By Sarah Alaoui
Staff Writer

Before the status of women in Islam can be determined, the religion itself must first be analyzed separately from the cultures and practices in “Islamic” countries—most notably, those in the Middle East. I argue that Islam gives women and men equal human rights spiritually, financially, and socially, thereby making it compatible with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its emphasis on gender equality. I maintain that because of the persistence of agrarian labor and tribal traditions that created an imbalance and inequality of gender roles, these rights are not protected in many Middle Eastern countries that claim to practice Islam. I present these inequities, which result from the survival of patriarchal traditions, by examining three countries and their breach of women’s rights as protected in Islam and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.


The subjugation of women in Afghanistan today cannot be attributed solely to the Taliban’s rule—rather, its roots were planted long before and continue to exist today. Even before the fundamentalist group took control, its past as a patriarchal agrarian society created a legacy of distinct gender roles and “…tribal traditions where men exercise unmitigated power over women,” (Ahmed-Ghosh 1). The structure of Afghan societies—especially in rural areas—is based around strong tribal and ethnic divisions with honor systems playing a major role in the various groups’ customs and their attitudes towards women. These honor codes center primarily around the preservation of their purity and morality. Women are used as pawns that help create and seal alliances between tribes through marriages, which are usually planned without the consent of the brides. In these unions, “…total obedience to the husband and his family is expected, and women are prevented from getting any education,” (Ahmed-Ghosh 2).

The Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, have a complex honor-based society that exemplifies the way tribal traditions have continued to define women’s roles today. Pashtunwali, translated literally as “the way of the Pashtuns” is the foundation of this people’s identity. Violation of any of the various stipulations prescribed by the code places the defier at risk of being shunned by his or her tribe, making adherence the obvious choice. The izzat, or honor of the Pashtun individual, is crucial to their membership in the group—without it, “…he or she is no longer considered a Pashtun, and is not given the rights, protection, and support of the Pashtun community” (Kakar 3). Members of self-sustaining agrarian communities are interdependent, eliminating exile as an option for survival.

The most important pillar of this extensive system is the purdah, often referred to as the symbolic veil separating the men’s sphere from the women’s sphere—a segregation necessary to uphold honor. In agrarian societies of Afghanistan, this is often practiced through the division of labor based on gender. Women are “…left to care for the household while the men are out shepherding the flocks for days and weeks” (Kakar 5). They are expected to remain within their respective sphere and it is common knowledge that consequences arise when these boundaries are crossed. For women, these consequences include getting, “…beaten, accused of dishonor, and even perhaps expelled from the community” (Kakar 5). The purdah and izzat are crucial to the survival of the Afghan system of patriarchy because the honor of the male head of a family is directly dependent on his wife’s virtue. In fact, “it is often said that Pashtun men customarily see women as comprising the essence of the family. If a woman earns a bad reputation, her whole family, which includes the men, is sullied” (Kakar 8). Places where mixing of unmarried or unrelated members of the opposite sex is prevalent are regarded as areas where moral defilement is likely to occur—unfortunately these places often include schools and even hospitals. This explains why such drastic measures are often taken to separate the women of Afghanistan from anything that may bring shame to their families—even if it comes at the expense of their basic human rights.

Though many may confuse the tribal traditions practiced in Islamic countries with the religion of Islam, it is important to note that, “…though the Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of law, it was their Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, which governed them before all else,” (Kakar 2). Afghan society is structured around tribal divisions and although its people are practicing Muslims, the religion is ordained through tribal leaders who rarely recognize the line that lies between cultural customs and Islamic laws. They conveniently fail to enforce parts of the religion that could potentially obstruct the continuity of their patriarchal system, and the steps they take to preserve their ways are often in clear violation of not only Islam, but also the universal standards of human rights.

The fact that the first word of the Quran revealed was iqra, which translates to the command, “read” or “learn” in Arabic, is proof enough of the impact that Islam places on the education of its followers. However, there are numerous other places within the scripture and also in the hadiths (words or deeds of the Prophet, peace be upon him) in which the education of both males and females is emphasized. The Prophet (pbuh) used to say, for example, that, “education is obligatory on both Muslim men and women, even if they have to go to China to seek it” (Bhutto). The reiteration of the importance of learning in Islam is in clear opposition to the current practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan today—a group still deeply entrenched in ancient tribal practices. As of 2009, more than 630 schools have been shut down by the Taliban because they have been deemed “un-Islamic” (IRIN). Ironically, it is the closing down of these educational institutions that are against the tenets of Islam and in comparison, the tribal traditions they have carried throughout the years that condone such actions.

With respect to the forced marriages and subservience to men that is expected of women in Afghan tribes, these actions are also condemned in Islam where, “no one – not even her father can force her to marry against her expressed consent. And a woman does not cease to be an individual after marriage” (Bhutto). A woman’s humanity and singularity is acknowledged in Islam and she is not regarded as property to be beaten and abused as is the case in patriarchal Afghan societies. Tribal leaders abuse their absolute power and, by labeling cultural traditions as religious, they manage to maintain their sexist system of hierarchy.

