Empowerment of Women in Islamic Societies Past, Present and Future

Educate a man, you educate a person. Educate a woman and you educate a family. Educate a family and you educate the Ummah.

By. Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi (Dr. Mohammed Iqtedar Husain Farooqi)
Deputy Director (Retired), National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow
Email:  ; Mobile: 9839901066

Educate a man, you educate a person. Educate a woman and you educate a family. Educate a family and you educate the Ummah.

Islam gave women legal status, probably for the first time in human history and enjoyed all the rights just like the men had. She enjoyed equality and got the rights in property and thus greatly improved the status of women in Society. She got perfect liberty to choose her husband. They had their say in matters of marriage and divorce as well as in education, inheritance and business. This was done because The Qur’an laid emphasis on the full participation of women in society. During the Prophet’s time women had the freedom to play the role in building the Islamic society. Muslim history is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the 7th century.

The Qur’an equated women in terms of her rights and responsibilities. Few examples of Quranic injunctions for the rights of Woman are as follows:

“Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds” (Qur’an 74:38).

“So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another” (Qur’an 3: 195).

“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to their actions”. (Qur’an 16:97, see also 4:124).

“When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on?” (Qur’an 16: 58-59).

“O Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women” (Qur’an 4: 1). —— An Islamic scholar who pondered about this verse states: “It is believed that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the woman from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence, depth, and originality as this divine decree.”

Islam honors women as daughters, and encourages raising them well and educating them. Islam states that raising daughters will bring a great reward. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

” Whoever takes care of two girls until they reach adulthood, he and I will come like this on the Day of Resurrection,” and he held his fingers together. (Muslim).

At another occasion Prophet said;  “None but a noble man treats women in an honorable manner. And none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully”. (Al-Tirmidhi).

“The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives” (Al-Tirmidhi).

As a result of rather revolutionary laws for women, early Islamic societies saw Muslim women being involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. They were employed in Hospitals as physicians and nurses. They were employed even in Secret Service (as part of Postal Department) during the period of Abbasids and Islamic Spain. In the field of education, they could study, earn Ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. The women of Islamic Spain, like their counterparts in other Islamic societies, were active participants in political and cultural affairs. They helped shape the cosmopolitan civilization associated with Muslims.

There are authentic reports that during the Rise of Islam,  (7th Century to 15th Century AD) Muslim women used to take  active parts of public interest. Rich women supported many public places by their own property.  During the  Golden Age of Islam, a young wealthy Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fihri, established the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, in 859 AD. According to Guinness World Records, al-Qarawiyyin is said to be the oldest university of the world still in use today.  All through the period of Islamic rise of Medieval Period mistreatment of woman was not possible. Her rights were clearly defined in  Islamic  Law (Shariah).  As a matter of fact the reputation, purity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by observers from the West.   Female religious scholars were relatively common in Muslim Societies. HazratZainub, daughter of Hazrat Ali, was an example of courage and strength when she strongly condemned Yazid and gave impassioned speeches spreading the news of Karbala. She became a role model Muslim Women in Islamic history for her defiance against power and oppression. Mohammad AkramNadwi has compiled biographies of 8,000 female jurists during Islamic Rise and orientalist Ignaz estimated that 15 percent of medieval Hadith scholars were women. Women were important Transmitters of Hadith compiled by SahihSitthah (Six Collections of Prophetic Traditions). Many Western Scholars have appreciated Islamic recognition of fundamental rights of women. For instance, Annemarie Schimmel states that “compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman had the right to administer the wealth she had brought into the family or had earned by her own work.”  Similarly, William Montgomery Watt states that “Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure that promoted women’s rights and improved things considerably”. Watt further explains: “At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible – they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad (PBUH), however, by instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women basic safeguards.”

After fifteenth century AD things started changing against the interest of women.

Yahya M. (US) writes: “At the beginning Islam was the most revolutionary liberalization of women’s rights the civilized world has ever seen. But afterwards Muslims became ignorant of this and now Muslim countries are the scene of some of the worst abuses of women’s rights”.

In this context Views of Dr. Hassan Abdalla Al Turabi (Sudan) are highly important. “Whenever weakness creeps into the faith of Muslim men they tend to treat women oppressively and seek to exploit them. Present Muslim Society has become unduly conservative for fear that freedom of thought would lead astray and divide the community; and that freedom of women would degenerate into licentious promiscuity – so much  so that the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken and the fundamentals of equality and fairness in the structure of Muslim Society, as enshrined in the Sharia, have been completely overlooked. In the fallen society of Muslims, women have little freedom. All sorts of subterfuges are employed to deny her inheritance. “,

After fifteenth century harsh restrictions on women and general violation of human rights began.

