International Women's Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on March 8th to recognise and celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It is also a day to raise awareness about gender inequality and advocate for women's rights and empowerment. This milestone tells us how the world has changed in uplifting the status of women, especially in contrast to the pre-modern perception of women and their societal roles.
However, misogyny, or hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women as defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, remains a prevalent issue in many societies around the world, regardless of culture or religion.
It is important to avoid generalisations and recognise that misogyny is not unique to any particular group. Unfortunately, in the media and public discourse, there are often harmful stereotypes and misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam that perpetuate misconceptions and myths about the religion's stance on women's rights.
What does Islam say about women? Does Islam oppress women? Are men superior to women in Islam? Why are women forced to wear the hijab and not men?
This article intends to address some common misconceptions about women in Islam.
It's important to note that, unlike many contemporary discourses on genders, Islam's concept of man and woman is not separate from faith.
In Islam, the creation of men and women is not seen as a mere biological evolution or natural selection but as a deliberate act of Allah's will and wisdom. This belief is grounded in the idea that everything in creation has a purpose and a plan and that Allah is the ultimate Creator and Sustainer of everything.
Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ ٱتَّقُوا۟ رَبَّكُمُ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَٰحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالًا كَثِيرًا وَنِسَآءً ۚ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ٱلَّذِى تَسَآءَلُونَ بِهِۦ وَٱلْأَرْحَامَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا
“O humanity! Be mindful of your Lord Who created you from a single soul, and from it, He created its mate, and through both, He spread countless men and women. And be mindful of Allah—in Whose Name you appeal to one another—and ˹honour˺ family ties. Surely Allah is ever Watchful over you.”
(Surah An-Nisa’, 4:1)
In Islam, both men and women are deemed different but complementary to one another. Both genders are regarded equal by Allah s.w.t. as beings of the same essence created from a single soul.
Furthermore, Islam enjoins respect and dignity unto both women and men when Allah s.w.t. accords honour upon all the children of Adam without singling out one gender over the other:
وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ وَحَمَلْنَـٰهُمْ فِى ٱلْبَرِّ وَٱلْبَحْرِ وَرَزَقْنَـٰهُم مِّنَ ٱلطَّيِّبَـٰتِ وَفَضَّلْنَـٰهُمْ عَلَىٰ كَثِيرٍ مِّمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِيلًا
Indeed, We have dignified the children of Adam, carried them on land and sea, granted them good and lawful provisions, and privileged them far above many of Our creatures.
(Surah Al-Isra’, 17:70)
This honourable disposition of human dignity upholds respect for both genders' life and rights.
Islamic studies scholar Dr Jonathan Brown points out that the Quran is clear when addressing men and women’s respective stature.
Umm Salamah r.a, the Prophet's wife, asked him why women were not mentioned in the Quran like men were. The very next day, the Prophet s.a.w. announced a revelation on the minbar:
إِنَّ ٱلْمُسْلِمِينَ وَٱلْمُسْلِمَـٰتِ وَٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَٱلْمُؤْمِنَـٰتِ وَٱلْقَـٰنِتِينَ وَٱلْقَـٰنِتَـٰتِ وَٱلصَّـٰدِقِينَ وَٱلصَّـٰدِقَـٰتِ وَٱلصَّـٰبِرِينَ وَٱلصَّـٰبِرَٰتِ وَٱلْخَـٰشِعِينَ وَٱلْخَـٰشِعَـٰتِ وَٱلْمُتَصَدِّقِينَ وَٱلْمُتَصَدِّقَـٰتِ وَٱلصَّـٰٓئِمِينَ وَٱلصَّـٰٓئِمَـٰتِ وَٱلْحَـٰفِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَٱلْحَـٰفِظَـٰتِ وَٱلذَّٰكِرِينَ ٱللَّهَ كَثِيرًۭا وَٱلذَّٰكِرَٰتِ أَعَدَّ ٱللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
"Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so - for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.”
(Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:35)
It is important to note that the Quran was already complete in its original form in lauhul-mahfuz (the preserved tablet). The revelation in response to Umm Salamah's question was not the Quran merely reacting to the inquiry but rather a manifestation of Allah's plan and wisdom.
