War on Women and Islam: Are Women Really Oppressed in Muslim Countries


To start with, the question is itself biased against Islam and Muslim societies. But even if one were to entertain that question for a minute, it doesn’t take too long to dispel the myth that Islam is misogynistic.

At the outset, one must make a distinction between Muslim societies and what Islam says about women. This can be quite at odds, as we will see. This goes to the root of Islam as a global religion, with interpretations and cultural norms defining how women (and men) are treated in each society. This has nothing to do per se, with the religion itself.  

While patriarchy and access to education remain contentious issues in the Muslim majority countries, it is not all black and white. There are millions of strong, independent women who are making a difference in their societies and contributing positively. It is not the simplistic bleak picture of women being oppressed. As an example, many Muslim majority countries have had heads of state that are women, in recent history: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Senegal.  

As Dr. John Esposito points out, "when it comes to popular Muslim attitudes about women's rights, the facts aren't always what one might expect. As the 2007 Gallup World Poll reveals, majorities of Muslims, some in the most conservative Muslim societies, support women's equal rights.”

The seminal work done by Gallup and headed by Dr. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, which resulted in a book, Who Speaks for Islam, has some insights, which are relevant to our discussion.

He further adds, "Saudi women own 70% of the savings in Saudi banks and own 61% of private firms in the Kingdom; they own much of the real estate in Riyadh and Jeddah, and can own and manage their own businesses, but they are sexually segregated, restricted to "appropriate" professions and cannot drive a car. In nearby Kuwait, women freely function in society and hold responsible positions in many areas, but until only a few years ago they could not vote.”

In the United Arab Emirates, where I lived for nearly two years, there are several female CEOs of multi-billion dollar firms. Women outnumber men in universities and this is true in most Arab countries.

The survey goes on to say, "both the causes of women's lack of empowerment and inequality and the winds of change can be seen in women's basic literacy and education. In Yemen women's literacy is only 28% vs. 70% for men; in Pakistan, it is 28% vs. 53% for men. Percentages of women pursuing post-secondary educations dip as low as 8% and 13% in Morocco and Pakistan respectively (comparable to 3.7% in Brazil, or 11% in the Czech Republic). In sharp contrast, women's literacy rates in Iran and Saudi Arabia are 70% and as high as 85% in Jordan and Malaysia. In education, significant percentages of women in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%) have post-secondary educations.”

Going to the history and roots of Shariah, it becomes clear that Islam championed women’s rights, even when there was no such notion. Let’s not forget that divorce is still a taboo in many societies, while Islam made it easy for a woman to divorce, in case her husband mistreated her – 1400 years ago, along with giving her property. Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija was a businesswoman, and is seen as a “model” of a woman.