OPINION: How the Concept of Gender Evolved in Islam
by Arshia Malik
The globalization and cultural exchange between Muslim and non-Muslim countries has had a significant impact on the concept of gender in Islam.
Leila Ahmed’s “Women and Gender in Islam” is a ground-breaking work of feminist Islamic scholarship that challenges traditional interpretations of Islam and offers a new perspective on the role of women in Islamic societies. Ahmed draws on a wide range of historical and contemporary sources to provide a nuanced and multi-layered understanding of the evolution of gender roles in Islam. This book is an important contribution to the fields of Islamic studies and gender studies and will be of interest to anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the complex interplay between religion, culture, and gender.
One of the key strengths of this book is Ahmed’s meticulous attention to historical detail. She draws on a wealth of historical sources to demonstrate that the status of women in Islamic societies has not been static but has changed and been subject to reinterpretation over time. This historical perspective is particularly important in a world where many people have a narrow and oversimplified understanding of Islam, and where there is often a tendency to equate Islamic teachings with a particular cultural practice. Ahmed’s historical approach helps to dispel the notion that there is a single, monolithic interpretation of Islam and shows that the status of women in Islam has been shaped by a complex interplay of religious, cultural, and political factors.
Another key strength of the book is Ahmed’s analysis of the tension between religious interpretations of gender roles and the reality of women’s experiences. She critiques the ways in which patriarchal power structures have shaped Islamic practices and argues that these practices are not inherently tied to the religion of Islam but are instead a result of the ways in which Islam has been interpreted and practiced by different communities over time. This analysis is particularly relevant considering the ongoing debate around the rights of women in Muslim-majority countries and the ways in which religious and cultural norms are used to justify gender-based violence and discrimination.
Ahmed’s book is also notable for its nuanced approach to the complex interplay between religion and culture. She acknowledges that religious beliefs and practices can play a powerful role in shaping gender norms and attitudes, but she also recognizes that religion is not the only factor that influences these norms. Rather, religion and culture are inextricably intertwined, and the way in which religious beliefs are expressed and practiced is shaped by cultural and historical context. This nuanced approach is particularly important in a world where there is often a tendency to equate religious beliefs with cultural practices, and where there is a need to recognize the ways in which cultural norms and attitudes can change over time.
The concept of gender in Islam has evolved over time, influenced by cultural, historical, and political factors. Initially, Islamic teachings emphasized gender roles and behaviours based on biological differences between men and women. However, over time, these teachings have been reinterpreted and contextualized in response to changing cultural, historical, and political circumstances. In the classical period of Islam, the concept of gender was largely based on patriarchal norms, with men being seen as dominant and women as submissive. Islamic law reinforced these norms by regulating women’s dress, behaviour, and sexual activity.
However, in the modern era, the concept of gender in Islam has evolved in response to changing cultural, historical, and political circumstances. Islamic feminists have challenged patriarchal interpretations of Islam and argued for a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of gender roles and behaviours. They promote a gender-equal interpretation of Islam, based on the principles of justice, equality, and dignity for all individuals, regardless of gender. Moreover, the concept of gender in Islam has also been influenced by cultural, historical, and political factors outside of the Muslim world, including colonialism, modernization, and globalization. These factors have influenced the way gender is perceived and experienced by Muslim women and men and have contributed to the ongoing evolution of the concept of gender in Islam.
Some examples of how the concept of gender has evolved over time in Islam are how Islamic feminists have challenged patriarchal interpretations of Islamic teachings and promoted a more gender-equal interpretation of Islam. They argue that the Quran and Islamic teachings promote justice, equality, and dignity for all individuals, regardless of gender. Also, in the classical period of Islam, women were largely relegated to domestic and reproductive roles, while men were seen as the providers and protectors. However, in the modern era, many Muslim women have challenged these gender roles and entered previously male-dominated fields, such as politics, academia, and business.
In the classical period of Islam, women were also expected to wear modest dress, such as the hijab, as a symbol of their piety and obedience. However, in the modern era, many Muslim women have challenged these expectations and argued for a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of modesty dress, one that recognizes women’s agency and the right to express their sexuality in ways that are meaningful to them. In the modern era, many Muslim women have organized and participated in women’s rights movements, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for women, including the right to vote, access to education, and equal pay for equal work. The globalization and cultural exchange between Muslim and non-Muslim countries has had a significant impact on the concept of gender in Islam. Women in Muslim countries have been exposed to and influenced by feminist movements and gender-equal ideals from other cultures, contributing to the ongoing evolution of the concept of gender in Islam.
In conclusion, the concept of gender in Islam has evolved over time, shaped by cultural, historical, and political factors. From its early beginnings, when gender was based on patriarchal norms and reinforced by Islamic law, to its current state, where Islamic feminists are promoting a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of gender roles and behaviours, the concept of gender in Islam has undergone significant changes and continues to evolve.
Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflicts in societies with a particular focus on South Asia. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. Her fields of interests are education, minority and child rights, secularism and tolerant attitude in a fast developing world.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Milli Chronicle’s point-of-view.