Gender & Sexuality in Islamic Culture

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When many think of concepts of Gender and Sexuality in Islam, rather medieval mental images appear. However, as this lesson explains, much of the concern about women in Islam actually is more related to culture than religion.

Culture vs. Religion

For many observers today, the plight of women in some parts of the Islamic world seems to be rather dire. Forced to wear heavy veils in oppressive heat, given fewer rights than men in court, subject to beatings, and forced to endure the humiliation of plural marriages, Muslim women certainly have it tough in some cultures. However, we must be careful to identify what is a cultural concern and what is a religious concern. In this lesson, we will take a look at four of the most common accusations made about women in Islam, and see how these are often in fact cultural outgrowths taking advantage of religious interpretation rather than a truly oppressive religion.

An early Quran


By far the most recognizable symbol of the idea of oppression in Islam is the veil. After all, the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, says that men and women should both strive for modesty in their dress. After all, during the pre-Islamic period, nomadic tribes would raid the towns and villages of the region, and pretty women were considered loot alongside gold and other valuables.

Women wearing veils
Women in Afghanistan

Today, the major schools of legal thought in Islam all offer majority opinions that a woman should cover the majority of her body, with only the hands and face free of cover. However, these majority schools' scholars are located in countries where such practice is already customary. In these regions, non-Muslim women also wear headscarves - in fact, this is part of the reason that nuns and other women sworn to Christian religious orders dress so conservatively, as they have their cultural roots in the Middle East. In the West and other parts of the world without such a provision, Islamic legal scholars have said that modesty is best described by the society in question. In fact, a minority of scholars have even suggested that in cases where a veil may make a woman a target due to anti-Islamic sentiments, it should be omitted.

Equality in Court & Intellect

Another issue between men and women in the Islamic world is a particular Islamic standard that a woman's testimony is only worth half that of a man's. This goes back to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, in which he says that two women may come to testify in lieu of a man so that one may remind the other. Unfortunately, this has been interpreted for centuries without the other half of the prescription, resulting in the very sad reality that some cultures have failed to educate women up to the required standard. However, the other half of the story involves the type of deal in question. In the early Islamic period, it was rare (though not unheard of) for a woman to conduct her own business deals. The case in question was typically a rather involved business deal, meaning that the average woman would have needed some help remembering.

Recent movements, especially in the West but also in Turkey and Morocco, to reestablish the idea of equality actually have a lot of support from the Qur'an. In a number of places, the Qur'an speaks of all men and all women being equal. Also, in reality, the Arabic language creates some of this misunderstanding. In places where only a pronoun is used, the collective plural pronoun for 'they' is the same for both 'they' (including men and women) and 'they' (including only men). If you have studied a Romance language, it's the same reason that ellos or ils can mean a mixed group of men and women, or just a group of men.

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