In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Female Islamic Education Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Informal Study Circles versus Formal Degree-Based Programs
  • Relationships with Male Religious Authority
  • Islamic Education and Piety
  • Islamic Education and Feminist Agency
  • Islamic Knowledge and the Socioeconomic Profile of the Learner

Islamic Studies Female Islamic Education Movements
Masooda Bano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0268


Muslim societies have largely been effective in preserving the tradition of imparting basic Islamic knowledge to both male and female children, but for women this education has traditionally taken place within the home. Formal study of Islamic texts in a mosque or madrasa has largely been a male prerogative. In the early period of Islam, women were involved in the transmission of Islamic knowledge, especially Hadith studies, particularly in the cities of Damascus and Cairo, but their involvement remained sporadic and completely ceased in the 16th century. Since the 1970s, however, the formal study of Islamic texts among Muslim women has undergone a major revival. This is happening even in regions with no such prior history, such as South Asia. These movements take different forms, including female madrasas, Islamiyya schools, and informal study circles. However, across different contexts, it is possible to group these diverse platforms into two broad categories: formal and informal. The formal educational platforms, such as madrasas or Islamiyya schools, follow a set curriculum, hold examinations, and issue formal certificates; the informal platforms, which are organized mainly as weekly or biweekly study circles in homes, hotels, or mosques, adopt a looser structure. The teaching across these different platforms is largely focused on study of the Qurʾan (both tajwid and tafsir), followed by study of the Hadith; in the formal platforms, the curriculum also includes basic texts in aqida and fiqh. The emergence and steady spread of these movements has led to two key concerns among scholars. First, what impact do they have on women’s agency? Second, as women acquire specialist knowledge of Islam, will they challenge the authority of the ulama and reinterpret Islamic texts through a feminist lens? The evidence suggests that, unlike Islamic feminists, who have sought to reinterpret classical Islamic texts from a feminist perspective, women in these Islamic education movements actively defend the classical interpretations of the core Islamic rulings on gender relations and position themselves against feminist debates. But, equally, while defending the core Islamic rulings, these women reason and debate and, drawing on the plurality of Islamic legal reasoning, find creative ways to remain loyal to the core of the tradition while also staying actively engaged with modern realities. These movements are distinct from women’s wings of Islamic political parties; they are purely focused on education and are evident across both Sunni and Shiʿa contexts.

General Overviews

Scholarship on female Islamic education movements has emerged primarily since the early years of the present century. Before this, studies examining Muslim women’s engagement with the texts mainly focused on the work of Islamic feminist scholars who aimed to present a gender-sensitive reading of the Qurʾan (Badran 2009; Mir-Hosseini, et al. 2014). Recent studies have instead focused on mapping women’s contributions to preserving traditional Islamic scholarship in historical as well as contemporary periods. Nadwi 2007 presents a detailed analysis of Muslim women’s contribution to the acquisition and transmission of Islamic knowledge, especially Hadith studies, between the 1st and 9th centuries of Islam; Sayeed 2013 shares similar evidence, presenting profiles of a few prominent female scholars of Hadith and documenting their contributions. In their study of Nana Asma’u, daughter of Usman dan Fodio, founder of the 19th-century Sokoto Empire in West Africa, Mack and Boyd 2000 show how prominent Muslim women scholars occasionally emerged across different contexts. Mahmood 2005 is the first study to systematically record the modern emergence of women’s mosque movements. By focusing on the attention paid to the embodiment of pious behavior among women in the mosque movement that she studied in Cairo, Mahmood presents an influential critique of the feminist notion of female agency. However, by focusing too narrowly on ethical agency, she has been criticized for neglecting the creative reasoning demonstrated by women in the movements. Other studies have since then filled this gap. Bano 2017, for example, shows how women in these movements, even though respecting Islamic gender norms, use reasoning and debate to relate Islamic rulings to their contemporary realities; in particular, women from more educated and elite socioeconomic backgrounds engage with text in ways that enable them to remain engaged with modern institutions that dictate their everyday choices, while respecting the core Islamic rulings. Bano and Kalmbach 2012, an edited volume consisting of twenty-one chapters, each of which features a female preacher in a leading role, records similar creative agency within these movements (see also Hammer and Spielhaus 2013). The reasoning and approach of the women leading and participating in these female Islamic education movements is thus quite distinct from those of Islamic feminists, who, as summarized in Badran 2009, have tried to reinterpret the Islamic texts with reference to a secular feminist framework. The scholarship emerging on female Islamic education movements is thus new and distinct from the scholarship produced on Islamic feminists (see DeLong-Bas 2019 and the Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies article “Women and Tafsir”).

  • Badran, Margot. Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009.

    Explores the intersection between secular and Islamic feminism. Presents a good summary of the key methodological tools that Islamic feminists have used to interpret Qurʾanic texts in light of the feminist agenda.

  • Bano, Masooda. Female Islamic Education Movements: The Re-democratisation of Islamic Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316986721

    Presents detailed ethnographies of both formal and informal female Islamic education movements in Pakistan, northern Nigeria, and Syria. Illustrates how women interpret the texts in light of their everyday realities, and how women from different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds raise different questions about the texts.

  • Bano, Masooda, and Hilary E. Kalmbach, eds. Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2012.

    Presents twenty-one case studies of female preachers and analyzes how they establish their authority vis-à-vis their students, how they uphold traditional readings of the text, and how they normally draw on the support of male scholars rather than challenging them.

  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. “Women, Islam, and the Twenty-first Century.” In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Presents an overview of women’s growing involvement in the sphere of religious education as teachers, preachers, and interpreters of law.

  • Hammer, Juliane, and Riem Spielhaus. “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Authority: An Introduction.” In The Muslim World 103.3 (2013): 287–294.

    DOI: 10.1111/muwo.12013

    The introduction to a special issue of The Muslim World that features articles on the exercise of Islamic authority by women and the challenges that they face. Some articles explicitly focus on women scholars who are leading prominent Islamic education movements. Available online by subscription.

  • Mack, Beverly B., and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

    Presents a detailed study of the life and contributions of Nana Asma’u to Islamic scholarship. She was the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, who led the powerful Sokoto Empire during the early 19th century. Shows how women occasionally made substantial contributions to Islamic scholarship, even in regions where historically there is no precedent for it.

  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with women in the women’s mosque movement in Cairo, the author questions the feminist conception of agency, which expects women to be always in opposition to established structures of power. Mahmood makes a powerful case for the recognition of ethical agency, though in the process fails to fully acknowledge the creative energy within these movements.

  • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, Mulki al-Sharmani, and Jana Rumminger, eds. Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.

    This volume brings together a collection of essays that challenge gender discrimination and the emphasis on male authority as legitimized within Muslim societies based on the Islamic legal tradition. The essays adopt a feminist perspective to problematize two dominant concepts in Islamic scholarship: qiwamah (husband’s authority over his wife) and wilayah (male members’ rights and duty of guardianship over female members).

  • Nadwi, Mohammad Akram. Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam. Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007.

    Presents a comprehensive review of the involvement of Muslim women in the transmission of Islamic knowledge, especially Hadith, in the early centuries of Islam. Notes how the socioeconomic and political context influenced the extent of women’s participation in Islamic knowledge production.

  • Sayeed, Asma. Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139381871

    Records the contributions of women scholars to the transmission and study of Hadith in the early periods of Islam. Presents detailed profiles of some prominent female scholars from the early centuries.

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