The history of the last few hundred years is certainly a history of atrocities on women, from which hardly any society is exempt. Even in Islamic society, the status of women was greatly reduced.  Keeping him away from religious and worldly knowledge, she was largely imprisoned in the walls of the houses. Her social rights were taken away, but despite this attitude, the condition of Islamic society was probably better than other societies of Europe. Edward Atiya writes acknowledging this truth.

“The condition of the Muslim woman (wife) in general in the Islamic society was always better than in the Christian society of Europe and this was the case until the recent (1920) law for the protection of women came into force in Europe”. (The Arab. 1942)

Other European historians such as Hitti, Guthrie and Brown believe that the decline of Islamic society began in the 15th century and that the stories of AlifLaila were written in a  fashion in which women were portrayed as cunning figures. This image of the woman caused him a lot of damage. This was the period of Decline (Fall) of the Islamic World. The situation had gone so bad that many people believe that Muslim women are oppressed in Islamic Societies. They were denied education and other basic rights. These are not baseless accusations. But one must understand that these oppressive practices did not come from Islam. These are part of local cultural traditions in various countries. Western observers portray Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women’s equality. Two rather unfortunate examples of deprivation of Muslim women from her Islamic Rights, after the fall of Islamic Societies, are with regard to their Education and inheritance in properties. As against the high women literacy during the Rise, (as high as hundred percent in highly developed cities of Baghdad and Cordova), it was deplorable during the Fall. Edward Brown (France). When Caliphs of Baghdad and Cordova  fostered education amongst their subject to the extent that every boy and girl of twelve could read and write, Barons, Lords and their ladies of Europe were scarcely able to write their names. (A Literary History of Persia).

An Indian survey in 1921 showed that only four out of every 1,000 Muslim females were literate. This situation was more or less the same throughout the Islamic World. The reason was the general edict that Muslim girls need not learn the writing as reading was enough for them to carry household duties all their life

Fortunately in 21st century, particularly after 2010, women education started getting priority in the Islamic world and, therefore, the gap between male-female literacy is reducing appreciably. Some Muslim Scholars of have claimed that things have changed in favour of Women to some extent  with the result that many countries, where Muslims are in majority, like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey, have been led by women.

 Recent reports by U.N. Agencies on the literacy rates of Muslim countries are highly encouraging. It is really heartening to find that the female literacy is increasing very fast at least in developed Muslim countries and, therefore, gap between male and female literacy rates is appreciably reducing. This is highly satisfactory situation. At least 22 countries show the male-female gap as low as 0 to 5 per cent. These are:

Azerbaijan (100% Literacy–Gap 0.0%); Kyrgyzstan (100%–0.0%);Tajikistan (100%–0.0%);Uzbekistan (100.0%)–0.0%); Turkmenistan (100%–0.0%);Kazakhstan (100%–0.0%); Albania: (97.8%:–0.7%); Saudi Arabia-(97.0%–2.6%); Turkey (97.8%–4.7%); UAE (96.9%–1.1%)  Bahrain (94.9%:—5.0%,); Bangladesh (72.82%–3.72%); Bosnia (97.5%–2.0%);Brunei   (93.4%–4.7%); Egypt (69%– 5.4%);Indonesia (94.6%–2.8%); Iran (88.8%–2.6%); Jordan (97.8%–0.8%); Kuwait (95.4%–1.7%); Lebanon (93.3%–3.6%);Malaysia (93.6%–2.6%); Maldives (98.1%–0.8%); Oman (92.7%–4.3%); Qatar–(92.4%–2.3%);

According to UN report, female literacy rate of Algeria has reached 81.4 % while male literacy rate is still 75.3%, a reverse gap of 6.1%

Poverty and illiteracy tend to go hand-in-hand. Education is often less available in poverty-stricken areas like Burkina Faso (Female Lit 31%–Gap 18.2 %); Chad (14.0%–17.3%);Guinea (27.7%–26.7%); and Guinea-Bissau (48.3%–23.5%).

Some other Muslim countries with high Male-Female gaps are Afghanistan (29%), Comoros (11.6%); Gambia (20.2%); Iraq (11.3%); Mauritania (20.3%); Libya (11.1%);Morocco( 18.7%);Nigeria(18.6%); Pakistan (22.8%); Senegal (25.0%); Sierra Leone (11.8%); Sudan (9.3%); Syria (10.7%); Tunisia(15.4%); Yemen (30.1%).  