The verse from Surah Al-Ahzab emphasises the equal value and worth of both men and women in Islam and how they will be rewarded for their faith and deeds. The fact that the Prophet s.a.w. announced this verse in front of a predominantly male audience also suggests that it was important for men to hear and understand how God honours and values women.
This event also highlights the agency for women to ask and voice out their concerns in Islam. The idea that Islam prevents women from partaking in public roles or voicing out their concerns is against the Prophet’s way of responding to inquiries by female companions r.a.
In another instance, Umm Salamah heard the Prophet s.a.w. call out, "O people!" and begin instructing the congregation. She rose to join them when her maid, who was brushing her hair in her room, held her back, explaining that the Prophet s.a.w. "had called the men, not the women." "Indeed, I am among the people," Umm Salamah replied.
Imam Tahir ibn Asyour also illustrates the presumption that the Shariah’s commands include both men and women, except when what is specified as applying to one of the two sexes.
The Quran describes how men and women should work together as partners (awliyā-u ba’dh) to build a strong family and a fair society. The idea of partnership entails no superiority between men and women because God commands both sexes to support one another.
The Quran states:
وَٱلْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَٱلْمُؤْمِنَـٰتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَآءُ بَعْضٍۢ ۚ يَأْمُرُونَ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ ٱلْمُنكَرِ وَيُقِيمُونَ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ وَيُطِيعُونَ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥٓ ۚ أُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ سَيَرْحَمُهُمُ ٱللَّهُ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
“Men and women are protectors of one another: They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity and obey Allah, and his messenger on them will Allah pour his mercy for Allah is exalted in power, wise.”
(Surah At-Tawbah, 9:71)
Another highly contested concept in Islam is the idea of qiwama, which will be discussed in the next misconception.
A hadith of the Prophet s.a.w. highlights four exemplary and best women in paradise:
خَطَّ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَرْبَعَةَ خُطُوطٍ قَالَ أَتَدْرُونَ مَا هَذَا قَالُوا اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَعْلَمُ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: أَفْضَلُ نِسَاءِ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ خَدِيجَةُ بِنْتُ خُوَيْلِدٍ وَفَاطِمَةُ بِنْتُ مُحَمَّدٍ وَمَرْيَمُ بِنْتُ عِمْرَانَ وَآسِيَةُ بِنْتُ مُزَاحِمٍ امْرَأَةُ فِرْعَوْنَ
“The Messenger of Allah s.a.w. drew four lines on the ground, then he s.a.w. said, “Do you know what this is?” The Companions r.a. replied, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He s.a.w. then said: “The best of the women of Paradise are Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Maryam bint ‘Imran and Asiya bint Muzahim, the wife of Pharaoh.”
From this hadith, it is evident that women in Islam hold a significant role. As a testament to this, Allah has recognised the prayers of Asiyah a.s. in the Quran, sent salutations to Khadijah r.a. through the angel Jibril a.s. and placed a special resemblance of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. in his daughter Fatimah r.a. Additionally, Allah s.w.t. praises Maryam a.s. for her chastity and performed a miracle through her by carrying Prophet Isa a.s. in her womb without any physical contact from men.
Allah s.w.t. mentioned in Surah At-Taḥrim verse 12:
وَمَرْيَمَ ٱبْنَتَ عِمْرَٰنَ ٱلَّتِىٓ أَحْصَنَتْ فَرْجَهَا فَنَفَخْنَا فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِنَا وَصَدَّقَتْ بِكَلِمَـٰتِ رَبِّهَا وَكُتُبِهِۦ وَكَانَتْ مِنَ ٱلْقَـٰنِتِينَ
“And (Allah has also cited the example of) Maryam, daughter of ‘Imrān who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her Our spirit, and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and His books, and she was one of the devout (men and women).”
(Surah At-Tahrim, 66:12)
According to this verse, Maryam a.s. was not just amongst the qānitāt (devout women). Allah s.w.t. clearly mentions here that she is amongst the qānitīn (devout men and women), hence suggesting that she is a great example for both devout men and women. In other words, Maryam a.s. has a special rank amongst both men and women.
Other female figures have also been highlighted for the quality of their discernment, the sincerity of their worship, their conviction and courage, or their degree of closeness to Allah s.w.t.
