Overviews Theories Prospectus Books (2) Pickthall on Women

Women in Islam and Women in the West:

Convergences and Crossroads



In previous papers of this collection, we have briefly reviewed the literature on women in Islam from a normative Islamic perspective and on women in the West from the western feminist perspective. Because much of the English literature on women in Islam is written by Western scholars, we have also seen over and over how western social science and feminist epistemologies have influenced the research paradigms, hypothesis, field work and conclusions on women in Islam. It is hoped that the articles and examples given have shown how the universalization of Western research values has contributed to the misrepresentation of the normative Islamic position on women in Islam as well as the situation of women in Islamic societies.

In studying the normative Islamic perspective on women, we have come to some understanding of the classical Islamic sources and how to approach them as well as the importance of Islamic law in maintaining the family and the position of women within the family. The study of normative Islam has also demonstrated the gap in most Islamic countries between religion and tradition and how traditional practice has been absorbed and deemed Islamic, when in many cases, a look at the sources of Islamic law shows some practices to be in conflict with Islamic norms. It must be emphasized here, that the Western preoccupation with empirical and anthropological observation has contributed to the Western misperception of Islam by conflating norms with practice in Islamic countries. Observation of practice without proper study of the norms has probably been the most responsible for the Western consensus that Islam is part of the problem for women rather than part of the solution. This conclusion only serves to justify the dismissal of the normative sources and classical Islamic literature in studying the question of women in Islam. This course, then, has been designed to challenge this dismissal and to introduce the Islamic sources and some major themes therein regarding normative Islamic concepts on women, the family, community and notions of justice.

It is the position of this course that any study of women in Islam must be informed by the normative Islamic perspective on the subject. This is due to the comprehensive nature of Islam as a faith and social system which affects the daily lives and decisions of all members of the community. In the sense that all communities are influenced by a certain matrix of beliefs and ideas, Islam can be called 'culture.' What is unique about Islam as a culture is that while those communities influenced by Islam are tremendously diverse, they all have certain features in common, ie. norms. To dismiss normative Islam in trying to understand Islamic societies is to overlook what for some is an overwhelming constraint on behavior or what for others is an inherent shaper of attitudes, perceptions, aspirations and conceptions in society. It is also the position of this course that the Islamic view of women may also be projected onto the the situation of women in the West thus comparatively highlighting certain themes. This paper will examine some of the differences between the Islamic and Western perspectives to better define their differences while also considering what each paradigm might contribute to the study of women in general and the study of women in Islam in particular.

The main difference between the Islamic and Western views concerning women is that one is norm based and the other that claims to be value-free. The Islamic view offers a model for women to follow which is intended to be universal and normative in its impact. It takes a stand on many aspects of the life of the individual and the community. While women are free to struggle with how they will incorporate these values into their lives and their life styles, general definitions are clearly available as to what constitutes right and wrong and justice from injustice. The Islamic sources outline general principles and guidelines while it is up to the individual to apply these and give them meaning. The Western perspective strongly resists any agreed upon general principles or guidelines for women. It does not see a universal condition affirming model for the life of women. Making any statements about what a women's life should be like is considered as not leaving her free to make up her own mind according to her own conscience with or without reference to any outside source. This very essential difference may become clear when we consider each paradigm's views of society.

The norms based Islamic approach to women and the supposedly value free Western based approach to women can be explained, in part, by each system's very different view of society. The Qur'anic view insists on interdependence while the Western view encourages atomization and independence. The Western view sees society as a place where the individual should be as free as possible to pursue his own definition of norms to the extent that he likes without hurting anyone else. Injury to another individual in the Western view of society usually means physical or material injury. The rights of the individual and his social, economic and political sovereignty are paramount. The purpose of society is to gain the individual his/her rights and to guarantee order and equal opportunity to make the pursuit of rights possible. To make this possible, society must be defined as value free to avoid clashes or the prevention of others to pursue their own personal definition of happiness or success or fairness etc... In the Western model, value judgements are considered to be 'biased' and an impingement of another's rights. The only value judgement allowed is the one of material equality. No one would argue, for example, that it is right to be poor or wrong to be rich. In the value free society the norm to measure inequality is usually based on a material criteria. The western feminist movement framed its goals within this criteria. The "value-free" society is presumably based on the assumption that everyone pursuing his own interests and personalized definition of norms will lead to the harmonization of the whole community. Such a society also justifies its value-free claim on the assumption that in a pluralistic heterogeneous community with different levels of education and condition, that it is impossible to agree on a loose body of norms deemed universal.

