Islam and the Reality of Women’s Power

Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al Missned speaking at the U.N. Photo: Maher Attar/HHOPL

The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (RISSC) in Amman, Jordan, recently released the third edition of The Muslim 500, an annual publication highlighting the movers and shakers of the Muslim world. From Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to Sufi scholar Seyyed Hussein Nasr, the list compiles a wide range of personalities from all corners of the globe. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud topped the list, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an placing third and Iranian Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei taking fifth.

As usually happens when anyone tries to quantify popularity or prestige, there was disagreement on the blogosphere over the rankings, compounded by the fact that  Muslim 500 does not clearly define its exact criteria. But my primary concern with the list is that only 13% of those featured are women, with a mere three making the top 50 most influential.

Queen Rania, the most internationally recognizable, came in at 34; Sheika Munira Qubeysi, head of the largest women-only Islamic movement in world, placed 24th; and Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al Missned, Chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, was number 38.

Women are marginalized in nearly every society. For example, under 20% of all world parliament seats are held by women. Although women across the world have more power than seen on the surface of things–exercising influence in the home on a number of issues related to business, politics, and family decisions–formal positions of power continue to be dominated by men.

As reflected by the Muslim 500, the situation is no different in Muslim contexts. Given the conservative nature of many cultures where Muslims live, this is anything but surprising; but this reality should give pause to anyone interested in understanding what Islam says about women and how the Prophet Muhammad viewed women in leadership positions.

During the foundation of Islam, women held important leadership roles in their communities. Khadijah, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife of 25 years, was a 40 year-old business woman and the boss of the Prophet when they married. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the Prophet Muhammad’s second wife, was a strong spiritual and political leader and was highly esteemed by the Muslim community during and after the life of the Prophet.

Most importantly, the Qur’an and hadith shed light on how Islam regards women. A man once asked the Prophet Muhammad to whom he should show the most kindness. The Prophet replied, “Your mother, next your mother, next your mother, and then your father.”

Respect, power, and influence are surely three distinct concepts, but unfortunately, in order to gain respect, one must have a degree of power. Until the systems of power and those with positions at the top are more equitably represented by both men and women, we will continue to see very few female faces on future covers of the Muslim 500 and other publications ranking influence.

Religious Muslims and those following other faiths should look to the foundational texts of their own traditions to understand the equal, if not superior importance of women in society. Whether a Muslim-dominant Pakistan or a Christian-majority United States, societies throughout the world should recognize the value of women holding top leadership positions. We’d all be better for it.

Did the Muslim 500 selections accurately reflect the power and influence that women have in the Muslim world? Does society underestimate the power and influence that women exercise through informal roles in the home? Do you know of Muslim women who, against the norms of their cultural background, have justified their outspoken leadership by invoking Islamic principles?

3 thoughts on “Islam and the Reality of Women’s Power

  1. It was the Muslim women in Liberia who collaborated with the Christian women who wanted to begin a peace movement. They convinced their imams that to stop the war in their country was of paramount significance.

    It is not only Abdul Sattar Edhi, but equally his wife Bilquis Edhi, who does humanitarian work in and beyond Pakistan.

    When Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote a book that tells the stories of powerful women, several of them Muslim, from around the globe, they began the book with a Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.” Whether or not they are acknowledged for it, they do.

  2. I am so glad to see that you highlighted something that occurs in every culture on earth-the marginalization of women. Thanks for pointing out something so critical to the equality of humankind. If women ran more countries and were in positions to make decisions maybe we would live in a more peaceful, kind world.

  3. There should be little doubt that according to the Allah’s revealed word in the Qur’an, men and women share a spiritual parity.
    “For Muslim men and women. For believing men and women. For devout men and women. For men and women that are patient and constant. For men and women who humble themselves. For men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (deny themselves). For men and women who guard their chastity. For men and women who engage in Allah’s praise. For them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.
    (Al Azhab Surah 33:35)

    What has been primarily a western polemic, receives considerably less media coverage in middle eastern outlets. During the so called “Arab Spring”, women have been photographed as being publicly active in the street demonstrations calling for social and government change.

    We should remember that in recent history, there have been women that have played prominent roles in national government.

    Indira Ghandi as Prime Minister of India 1966-1984 until she was assassinated.

    Golda Meir as Prime Minister of Israel 1969-1974.

    Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

    Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan Assassinated in 2007.

    Dilma Vana Rousseff President of Brazil assumed office in
    January 2011.

    Megawati Sukarnoputri President of Indonesia.

    Zia Khaleda Prime Minister of Bangldesh

    Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister of Turkey.

    Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo.

    Roza Otunbayeva, President of Kyrgyzstan.

    Mame Madior Boye, Prime Minister of Senegal.

    While the rewards for righteous Muslim women in Paradise seem a bit vague compared to men, (but that’s an issue for another day), the contributions of Muslim women have been considerable though not properly recognized.