In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women in Islam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Muslim Women and Islamic Law
  • Female Sufis
  • Islamic History to 1800
  • Muslim Women Under Colonial Rule
  • Seclusion, Dress, and Veiling
  • Politics
  • Islamist (Fundamentalist) Movements
  • Critical Treatments of the Representation of Muslim Women
  • Documentaries
  • Feature Films

Islamic Studies Women in Islam
Marcia Hermansen, Barbara von Schlegell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0092


The study of women in Islam has expanded rapidly in recent decades. Reviewing normative Islamic injunctions about gender roles often provides a framework for situating specific and particular practices within diverse regions and societies and at differing historical epochs. At the same time, increased academic attention has focused on what can be known about actual Muslim women. New texture and complexity in the field has been achieved, for example, in the case of historical studies through the examination of documents such as court records. In anthropological, sociological, and development-oriented studies, scholarship on gender increasingly exhibits greater cultural knowledge and lived field work experience on the part of researchers, many of whom are themselves Muslim women. During the colonial period, the depiction of Muslim women as confined and oppressed was used to support an imperialistic project of changing and controlling Muslim cultures. The persistence of such attitudes and rationales has subsequently been critiqued by a number of scholars. In addition, certain works on women and gender in Islam may reflect apologetic or reformist trends within contemporary Islamic thought, or analyze these trends from an academic perspective. The development of Western feminist activism inspired similar approaches and methods among Muslims. Theorizing gender as culturally constructed has also led to studies of many elements of Muslim contexts including masculinities, queer theory, and other dimensions of sex roles as represented and enacted in Islamic thought and societies. Postmodern and postcolonial theories have similarly generated critiques of how Muslim women have been represented in both popular and academic settings and have attempted to expose the power relations and ideological agendas driving and sustaining such constructions.

General Overviews

Despite the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s situations and issues, a number of studies attempt an overview of normative pronouncements about and the historical contexts of Muslim women. The multivolume Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures features articles on many specific topics and regions. The historical overview of Ahmed 1992, while focusing on the Arab lands, is still the best introduction to the topic. Schimmel 1997 provides a basic overview of female spirituality, including a summary of female participation in classical Sufism.

  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    The classic study that situates Muslim women’s history within a broader Near Eastern context. Ahmed argues against the normativity of practices such as seclusion and veiling and brings out the role of Western prejudices in the portrayal and treatment of Muslim women in colonial and current times. The focus is on the Arab world, especially Egypt.

  • Bodman, Herbert, and Nayereh Tohidi, eds. Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity within Unity. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    A collection of articles on contemporary topics organized by region and country.

  • Falah, Ghazi-Wali, and Caroline Nagel, eds. Geographies of Muslim Women: Gender, Religion, and Space. New York: Guilford, 2005.

    A collection of articles on contemporary Muslim women from the perspective of cultural geography. Changes in experiences of “space and place” due to development and migration are highlighted rather than elements of religious discourse.

  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

    A groundbreaking collection of articles, translated sources, and vignettes.

  • Suad, Joseph, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Jane Smith, eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. 6 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2003–2007.

    A six-volume set, also in an e-version, featuring scholarly articles and resources dealing in great detail with themes, regions, and methodologies in the study of Muslim women in all times and contexts.

  • Nashat, Guity, and Judith E. Tucker. Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    As part of the series Restoring Women to History, this volume is a useful resource guide for teachers and provides an overview of research from the perspective of historians of women in the Muslim world. Covers the ancient world to the 17th century with a focus on the interactions of Islam with local cultures.

  • Roded, Ruth, ed. Women in Islam and the Middle East: A Reader. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999.

    Translated selections and excerpts from seminal sources. A useful teaching tool.

  • Schimmel, Annemarie. My Soul Is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam. Translated by Susan H. Ray. New York: Continuum, 1997.

    A scholar of religion and literature traces representations of the feminine in Islamic texts and poetry from a wide variety of regions and epochs.

  • Sonbol, Amira El-Azhary, ed. Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.

    A collection of articles organized around women’s history as documented in various sorts of records (Qur’an, Awqaf documents, archives, textbooks) as well as examples from material and popular culture.

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