The Islamic definition of society is almost the opposite of the Western one which make the norms based vs. the value free based difference in the two paradigms most important to understanding their respective views about women. The Islamic position differs from the Western position in four different ways: 1) that God/revelation provides the best unbiased source of knowledge about how men and women should live and organize themselves, 2) that without guidance and discipline, individuals will pursue greed and self interest which will not lead to the benefit of the whole community, 3) that progress comes from sacrifice and cooperation and recognition of the need of one another and not individualism and lastly, 4) that society has the right to ask its members to respect and abide by certain moral standards in public to which alternatives are not acceptable. The purpose of society is to safeguard human relationships and relatedness and especially the family. The concept of injury to another is not just material and physical but also moral and emotional. Unlike the Western view of society, Islam recognizes certain aspects of human organization such as faith, family and interdependence as universals and necessary to the condition of all communities.

We may also explain differences in the Islamic and Western views of women by looking at the influences of certain ideas on these societies regarding the family. The Qur'an and Islam have been of major influence on the family in Islamic societies and continues to be so. Various influences have had an impact on the role of the Western family in the past, but for our purposes and the focus of the collection, we will only consider the impact of Western feminism on the family. Islam views the family as a natural phenomenon and the best institution provided by God for the moral, physical and social development of the human race. It is invested with tremendous responsibility as the provider of values for continuing a norms based society. Most of the social injunctions in the Qur'an are designed to protect and promote the family. The Qur'anic injunction making men financially and morally responsible for women was intended to free women from wage labor so they could concentrate on the more important task of raising the next generation. Women are seen in the Qur'anic view as the keystone to the family and thus motherhood is held in the most high esteem of all possible positions within an Islamic community.

Early Western feminism, on the other hand, has made the family the central target of its attack on the organization of society. The concept of patriarchy singled out the family as the main cause of the oppression of women. The feminist movement saw the family as a social unit which enslaved women for the purposes of reproduction and the delivery of wage free services to men such as childrearing, food preparation, cleaning and sexual pleasure. Because the family requires sacrifice, feminists claimed that women were being cheated and seduced by romantic notions into making all the required sacrifices for the continuation of society. The feminists did not see the family as a moral institution or as having any normative value. Because material inequality was accepted as an injustice, they argued that the family was depriving women of their opportunity to gain material equality with men. Thus the main feature of the feminist movement became leaving the home for wage labor in the work force. The measure of value changed from how many children a woman had to how much money she earned and how effectively she could compete in the public market. Her criteria for success became 'equal' to that of men's. Western feminism shifted the focus of women from the family to themselves thus bringing women into line with the general Western view of the importance of individuals pursuing their own interests. Unlike the Islamic paradigm which insists on the value of the mother in the family and society, the early Western feminist movement helped to devalue the role of the mother in the eyes of society. The devaluation of motherhood as a profession, however, also has to do with industrial societies not valuing unpaid work. The focus on the family was instrumental in the feminist campaign to destroy norms by defining them as oppressive to women.

Another important consideration to the differing views on women in the Islamic and Western feminist perspectives is each one's ultimate objective. The objective of the Islamic view for women is to lead a moral and just existence within the bounds of an Islamic community with the ultimate reconciliation with God in mind. The Western objective for women is to free them from responsibilities and burdens which prevent them from competing in the market with men for material and self fulfillment. This is usually what the Western feminist means by the search for equality. The thrust of the western feminist movement is acquisitive; the battle for material and political gains for women themselves whether they be wives, single, mothers or childless. The ultimate goal of Western feminism is equity in opportunity and the redistribution of resources to all individuals based on material equality.

Second only to the norms-based versus the "value-free" distinction as the most important difference between the two paradigms under discussion, is each paradigm's view of gender. The Islamic view of gender is that both men and women are equal in the eyes of God and both are equally responsible in their discharge of religious duties as outlined for them in the Qur'an. In social and community practice, however, Islam recognizes fully the biological differences of men and women and the different demands these differences impose on the life course of believers. It is assumed that biological differences make the division of labor more practical in family matters of who should work and who should stay home with the children. Although there is nothing in the Qur'an that says women must stay home and raise their own children, it is stipulated that men must provide for the maintenance of women and children. Islamic society sees gender as a natural occurrence and does not value what one provides society over another. Each sex is required to perform in a way that will benefit the whole community and not just the individual. Relations between male and female are ideally based on complimentarity and care.

