The Qur’an prescribes some segregation but certainly does advocate that women be separated from men to the extent they are in some places. Originally segregation was something experienced by upper class women. It meant they didn’t have to go out and work. The tradition now seems to be based on the assumption that if men and women are allowed to intermingle it will tempt them to have extramarital sex. An Arab proverb goes: “If a man and a woman are alone in one place, the third person present is Satan.”

Some passages of the Qur’an suggest men and women should interact. Sura 69:13 reads: “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed your races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you.”

See Eating Customs

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Segregation of Men and Women in Mosques

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Men Reciting Al Quran at Istiqlal Mosque
Sometimes women are not allowed to pray in mosques. When they are allowed in they are often relegated to small screened off areas. In some cases they have to enter through a back door and pray on a balcony and are only to able communicate with men through notes that are delivered by their children. Women are not allowed to speak through microphones, it is sometimes said, because their voices are said to be sexually alluring to men. Women that ignore rules about praying in the men’s areas are admonished and scolded and banished from the mosque.

Similar restrictions are the norm when men and women pray outside of mosques in public buildings. Men say their prayers in a spacious room while women are confined to much smaller room with prayers piped in from the men’s room. Many Muslim insist that women should pray at home not in a mosque. In North America, Muslim women are active challenging the segregation rules in mosque and getting the barriers removed.

There is nothing in the Qur’an that states women should be segregated and secluded in mosques. Muhammad told his Companions: “Do not stop the female servants of Allah from attending the mosque of Allah. Muhammad himself prayed with women. When he was informed that some men were choosing positions to pray near attractive women he scold the men not the women. In Muhammad’s time and after his death historical records show that men and women prayed side by side without screens in the Prophet’s mosque. Women participated in debates and asked questions of the Prophet himself.

Segregation is justified by sayings from the hadith such as: “Do not prevent your women from [going to] the mosques, though their houses are best for them.”

Women, Home Life and Education

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Gaza students
In ultra-conservative Muslim areas women rarely leave their houses and when they do they must be completely covered and.or accompanied by a make relative. Only close family members are allowed to see a woman without a veil. It also forbidden for one man and one woman to be alone in an enclosed area unless they are married. This applies even to cousins.

In Muslim homes, women are often out of view when guests come over. You can hear them rustling around preparing food and the like but you generally don’t see them. I used to peek in the windows of conservative Muslim houses just to see what was going on in there. Usually what I observed was a group of females of different ages (most likely family members) sitting around with their children, chatting or doing chores.

Women have also been denied opportunities in education, Arab women generally have higher illiteracy rates and less schooling than men. About two thirds of the 65 million illiterate adults in the Arab world are women. Some Muslims believed that educating women in "modern" schools encourages them to "argue with their parents," "start asking questions," and "wanting to have a say in everything in their life."

In some Muslim societies women are confined indoors so there is no risk of them jeopardizing a family’s honor. Even single women in their 30s are given a hard time if they come home after 9:00pm.

Segregation of Women in Saudi Arabia

Women are segregated from men in offices, schools and restaurants. In some universities male professors lecturing before a classroom of women are hidden from their students by a screen. Beaches have separate men’s areas and women’s areas. Some have compared the system with apartheid.

Men and women sit separately on buses. There are separate entrance for men and women on buses. Men enter from the front and pay the driver. Women enter from the rear and leave their money.

Women can not eat in the company of men even in hotel restaurants frequented by foreigners. The zoo in Riyadh only can exist because it has separate visiting days for men and women. Some restaurants, shops and fast-food joints won’t even let women enter the door. McDonald's and Starbucks in Saudi Arabia have separate dining rooms for men and women. The “family” areas the women are often considerably smaller than the men’s section and don’t have any tables or chairs. Unaccompanied women are not allowed in the restaurant or are escorted out by employees or religious police.

In some cities you can see families—men, women and children—together in public parks. Many families head out the desert with tents on the weekend to places they know no one will bother them. There are female presenters. They wear headscarves but don’t have to wear veils.

Segregation and keeping women separate is justified as a way to protect their honor. It has traditionally been practiced most widely in urban areas where people from different tribes were thrown together and there was more potential for sexual mischief in which accountability was a problem

Virginity Operations


In many places women can easily get operations to reconstitute their hymens and get medical certificates that state they are virgins. Hymenoplasty is the name of the surgical procedure that reconstructs the membranes of the hymen after it has been broken usually after sexual intercourse.

Whether or not the operations should be performed has become a matter of controversy. One French doctor told the Time of London, “We get more and more women coming in and saying their brothers and fathers will kill them if they found out they’ve slept with a man. But it’s important to say no, because if we don’t we’re giving in to the fundamentalists.” However he said that some doctors were ignoring his advice in hopes of protecting patients from violent beatings.

