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Gender in Islam: Gendered Control Through Beliefs of Powerful Women

Updated on December 25, 2018
Woman facing Mosque
Woman facing Mosque | Source

Why are women viewed as ‘powerful and dangerous beings’ and how does the ‘system’ protect itself from this danger and power?

‘In Western culture, sexual inequality is based on belief in women’s biological inferiority… In Islam there is no such belief…on the contrary; the whole system is based on the assumption that women are powerful and dangerous beings’ (Mernissi, F. 1971. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society. p.19).

Islamic belief understands women to be powerful and this power must be constrained. This is the foundation of segregation between men and women, and the prevention of women’s access beyond domestic life. Forcing women into this inferior status, with little or no access to roles of superiority, is thought to deny them access to these sources of power. Contradictorily, women are also seen as weak as they lack an independence from nature which has control over menstruation. Although Islam affirms the potential for women and men to be equal under Umma, this seems to fails in all respects to cross over into reality. However, any sexism cannot be put down to being purely the result of religion but also the result of social customs, if not more so.

Purdah, literally meaning ‘screening’, is the primary source of sexual segregation in Muslim societies. Segregation is based on ideas of modesty and honour practiced throughout the world with variations in strictness. The Purdah system ‘limit’s a woman’s mobility outside her home…[and is an] example of highly segregated systems of sex role allocation’ (Papanek, H. 1971; 517). Enforcing the purdah contradicts the Islamic view which stresses ‘equality of all believers before God…[as it] clearly puts men a step above women’ (Papanek, H. 1971; 518). Qualities of honour and modesty within social structure are susceptible to both sexes. However, it is socially considered that women have greater responsibility as they are more susceptible to failure in maintaining these qualities and ‘male honour is dependent upon the unsullied honour of women’ (Pastner, C. 1974; 409).

Purdah is considered a protecting force rather than an attempt to constrain women’s freedom. In ‘limiting physical and educational mobility of women, retaining them within social network which excludes non-kin male and imposing certain standards of dress’ (Pastner, C. 1974; 410) the purdah acts to constrain women and their power while protecting men from the distraction women present from devotion to Allah. Though it cannot be said that women have no control within their society, or at least their role within it. Women can manipulate the system slightly to get their own way. Methods within the household include ‘withdrawal of sexual favours, refusal to perform domestic duties, excessive complaining and uncooperative behaviour towards other women in the household’ (Pastner, C. 1974; 411). However, methods of gaining influence rely on ‘male awareness of their dependence on women for the successful maintenance of the domestic arena of society’(Pastner, C. 1974; 411). So women’s freedom does rely on appreciation of the importance of their role as members of the household. It is not fair to assume restrictions only apply to women; although women’s restrictions are much greater than men’s. Men are ‘more constrained by rules of overt conduct because most male interaction takes place in public social arenas’ (Pastner, C. 1974; 412). So it seems women have more means of undermining the system within their domain while in the public sphere men must always adhere to the strict code. Nevertheless, it is women who must bear the pressure of having such limited freedom and having to follow such strict rules at all times due to the greater power they are perceived of having.

Within the system of containing women’s power exists codes of dress which vary greatly in rigorousness depending on location, society, and the preference of individuals and their kin. ‘Throughout the Arab world, women’s rights in general, and the wearing of the veil in particular, are subject to wildly differing perceptions’ (Burgat, F. 2003;140). Sometimes veiling is perceived as protection from men while it is also thought of as a method of subjugation and segregation; acting only to limit the freedom of women in society. The veils many diverse and symbolic meanings can be construed as both a form of protection and of subjugation, of allowing freedom and of withholding freedom; it differs depending on perceptions. The most positive of the features of the veil seem to be that it offers ‘protection that everyday clothing can no longer guarantee’ (Burgat, F. 2003; 431) within a society in which the integration of the sexes is not well received. Veiling is particularly relevant in the ‘achievement of social distance: veils are often seen as devices which increase the sense of mystery and remoteness of the wearer’ (Papanek, H. 1997; 520). This ‘remoteness’ resulting from wearing a veil though seems to serve ‘only to enhance those qualities which are already there, as socially defined-attractiveness and vulnerability among women’ (Papanek, H 1971; 520). The social structure thus seems to constrain women’s power, not only in the hierarchy, but also in their physical appearance. The veil is mainly worn in front of those above the woman in the social hierarchy, so can also be a means of bowing to authority of, chiefly, the men above her status; a means of suppression.