The Western feminist movement has based almost its entire political and social program on the obliteration of gender difference based on the pursuit of equality and placing women in direct competition with men. Equality meant that if women were to speak for themselves they needed financial independence in a world which measures value in material terms. Because gender difference was at the basis of the norms making the division of labor in raising a family possible, the concept of gender difference was attacked as being a social rather than a natural construct designed to promote the family. Women began to associate their security needs not with the family but with success in the market place on par with men. It is in this sense that the new norm for female success was 'male biased.' Gender difference was seen as having very little impact or social, material or political worth. Gender norms, like the family, were seen as another impediment to the freedom of women, according to the early Western feminists.

Also worth mentioning in examining the Islamic and Western perspectives is that the Islamic view sees the family as the pillar of society whereas the Western view sees the individual as the center of society. The rights of the individual are enforced within a legal and rights bearing framework, in an Islamic society, enforcement of norms tends to rely more on faith as a motivator and a sense of moral duty to fellow human beings within the community, rather than on legal process.

Is it possible to discuss and summarize some of the effects of Western feminist thought on the condition of women in Western society? Perhaps we can draw some casual conclusions. In the American context, it is possible to suggest that the destruction of norms and the ensuing no-norms approach has had an extreme social and financial cost to Western society which it has yet to absorb. In the name of personal growth and freedom, absentee fathers are on the rise as well as a whole host of other worries related to the decline of family values including rising teenage pregnancy, drop-out rates and crack mothers. Divorce has been the single most responsible factor in the changes in women's lives over the past twenty years; the divorce rate is at 50% and one out of every five American households is headed by a single mother and of these single mothers, they are four times as likely to be poor than their married counterparts. A number of popular psychology diagnosis have been identified including self help groups and books on dysfunctional families and relationships. Others include labels like the Peter Pan syndrome (inability to 'grow up'), commitment phobia, addictive personalities, adult children of alcoholics, etc...

In the American setting, we have seen a plethora of labels given to the assortment of social ills brought on by the confusion of values and the no-norms society. One example from the American context designed as an effort to respond to the breakdown of the extended family amidst a more general breakdown, is the birth of the self-help movement. Thomasina Borkman sees the self help revolution as a way to cope with modern day problems as a result of two events: 1) the civil rights movement which has engendered a cultural rights mindset, and 2) the decline in confidence and trust among the general public of major government and medical institutions due to their eroding moral and legal authority.


Self-help groups are grass roots organizations that rely on little if any professional authority for their existence. They provide a supportive atmosphere for members based on mutual experiential knowledge thus defining themselves according to their ailment or problem ie. stuttering, overeating or alcoholism. While many such groups are community oriented and the evidence is overwhelming that they have been highly instrumental in improving the quality of life for many, some of their more pernicious structural and ideological aspects have yet to be identified.

Several observations come to mind when examining the self-help group as a response to the moral and physical breakdown of the family. It has been argued, for example, that self-help groups have begun to replace the traditional family and lay networks and have become the answer for an estimated 15 million Americans. Many argue that the self-help bond can be as strong as that of the family. But self-help groups have a dark side to them as they may also serve to drive a wedge between family members and contribute to the atomization of social relations based on the experiential authority of cluster groupings defined in terms of members ailment, problem or fetish.

Underlying the way self-help groups define themselves is the idea that subcultures or social entities have the cultural right to define themselves by saying what is valid and true for them. Such a philosophy may also serve self-help groups who offer support for deviant and indulgent behavior. As one male cross-dresser stated, "...lounging around in a wig and a dress and listening to a guest lecturer discuss the best way to apply blusher, is, he says, one way to 'get away from the tension of being a husband, the breadwinner and dealing with the factory, everyday life. Here, I can just be Suzie.'"

Because self-help groups are as oriented to off setting the unsupportiveness of their member's personal networks (family, church, friends, work) as they are to helping the individual live with his/her problem, the atmosphere is tremendously conducive to creating a haven for the dysfunctional individual through the consensual validation of the self help group. In this way, the self-helper may avoid the demands made upon him by his family, church, work or community in general by labeling them as 'unsupportive.' Such possibilities are evident because it is the self-help group which constructs its own experiential paradigm of the problem and the means to resolve it. If old relationships continue to be 'unsupportive' of the self-helper and what he has learned through the self help group, than such relationships have known to be minimized or dropped all together. The group has the potential of building its own idiom and framework which may have isolationist tendencies thus negatively affecting human relationships outside of the self-help group.