For example, during the period when the Prophet was preparing to sign the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, the companions of the Prophet r.a. were in a state of confusion. They could not proceed with their plans to perform umrah in Makkah, which they longed to return to. This is due to the unseen intervention made by the polytheists of Makkah.
Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. instructed his companions r.a. to perform the cutting of their hair (tahallul) to leave the state of ihram (a sacred state which a Muslim must enter to perform the hajj or the minor pilgrimage umrah). However, they were confused and in denial of their situation, which led them to remain as they were without following the Prophet’s instructions.
MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA-CIRCA MARCH 19, 2016: Old Building beside the Hudaibiyah Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
Umm Salamah r.a, who was present on this journey with the Prophet s.a.w, observed his distress upon returning to their campsite. When he shared what had happened with her, she suggested that he should lead by example and cut his hair first.
The Prophet listened to Umm Salamah’s suggestions. True enough, the companions r.a. followed the Prophet’s actions. This event showed us how women were also a source of wise consultation in a significant decision-making episode during the Prophet's life.
Separately Al-Shifa’ Binti Abdullah and Samra Binti Naik al-Assadiyyah r.a. were appointed during the time of Caliph Umar Al-Khattab r.a. to manage the commercial and trading zone, which at that time was dominated by men.
This proves Umar Al-Khattab r.a’s trust in the ability of women to lead and manage, unlike the misconception today that Islam sees a woman’s place as in the confines of her home and that she only has to care for her family and children.
Another verse that may have been misrepresented by some Muslims justifying leadership to be exclusively for men over women in familial and societal norms is the verse:
ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّٰمُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُوا۟ مِنْ أَمْوَٰلِهِمْ
"Men are the qawamun of women, as men have been provisioned by Allah over women and tasked with supporting them financially...”
(Surah An-Nisa’, 4:34)
But what does qawamun or qiwama mean? And does it mean to oppress women as a God-given right to men?
For example, al-Ṭabari (d. 923) interpreted it as being based on men's material advantage, while al-Bayḍhawi (d.1286) and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) saw it as men's innate superiority.
Scholars today tend to agree with al-Tabari's interpretation, viewing qiwama as a practical division of roles rather than biological. They argue that the verse does not prescribe men as superior to women but rather a prescription of responsibility to care for their spouse.
Ismail Faruqi opines that due to the different socioeconomic conditions today, many “women are no longer dependent on their husbands” and that the husband’s economic superiority is “subject to change.”
Some scholars, like Azizah al-Hibri, see qiwama as conditional and dependent on specific circumstances. They believe that men's qiwama over women is a responsibility rather than a privilege and that the determining factor for superiority is taqwa or God-consciousness.
إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتْقَىٰكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
“...Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.”
Therefore, it is important to note that the concept of qawamun or qiwama does not imply the superiority of men over women or allow for mistreatment or abuse. The additional responsibility bestowed upon men by God should not be used to subjugate women but rather as a means to fulfil societal and familial responsibilities and be more righteous. It also depends on societal changes and changing contexts as more women take on public leadership roles and bear various responsibilities.
Some people may hold the misconception that women are responsible for the banishment of humanity from the heavens, as described in the story of Prophet Adam and Hawa a.s, also termed in other religious traditions as the 'original sin'.
The Quran informs us that both Adam and Hawa were deceived by the devil and ate from the forbidden tree, without mentioning one was the reason for their fall.
This Quranic story reminds us that the concept of 'original sin' is not Islamic. In fact, it stems from the Christian doctrine.
KRAKOW, POLAND - MAY 31, 2015: Cracow , Lagiewniki - The centre of Pope John Paul II. Mosaics on the church wall with biblical scenes. This image is a Christian depiction of Adam and Eve. In contrast, Muslims are not allowed to depict illustrations of the Prophets a.s.
In Islam, every soul is born without sin and is pure. In fact, no one bears the sin of another. Every individual is responsible only for his or her own actions.
وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ
“...No soul burdened with sin will bear the burden of another...”
