Gender Roles in Islam

There are predefined gender roles within Islam such that men are exclusively identified as men and not to be confused with women, and women are exclusively identified as women and not be confused with men. In the modern world there has been a wealth of confusion regarding gender roles, attitudes and behaviors to the extent that in the West they no longer know how to define what a woman is. They have taken to refering to women as either ‘a woman’ or ‘a biological woman.’ All this confusion stems from blurring gender roles to begin with where women became feminists. Thus we read in the Qur’an that these distinctions have been created and are innate:

 O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.49:13

The ability to know each other requires that there be distinct features or markings that differentiate one from another. Since these distinctive markings are part of identification we see that the Prophet Muhammad (s) disapproved that men should look and act like women or that women should look and act like men. We read in one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (s) the following:

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:

“The Messenger of Allah (S) cursed the women who imitate men and the men who imitate women.” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2784)

If men shouldn’t imitate women and women shouldn’t imitate men, it must follow that the society of the Prophet (s) had a definitive idea of what constituted masculine and feminine behavior because across cultural plateaus behaviors may differ. In other words, in one society a man’s behavior may differ markedly from what is considered normative masculine behavior in another society. So how do the Islamic sources differentiate between the masculine and feminine behavior?

Dress Code

The first practical and most obvious differentiation between male and female in the nascent Islamic society was dress code. Whereas the awrah (part required by law to be covered) of the man was the area between the navel and knee historically, the awrah of the kept woman was typically her entire body while a significant portion of the body had to be covered for the indentured laborer or captive. A woman who revealed more of her body than was permissible lacked femininity because femininity and shyness were considered to be synonymous. A woman who wasn’t shy to expose her body wasn’t feminine. The Qur’an elaborates on what is expected of the believing men as follows:

˹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. (24:30)

Notice that this instruction is brief. However, when it comes to the believing women the Qur’an gives an elaborate instruction that demonstrates a greater degree of precaution in relation to them:

And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision1 and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment2 except that which [necessarily] appears thereof3 and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment [i.e., beauty] except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess [i.e., slaves], or those male attendants having no physical desire,4 or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allāh in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed. (24:31)

From the above two verses we can see that there is a distinction between men and women enshrined in the Qur’an itself that isn’t merely cultural or subject to localized customs. Men and women in Islam are to dress differently and the extent to which they are shy of their bodies must also differ. A man is not to feel shy regarding the exposing of his chest for example, as in the pilgrimage or during manual labor. Whereas even the female laborer, who typically didn’t need to cover herself to the fullest extent still could not expose her chest. The dress codes between men and women were distinct.

Division of Power

It is acknowledged the world over that men are on average physically stronger than women. Men are also mentally better on average with spatial and mathematical processing. Men tend to be better at navigating three-dimensional spaces and on average excel more in the STEM fields. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t women who excel in those feels also. It simply means that it isn’t what they prefer on average. In terms of the Qur’an men are charged with responsibility over women, and women in turn are required to obey men under whose responsibility they fall, be it their fathers’, uncles’, brothers’, husbands’ or the legal authority of a society:

Men are in charge of women1 by [right of] what Allāh has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allāh would have them guard.2 But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance3 – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them [lightly].4 But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allāh is ever Exalted and Grand.(4:34)

The above verse doesn’t only charge men with an obligation over the women in their society or families and marriages, but also gives such men the right to carry out punitive measures against women who are disobedient. It is normal within any hierarchy, whether it be in the corporate world, in the military or in governments that punitive measures be carried out against mutiny or failing to fulfill duties. While in the modern world it is seen as an abomination to presume male authority, in the world of the Qur’an it is normal. The Prophet Muhammad (s) also emphasized a division of power and duties in the following narration:

Abdullah ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them. The servant of a man is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it. No doubt, every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7138, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1829

It is clear that men having been charged with responsibility carry the gendered role of leading. It is only fair that when a person is charged with a duty, he is also given the means to discharge with that duty by carrying the relevant authority to do so. Since the society the Quran envisions is one in which men are in charge, it gives men the power to discharge with that function. In the world today, everything from the toilet flushing system, the roads, the houses people live in and the technology that makes the modern world function, is a product of the feats and labour of men. The Qur’an is not wrong in making the assumption that men carry that responsibility.