We can say that the self-help group may go along way in replacing the family in terms of emotional support and bonding, but can the support group replace what the family has traditionally offered society in terms of material and developmental support of future generations as well as the transmission of culture and values? The support group as well as many other socially and rights based engineered schemes designed to replace the original biological family are beset with obvious impossibilities (procreation for one) and contradictions. Self help can be just that: SELF oriented and SELF serving which tend to beg the larger questions of the malaise of the environment in which they occur. While it is ultimately up to the individual, the self-help paradigm seems to be neither community oriented nor integrative with those outside the self designated group. In fact, in the case of the adult children of alcoholics, rather than reconcile and re-integrate the alcoholic with the family, the adult children of alcoholics are encouraged by the self-help structure to go to their own group/support meetings to learn how to 'cope' with their problem (ie. the alcoholic parent): the two, parent and child, shall never meet within the self-help structure.

Self-help groups and in many cases their phenomenal success, is just one example of how American society is coping with the stress of the break down of social norms and how the methodology of 'self' views the solution to a specific problem in isolation from the whole, unintentionally contributing to further social and spiritual atomization and alienation among individuals by defining them not thorough kinship, but through problem-ties.

In a more general social environment where value is based on the material and mutually beneficiary contract, the family is most likely to suffer. Elizabeth Wolgast asks that we consider the problematic of the marriage contract as one of mutual self interest, what are the conditions of the contract? Does one promise to love, honor and obey? The first is impossible to promise, the second and third are demeaning to free agents. Other conditions mentioned are to endure for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and health until death-eventualities that are risky and vague. And how long does the contract run? Until death. What rational being would accept such a deal? Many have chosen not to accept these terms. The break up of the family and the break down of norms leaving each to his own definition of morality has led to an endless parade of alternative lifestyles and the gradual redefinition of gender/sex and the nuclear family. Manifestations of this are most evident in the now socially acceptable homosexual lifestyle where two genders are no longer necessary to form a couple or even a family where homosexual couples are permitted to adopt someone else's children. One no longer needs to procreate to have a family and the sexual act can be enjoyed in the pursuit of entertainment thus loosing its natural social role and the burdens and responsibilities associated with it.

The traditional nuclear family is no longer seen as the only vehicle for the natural bonding and moral-value teachings for civilized man, but any group based on any norm can serve this purpose for society. We see a proliferation of 'family styles' and definitions which have begun to dilute biological and sex/gender distinctions. But more than a redefinition of the family, we see in the American context the breakdown of the social values associated with the family. And in America, we have yet to see the results of the values and social philosophy of the late sixties and early seventies. In the next ten years, we will begin to see how children of mass divorce and day care institutionalization will articulate their experience to the experts and the community at large.

We can already observe an inability to form families and make life long commitments to one individual. The ideology of independence, individualism and individual rights has filtered down to children themselves who demand freedom and independence from their parents as soon as they are legally of age. In the absence of norms, the market in modern life has come the closest to shaping community behavior and social relations. Television, advertising and the latest fashions in everything from parenting techniques to consumer goods becomes the authority on how individuals come to make decisions. The system remains value-free where all lifestyles are equally valid and to make a moral judgement is to be biased and therefore unfair.

In qualitative terms, increasing choice in lifestyle has led to some startling statistics: half of all marriages in America end in divorce and only 27 percent of American households consist of a husband, a wife and children down from 47 percent in the the 1970's. Ironically, statistics show that increased wage participation, the principle goal of the feminist movement, has not led to an overall increase in the welfare of women. Unlike other industrialized countries, the United States is the only country where we find the feminization of poverty. Women are increasingly representative of the poor. Among the poor, women are predominantly the only head of household. Nearly three-fifths of all poor families with a female householder and no husband are either black or hispanic. Absentee fathers have led women into the workforce much early after child birth. In 1987, over half of the women with children under the age of three were in the labor force-an increase of over 50 percent in just a dozen years.

Because the focus of the women's movement was on equal rights, the U.S. government has been able to by and large ignore the family needs created by the entry of women into the work force. The higher wages that women have gained under the feminist movement have been mitigated by the increase of female responsibility for head of household and absorption of income into the child care industry. Neither government nor private industry have been willing to pay for the break up of the family and the dual labors of women. Because of the negative attitude toward norms based solutions to social problems in American society, these problems continue to be viewed as the responsibility of science, the legal establishment, the government and the schools.