(Surah Al-Isra, 17:15)
In a nutshell, the story of Adam and Hawa a.s. serves us the following lessons:
1. Women and men have equal ability to comprehend knowledge and divine injunctions
2. Men and women are qualified to be in Allah’s presence and are equally susceptible to the temptations of Syaitan
3. Both men and women have equal ability to develop and strengthen their level of taqwa (God-consciousness)
4. Allah s.w.t. grants forgiveness to both men and women after repenting (taubah) from their sins
Additionally, some misinterpretations of hadith and verses seem to suggest that women are to be blamed for being a fitnah (trial and test) for men.
Usamah ibn Zayd r.a. reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَا تَرَكْتُ بَعْدِي فِتْنَةً هِيَ أَضَرُّ عَلَى الرِّجَالِ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ
“I am not leaving behind me any trial more harmful to men than women.”
This is actually a warning to men who may fall into the sin of lust. Women are not innately evil, as established earlier, but could potentially be a significant factor in the misguidance of men who fail the test of regulating their desires wisely.
Also, in the Quran, Allah s.w.t. says:
زُيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ حُبُّ ٱلشَّهَوَٰتِ مِنَ ٱلنِّسَآءِ وَٱلْبَنِينَ وَٱلْقَنَـٰطِيرِ ٱلْمُقَنطَرَةِ مِنَ ٱلذَّهَبِ وَٱلْفِضَّةِ وَٱلْخَيْلِ ٱلْمُسَوَّمَةِ وَٱلْأَنْعَـٰمِ وَٱلْحَرْثِ ۗ ذَٰلِكَ مَتَـٰعُ ٱلْحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا ۖ وَٱللَّهُ عِندَهُۥ حُسْنُ ٱلْمَـَٔاب
”The enjoyment of (worldly) desires—women, children, treasures of gold and silver, fine horses, cattle, and fertile land—has been made appealing to people. These are the pleasures of this worldly life, but with Allah is the finest destination.”
(Surah Ali-’Imran, 3:14)
It's important to note that other blessings, such as children, wealth, food, drinks, prestige, and even our status in work, could be trials for us. They are not blameworthy in themselves. They only become a concern for misguidance when people fail to embrace them wisely. The key is to exercise self-control and not let our desires control us.
Before Islam's advent, women's status in many societies, including in Arabia, was generally low. They were often treated as property and had few rights. The practice of female infanticide, or the killing of newborn female children, was prevalent in some cultures.
Islam, however, brought significant improvements to the status of women by emphasising their rights and equality before God.
In Prophet Muhammad’s s.a.w. final sermon, he said:
"O People, it is true that you have certain rights concerning your women, but they also have rights over you."
Islam came and elevated the status of women and gave them many rights, such as the right to education, to marry someone of their choice, to retain their identity after marriage, to divorce, to work, to own and sell property, to seek protection by the law, to vote, and to participate in civic and political engagement.
Although groups such as the Taliban, who purport to be Islamic, ban education for women, this does not align with Islamic teachings. The fact remains that throughout Islamic history, women scholars were celebrated and contributed immeasurably to the Islamic scholarly tradition.
FES, MOROCCO - June 28, 2019: View of University of Al Quaraouiyine or Al-Karaouine mosque - the oldest known university in the world, founded by Fatima al-Fihri
‘Aisyah r.a was crucial in developing the foundation of canonical Islamic epistemology and legal tradition.
There were other female scholars who developed and taught Islamic law and legal tradition. One example is the tabi'in (successors) scholar, 'Amra bint Abdur-Rahman.
‘Amra came under the direct tutelage of the Prophet's wife, ‘Aisyah bint Abu Bakr r.a. until she became one of the highest authoritative figures for hadiths narrated by her teacher.
'Amra also narrated several hadiths from other wives of the Prophet s.a.w. and other female companions such as Umm Salamah r.a. and Habibah Bint Sahl r.a.
Being a jurist herself, it was narrated that she overturned the decision made by the judge of Madinah in cutting off a thief’s hand and instead decreed that the punishment should be a fine of a quarter of a dinar or more. The judgement was based on the severity of the crime, in which the thief had not stolen anything valuable to obligate the cutting of the hand. The judge freed the thief and respected and followed ‘Amra’s decision without question.
These examples show how Islam empowered women by allowing them access to education, making them scholars, and granting them the authority to interpret Islamic law. 'Amra's role as a jurist also demonstrates the value of women's perspectives in the legal system of Islam.
