A quick scan of online materials on the subject of women in the Koran reveals that this religious text can refract in multiple ways. Middle East correspondent Carla Power (2015) concurs with this judgment, further elucidating that a civil rights activist “may discover freedoms in the same chapter in which a twelfth-century Cairo cleric saw strictures” (p. 1). People holding different ideologists – terrorists, moralists, fundamentalists, democrats, and even egalitarians – can point to a certain Koranic passage in support of their respective causes. Against this backdrop, it is not a rarity that people read the Koran selectively, tearing phrases out of context. Yet others deliberately misinterpret the Koran to mislead their interlocutors into a false sense of Islam’s peacefulness or hostility or to otherwise serve their fell ends. Depending on both the dominant ideologies and their own ulterior motives, even Islamic exegetes have historically interpreted the Koran in different ways. As far as women are concerned, the Koran has also received rather polarized reviews. More specifically, whereas human-rights activists in the western world have traditionally pointed to the Koran as the main culprit behind female disempowerment in the Islamic world, Muslim apologists in the Middle East and beyond have recently embarked on the quest to portray Islam as a pioneering force in women’s rights. As a result, the truth about the role of women as explained by the Koran gets lost in a welter of conflicting interpretations.
Given the problem as it is outlined above, this essay seeks to better understand the Koran’s attitude to and treatment of women. To this end, the author of this essay relies primarily on the original text – the Koran – rather than its interpretations by other authors, although occasional references to other authoritative sources are made. The author focuses on the original text to ensure the greatest possible objectivity on the subject, so as to avoid falling prey to the misinterpretations of other commentators. At this point of the research process, the preliminary findings allow the author of this essay to advance a tentative hypothesis that the Koran is mainly misogynistic in its stance on women, even though it stresses the equality of men and women in some contexts.
It is imperative to note at the outset of this essay that women have received significant attention in the Koran. Indeed, the list of women-related issues mentioned in this Islamic religious text run the gamut of importance from perfuming and veiling to marriage and equality in general. However, before analyzing specific references to women, it needs to be noted that not all such references carry negative connotations. Indeed, despite the commonly held belief to the contrary, the Koran seems to be propounding many principles and teachings that are, in fact, favorable towards women. For example, there are verses in the Koran that attest to the equality of men and women in the eyes Allah:
For Muslim men and women, – for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise, – for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward (Koran 33: 35).
Although this verse does not state explicitly that men and women are born equal and should be treated equally, it suggests that women can achieve the same levels of dignity and spirituality as men can achieve. In fact, a close reading of the remainder of the text shows that the Koran propounds multiple other teachings and commandments in the same manner, as if to reaffirm that the same rights and privileges apply to both “believing men and women” (24: 30-31; 33: 58; 48: 25; 57: 12; 71: 28). Whenever Allah speaks of piety, hypocrisy or any other human quality, good or bad, he almost invariably puts a verbal sign of equality between them (9: 67-72; 33: 73; 57: 13-18; 85: 10). Attesting to the perceived equality of men and women is also verse 24: 26, which proclaims that impure women are for impure man and vice versa, while pure men are for pure women and vice versa. In this sense, the Koran does not denigrate the value of women relative to the value of men.
In verse 3: 195, Allah invokes the principle of gender equality even more specifically, stating: “be he male or female, you are members of one another.” The Koran alludes to gender equality in some other contexts too. For example, in verse 30: 21, Allah says that “they [your wives] are your garments and ye are their garments.” Again, this metaphor could be interpreted as suggesting that men and women are equal. Furthermore, commenting on the tendency of men to lament the birth of baby girls, Allah reasons that their judgment is miserable and wrong (16: 58-59). In propounding the equality of males and females, the Koran does not stop at this level, continuing to explain that men and women are – to a certain extent – equal, not least because they were created “of like nature” and “from a single person” (4:2).
Yet, although all the aforementioned verses from the Koran could indeed be invoked to argue that the Islamic religious text advocates the equality of men and women, there are very few verses that do so in a straightforward manner. It appears from the consulted secondary sources that Muslim apologists often refer to verse 2:228 as one of the strongest indications of gender equality in the Koran (Wadud, 1999). More specifically, the verse proclaims that “women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable” (2: 228). Taken out of context, such phrases can indeed be construed as further affirming the equality of men and women in matters of divorce. Yet, if the entire verse is quoted, it appears that the rights of men and women in matters of divorce are suddenly not as equal as originally thought. Thus, the verse makes a reservation that men “have a degree of advantage” over women (2: 228). In essence, a close reading of the Koran demonstrates that this religious text makes multiple other such reservations. For example, verse 4: 19 forbids men from inheriting women against their will and treating them harshly as long as these women have not “been guilty of open lewdness.” In other words, those women who have been found guilty of lewdness deserve harsh treatment and other similarly condign punishments, according to the Koran.