Isabell Levy, who wrote about the issue in France in her book Religion in the Hospital, told the Times, “One the one hand, young Muslim girls are born in France . They are modern and they have adventures like other Europeans---which never happened in the past. But on the other hand, fundamentalism is spreading and these girls are getting sent back to their countries of origin to marry. And they will be rejected if it is found out that they are not virgins.”

One North African girl who wrote on an Internet forum and was quoted in the Times of London said she slept with her boyfriend because “he said he was made about me and wanted to marry me and I believed him because I was madly in love with him.” Afterwards she got pregnant her boyfriend left her and she secretly got an abortion. Later her mother found a letter from the clinic that performed the abortion. The girl wrote her mother “fainted and afterwards I was total despair---tears, insults, blows, disappointment and finally a dressing down.. She has asked her gynaecologist to re-do my hymen because she says that if not it will ruin my future.”

Some doctors refuse to sign virginity certificates or perform te hymen operations on the grounds that: 1) filling out the certificates if the girls is not a virgin is dishonest; 2) performing the operations is not a medical necessity; and 3) the state health care program should not pay for it. One doctor who does fill out the certificates told Le Monde, “I worked in Algeria as a junior doctor and I saw these young women whose throats had been slit because they were suspected of having lost their virginity. So if someone asks me, I sign the certificate.”

Violence Against Women

The cruel irony of conservative Islamic society is that it purports to protect women yet condones savage violence against them in the name of male and family honor. Violence towards women is common in many Islamic societies. In many Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or beaten she is often blamed for it. Some young girls who have been raped and are pregnant have nowhere to go. If they return home they risk being killed by a male family member for dishonoring the family. In extreme cases acid has been thrown in the faces of women who go uncovered, look at another man or not bring enough money into a marriage.


members of Alif Laam Meen Muslim fraternity at the University of Texas, Dallas protest dometic violence

A 2003 study of 216 Pakistani women found that 97 percent had experienced abuse and half had been victims of non-consensual sex. A survey by the Syrian government found that one in four married Syrian women say they have been victims domestic violence.

In 2016, Refinery29 reported: “A constitutional body in Pakistan put forth legislation that would allow men to "lightly beat" their wives if they refuse sex or decline to wear outfits preferred by their husbands, reports NBC News. The Council of Islamic Ideology, also known as CII, proposed the legislation last week and it's already sparked anger in Pakistan. The 160-page draft has to be finalized before it's sent off for approval, because the CII cannot make laws. Instead, it gives suggestions to Pakistan's government and parliament. [Source: Refinery29, May 30, 2016]

“In addition to suggesting that men beat their wives for refusing sex, the proposal also suggests that men use "limited violence" on their wives if they don't bathe after intercourse or during menstruation. "Hit her in areas where her skin is not too thick and not too thin," CII leader Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani told the press. "Do not use shoes or a broom on the head, or hit her on the nose or eyes." He added, "Do not break any bones or cut her skin or leave any marks. Do not hit her vindictively, but only for reminding her about her religious duties."

“According to NBC News, the proposal includes step-by-step guidelines on how men are to beat their wives. The document does suggest that violence be used only as a last resort for a wife's disobedience. The CII suggests that any man who doesn't follow the processes should be prosecuted. Experts say that the CII's proposal is a response to a progressive gender-equality law called the Protection of Woman Against Violence Act, which the CII called "un-Islamic."

Even talking about rape can bring great shame.

see Egypt, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh

Islam and Wife Beating

On the subject of wife abuse, the Qur’an states that if husbands suspects their wives of “disloyalty and ill-conduct” the husbands should first “admonish them,” second “refuse to share their beds.” and third, as a last resort, “beat them.” The controversial Qur’anic sura that men use to justify violence towards women for “ill-conduct” isn’t what men claim it is. Closer examination of the sura reveals that “beatings” are light taps, the punishments are supposed to be for religious transgressions only. The same sura calls for “mutual consultation between husband and wife.”

Chapter 4, verse 34 of the Qur’an reads: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard... what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish them [first] [next] refuse to share their beds [and last] beat them but if they return to obedience seek not against them means [of annoyance] for Allah is Most High Great.”

The key to Chapter 4, verse 34 of the Qur’an which uses the word daraba to describe the punishment given a woman for disloyalty or misconduct. Daraba has 25 meanings in Arabic, including hit, strike, chastise, pet, tap and spank but the most common translation is “beat. Men have interpreted this as meaning it is okay to strike a woman with everything from a wet noodle to a newspaper to a yardstick to a pool cue. On the meaning of the verse of the Saudi scholar Abdul Rahman al-Sheha wrote a husband may “beat” his wife but he must do so without “hurting, breaking a bone, leaving blue or black marks on the body and avoiding hitting the face, at any costs.

