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Girls & Women

Islam and Patriarchy - and why it's important to understand

Flickr- vina coable

As a caveat to this article, let me firstly identify I am not Muslim. However, I do hold a history degree with concentration on Arab-American Diaspora in the United States. I offer this information, not to assert that I am any kind of expert of the faith of Islam, but rather that my perspective is academic and from the lens of a white Westerner. So take that into consideration as you read on.

Following the devastating killing of three young students on the Muslim faith in North Carolina, and the intense anger directed at Islamic people post-Charlie Hebdo, my colleagues and I have revisited the subject of Islamophobia a number of times on this site. I have also started to think more about the mainstream understanding of the Middle East and Muslims, and how misconception of the Islamic faith has created serious issues throughout the globe (like intolerance, violence, and division). My personal belief is that a lot of the world's evils come from lack of understanding, and as a result, lack of empathy for others.

Particularly since the 9/11 attacks, but certainly well before, Islam has largely been conceptualized in broad strokes - and, by-in-large, little is understood by individuals outside of the Muslim faith. (As a side note, I was twelve when the towers fell, and my global consciousness evolved alongside the War on Terror).

Because of recent world events involving terrorism, hate killings, and cultural divisions, I have been thinking more and more about Islam, Western understanding of Muslims, and tolerance generally. I have also started thinking about a topic that I have struggled with since college - Islam and its relation to women in Islamic countries. This subject can be contentious. I have gotten into numerous debates with friends and loved own who see Islamic women as oppressed. But while patriarchy certainly exists in the Middle East, how do Islam and patriarchy relate to one another?

Below, I look over a several reasons for a larger misunderstanding of Islam, and how it relates to Muslim women.

1.) Islam is commonly misconstrued

image by Ivanatman via Flickr

I’ve already made this point, but it’s worth making again: How Islam is conceived by Westerners is often misunderstood as inherently patriarchal - that is to say, male dominated. The Western world has by and large reduced Islamic women to being oppressed. Wearing of the hijab, niqab, and burqa are often seen to illustrate Muslim women’s suppression. Further, according to Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi, even within Islamic countries, there does exist an attitude of male superiority and female subjection that contributes to a generalist misunderstanding of Muslims. But this, says Mernissi, is a misinterpretation of the Quran (Muslim people’s main religion text). Rather, the patriarchal viewpoint is a result of historical and cultural events that are unrelated to Islamic values. To break it down further, Mernissi thinks this: Islam isn’t patriarchal, but patriarchy has been heavily involved in the history of the middle east, and have subsequently seeped into the ways Muslims practice their faith.

2.) Historical link to misrepresentation

Image by vina cosbie via Flickr

While the history of patriarchy in the Middle East is complex, male dominance evolved historically alongside the growth of Islamic nations. Feminist Gerda Lerner traces a “creation of patriarchy” in Islam through the continual repetition of male-dominated rituals and events in Islamic society overtime.

The history goes like this: when Islam appeared in the 7th century, along with the adoption of Islamic practices throughout the Middle East, certain social practices were also imposed on women in the name of Islam – for instance gendered seclusion (or the splitting up of men and women outside of the home). Historians think this occurrence as linked to mimicking life of upper and middle classes in Middle Eastern cities at the time – and that an emergence of a middle class during the time of Islam’s regional adoption contributed to gender segregation (I know this sounds dry, but what it means is this: what is now seen as gender inequality within Muslim cultures is not linked to Islam per se, but rather economic structures that favored the concealment of women within the home. I made the reference of “separate spheres”when discussing this article with a co-workers and she looked at me funny. But the practice of dividing the roles of men and women into “separate” areas has been common throughout history. Women are traditionally seen to be “internal” or linked to the home - while men are seen as “external” - or involved in the outside world.

3.) Islamic Feminism

Image by nono fara via Flickr

Feminist or gendered critique of Islam isn’t a practice reserved for Western peoples or non-Muslims. Feminism in the Middle East has a long history, with particular emphasis during the Iranian maternalism movement in the early nineteenth century (to translate: activism surrounding the importance of motherhood in society). Using a gendered lens to critique Islam has continued over the decades throughout the Muslim world. Many scholars, such as Fatima Mernissi and Azizah Al-Hibri, have given feminist interpretations of Islamic faith (an interesting developed, as feminism, by and large, is a secular movement - meaning its not linked to religion). Muslim feminism takes a liberal view of Islam and attempts to adopt the religion to modern time. The discourse argues that the ways in which Islam are imagined is dominated by patriarchal views that are not necessarily an “authentic” Islam (i.e.: related to religious texts). The core argument that Islamic feminists make is this: the primarily focus on the teachings of the Quran have become dominated by the hadith and shari'ah laws (or moral codes and laws associated with Islam) - which have a patriarchal understanding of the Muslim faith. Subsequently, Islam has been misunderstood as inherently anti-women.

Iranian scholar Nesta Ramazani argues that Islamic feminism helps Muslim women’s emancipation by allowing for a more nuanced critique of gender discrimination in Islam, without disregarding the importance of the faith. Further, a conversation on Muslim feminist’s view of the Quran can help to move discussion about gender equality, helping to improve the status of women in Islamic countries. Considering that Islam is the second largest organized religion in the world, understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of the faith is important - particularly as the implication of the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on women and girl’s equality.


Understanding cultural and religious differences is an important step in making the world a better, more unified place. It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between culture and human rights, but confusion over these two issues can be dissected through more comprehensive understanding of religions and cultures outside of our own - as well as universally accepted human right standards. In order to challenge our assumptions about different nations and peoples, we must first look inside ourselves, and think critically of ourselves, emotions, and viewpoints. Do we hold biases towards others? And if so, why?

In the comments, share your experiences in challenging your thinking, and what the results have been in your life overall. What do you think are the best ways to build a more inclusive, accepting world? What recommendations do you have for your fellow global citizens?