Having said that, women's rights are about giving them the freedom and choice to pursue their unique paths in life, including their spiritual journeys. Muslim women, like all women, should be able to choose the lifestyle that makes sense for them based on their personal beliefs, knowledge, values, and circumstances, as long as it aligns with the principles of Islam. This could include working outside the home, staying at home to care for family, pursuing education or career opportunities, or engaging in community or religious activities.
It is essential to recognise that every woman's situation is unique and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to women's rights or empowerment. Women should have access to the resources and support they need to make informed decisions about their lives and to pursue their goals and aspirations without fear of discrimination or societal pressure.
Hijab symbolises modesty, piety, and devotion to one's faith. Many Muslim women choose to wear hijab to express their identity and show their commitment to their religious beliefs.
Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
لَآ إِكْرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ
"There is no compulsion in religion..."
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:256)
Submission to our faith is not a form of compulsion imposed by anyone. Like our prayers (solat), observing the obligation to cover with the hijab is our own choice to fulfil our faith sincerely.
Furthermore, wearing hijab is not a barrier to education, career advancement, or participation in society. In fact, many women who wear the hijab are also highly educated, successful professionals, and active members of their communities.
The concept of modesty in Islam is important. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said in a hadith:
إِنَّ لِكُلِّ دِينٍ خُلُقًا وَإِنَّ خُلُقَ الْإِسْلَامِ الْحَيَاءُ
Verily, every religion has a character, and the character of Islam is modesty.
(Sunan Ibn Majah)
This hadith illustrates that modesty is not only for women but is also enjoined for men as well.
In fact, before the verse instructing women to cover their 'aurah, Allah s.w.t. addresses men first, commanding them to lower their gaze and to observe chastity:
قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا۟ مِنْ أَبْصَـٰرِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا۟ فُرُوجَهُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَزْكَىٰ لَهُمْ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ
“(O Prophet!) Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what they do.”
(Surah An-Nur, 24:30)
Men and women are biologically different, but the concept of modesty in clothing and character, which underpins the importance of respect, applies to both genders.
In today's world, morality seems to be losing importance, and women are often depicted as mere objects of desire. This is where the teachings of Islam come in, elevating the status of women and challenging the oppressive norms of the past.
As Muslims, it is our duty to follow the decrees and advice given by Allah s.w.t. and his Prophet s.a.w. in upholding the rights of women. We must remember that these decrees are not just arbitrary rules but also bestowed by Allah s.w.t. for a reason. The Prophet's final sermon emphasises the importance of this responsibility and its relevance in today's world.
We all have unique strengths and abilities that complement each other. By working together in harmony and supporting each other, we can create a more just and equitable society. This is precisely what Islam teaches us.
It is also crucial to recognise and appreciate the contributions of women in our lives. Their dedication and commitment to their families and communities serve as an inspiration for us to become better individuals and make a positive impact on the world around us.
In conclusion, let us go back to Islam's teachings and uphold women's rights as bestowed by Allah s.w.t. and his Prophet s.a.w. Let us work towards creating a society where both men and women can thrive and fulfil their potential.
 Jonathan Brown. Do the Qur’an and Sunnah Speak More Often to Men than Women? Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/do-the-quran-and-sunnah-speak-more-often-to-men-than-women#ftnt1
 Celene Ibrahim. Women in the Qur’an: Appreciating Female Faith, Wisdom, and Knowledge. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/women-in-the-quran-appreciating-female-faith-wisdom-and-knowledge
 Muhammad Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari, Tafseer At-Tabari, vol. 6, pg. 687-690
 Nasir Ad-Din Al-Baydawi, Tafseer Al-Baydawi, vol. 2, pg. 72-73
 Abu Al-Fida’ ‘Imad Ad-Din Ismail Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2
 Muhammad Zaheer Abbas and Riaz Shamreeza,“Diversity of Interpretations Regarding Qawwam in Islamic Thought with Special Reference to Surah An-Nisa”. Pakistan Journal of Islamic Research, vol 11, pg. 2-20, 2013.
 The tabi’un/tabi’in are the generation of Muslims who met the companions of the Prophet, and believed in their teachings (Islam)
 This decision was based on a hadith by Aisha r.a. See Sunan An-Nasai 4925