The social structure of Mafia Island seems to treat women fairly equally compared to other areas founded on Islamic fundamentals. To begin, a cognatic descent system is used allowing every individual to belong to a kin group as even a child not born to a woman’s husband still belongs to a decent kin; women’s lines of kin are of equal importance in a child life as men’s. Compared to many other societies, women in Mafia Island have ‘a fair degree of autonomy’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 23). Women can look after themselves though tend to be better off married. Although customs tend to support a ‘complex cognatic descent groups, communal property-holding, egalitarian social relations’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 24-25) which are relatively equal for men and women; there also exists ‘notions of private property, of social stratification based on ethnic affiliation…and on the superiority of men to women’ (Caplan, P.1984; 25). Thus it seems the foundations of the social structure rely on a contradiction of sorts.

The reality that women are less free than men in Mafia Island is most evident in property rules. Trees are inherited in Mafia according to Islamic law which bestows women with ‘half of a mans share, and she can never be the sole heir’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 28). Although this is obviously a disadvantage for women, it is also true that women get to inherit trees entitled to them with ‘no attempt made (as in other Islamic countries) to prevent women from getting their rightful shares’(Caplan, P. 1984; 28). Divorce rules for property also give women rights over property as ‘trees are evenly divided if the couple worked together on the cultivation’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 28). Although property rules seem to be in many degrees equal, women rarely own as much as men as ‘on average, adult males own 125 trees pre head, while adult females own only 36’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 28). However, this does gain a sense of balance as ‘men are responsible for maintaining their wives and children…whereas women are free to spend their cash as they please’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 28).

All of these unequal property rules have groundings in the ideas of men being responsible for their family’s welfare, and of women being placed in the role of wife and mother, rather than that of owner and cultivator. A distinct division of labour seems to exist which relies on women accepting their role as below men in the hierarchical structure. Women tend to own every sort of property less frequently then men as men own more cattle, donkeys and boats. Donkeys are very rarely owned by women, not only due to cost but, because they are used for ‘carrying goods for other people… an occupation in which women never engage’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 29). Boats are never owned by women, again due to cash but also because ‘women in this area neither fish nor handle boats’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 29). Freedoms of women are restricted as, although theoretically possible for them to possess certain things, they lack the practical uses which men would wield them for as women do not, or are prevented from, engaging in these activities. This also means ‘men have more ways of making cash and investing in capital than do women’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 29). These things women are prevented from participating in means they cannot earn the money they are, in theory, perfectly entitled to earning and having.

Women’s means of earning money is limited as ‘virtually their sole means of earning money is by making the plaited grass mats for which the island is famous’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 29). Men though also have restrictions placed upon them. In their role as husband, a man is duty bound to ‘support his wife by providing her with a house, food and clothes’; according to Islam ‘it is very clear that it is a husband’s support of his wife that gives him authority’ (Caplan, P. 1984, 32). This relationship is reciprocal as ‘women do have rights in their husbands [however] these are usually limited’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 32) especially in relation to the rights a husband has in his wife. In the case of possessing cash women have much greater claims to their husbands wealth than a man would to his wife’s; ‘a man can only ‘borrow’ from his wife and must repay her’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 33). Women have full claims and rights over her own property while men are obliged to share their wealth with their wives and families to support them. So it seems that, although ‘both men and women hold membership in their own right, and so both have access to land’ (Caplan, P. 1984; 25), it is men who have more access and ability to earn money in order to invest and gain. Women are much more limited in their capability despite the apparent equality of the sexes.

Control of women within Pakistani society extends to marriage and a woman’s ‘freedom’ to marry who she wants. This is controlled mostly through the zina ordinance which acts to regulate what ‘constitutes ethical behaviour in sex, and, more generally, within the family and the social institution of marriage in ways in which women’s fundamental rights under the constitutions, and some argue in Islam, are violated’ (Khan, S. 2003; 76). Women, in theory, are free to marry whomever they want, but under zina her family can often act to secure the woman’s punishment under law for disobeying her family’s wishes; ‘zina laws allow the state to identify and regulate sexual conduct as a crucial element of creating a just society’ (Khan, S. 2003; 78). Zina laws are used to intimidate women into obedience with the ‘threat of imprisonment for those daughters who have married without [family‘s] permission suggests parental right overrides men’s right/claim to their wives’ (Khan, S. 2004; 84). There have been cases in which women have claimed that, although married, her family claims she was not so it appears she was committing adultery. One case found a woman claiming ‘her parents had bribed the officials who performed and registered the marriage to say that no marriage exists’ (Khan, S. 2004; 84). Khan’s findings suggest that most women imprisoned under zina ‘are not there because of sex crimes but because their families or former husbands used the zina laws to jail the women when they went against their families wishes’ (2003; 77). The freedom which theoretically exists in women’s marriage choices seems not to relate into reality. Pakistani laws do not allow families to force an adult-woman into marriage without her consent but ‘this does not always translate into legal practice for Pakistani courts have given contradictory rulings on this matter’ (Kahn, S. 2003; 80). Zina laws also tend to target weaker members of society; effectively weeping ‘the streets clean of women, particularly poor unwanted and rebellious women’ (Kahn, S. 2004; 87). These women are usually illiterate and have no money to afford bail. If from a wealthy family then ‘bail has to be posted by a male: their father, their brother or their husband’ (Kahn, S. 2004; 87). These male relatives are often responsible for the women’s being in prison in the first place. It also seems that wealthy families have enough influence to ‘keep their daughters out of prison and thus within the reach of their vengeance’ (Khan, S. 2003; 81).