According to the UN Universal Standards of Human Rights, the institutionalized patriarchies of Afghan societies violate several articles, including the document’s core premise that “…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” Women in Afghanistan live in the constant fear that they will bring shame upon their families. They live their lives in fear that they will be punished for simply desiring access to an education or healthcare in a public place alongside their fellow human beings. Afghanistan’s tribal rituals, as demonstrated by the Pashtunwali, are also in clear violation of Article 16 of the Universal Standards, which declares that only marriage between two consenting spouses is humanely permissible. In addition to its transgression of many other standards, the Afghan tradition of segregation—often depriving women of an education altogether—breaches Article 26, which ultimately acknowledges that all human beings have the right to an education.


Similar to the tribal system in Afghanistan, Iran’s history of patriarchies is framed within a monarchical patrilineal heritage. Males were placed on a much higher scale than women were during Iran’s dynastic era, which contributes to the subordinate place in society that women fill today. As was done in the tribal societies of Afghanistan, where marriage unions were created to facilitate alliances between groups, marriages in Iran were carried out more as eternal business deals than meaningful relationships. According to Sedghi, this system:

…ensured patriarchal domination…and permanent marriage analogous to a commercial transaction, in which the woman, the object of the contractual transaction, is exchanged for the mehr (brideprice). The brideprice specifies saman-e boz or the price for a woman’s sexual organ. The marriage contract approximates a commercial contract in Islamic Law, where saman (price) is exchanged for the mabi (object for sale). Marriage is thus a contract for the legalization of sexual intercourse, not for love… (28)

These transactions were arranged and conducted by the bride’s father and groom without ever receiving her consent. In fact, many of the marriages that took place in Iran involved young nine or ten-year-old girls. Essentially the unions symbolized a transfer of the female’s sexuality to the possession of her new husband—her role was to serve as a sex object and reproductive machine.

From their childhoods and onward, women were taught to be ashamed of their gender. During the late 18th to early 20th centuries, under the rule of the Qajar Dynasty, it was considered a social disgrace to give birth to girls. The consequences of a female birth, “…usually meant disappointment to the father and fear in the mother, who might face abandonment or punishment by her husband or his close relatives or her own father,” (Sedghi 27). During this period of time, it was common for members of the royal family or wealthy landlords to take on as many as 300 wives at a time—some legitimate and some servants that were taken on as concubines. Having many wives maximized the husband’s chances for having male children to carry on his name—this was important for members of royalty especially because of the legacy of their dynasties. This number of spouses, though disproportionate to that found in Iran today, further entrenched a patriarchal system that doted on males and subordinated females to the role of domestic baby-making machines.

Contrary to popular belief, polygamy is not encouraged in Islam and is only allowed under certain conditions:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course. (Qur’an 4:3)

During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), it was appropriate to take on more than one wife (but only a maximum of four were permitted) because the wartime conditions during this period left many women widowed and even more orphaned—marriage was seen as an act of charity that helped save and support these women. 300 wives would not be permitted as there would be no feasible way in which the husband can provide equal time and care to each of them—another stipulation to this “luxury” of polygamy. This is another example of the misrepresentation and exploitation of Islam through cultural practices.

Even the way women were forced to dress during the Qajar Dynasty was an indication of their lower status in society simply because of what the various articles of clothing were widely known to symbolize. Women wore a “…three-piece dress consisting of…very loose trousers…that signified their separate world; it assured them space and identity as…the weak and status as…those obedient to men’s will,” (Sedghi 26). This dark, uniform clothing represented their isolation from the world of men and the clearly distinct sphere they were made to live in as part of the male-dominated world that ruled them.

The patriarchal dynasty of Iran during the Qajar and Pahlavi monarchical rule came to a halt with the 1979 Revolution. The series of protests and demonstrations against the rule of the kings united most of Iran’s citizens against the patriarchal structure that had so staunchly defined Iranian families. Women were strongly represented among the protesters and they, “…themselves began recognizing their strength in numbers. An egalitarian spirit prevailed in the streets during this period of the Revolution,” (Fathi 132). This inkling of hope for women remained just that, however, because the traditional Iranian family structure that was entrenched under Iran’s dynastic rule was too engrained in the culture to be overcome by a renewal of ideas—no matter how radical.

Rule under then Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and now Khamenei’s theocracy was similar to the monarchs before them, but now hidden under the pretext of Islamic rule. Soon after coming into power, Khomeini enforced the hijab head covering for all women venturing out into public, and reaffirmed their domestic roles in the household and away from the public sphere by denying them access to political power. He also went so far as to have women arrested who violated certain dress codes. Both Khomeini and Khamenei are known to carry out inegalitarian punishment for things such as adultery, giving women the short end of the stick (Sedghi 202). The theocratic leaders’ rule served the same purpose as that of the monarchs—keep women subservient to men. The former leaders under the umbrella of the Islamic Republic of Iran, simply added a religious spin to their actions and, “in an attempt to ‘Islamicize’ women’s position, they resorted to coercion, passed inegalitarian laws, and mobilized female morality squads or…the gender police, to enforce its codes of propriety” (Sedghi 202).