Islam also has an entire host of different legal implications when it comes to men and women from the perspective of the Qur’an itself right down to canonical law or the Shariah. The Quran within itself allows men to have several wives and concubines, but only allows women to have one husband. It entrusts men with scripture and governance in the form of Prophets and Messengers but never women. It praises men   and women of piety for different qualities. For example, Mary is praised for her chastity and modesty, David is praised for being brave.

The Qur’an requires of women a waiting period before being able to re-marry as a procedure of divorce, but never requires a man to have a waiting period. It obligated war on men when having to stand up for justice but does not obligate it on women. It requires men to pursue women with their wealth in the interest of longevity, but it doesn’t require of women to pursue men with their wealth. It obligates that men protect women, but it doesn’t obligate women to protect men. It has a lesser share of inheritance for women (half that of a man) when someone dies intestate, and prescribes that women obey their men but never that men must obey women. It also considers that the testimony of two women will equal the testimony of one man in a court of law. All those prescriptions are in the Qur’an and there are even more distinctions in practice concerning the Shariah in general.

A woman cannot, in Islamic law, pray while on her menses. Whereas men can never stop praying regardless of their condition. To the extent that prayer is required whether travelling, fighting a war, or being sick in bed. A woman can be exempt similarly from fasting in a way a man cannot. She is also not obligated, and in some instances not encouraged to attend communal prayers, whereas it is by default the rule that a man must pray in congregation. A woman is also not obligated to provide a household income, a man must do so. It is considered praiseworthy that a man has a sense of ghira (possessiveness) over his woman; whereas it is considered a blameworthy trait of a woman to be jealous over her husband regarding other women (because he is allowed to marry others). Vanity, on the other hand, is considered a praiseworthy trait within women who are allowed to adorn themselves with gold and silk, whereas vanity is considered a blameworthy trait in a man for whom gold jewelry and silk are forbidden.

A man who extends his hand out to a woman who hasn’t got her own support structure and subsequently marries her has obeyed Allah, whereas a woman who extends her hand out to support a man to the dismay of her husband has disobeyed Allah. The follow ahadith will demonstrate some of what was said:

Umm Salamah (May Allah be pleased with her) reported:

Messenger of Allah (s) said, “Any woman dies while her husband is pleased with her, she will enter Jannah”.

At- Tirmidhi, who classified it as Hadith Hasan

Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri:

Once Allah’s Messenger (s) went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of `Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger (s) ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (s)! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”

Sahih al Bukhari, 304 Book 6

It was narrated from Anas (Allah be pleased with him) that they said: “O Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), why don’t you marry a woman from the Ansar?” He said: “They are very jealous.” [Nasai]

Narrated Al-Mughira:

Sa`d bin Ubada said, “If I found a man with my wife, I would kill him with the sharp side of my sword.” When the Prophet (s) heard that he said, “Do you wonder at Sa`d’s sense of ghira (self-respect)? Verily, I have more sense of ghira than Sa`d, and Allah has more sense of ghira than I.”

Sahih al Bukhari, 6846

Conclusion

From the above narrations and several others, as well as numerous verses of the Qur’an for every point that can be cited above it is clear that in Islam men and women are not the same, aren’t treated as being the same and are not expected to behave in the same ways. It is never the case in Islam that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Men have been placed in a position of responsibility that requires them to risk their lives in ways that women are never required to do, and to protect and provide at great cost to themselves. For that reason, Allah also gave them authority over their families and societies. In much the same way a man must obey the authority of the law, the ruler, the governor or his employer, so too must women of his household, his wives, daughters, mothers, aunts and anyone under his protection obey him. Otherwise it cannot be expected of him to fulfill his duty as a man. Furthermore, the Qur’an allows for punitive measures to be carried out against disobedience because it is either that those under his care step in line or they will be abandoned.

1 thought on “Gender Roles in Islam

  1. When the two have the same goal to be Muslim in the obedience of Allah , there are no conflicting roles.

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