Due to the payment of ‘bride-price…women become property to be bought and sold’ (Khan, S. 2004; 83). Women who resist this convention are those liable to being accused of zina. Although zina laws are religious, women claim their religion allows them freedom to choose who to marry, it is the law preventing this freedom; as Saima, convicted of zina, claimed ‘‘My religion allows me to marry who I want’’(Khan, S. 2004; 84). It must also be acknowledge that men suffer as a result of zina laws; young men can be equally powerless in deciding their destiny and can end up imprisoned. The application of zina laws creates ‘docile daughters, mothers and wives’ (Khan, S. 2004; 86). Critics of zina laws argue it ‘contributes to the growing incidence of state-sanctioned violence against women’ (Khan, S. 2003; 77). In her study, Khan was unable to contact any women who had been released from prison after accusations of zina, it was thought this was because women who returned to their family were kept within the family’s control, while those who did not return home had to disappear and begin life again, anew.

In conclusion, it seems the social structures throughout Islamic states attempt to place state sanctions and methods of control upon women. Women’s freedom, not only to work and practice certain things, but even to roam is greatly limited. These sanctions of control are explained as methods of domination of women’s powers and as means of conforming them to the social roles they need to fill to maintain a functioning society. This though, unfortunately, resulted in the profound restraints on women which still exist under the guise of religious regulations.


Burgat, F. 2003. Face to Fact With Political Islam, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

Caplan, P. 1984. “Cognatic Descent, Islamic Law and Women’s Property on the East African Coast”. Women as Property. (eds.) Renee Hirschon. Croom Helm, London. 23- 43.

Khan, S. 2003. “Zina” and the Moral Regulation of Pakistani Women. Feminist Review. 75 (1): 75-100.

Khan, S. 2004. Locating the Feminist Voice: The Debate on the Zina Ordinance. Feminist Studies. 20 (3); 660-685.

Papanek, H. 1971. Purdah in Pakistan: Seclusion and Modern Occupations for Women. Journal of Marriage and Family. 33 (3): 517-530

Pastner, C. 1974. Accommodations to Purdah: The Female Perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family. 36 (2): 408-414.


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    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      every part of society is determined by it's history so little critical but ye big religious texts were defo written by dead guys without the foresight of how the society would change n what they wrote doesn't alter with it, shame. ta for the comment x

    • Nick Hanlon profile image

      Nick Hanlon 

      8 years ago from Chiang Mai

      Religion-where dead men tell you what to do.

    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks whowas. You are probably right that positive change would be easier and more widely accepted when religion is excluded as a force which prescribes social rules. Shame really since religion is so widely held. I think the main issue though may rely on the written religion. Surely in societies in which their religions are not written and documented as fact from the past are more adaptable but I don't know. Ye religion does have the flaw that it can only be molded to fit societies to a certain degree when the written word of the religion is unalterable.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi jadesmg,

      Please don't take my comment personally, after all most of it is simple quotation from the Quran. I fully understand that you are not supporting the gender divide, extreme inequality or abuse of women. You make that very clear. And I completely agree with you.

      I also realize, as you suggest, that there are many, many religions that perpetrate, both in theory and in practice, similar degrees and styles of vice to those perpetrated by Islam.

      And I agree with you, that the 'morality' of religions is frequently modified in practice when it is widely condemned by the surrounding society. It is a great fortune that modern, secular societies are able to curb the worst atrocities that religions have historically and still do in many places, commit. In saying that, I don't mean that only religion is responsible for bad things. I am well aware that bad things happen as a consequence of modern western liberalism, too. The proliferation of pornography, for example, is a real and horrendous problem undermining the status of women in secular societies.

      However, it is easier to bring about positive change in a culture in which it is recognized that the rules are of human invention and always open to debate than it is in a culture in which men claim the rules have been revealed to them by a god and one who threatens and commands extreme punishments to transgressors. I agree with you that nothing justifies the subjugation of women - not even the double-think of claiming it is because they are powerful.

      Thanks for your very interesting and thought provoking hub - and good luck in the HubNuggets contest!

    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks ripplemaker. It is quite interesting how being concieved as powerful can be the cause of womens limited freedom. Usually you would assume it was because women were concieved as less significant.