An oft-publicized and debated subject about Islam is the issue of women’s dress and covering. While it was imposed upon women in Iran, the Quran mentions it as advice directed towards women and not towards men or anyone else to mandate:
“Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…” (Al-Mu’minun 24:30-31).

Ultimately, it is a Muslim woman’s choice to practice modesty how she sees fit and this decision does not religiously fall within any Ayatollah’s jurisdiction. This freedom is also in accordance with the UN Universal Standards of Human Rights which recognize every individual’s, “…right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.” Under the scriptures and the human rights document, no entity should have the power to tell any individual how to express themselves—whether it be through imposing the donning of the veil or not.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, the extended family is a crucial part of the country’s society. The way various roles within these families were organized, especially, led up to the norms we see today. Even before Islam arrived in Saudi Arabia in the 7th century, division of labor was divided by gender. Similar to Afghanistan and Iran, “the primary male roles were as providers and protectors of the family, working outside the home. The primary female roles were as nurturers and managers within the home, in which all women in the family tended to band together to influence family decisions,” (Long 36). These various positions in society that the two genders held and traditions of secluding the women away from the public lives of men were entrenched in Arabian society even before its origination of Islam. Included in these customs was the issue of female modesty—this was a common theme prevalent in many civilizations at this time. The, “…virtue of female modesty, including its assocation with women’s apparel in public, is expressed in Genesis 24—65: ‘And Rebekah lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac, she asked the servant, ‘Who is that man walking through the fields to meet us?’ And the servant replied, ‘That is my master;’ then she took her veil and covered herself” (Long 36).

This atmosphere that placed such a large emphasis on women’s modesty (similar to the honor codes of Afghanistan and the dress of women in traditional Iranian families) set up the backdrop for future violations against women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

In a society trying desperately to hold on to its beliefs and traditions amidst the oncoming waves of development and progression of women in the public sphere, Islam remains a static, sentimental piece of the world they firmly hold on to. The modest woman as depicted in the Quran symbolizes the antithesis to the Western woman, according to Saudis—the latter is one they do not want existing within their patriarchies. As a result of their attempts to prevent “Western thoughts” from permeating their close-knit, delineated gender roles, they have implemented many laws including mandatory head to toe covering, lax punishments for perpetrators of domestic violence and the banning women from driving. As mentioned before in the examinations of the previous countries, covering is up to the woman and not something that should be mandated by a state or other unaffected individual. Domestic violence, as in other Abrahamic religions, is not condoned and the woman has a right to divorce with her husband providing for her: “[65:7] The rich husband shall provide support in accordance with his means, and the poor shall provide according to the means that GOD bestowed upon him. GOD does not impose on any soul more than He has given it. GOD will provide ease after difficulty.” As for driving, according to the Hadiths, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife (pbuh) rode her own camel while fighting in battles as did his prior wife, Khadijah. Once again, the religion of Islam has been used in a Middle Eastern country as a scapegoat in order to preserve the patriarchal status quo.


It can be simple to blur the line between culture and religion when referring to the Middle East and its various countries’ violations of women’s rights as accorded to them naturally and specified in the UN Universal Standards of Human Rights. However, when one looks at first the examples of Afghanistan, then Iran and Saudi Arabia, it becomes clear that the patriarchal cultures in each of these societies developed from tribalism, patrilineal dynasties, and roles in extended families, outlasted and often outshined the Islamic religion that was practiced in their midst. The bonds of culture and traditions are too strong to take the backseat to religion and are often spread and implemented under its pretext—especially by the dominant male ruling group to justify their patriarchal societies. When one looks at the actual teachings of the Islamic religion, however, it becomes clear how they have been used in these countries to propel their ruling, male-dominated class’s agendas forward and how in reality, they mirror the universal standards of human rights.

Works Cited

Ahmed-Ghosh, Huma. A History of Women in Afghanistan: Lessons Learnt for the Future. Diss. San Diego State University, 2003. Print.

Bhutto, Benazir. “The Prophet Preached Equal Rights; Now the Task Is To Restore Them.” Asiaweek 25 Aug. 1995. Print.

Fathi, Asghar. Women and the Family in Iran. Leiden: Brill, 1985. Print.

“IRIN Asia | AFGHANISTAN: Taliban Forces Students out of Schools into Madrasas | Asia | Afghanistan | Children Education Gender Issues Conflict | Feature.” IRIN ” Humanitarian News and Analysis from Africa, Asia and the Middle East – Updated Daily. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. .

Long, David E. Culture and Customs of Saudi Arabia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2005. Print.

Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

“Tribal Law of Pashtunwali and Women’s Legislative Authority.” Diss. Harvard University. Web. .

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Welcome to the United Nations: It’s Your World. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. .
“Human Rights Concerns.” Amnesty International USA – Protect Human Rights. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. <http://www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/saudi-arabia/human-rights-concerns/page.do?id=1

Photo courtesy of Dmahendra.

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