In Qatar, a cleric has referred to the Qur’an “wife-beating” passage as “wondrous verse” and laid out rules for wife beating. In Germany, a judge cited it as reason not to grant a fast-track divorce to a Moroccan women who wanted out of a violent marriage.

A more liberal reading of the lost line Chapter 4, verse 34 of the Qur’an goes: “As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish them [first] [next] refuse to share their beds [and last] chastise them [lightly] but if they return to obedience seek not against them means [of annoyance] for Allah is Most High Great. As evidence than wife beating is far from condoned, the Prophet Muhammad said that “the rest of you are those who beat their wives.”



Neal Robinson a professor Islamic studies, told the Times of London that the translation of daraba as “hit” is inescapable. “The problems with modern translations is that by obscuring the literal meaning they sidetrack the real issue: how should a 7th century revelation be applied today. There is a need to put passages like that in their historical context. Judged by pagan Arab standard, this was a great advance: wife-beating was minimized but not eradicated.” By contemporary standard it seems almost barbaric.

Honor Killings

Honor crimes and honor killings are committed against women in a number of Muslim counties but the practice has its origin in tribal customs about honor not within Islam, but Muslim law is sometimes invoked to justify the harsh penalties. A lawyer with a woman's advocacy group in Pakistan told the Washington Post, "The concept of honor killing does not exist in Islamic law. But conservative tradition is very strong in our culture. Islam gives rights to women, but society snuffs them out."

With many honor crimes, if a woman has premarital sex — or is raped or engages in behavior regarded as immodest — her father or brother kills her to restore honor to the family. Often times the men who commit the crimes are only lightly punished.

Nadya Labi wrote in Time: “The exact origins of honor killings are not known; the practice likely existed among different ancient cultures. Among northern Arabian tribes, the practice predates Islam in the 7th century. In a typical honor killing, the victim is judged to have engaged in a transgression that can encompass just about anything — from wearing Westernized dress to becoming a target of gossip to balking at an arranged marriage to being raped. The murder is often a collective family decision, with the father, a brother or male cousin carrying out the act; rarely, a female relative like the mother does the killing. [Source: Nadya Labi, Time, Feb. 25, 2011]

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p> “The crimes occur most commonly in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Without decent statistics, it's impossible to ascertain which countries are the worst offenders, but Husseini points to Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq. In those countries and elsewhere, honor killers are treated with lenience; they often get a slap on the wrist if they plead honor as a mitigating circumstance. (See "Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban.")


Application of Sharia on legal matters relating to women in different Muslim countries: 1) Sharia plays no role in the judicial system (green); 2) Sharia applies in personal status issues (Yellow); 3) Sharia applies in full, including criminal law (purple); 4) Regional variations in the application of sharia (orange)


“It used to be that an honor killer in Jordan could plead a "fit of fury" defense — similar to the crime-of-passion defense in Western penal codes — and do little or no time at all. In 2009, Jordan toughened the application of its laws, making it harder for honor killers to invoke the fit-of-fury defense. To elude even the light penalties that often exist for honor killings, however, families sometimes delegate the bloody task to male juveniles.

“Islam doesn't sanction honor killings, and the practice is not limited to Muslims. The crimes also occur in Christian communities in the Middle East and in non-Muslim communities in India. Last July, for example, after a number of Hindu girls were killed for dating out of caste, the Indian Prime Minister convened a commission to investigate whether harsher laws are needed to curb the crimes.

“The majority of crimes, however, do occur in Muslim communities, and some of the perpetrators seem to believe that killing for honor is their religious duty. Strict attitudes toward sexual behavior in Islam — sexual relations outside marriage are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and Iran — don't discourage that mind-set.”

Honor Killing Cases

Some of the worst honor killings have been reported in Europe and North America. In 2005, Hatun Surucu, a 23-year-old woman from a Turkish-Kurdish family was killed by her 18-year-old brother in Berlin for having a child outside of marriage and dating German men among other offenses, The brother even bragged to his girlfriend about what he had done. He received a prison sentence of nine years and three months. Also in Berlin, on New Year Day 2008, the Said sisters, 17-year-old Sarah and 18-year-old Amina, were shot by their Egyptian-born father in the back of his taxi cab. Friends said the father was known for launching into gun-waving rants about how Western culture had threatened the chastity of his daughters.

In December 2007, a 16-year-old Pakistan-Canadian was strangled by her father, who immediately called police afterwards and confessed, because she rebelled against her family’s conservative ways and did things like refuse to wear the hijab.

In Britain, 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod was strangled with a bootlace, stuffed into suitcase and buried in a backyard on the orders of her father for falling in love with the wrong man. The father, Mahmod Mahmod, and his brother, planned the murder during a family meeting. He was found guilty of murder in a U.K. court.


stoning a woman in 19th century Qajar, Persia


Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except McDonald's picture, Mvslim

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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