    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      I never claimed that belief in powerful women justified the gender divide and extream inequality. It's utterly wrong. Religion though is culturally constrained; the same religion from the same text is practiced differently depending on the surrounding culture. Taken literally of course it's so unjust but it is more of a cultural thing when these things are practiced. Im socities where rape is judged socially as unacceptable then people from that society, whether Muslim or not, are going to b much less likely to commit such an act. Taking religious texts literally leads to great problems which never quite fit with how society works today as, of the main religions, religious texts were recorded so long ago that of course society has adapted. The point of my essay was that, although it's claimed that women are powerful this does not justify the way they are subdued or at least given legitimisaton to subdue them. All religious though have similar problems when taken literally and out of the social context. But ye, I do agree that these things are unfair I just don't think it is as widely practiced (abuse of Muslim women) as Islam is. They don't go entirely hand in hand. entirely...

      Side note: mensturation is a fairly commonly believed to be unclean by many societies. Possible more than not. Often women are exluded from certain activities for the duration and men are not allowed contact or to even say eat food prepared by them. Again, not saying its right only that it is not soley a feature of Islam.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and forsake them in beds apart, and beat them."

      Quran 4:34

      In my view that is enough to discredit the whole thing. But it gets worse:

      "Forbidden to you are married women, except those whom you own as slaves."

      Quran 4:24


      According to the Quran menstruating women are unclean, and men must stay away from them. (Quran 2:222) Women are men's "fields," and men can have sex with them whenever they want. (Quran 2:223) Men are superior to women and have authority over them, while women must obey men or risk being beaten. (Quran 4:34) A woman is worth one-half of a man, and men are above women. (Quran 2:282) ( Quran 4:11) Muslim men may marry up to four wives, including prepubescent girls, and can own sex slaves. (Quran 4:3) (Quran 65:4) Muslims are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, unless the latter convert to Islam.(Quran 2:221) Women must cover themselves and be seen only by relatives, eunuchs, slaves and children who have not yet had sex with women. (Quran 24:31)

      Women are only considered powerful in Islam in so far as they are considered evil. The saddest thing is the suffering and agony caused daily, even today, by these wicked statements and the wicked men who enforce them by violence and the threat of violence, including burying girls up to their necks and stoning them to death.

      As I write, tears fill my eyes and my heart is torn asunder at the suffering these things cause. I wonder if this comment will make it onto the screen?

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      This is quite interesting and yes I have read a book about this about women being powerful and why they have to be subdued. I have reflected on this topic before and I am going to be quiet to reflect on it again. :)

      Ripplemaker's News: Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. Do visit this link to see your nominated hub in the Religion and Philosophy category. Be sure to read and vote! Have a great time with the Hubnuggets!

    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      ok, not an authority on the subject but eh ye i assume most muslim women are allowed to orgasm. There are though some cultural issues relating to female circumcision which i believe is in fact part of shafi'i law so a part of Islam which states both men and women should be circumcised. This though is not too widely practiced, at least in the West. Don't really know though beyond that. And the statement "in western culture...". Eh it is believed and arguable by many that the West view women as weak and Islam view women as strong and powerful. The initial cause for the sexual division is irrelevant in many ways as both result in men's attempts to control women. Perhaps more so in the case of socially percieved and religiously prescribed power. I think some issues of segregation relate to women's distracting force on men. The quote itself though is from a book about gender differences which compares the Christianity and Islam and attempts to find why it may seem that the controls on women is greater in Islam. This seems to fall in some degree on the fact that women in Christianity are predominantly weak figures and so don't need to be constrained as they are simple and easy to control. In Islam though women are a powerful force which, if left uncontained, could result in great problems for the men especially in their relationship with God.

      Side Note: they give birth to a lot of children. Don't know if this is necessarily true, a little bit of a generalisation. I doubt is much more than traditional Catholic families; at least Catholic families of just over 100 years ago or so. But i haven't really got the info.

    • vox vocis profile image


      8 years ago

      Sorry if this isn't an appropriate question, but are Muslim women allowed to have an orgasm? Normally they give birth to a lot of children so they are obviously doing it quite often. Or, is it just when it's time for reproduction? Oh, and the quote: "In Western culture, sexual inequality is based on belief in women’s biological inferiority..." Is this some kind of a joke? Or, do they really believe this?

    • jadesmg profile imageAUTHOR

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks for the advice xx

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image


      8 years ago from London

      Hey, great hub although I suggest that you add some aesthetics to your hubs if you're going to use previously written essays as hubs (a great idea). Add some photo's, banners (photos to break up paragraphs - use mine if you wish) and polls to make it more likely that people will vote up and read your hubs (: Having at least one photo means that your hub will get a picture in the "best" "latest" and "hot" section of the topic it's in.

      As I said though, great hub, very interesting - though I find it difficult to take the side of Islam on most of their beliefs.

      Good luck and welcome to the community!


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