It is important to note that female enrollment in Centers of Higher Education in developed or developing Muslim countries is generally higher than male. For instant, about 60 per cent of current university students in Iran are female The percentage of females in higher education in Iran increased by 20 times – from 3 percent in 1978 to 60 percent in 2022. (Official Report 2023).

 There are currently 36 universities in Saudi Arabia; most of them allow women to enroll, with a number of them being for women only. The Princess NourahbintAbdulrahman University is the largest women’s university in the world. It was established in 1970 as the first College of Education for women in Saudi Arabia.

In 2022, the total students enrolled in public universities of Malaysia were (39%) representing male and (61%) representing female students (Ministry of Education Malaysia, 2022).

Average enrollment across Lebanese universities for women in sciences was around 54 percent in 2018.

In 2021, women accounted for 52.4 percent of the university students graduating from public institutions in Morocco.

 Women accounted for 56 percent of the university student body in the Kingdom of Jordan

In degree level education in public sector institutions of Pakistan female enrollment is 62% while 38% are male in Pakistan.

Almost all the top Universities in Islamic World report higher enrollment of women. For instant in the Top King Abdulaziz University of Saudi Arabia, female: male ratio is 55: 45 for Academic Session 2022-2023

Some other examples from Islamic World are as follows:

1. Qatar University, 72 (Female); 28 (Male); 2. United Arab Emirates University, 77: 23; 3. Kuwait University, 70: 30; 4. KoçUniversity,Turkiye ,52 : 48; 5. American University of Beirut Lebanon, 52 : 48; 6. American Univ in Cairo,  Egypt, 53 : 47;  7. Jordan University of Science, 56 : 44; 8. UniversitiKebangsaan Malaysia, 66 : 34; 9. Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan, 52 : 48; 10. Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, 50 : 50; 11. University of Indonesia, 57 : 43; 12. University of Monastir, Tunisia, 66 : 34; 13. University of AbouBekrBelkaïdTlemcen, Algeria, 67 : 33;

Gender Equality

The concept Gender Equality means that man and women should be treated equally across all categories of education, health, politics and economics. Record of Muslim Countries in Gender Equality with regard to Education and Health has been highly satisfactory.  But in case Gender Equality for all categories Muslim Societies need serious attention.                                                   

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) evaluates countries across a range of factors, which are then grouped into four categories and compiled into a single GGGI rating ranging from 0 to 1. According to World Economic Forums latest report Iceland Tops with 0.91 Index. None could reach to index 1.

Some other Muslim and Non-Muslim (For comparison) countries show the following Ranking and Index:

        (1Rank) Iceland, 0.91; (5-Rank) Germany, 0.81; (15R) United Kingdom, 0.79; (18R)  Albania, 0.79; (21R) Switzerland,    0.78; (26R) Australia, 0.78; (43) United States, 0.75; (49) Singapore, 0.74; (59) Bangladesh, 0.72; (61) Kazakhstan, 0.72; (71) U.A.E., 0.71; (84) Kyrgyzstan, 0.70; (86) Bosnia &Herz, 0.70; (87) Indonesia, 0.70; (96) Brunei, 0.69; (97) Azerbaijan, 0.69; (102) Malaysia, 0.68; (105) Senegal, 0.68; (106) China, 0.68; (109) Burkina Faso, 0.68; (111) Tajikistan, 0.67; (112) Sierra Leone, 0.67; (113) Bahrain, 0.67; (114) Comoros, 0.66; (119) Kuwait, 0.65; (124) Maldives, 0.65; (125) Japan, 0.65; (126) Jordan, 0.65; (128) Tunisia, 0.64;     (129) Turkey, 0.64; (130) Nigeria, 0.64; (131) Saudi Arabia, 0.64; (132) Lebanon, 0.63;            (133) Qatar, 0.63; (134) Egypt, 0.63; (136) Morocco, 0.62; (137) Guinea, 0.62; (139) Oman, 0.61; (141), Mali, 0.60; (142) Pakistan, 0.57; (143) Iran, 0.57; (144)  Algeria, 0.57; (145) Chad, 0.57; (146) Afghanistan, 0.41.

With the development in the field of Education, Islamic world  needs renaissance for the  resurgence of  scientific and intellectual growth of entireUmmah. Only this can help the Ummahto face the challenges of  the present intellectually (scientifically) advanced society. Arab World can lead this revolution.

(Sources: Wikipedia, UNESCO, World Economic Forum,, Factbook,  etc)

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