Five seminal texts that engage the question of Women’s Rights in Islam

Canonization of religion has led to male-supremacy, a phenomenon that makes many to question the interpretation of texts

In my undergrad days in Delhi University, we had a small Kashmiri Students group. The group included some men who had studied religion, religious texts and philosophies and could engage and sustain a hard debate on religion.

That was good, but it sometime seemed as if they would throw religion at women and we hardly had a way to respond because we had not engaged deeply with religion.

Women in Kashmir hardly have strong and engaged opinions on religious or politics.

The systematic marginalisation of women has kept women limited to domestic spheres where all our conversations revolve from gossip, envying other women who have relatively more freedom than us, to talking about trips to tailors, latest dress trends, makeup etc. When women gather on family functions, these are the topics they have conversations over.

In the next room, men usually have conversations about religion, politics, philosophies and the conversations are enabled by a continuous supply of chai from the kitchens, which helps keep the blood warm and the debates heated.

“Religion isn’t simply surrender, it is ‘engaged surrender’ to the will of Almighty,” Amina Wadud writes in her seminal text, ‘Quran and Women’.

When feminists raise conversations over women’s rights and the absence thereof, men often leave no stone unturned in delegitimizing their opinions as well as lived realities by throwing their interpretation of religious texts at them.

These moments helped me decide, and take my own journey into religion and the religious texts. Verses concerning women were my focus. There is a Quran App on Play Store where we can simultaneously view 3-4 translations of Quran and understand what gets lost in translations, and also what gets abused.

I was at it wholeheartedly. I read Tafsirs and contemporary rationalist scholars on Islam, who held values like ijtihaad (Independent reasoning) at the heart of reading into, or interpreting the scripture.

And I feel it is my moral duty to urge other women to take a deep plunge and an engaged journey into religion, and the debates that affect our lives, and who gets to control them, and what ‘autonomy within religion’ means.

Here is a list of books that helped me.

1. Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of Quran (2002) by Asma Barlas

The book argues that the purpose of the text is both to critique the methods by which Muslims generate patriarchal readings of the Quran and to recover the egalitarian aspects of Quranic epistemology.

By showing the un-gendered nature of God, Barlas problematizes the stereotypical view of God as a ‘father’, a view that lends sanction and credibility to the rule of man, father; the foundation of patriarchy, and argues that because of this aspect, the Quran discredits the foundation of patriarchy itself.

2. Quran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1999) by Amina Wadud

Wadud demonstrating the dynamic and polysemic (multiple meanings of a single word) nature of the gendered nature of Arabic grammar/language deconstructs some essential patriarchal vocabulary that has for centuries limited women from actively participating in the public sphere.

She uses linguistic etymology to subvert language that has justified violence against women in the name of Islam and argues that interpretations by all-male interpreters and absence of women exegetes have led to such traditions of misogynist meaning which got read into the Quran.

Her methodology is concerned with three aspects of the text (the Quran), in order to support its conclusions.

a. The context in which the text was written (distinctions between universal and particular verses).
b. The grammatical composition of the text
c. The whole text i.e taking the larger message of the text, one of love, compassion, equality and egalitarianism to support one interpretation over the others.

3. Veil and the Male Elite; A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (1991) by Fatima Mernissi

Mernissi attempts historicising of Quran and the traditional practice of the Prophet (ﷺ) in those times, and their origin to show how the traditional male elite’s power concerns led to the interpretations and practice of Islam as it was, and is, practised in Muslim Societies today.

Mernissi argues that such practices do not show the original intent of Quran and Islam.

She demonstrates how Islam essentially is an egalitarian faith as it supports core values of equality of all believers before God.

Mernissi demonstrates historically how the times of Prophet (ﷺ) were the times of equal participation of men and women in the Public life. Mernissi’s thesis makes case for how Islam, in its time, was a break from traditional Arab patriarchal attitudes towards women, a culture where women were traded as cattle, thought of as possessions, and how the Male Elite legitimized traditional misogyny.

Mernissi deconstructs the earliest Hadith canonization, especially the canonization of misogynist Hadiths, and discusses their contestations.

4. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence (2016) by Kecia Ali

The book deals mainly with the sexual-ethics aspect of the Quran and combines earlier arguments to make a comprehensive and a balanced case that asks a fundamental radical question: What makes sex after marriage inherently lawful before God?

Ali asks questions that deal with issues of divorce, homosexuality, or sex outside marriage and the contested terrain of the sexual duties of wives and concubines.

Ali does ask very important questions but with a radical break from the Quran’s own framework.

She takes a stand neither from within, nor one totally from the outside, which creates another vantage point of engagement.

5. Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (2001) by Khaled Abou El Fadl

Asking basic questions about the Muslim legal system, Khaled delves deep into the etymological roots of the term ‘authority’ and how ‘divine will’ gets translated into authority by certain sections only as per their own individual manifestations and interpretations for power and other interests.

He deconstructs and analyses the earlier methodology and canonization of Hadiths and the history that led to adoption of misogynist traditions within Islam.

Khaled’s debates ask radical and thought provoking questions. His examples in the book feel too much at home.


Muntaha Amin has studied Film and Media from Jamia Millia Islamia. Her research work revolves around representation politics, religion and gender.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected]


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