The Islamic paradigm can also be problematic insofar as it is open to manipulation in any given situation. Norms can be abused for individual rather than community benefit and they can and have been used as the justification to prevent the development of women. The emphasis on community enforcement of values rather than on individual responsibility tends to encourage hypocrisy and false piety in public. The norm-oriented approach places restrictions on women who do not agree or want to follow the norms as defined and understood within the community. What would be the place of a woman in an Islamic society who wanted neither to marry nor be a mother? Such a woman in practice is likely to be penalized by the community by being considered as deviating from the norm, although strictly speaking, from a normative Islamic perspective her valorization as a human being is not confined exclusively to any of her socially prescribed roles, including her motherhood. Norms can also be abused by the political establishment to enforce certain standards and interests. With the emphasis on community and social responsibility, it seems difficult to agree on the exact definitions. Are norms really any guarantee of a just society? Norms, afterall, are only as good as those who follow them in good conscience. And this is precisely the reason why an Islamic norm-orientation is rooted in piety above and beyond any legal or consensual prescriptions.

Assuming that historically the normative Islamic perspective has contributed positively to cementing the foundations of the social order in Muslim societies, what it may be asked can the study of women in Islam bring to the study of women in general? The normative Islamic perspective offers the study of women in Islam a culturally based theoretical construct as an alternative to Western constructs like patriarchy and equality which have little meaning in an Islamic context. An Islamically informed researcher will be unable to study women as individuals and will be able to see them as part of a whole system. Placing women within the normative matrix of Islamic family and community values will help researchers interpret and explain the attitudes and behaviors they observe. The normative Islamic perspective offers a paradigm much more appropriate to the study of women in Islam than Western feminist approaches. Continuing to apply western feminist approaches can only lead to naive and misleading conclusions.

To the study of women in the West and women in general, the Islamic perspective could offer a number of insights: 1) the connection between the welfare of the biological nuclear family and the welfare of women, 2) the social and moral utility of gender based division of labor in some areas of life for the protection and continuation of community and 3) a suggestive moral and theoretical basis, (the right of women to maintenance and the invaluable service of raising the next generation), to change the legal and political battle in the West from individual equality to pro-family and child care legislation. The Islamic position on the emphasis on norms might also challenge the the theoretical morass into which western feminists scholars have fallen trying to agree on a definition of gender and family. We have already seen the impact of western feminism on Islamic countries which has taken place in the form of challenging traditional practice yet stopping short of destroying the norms themselves. One must not, however, see all the changes which have taken place with women and the family in Western society purely as a function of the impact of feminism. Industrialization and modernity have paved the way for these changes. It remains to be seen how Islamic cultures will cope with these challenges in the future.



Both the Islamic and Western perspectives on women cannot be separated from the social and community values from which they spring. Ideally, the Islamic perspective emphasizes the interdependence of its members and motivates them by a sense of duty and gratitude towards God. It places social responsiblity over material gain and the family takes precedent over the individual-community requires sacrifice and discipline. The western view of society is much looser and the view of the individual is more cynical. Western society values personal freedom in the absence of social standards and it places choice and rugged individualism as high organizing priorities. It is up to the individual and not the community, to provide an emotionally secure environment for himself/herself. We can conclude that both the Islamic and Western paradigms have negative and positive aspects for women. We have also seen the implications of anti-family legislation within a no-norms framework in the case of the West.

The disintegration of the family in the West where basic social norms are transmitted, has begun to suggest that the health of the family rather than the individual might be the most generally welfare producing unit for the community. Until an alternative to the biological/extended family is found along with all the material and emotional services it provides society, enterprises like day care, divorce, step and gay families, self-help and all the other variations advanced will serve as vast social experiment. Tinkering with the family and the relentless pursuit of the 'self' has already begun to leave behind a wasteland in which women and children have been the first to suffer.

Women in Islam? Women in the West? Convergence or crossroads? For at least a hundred years the ideas of the West have had a tremendous impact upon Islamic societies while the West has remained sorely ignorant of the values of Islamic societies. Interestingly, the research reveals that both Muslim and Western women see the Other as oppressed. Perhaps this gives us the most valuable insight of all as to what each one understands as important in life and how each one gives meaning to her womanhood. Western images of women in Islam, more than any other subject, continues to suggest that there needs to be more reciprocity in the cultural encounter between Islam and the West.

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