While the verses cited in the previous paragraphs could be interpreted as ascribing at least a degree of equality to men and women, there are multiple other verses in the Koran that do just the contrary. Thus, the adverse man-to-woman and wife-to husband ratios are just one common thread to be extracted and distilled from the Koran. The most evident iniquities are, perhaps, related to the Koranic teaching that men have the right to marry several women, while women do not enjoy the same right. Verse 4: 3, for example, permits men to “marry women of your choice, two or three or four.” What is more, some verses even entitle men to take women as their out-of-wedlock slaves (4:24; 33: 50-52). Furthermore, the Koran repeatedly makes it clear that the man has an undeniable dominion over the bodies of his wives. Verse 2: 223, for example, proclaims: “Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will.” In essence, this strongly worded verse allows men to treat their wives as little more than property, even though the Koran does say that men should desist from violence and other enormities in relation to women on multiple other occasions (4: 3-5). Lest criticism should appear too harsh to the Koran, it should be mentioned that this religious text insists that men and women are “members of one another” (3: 195) and created “from a single person” (4:2). Yet, if the metaphor used in verse 2: 223 is used as a yardstick against which to measure the tone of the Koran, this religious text never uses similarly strong language to emphasize that men belong to women. Other examples where the Koran vitiates the value of women by exalting men above them are legion. Verse 5: 7, for example, proclaims:
If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourself clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands.
Verse 4: 43 exhorts men to do exactly the same after contact with women. In other words, the Koran equates contact – either sexual or casual – with women to other impurities. It makes no similar admonitions to women who had contact with men. Likewise, it should be noted in this context that the Koran diminishes the value of women in less obvious ways. For example, verse 52: 27 reads that “those who believe not in the hereinafter name the angels with female names.” In essence, although the Koran does not explicitly explain whether angels were males or females, this verse implies that the very practice of giving female names to divine beings like angels is offensive. By extension, however, this verse could be said to epitomize, if not endorse, the practice of treating women as inferior to men.
The iniquitous treatment of women in the Koran also manifests itself clearly in matters of inheritance and court testimony. Thus, verse 4: 11 advocates that the male should inherit “a portion equal to that of two females.” Verse 4: 176 offers similar calculations, insisting that males should inherit more than females. In the same vein, the Koran suggests that men are more worthy than women in that their testimonies are more reliable. More specifically, verse 2: 282 explains that a man engaged in legal proceedings should “get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women,” so that one of these women could correct the testimony of the other in case of need. Regardless of how Muslim apologists and critics of Islam interpret this verse, common sense indicates that men’s testimony has greater value than women’s testimony from the perspective of the Koran.
Importantly, even when Koranic commandments are not related to the matters of equality, they can be restrictive in nature. As far as veiling is concerned, for example, the Koran refers to the concepts of chastity and righteousness to explain that women should “guard their modesty” by concealing their beauty and lowering their gaze in the presence of people who are not their immediate relatives (24: 31). Only elderly women, the Koran maintains, have a moral right to take off their outer garments in the presence of strangers, provided that they do not make a completely “wanton display of their beauty” (24: 60). From the standpoint of most westerners, such commandments can be interpreted as restrictive and dogmatic, if not outright debilitating (Wadud, 1999). From the perspective of many Muslims, however, such commandments only serve to reinforce a tradition – the tradition that promotes female chastity. Overall, different interpretations of the practice exist. Yet, as long as women living in conservative Muslim societies disagree with such commandments, it could be said that the Koran does stifle their self-expression.
In conclusion, this essay has shown that the Koran offers an ambiguous portrayal of women. On the face of things, Koranic teachings imply that righteous women are equal to righteous men in the sight of Allah. The religious text admonishes repeatedly that males need to treat women with dignity in most cases. At the same time, however, the Koran also justifies harsh treatment of women in certain situations, such as open lewdness. Furthermore, this essay has shown that the Koran diminishes the value of women relative to the value of men. Women’s limited inheritance rights and their diminished capacity of testifying before the court demonstrate this point clearly. Their obligation to veil against their will, as prescribed in the Koran, is yet another confirmation that the Koran is in many ways misogynistic in its attitudes to women.
- The Koran (A. Ali, Trans.). Medina, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex.
- Power, C. (2015, November 6). What the Koran really says about women. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/koran-carla-power/index.html
- Wadud, A. (1999). Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP.