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Article 433

Female Leadership in Islam

By Sarah Shehabuddin

There is the woman
My mother, sister, daughter
She stirs in me the most sacred emotions
How can the holy book regard her unworthy
This most noble, beautiful creature
Surely the learned have erred
To read this in the Quran.
-- Muhummad Ibn Tumart (1077-1130)

As Ibn Tirmudh’s poem suggests, the debate over the status of women in Islam is neither a product of modernity nor the sole concern of outsiders to Islamic civilization. The past two decades have seen the appearance of Muslim scholars whose writings bear a keen resemblance to those of early Muslim modernists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their writings include new commentaries on Quranic verses, analyses of the authenticity of reports of the Prophet’s traditions, scientific proofs of the inaccuracy of certain extra-scriptural ideas in Muslim society, as well as clarifications of Islamic history. These works are often answers to traditionalist and fundamentalist views of women’s rights and roles. The past two decades have also seen three practicing Muslim women come to power: Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. While they are certainly not among the first women to rule over Muslims, they have brought renewed relevance to the question of whether Muslim women may assume positions of leadership over men. This question is inextricable from the debates surrounding the status of women in Islam, gendered traditional duties of Muslim rulers and women, purdah, menstruation, motherhood, and common good. With Quranic verses, hadiths, historical and current examples of female leadership, scholars, such as Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, and Rafiq Zakaria, show that Islam does not ascribe leadership to men alone and cast doubt over the claims conservatives have made since shortly after Prophet Mohammed’s death.

The Holy Quran : Concept of leadership with regard to gender

Any discussion of an Islamic point-of-view on a matter begins with a study of relevant verses (if any) from the Quran. Most Muslims consider the Quran the unaltered word of God as revealed to Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century of the Common Era. It is the primary source of Islamic jurisprudence, followed by the Prophet’s example or sunnah (a combination of biographies and compilations of records of his sayings and actions), the consensus of scholars, and derivation of law through analogy. Unlike the last two sources of jurisprudence, Quranic ordinances are binding on all Muslims, as is the Prophet’s Sunnah. We will therefore confine our discussion of the scriptural treatment of female leadership to the Quran and Sunnah.
Does the Quran designate women as the unconditional followers of men within the family and/or within society? Two Quranic verses seem to acknowledge men’s leadership over women:
1. Men are in charge of women, because God has made some excel (faddala) some of the others [4:34].
2. And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them [2:228].
Conservative Muslims frequently quote these verse to promulgate the view that a man is the head of the Muslim family and that a woman may never take charge of men. Syed Abul a’la Maududi, for example, extended the role of man as leader and woman as follower within the family to the public sphere. He upheld the translation: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women because God has made the one superior to the other” (cited in Wadud 71). According to Amina Wadud, “an individual scholar who considers faddala an unconditional preference of males over females does not restrict qiwamah to the family relationship but applies it to society at large. Men, the superior beings, are qawwamuna ala women, the dependent, inferior beings” (72). This view opposes any possibility of female leadership as it claims the Quran prefers men as leaders both within the family and within society.
On the other hand, fundamentalists such as Sayyid Qutb restrict the applicability of the verses to the family. Qutb upholds that as men provide for women, they earn the privilege of being in charge of women within the conjugal relationship. Even some modernists, such as Rafiq Zakaria, concede that men are the leaders within the family even though they argue women can be leaders at the same time. Scholars such as Qutb and Zakaria restrict the privilege of men over women to within the family as the preceding and following verses deal with conjugal relations and not with the status of each sex in society at large.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Maududi, Amina Wadud rejects the idea that the Quran relegates women to an inferior position within the family or society in Quran and Woman. She analyzes the first verse as follows: “Men are [qawwamuna ala] women [on the basis] of what God has [preferred] (faddala) some of them over others, and [on the basis] of what they spend of their property (for the support of women)” [4:34]. She defines the more ‘what’ God has given to men as inheritance, the only thing of which God gives more to men in the Quran; she therefore interprets the verse to mean men must use their inheritance and earnings to tend to the needs of women as females play an indispensable and arduous role in assuring the continuation of the human species:

The childbearing responsibility is of grave importance: human existence depends upon it. This responsibility requires a great deal of physical strength, stamina, intelligence, and deep personal commitment. Yet, while this responsibility is so obvious and important, what is the responsibility of the male in this family and society at large? For simple balance and justice in creation, and to avoid oppression, his responsibility must be equally significant to the continuation of the human race. The Quran establishes his responsibility as qiwamah: seeing to it that the woman is not burdened with additional responsibilities which jeopardize that primary demanding responsibility that only she can fulfil. Ideally, everything she needs to fulfil her primary responsibility comfortably should be supplied in society, by the male: this means physical protection as well as material sustenance (73).

Therefore, the verse, according to Wadud, does not establish women as inferior to men or that men are the divinely designated leaders of women. It ordains men to fulfil responsibilities toward women who bear children and thereby should not be expected to work and support the family as well.
With regard to verse 2:228, Wadud restricts it to the matter of divorce. The Quran allows men to divorce their wives without having to go to court whereas women have to seek the assistance of a judge. According to Wadud, this is necessary so that the judge can make sure the husband accepts the termination of the marriage without abusing the wife. Men therefore have to fulfill a greater financial responsibility toward women in return for the ease of initiating the divorce; they have a higher degree of financial responsibility toward women whereas a woman does not have to compensate a man if she initiates the divorce. For modernists such as Wadud, as women are not confined to being followers within the family, there is no prohibition against their assuming leadership roles within society.
Another verse occasionally used by conservatives warns against entrusting money to the “foolish” which many companions of the Prophet interpreted as a reference to women as well as children: “Give not unto the foolish (what is in) your (keeping of their wealth), which Allah has given you to maintain” [4:5]. If God has forbidden men to entrust their money to women, how can they even think of entrusting all of society to them? Al-Tabari, however, says that had God wished to denote women by “foolish” he would have used the feminine plural form of foolish instead of the masculine or gender-neutral one (Mernissi 96). The use of this verse to prohibit female leadership exemplifies the range of evidence both sides bring to support their views.
With regard to such verses, the decision on whether or not women may lead men and women depends on whether a nation accepts the fundamentalist or modernist interpretation. Through present day, the conservative view has generally received wider acceptance. Given the possible limitation of verses 4:3 and 2:228 to the conjugal relationship, does the Quran make any specific references to female leadership within society or a ‘nation’?

The Glorious Throne

According to the Quran, God created human beings as his trustees (khilafa) on Earth: “And remember when your lord said to the angels, ‘Verily, I am going to place a vicegerent on earth’ ” [2:7]. The ideal form of leadership involves realizing God’s will in one’s personal life and within one’s society. As rulers generally have control over what their society does, they have the additional role of morally guiding their society.
The only Quranic reference to female leadership (as in head of state) involves Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Few Muslims would contest that the Quran holds Bilqis in high esteem. Amina Wadud emphasizes the implications of the Quran’s favorable treatment of Bilqis for female leadership: “Despite the fact that she [Bilqis] ruled over a nation, most Muslims hold leadership as improper for a woman. The Quran uses no terms that imply that the position of ruler is inappropriate for a woman. On the contrary, the Quranic story of Bilqis celebrates both her political and religious practices” (40). Rafiq Zakaria, in his allegorical
Trial of Benazir Bhutto
, provides the historical context of the story:

Yusuf Ali: Saba was the name of the inhabitants of South Arabia. The capital city Ma’rib, was situated about 80 kilometers from the present Sanna, the capital of North Yemen. Saba was a flourishing people, adept in commerce; they reached the height of prosperity during the reign of a woman, named Bilqis, the legendary Queen of Sheba. During the same period (about 1100 to 800 BC) there ruled over the present Palestine, Jordan, the West Bank and part of Syria, Solomon who was mightier than any ruler of his times. . .One day he found one of his favorite birds, called Hoopie, missing; on enquiry Solomon was told it had just returned, bringing information about another kingdom where people worshipped the sun but whose ruler was a noble lady, ever solicitous of the welfare of her subjects. She ruled by consulting her Council, consisting of the local leaders (106).

Upon hearing about this queen, her ‘great throne,’ and her sun-worshiping nation, King Solomon sends a messenger with a letter to Sheba to enjoin her to submit to Islam: “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful: Be you not exalted against me, but come to me as Muslims” [Quran 27:30-31]. Bilqis reacts to the letter by telling her advisors she has received a ‘noble’ letter from King Solomon, reading it to them, and then asking them what she should do.
Her reaction reveals Bilqis’s ability to make independent decisions as well as her political tactfulness. Although the letter asks her to make her nation abandon its religion, its wording does not provoke a negative reaction in her; in fact, she describes it as “noble” [27:29]. When she asks her advisors for their opinion, she does so not because she is incapable of formulating a decision (she has already articulated her personal appreciation of the letter), but in accordance with norms of diplomacy and protocol (Wadud 41). Prophet Mohammed himself held consultation and consensus in high esteem: “My community will never agree on an error” (Muslim). By relegating the decision to Bilqis, her advisors show their confidence in her wisdom and willingness to submit to her decision-making: “They said: We have great strength, and great ability for war, but it is for you to command: so think over what you will command” [27:33]. While her advisors mention war as a possibility, Bilqis seeks a peaceful resolution to the conflict. She realizes an invasion by Solomon’s army would entail devastation for her nation: “She said: ‘Lo! Kings, when they enter a township, ruin it and make the honor of its people shame. Thus will they do! But lo! I am going to send a present to them, and see with what (answer) my messengers return’” [27:33-35]. Thus, to safeguard her people’s honor and safety, she refuses to engage in open hostility in spite of her advisors’ confidence in her nation’s military power.
Instead of declaring war against Solomon and causing bloodshed, she resorts to pacifist diplomacy and tries to appease him by sending a gift. Solomon rejects the gift saying: “Will you help me in wealth? What God has given me is better than which He has given you! Nay, you rejoice in your gift!” [27:36]. Instead of taking offence, Bilqis decides to go to Solomon herself: “As she is a ruler, such a decision carries importance. It means that she has determined that there is something special and particular about this unusual circumstance which warrants her personal attention and not just that of ambassadors. Perhaps it is his first letter which is written ‘In the name of God’ or because he rejects her material gift” (Wadud 41). Thus, Bilqis has the wisdom to sense the singularity of Solomon’s message.
Solomon prepares two tests for her. While she is on her way to him, Solomon asks for someone to volunteer to bring her throne to him: “One with whom was knowledge of the Scripture said: ‘I will bring it to you within the twinkling of an eye!’” Solomon orders the throne, a symbol of the queen’s power and glory, to be disguised to test whether she has the wisdom to recognize it: “Disguise her throne for her that we may see whether she will be guided (to recognize her throne) or she will be one of those not guided” [27:41]. She does recognize the throne and proves herself to be among the guided. When she mistakes an area of glass covering water as a pool, she realizes she has been fooled by the material world and has attached excessive importance to created objects like the sun: “My Lord! Verily, I have wronged myself and I submit, with Solomon, to God, Lord of the Universe” [27:44]. By accepting Islam, Bilqis shows evidence of her wisdom and ability to terminate her disbelief:

She was amazed. She had never seen such things before. Bilqis realized that she was in the company of a very knowledgeable person who was not only a ruler of a great kingdom but a messenger of God as well. She repented, gave up sun worship, accepted the faith of Allah, and asked her people to do the same. It was finished; Bilqis saw her people's creed fall apart before Solomon. She realized that the sun which her people worshipped was nothing but one of God's creatures (Ibn Kathir, Stories of the Prophets).

As God alone can guide human beings to Islam, He clearly favors Bilqis as she comes to Islam. Wadud argues that the story of the Queen of Sheba shows that women can possess judgement and spirituality above the norm:

I place both her worldly knowledge of peaceful politics and her spiritual knowledge of the unique message of Solomon together on the same footing to indicate her independent ability to govern wisely and to be governed wisely in spiritual matters. Thus, I connect her independent political decision –despite the norms of the existing (male) rulers – with her independent acceptance of the true faith (Islam), despite the norms of her people. In both instances, the Quran shows that her judgement was better than the norm and that she independently demonstrated that better judgement (42).

In the context of the Quran’s repetitive emphasis on the superiority of those who recognize the truth of God, at the expense of their prior beliefs and attachments, Bilqis proves herself capable of looking beyond material wealth and glory to find greater reward in submission to God. She stands out in the Quran as one of those whom the material world failed to blind from recognizing the oneness of God and submitting to Him. Her story fails to convey any negative connotations with regard to female leadership.
Conservatives, however, caution against interpreting the Quran’s treatment of women to sanction female leadership as Bilqis was a woman of pre-Islamic times. Many practices allowed before the arrival of Islam were forbidden or condemned by Prophet Mohammed. Traditionalists and fundamentalists support their stance that Islam prohibits female leadership by looking at the Sunnah or the example of the Prophet.

The Sunnah

After the Quran, Muslims turn to the Sunnah, the Prophet’s example, for guidance. Sources of the Sunnah consist of the Sira, biographies of the Prophet’s life, and Hadith, compilations of numerous records of the Prophet’s sayings and actions. Opponents to the view that women may hold positions of leadership cite two hadiths as follow:

1. A nation that appoints a woman as its ruler shall never prosper (Bukhari).

2. When the best among you are your rulers the rich amongst you are liberal and the affairs of your State are decided upon by consultation among yourselves, then the surface of the earth is better for you than its inside. And when the worst among you are your rulers, the rich among you are miserly and the affairs of the State are entrusted to women, then the inside of the earth is better for you than its surface (Tirmidhi).

The first hadith apparently condemns a nation that follows a woman to failure while the second suggests death is better than life under female leadership.
In the Veil and the Male Elite, Fatima Mernissi dismisses the authority of the first hadith on the basis of the three reasons: the context in which its narrator mentioned it, the character of its narrator, and the fuqaha or Islamic scholars’ opinion regarding its weight. Mernissi found that the narrator, Abu Bakra, remembered and conveyed the hadith after Aisha’s (the Prophet’s wife) defeat to Ali (the third caliph) at the Battle of the Camel, twenty-five years after the Prophet’s death:

At that time, Aisha’s situation was scarcely enviable. She was politically wiped out: 13,000 of her supporters had fallen on the field of battle. Ali had retaken Basra, and all those who had not chosen to join Ali’s clan had to justify their action. This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions [emphasis added], his record far from being satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war. . .the decision not to participate in this civil war was not an exceptional one, limited to a few members of the elite. The mosques were full of people who found it absurd to follow leaders who wanted to lead the community into tearing each other to pieces. Abu Bakra was not in any way an exception. When Aisha contacted him, Abu Bakra made known his response to her: he was against fitna [civil war]. He is supposed to have said to her (according to the way he told it after the battle): “It is true you are our umm [mother]; it is true that as such you have rights over us. But I heard the Prophet saw: “Those who entrust power [mulk] to a woman will never know prosperity” (Veil 54-55).

After the Battle of the Camel, Abu Bakra thus made peace with Ali by telling him he had refused to help Aisha while he avoided helping Aisha by quoting the hadith. Mernissi refers to the fate of Abu Musa al-Ashari, the representative of Ali in Kufa, when he refused to side with Ali out of opposition to fitna (civil war) to explain Abu Bakra's need to refer to the hadith. Abu Musa had grounded his neutrality in numerous hadiths denouncing fitna; he did not however quote the hadith Abu Bakra had used. He did not help Ali on the grounds that a woman was leading the other side. Despite his high rank and power, Abu Musa was dismissed after Ali’s victory. Abu Bakra had a lower rank in society and therefore easier to discharge or execute; using a hadith he alone seemed to know helped him save his social position.
Rafiq Zakaria concedes the Prophet may have said “a nation that entrusts its affairs to a woman will never prosper,” but tries to clarify the historical circumstances under which the Prophet spoke:

Ameer Ali: That tradition as quoted by Imam Bukhari has to be understood in its historical perspective. It pertained to Zoroastrian, not Muslim rulers. The Prophet’s observation is said to have been made when he was told that a daughter of the emperor of Persia, Khusrow II had ascended the throne. He was slain by his son Kavadh (Qobadh II) who took over the reins. However, after a few months Kavadh died. This was in 628. Then there was utter anarchy for five years and one prince after another was crowned as emperor. They did not rule for more than a few months. Under the succession of short-term rulers, two daughters of Khusrow II – Purandukht and Azarmidukht were crowned one after the other and overthrown by Yazadegard III, a grandson of Khusrow II, in 633. It is possible that the Prophet reacted to this chaotic state of affairs and when informed of a woman, who enjoyed no status in the Persia of those days, having been crowned, opined that the act would bring no prosperity to the country. Again, we have to take into account the conditions prevailing at that time in Persia, which was a beehive of unbelief, corruption, nepotism, and immorality (135).

Zakaria thereby restricts the hadith applicability to that particular incident in Persia.
On the basis of Malik ibn Abbas’ criteria for the reliability of narrators, Mernissi found another reason to dismiss the hadith aside from context. Imam Malik’s criteria for evaluating a narrator include ignorance and intellectual capacity, but also morality: “There are some people whom I rejected as narrators of Hadith not because they lied in their role as men of science by recounting false Hadith that the Prophet did not say, but just simply because I saw them lying in their relations with people, in their daily relationships that had nothing to do with religion” (cited in Veil 60). One of Abu Bakra’s biographies states that Umar, the second caliph, once had Abu Bakra flogged for giving false testimony, meaning he lied: “If one follows the principles of Malik for fiqh, Abu Bakra must be rejected as a source of Hadith” (Veil 61). Although Abu Bakra later repented and Umar forgave him, the fact remains that he had lied and was therefore not of irreproachable moral character.
The third and final reason for Mernissi’s dismissal of the authenticity of the Hadith involves the weight fuqaha (Islamic legalists) place on it. Mernissi explains that although the Bukhari included the hadith in his compilation, the “fuqaha did not agree on the weight to give that Hadith on women and politics.” Al-Tarabi, for example, did not see it as a “sufficient basis for depriving women of their power of decision making and for justifying their exclusion from politics” (Veil 61). As an esteemed mufasir (interpreter of the Quran) and historian, al-Tabari was well placed and well qualified to judge this Hadith. The hadith also contradicts the Quranic verses on Bilqis and her prosperous nation. Yet, Al-Tabari’s judgement, like the suspicion-arousing context and dubious reliability of the narrator, has failed to create a mark in mainstream Muslim consciousness.
As for the second hadith, Zakariya stipulates it does not conform to the Quran’s or Prophet’s general view of women:
Ameer Ali: The other Hadith or tradition by Tirmidhi also does not fit into the general attitude of the Prophet towards women; it puts women on a par with evildoers. It implies that under the rule of a woman death is preferable to life. It is inconceivable that a Prophet who held woman in such high esteem and gave her such an exalted position could ever indulge in such a sweeping condemnation of them. I am unable to accept its authenticity. Thus to attribute to our Prophet, who came as a mercy to all human kind, such traditions, which also seem totally taken out of context, is not fair. He was the greatest redeemer of oppressed women and indeed the strongest protector of their rights (135).

Rejecting the hadith on the basis of its incompatibility with the Prophet’s general teachings or the Quran (submission to God, not death, was prescribed for the people of Sheba) is a modernist practice. For traditionalists and fundamentalists, hadith cannot be rejected and therefore the two hadiths remain condemnations of female leadership for them.

Responsibilities and abilities: as ruler and fertile woman

Aside from the views of the Quran and Sunnah on female leadership are peripheral issues that stem from the scriptures and therefore pertain to the debate. Critics of the view that women can be effective leaders also express concerns about the effects of menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause on a woman’s composure and behavior. Other matters include the serious questions of whether a woman can fulfil the duties of leading battles and congregational prayers and whether a female leader fulfil the duties of motherhood. The greatest opposition of opinion in Islamic history on whether Islam allows women to assume leadership roles was undoubtedly between Ali, the best among the believers, and Aisha, the human being closest to the Prophet of Islam.

War and Prayer

When Aisha lost the Battle of the Camel, Ali rode up to her and asked, “Humaira [Prophet’s pet name for her in reference to her exceptionally fair skin made radiant by light sun burn], is this what the Messenger of God asked of you? Did he not ask you to quietly stay in your home?” (Sultanes 95). Had Aisha, the ‘beloved of the beloved of God,’ transgressed the boundaries of Islamic womanhood by leading thousands of men into battle against the fourth caliph?
According to conservative scholars such as Said Al-Afghani, author of Aisha and Politics, her defeat at the Battle of the Camel and the death of thousands of Muslims at the hands of other Muslims proves women should stay out of politics:

His conclusion is that it is absolutely necessary to keep women out of politics. For him, women and politics are a combination of ill omen. In his eyes, the example of Aisha speaks against the participation of women in the exercise of power. Aisha proves that ‘woman was not created to poke her nose into politics.’ According to him, ‘the blood of many Muslims was spilt. Thousands of companions of the Prophet were killed. . . Scholars, heroes of many victories, eminent leaders lost their lives’—all because of Aisha’s intervention in politics. Aisha was responsible not only for the blood spilt at the Battle of the Camel, which set in motion the split of the Muslim into two factions (sunnis and shiites), a battle where she herself was in command, she was also responsible for the subsequent losses suffered by those who went with her (Mernissi 6).

Fundamentalists and traditionalists often point to Aisha’s defeat as well as Ali’s reprimand to justify such positions against female leadership.
Mernissi reminds us, however, that unlike Ali, those who followed her did not seem to care about her gender. They considered her an able leader who wanted to challenge an unjust caliph who had failed to bring the killers of Uthman, the third caliph, to justice. As for the symbolism of her defeat, the Prophet also lost the Battle of Uhud but no-one ever took his defeat to signify men should not poke their nose into politics.
In modern times, few leaders would physically lead armies into battle, so the question is whether women can master the techniques involved in leading a war. Mernissi recounts how Aisha, present in the Prophet’s entourage in times of battle, knew procedures for seeking alliances. If her procedures were faulty, so were the Prophet’s:

Before besieging the city, she had sent messengers with letters to all the notables of the city, explaining to them the reasons that had impelled her to rebel against Ali, her intentions, and the objectives she wanted to obtain, and finally inviting them to join her. It was a true campaign of information and persuasion, a preliminary military tactic in which the Prophet had excelled (Veil 54).

In 1971, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India when her country militarily helped East Pakistan in its struggle for independence. The war was a success for India. Unless Muslim women by reason of their religious affiliation are in some way more deficient than Hindu women, women capable of leading successful campaigns. As long as Muslims uphold the Prophet as a role model and do not ignore modern history, they cannot extend Aisha’s defeat beyond the context of the specific battle to make a general statement that to follow women into war is to dive into defeat.

Alongside the Muslim leader’s duty to lead battles is the duty to lead congregational prayers on Fridays and on Eid. Islamic history knows of one incident in which a woman -- Narwa, concubine of a caliph-- led Friday prayers in lieu of the caliph:

The appearance of Narwa, a singing slave, at the mihrab (the pulpit of the mosque) traumatized people and with good reason: she was sent there by a drunken caliph, al-Walid who sent her in his place to lead the believers. Al-Walid bnu al-Yazid bnu Abd al-Malik, eleventh umayyad caliph who reigned at the beginning of the second century after the hijra (125/743 to 126/744) is denounced by all historians as the most perverse, the most morally corrupt of all of Islamic history . . .We will leave the description of this blasphemous scene to Ibn Asakir: ‘Nawar is the concubine of al-Walid . . .It was she whom he ordered to go lead the prayer at the mosque when he was drunk and the muezzin had come to fetch him so that Al-Walid would fulfil his duty (of leading the prayer). Al-Walid swore that she would lead it. She presented herself in public veiled and dressed in clothing belonging to the caliph. She led the prayer and returned to him’ (Sultanes 115-6).

While much of the dismay this event caused was directed against the caliph’s deviant behavior, it was also a reaction to a woman’s leading the prayer. As traditionalist view holds that women can neither lead congregations that include men in prayer and they themselves cannot pray during menstruation, women would not be able to fulfill the duties of leading Friday and Eid prayers. The Prophet, as leader of the community, led congregational prayers and tradition expected subsequent leaders to follow his example. Until Harun ar-Rashid became caliph, Muslim leaders were expected to deliver sermons (khutbas) before congregational prayers. While delivering the sermon and leading the prayer ceased being a duty for Muslim heads of state after Harun ar-Rashid, a woman’s prohibition from fulfilling this traditional duty for rulers casts doubt on whether women were meant to be leaders.
Aside from preventing women from prayers for a period of time every month, menstruation may affect women’s emotions and physical well being. Many traditionalists and fundamentalists point toward the natural menstrual cycle and scientific studies that suggest women’s emotions and health fluctuate according to their menstrual phases. In the Quran, menstruation is given an ambiguous description, neither negative nor positive: “They ask you [Mohammed] concerning menstruation. Say: it is a hurt (sickness) and a pollution” [2:222]. According to Zakaria, such Muslims may cite Western scientists such as Margaret Mead and Havelock Ellis to explain how menstruation and menopause can render a woman incapable of reliable decision-making:

Brohi [lawyer prosecuting Bhutto]: A ruler has to be levelheaded and balanced at all time; his judgement should not be conditioned by the physical or emotional problems that he or she may be facing at a given time. Now in the case of a woman, she has to go through, for instance, menstruation every month. The Quran has characterized it as a sort of sickness (2:222). This is accepted by modern science. Margaret Mead, the celebrated author of Male and Female, has pointed out that while a woman’s work is keyed up to the cycle of menstruation and pregnancy, that of a man could be depended upon in any emergency, since men are subject to so such periodic rise and fall in capacity as women are . . .Havelock Ellis, the famous sexologist has remarked that a woman, during menstruation, is more impressionable, suggestive and has less control over her system. Many women suffer from fits of ill temper or depression; they become impulsive, with the result that their judgement is marred (123-4).

Then there is the menopause in a woman’s life, between the age of 45 and 55, when certain biological changes take place in a woman. Her ovaries cease to function, which causes reactions in other ductless glands. Tissues loosen and ligaments increase, with the result that there is atrophy of generative organs and endocrine imbalance, which in turn, results in certain mental and emotional disturbances in a woman. Her blood pressure rises, which also disturbs her normal functioning. During this period, it is difficult for a woman to tackle sensitive political problems or take major governmental decisions, which may affect the lives of millions of people (126).

The menstrual cycle, therefore, may cause problems to a nation under female leadership, but may impose a great hardship on women who suffer from physical problems during their periods. Zakariya’s feminist characters, however, remind Brohi that thanks to modern science, women can assume greater control over their hormonal levels. There are very few accounts of women doing drastic or irreversible due to premenstrual syndrome or during their transition into menopause (although Aisha was in her fifties, when menopause sets in for most women, when she declared war on Ali; but surely, the men who followed her into battle couldn’t be suffering from hot flashes). In any case, as the example of Bilqis shows, all wise rulers should rule by consultation to prevent men who may be even more unstable than menstruating women are also kept in check. Autocratic rule does not need a woman to oppress people and make millions suffer; Chengis Khan, Tamarlane, Hitler, and Stalin were certainly not women suffering on account of menstruation.
While concerns about menstruation and a woman’s ability to fulfil traditional leadership duties may not be important concerns today, such arguments reflect the complexity of the question of female leadership in Islam. Aside from concerns about the effect of female leadership on the public sphere, traditionalists, fundamentalists, and some modernists have expressed concern about the effect of a female political figure’s frequent absences on her family.

Motherhood: The Baby that fooled the President

When Benazir Bhutto ran against Zia ul-Haq in 1988, she was pregnant with her first child. In her autobiography, Daughter of Destiny, Bhutto explains how her family tried to keep the date of her delivery a secret to prevent Zia from rescheduling the elections to make campaigning difficult for her:

We had purposely kept the date a secret, anticipating that Zia would try to schedule the elections around my confinement. To pinpoint the date, it was reported, the regime’s intelligence agents had tried to gain access to my medical records. But I kept them with me. Twenty-four hours after the regime’s intelligence agents calculated wrongly that the birth would occur on November 17th, Zia announced the date of elections for November 16th. But the baby outmaneuvered us all. Not only was Zia off by a month, the baby actually being due in mid-October, but God must have blessed us by bringing him into the world five weeks early. That left me almost a month to regain my strength before the campaigning was to begin in mid-October (386).

After Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister, she shared the care of her child with a nurse, her husband, and her mother. While destiny or God was certainly on Benazir’s side, especially as Zia actually died in August 1988, the potential conflict between the duties of motherhood and political life raises concerns about the effects of a woman’s political life on her child and on a her role as mother.
Motherhood holds a very high place of esteem in Islam. The Quran ordains respect for mothers immediately after God: “Reverence God, through whom/ You demand your mutual rights/ And reverence the wombs (that bore you) [4:1]. The Quran emphasizes the hardship with which women bring children into the world: “We have enjoined on the human being to be dutiful and kind to his parents. His mother bears him with hardship. And she brings him forth with hardship, and the bearing of him, and the weaning of him is thirty months, till when he attains full strength” [46:15]. The question therefore arises of whether a woman’s engagement in her public political life would hurt her child’s upbringing and thereby undermine her exalted Quranic status. Wadud places the monopoly of women over childbirth and motherhood on the same level as men’s monopoly over risalah, Divine messages.
May a Muslim woman choose to either not have children or, if she does have children, to leave them in the care of a nurse for the sake of her political life? As several of the Prophet’s wives did not bear children, but would not be considered incomplete Muslim women, it is difficult to say that bearing children is an obligation for women; child-bearing is a right women alone have and entails honor for mothers, but the Quran and hadith never explicitly make it the sole option for women: “there is no term in the Quran which indicates that childbearing is ‘primary’ to a woman. No indication is given that mothering is her exclusive role. It demonstrates the fact a woman (though certainly not all women) is the exclusive human capable of bearing children” (Wadud 64). The ability to bear children distinguishes women from men, but does not mean they do not have other abilities with which they can compete with men.
While the Quran sets the weaning period between twenty-four to thirty months, it also allows the parents to hire a wet-nurse in case of divorce: “Mothers shall suckle their children . . .(that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling” [2:223]. This shows that in case of necessity, a mother has the option of not weaning her child if she and her husband both agree to hire a wet-nurse. Wadud stresses the fact that social tendencies to allot child-care duties to women do not stem from the Quran: “the tendency has always been to attach all forms of child care – an in addition all forms of housework—to the woman. Although this division of labor suits some families, especially when the father is working outside the home and is providing materially for the family, it is, nevertheless, only one solution and does not have explicit Quranic ordinance [emphasis added]” (90). The Quran says both men and women will receive rewards for their good deeds but certainly does not say women’s good deeds must be confined to the four walls of home or with regard to her child. Thus, according to Wadud, neither motherhood nor childcare is a Quranically prescribed requirement for women. By extension, Muslim women who wish to pursue political careers may choose either to not bear children or to confine to confine her children to a nurse or other family members.
As Bhutto’s story shows, men do try to use women’s periods of weakness against them, but in the Quran, God gives great respect for women during their pregnancy (see sura Miriam). Zia ul-Haq’s attempt to take advantage of Bhutto’s condition serves to show him as a violator of the Quranic mandate of respect, not to show that women should not enter politics. His action was simply an exaggerated form of a misogyny that underlies most Muslim societies as the question of whether women in politics can still adhere to Quranic injunctions of moral conduct.

Purdah: politics of modesty and sexual morality

When Sheikh Hasina ran against her opponent, the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, for the second time in 1996, she donned hijab (Islamic dress) a couple of months before the elections after performing the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). While Zia pulled the end of her chiffon saris over her puffed-up hair, Sheikh Hasina’s modesty stood out thanks to a black head band that covered her hairline and pulled the end of her opaque silk saris over her hair. Overnight, many saw her as a better Muslim than Khaleda Zia. Others accused her of using hijab to seduce the impressionable and devout masses. She had a stake in showing herself as pious as her party, the Awami League, is the champion of Bengali secularism. If Sheikh Hasina used hijab for political purposes, men have also used the institutions of veiling and seclusion for political purposes – to keep women out of public life – for centuries, beginning with Ali’s remarks to Aisha after the Battle of the Camel.
When Ali reminded Aisha that the Prophet had asked her to stay at home, he did not simply raise the question of whether women may lead battles: his words emphasized Aisha’s place in the home. Her presence in the public sphere proclaimed her disobedience to the Prophet of Islam. To conservatives, his reprimand affirmed the man’s right to define, judge, and enforce a woman’s modesty and thereby gave conservatives the necessary tool to make politics a male monopoly in Islam.
Fundamentalists such as Maududi stipulate that women cannot be rulers as leadership entails meeting with men both in public and private, thereby constituting a violation of Islamic ethics of modesty. History tells of the fate of women deemed to violate the religious authorities’ definition of modesty. The successful four-year reign of Sultana Razia of India came to an end in 1240 when religious authorities and her ministers accused her of letting a slave touch her and thereby of transgressing ethical boundaries. Not even a fraction of the sexual license allowed for a man such as al-Walid was allowed for Razia: she did not have permission to fall in love. Suddenly, her decision not to veil her face became a more important characteristic of her reign than her numerous diplomatic and military achievements. Razia became a symbol of the diminution of morality that sets in when women are allowed to step out of seclusion or to unveil. Over seven centuries late, accusations against Bhutto echoed those against Razia. In the Trial of Benazir Bhutto, Zakariya summarizes the opinion that female leadership inherently constitutes a violation of Quranic injunctions of modesty:

Rizvi: The Quranic injunctions are clear; are they being observed by Benazir? The way she functions – and I suppose she has no choice-- as the Prime Minister of Pakistan does not fit into the Islamic framework. She is constantly exposing herself to men through her regular presence in the National Assembly, answering questions and making speeches, presiding over cabinet meetings, holding conferences with officials, talking to the President or to one or the other male minister or a male secretary to government in complete seclusion for confidential discussions, attending State banquets at home and abroad and proposing toasts to various male dignitaries, mixing freely with them, exhibiting herself in public and at government functions, talking in absolute private, without any aids, to her male colleagues or subordinates at home and to male visiting foreign dignitaries both at home and abroad and also while on state visits to foreign countries. In short, every day she is more in the company of men and often in privacy or seclusion (131).

Meeting with foreign dignitaries in a male dominated world requires meeting with men; for conservative Muslims, this is a violation of a modesty inextricable from the segregation of the sexes in their view.
Zakariya argues that as long as a woman is dressed modestly, educated, and acts within the boundaries of Islamic morality, she observes hijab, which is simply a symbol of upright conduct. He denounces the seclusion of women and their confinement to the home as an innovation unknown in the Prophet’s time. He cites the Prophet’s wives and other female companions who tended the wounded during battles as evidence that the Prophet did not want to confine women to the home or to impose restrictions on their movement in public.

Ameer Ali [Bhutto’s lawyer]: In the early period of Islam, when the Prophet was engaged in a life-and-death struggle, women openly and freely helped the small band of believers. They did not participate in the actual fighting on the battlefield but they carried food for the combatants, nursed the injured, and took care of all the needs of the fighting men. The Prophet’s daughter, Hadarat Fatima was in the forefront; she tended the wounded. His youngest wife, Hadarat Aisha used to tie her gown upto her knees in order to carry water to the warriors in the battle of Uhud. They moved freely among men. They wore no veil. There are any numbers of traditions to prove it. There is one tradition in the collection of Imam Muslim which reports Umm Atiyyah as saying: “I took part in seven battles with the Prophet of God, and I used to cook food for the warriors, supply them with medicines and dress up their wounds.” It is also reported that Umm Salim and other women of Medina administered medicines to the wounded and supplied them with drinking water. All these traditions show that the Prophet did not want women to sit at home but participate in outside activities. He permitted them to pray in mosques along with men and render every possible assistance both in war and administration. How then could he say that a country ruled by a woman cannot prosper?

Modernists, such as Leila Ahmed, contend that while the Quran enjoined the Prophet’s wives to veil, the generalization of veiling for Muslim women in general began after the Muslim conquests of Persia and other regions where veiling and seclusion were common practice:

The adoption of the veil by Muslim women occurred by a similar process of seamless assimilation of the mores of the conquered peoples. The veil was apparently in use in Sasanian society, and the segregation of the sexes and use of the veil were heavily in evidence in the Christian Middle East and Mediterranean regions at the time of the rise of Islam. During Muhammed’s lifetime and only toward that, his wives were the only Muslim women required to veil. After his death and following the Muslim conquest of the adjoining territories, where upper-class women veiled, the veil became a commonplace item of clothing among Muslim upper-class woman, by a process of assimilation that no one has yet ascertained in much detail (Ahmed 5).

While Muslim modernists concede the Quran enjoins modesty for men and women, they argue social conventions should determine norms of modest appearance. The non-Islamic origins of seclusion and veiling as well as the records of women’s participation on the battlefield alongside the Prophet call into question the conservative claim that Islam enjoins seclusion or any other practice that prevents women from fully participating in public life.

Bhutto’s predecessor, Zia ul-Haq, once appointed the Ansari Commission to define the role of women in politics. The Commission recommended that 1) women not be allowed to enter politics until the age of 50; 2) they obtain their husbands’ permission; 3) a male escort (a blood relative) accompany them abroad, to meetings with men, and during all trips. While Zia ul-Haq rejected these recommendations, they do exemplify the attitude of those concerned by the conflict between purdah and female politicians. The response of extremists to this potential conflict is evident in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan where women are practically barred from public life. In Iran, women play an undeniably active role in public life, but the government does require them to wear chadors [all-covering outer garments) to ensure some observance of purdah.

Wild card: necessity

In 1962, Syed Abul ala-Maududi, leader of the Jamaat-i-Islaami in Pakistan, pledged his support to Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder of Pakistan, against Ayub Khan. He justified his departure from his ideological stance that women cannot lead Islamic states by emphasizing that only Jinnah, with her mass popularity and status as sister of the Quaid-i-Azam, could defeat the military dictator. As Islam allows Muslims to even eat pork in case of necessity, Maududi allied himself with a woman for the greater good of Muslims in Pakistan. Fundamentalists use a similar argument to explain why women were allowed to tend to soldiers during battles in the Prophet’s time. Muslims’ lives were at stake. In fact, the division of labor in war – men fought while women nursed—reinforces the different roles for men and women in society. Muhammad Arafa, author of Women’s Rights in Islam, argues women did not play an active political or public role during the Prophet’s time: “during the first decades of Islam, Muslim woman played no role whatsoever in public affairs, and this in spite of all the rights Islam bestowed on her, which are similar to those accorded to men” (cited in Veil, 96). To him, women’s activities on the battlefield were simply an alternative to the death of Muslim soldiers...a situation of emergency.
Proponents of female leadership also use the ‘necessity argument.’ As the ‘community never agrees on an error,’ if a Muslim society chooses a female leader, her election means the community perceives her as able to respond to their needs and requirements. It was the community that explicitly accepted Razia as their ruler after her father’s death and helped depose her unjust brother. Rather than second best, she was the best candidate as far as her father and the community were concerned.
According to Mernissi, Razia’s story is no less dramatic than a good Hindi film. When Sultana Razia ascended the throne of the Mameluk dynasty in 1236 C.E., it was because of his three children, Sultan Iltutmish considered Razia the most qualified:

Iltutmish, a slave promoted [to king] due to his personal achievement, had no complexes when it came to recognizing the merits of a woman. For him, merit and justice went hand in hand: this was the essence of his understanding of Islam and as he was very pious, everything else, including differences between the sexes was superfluous. Compared to the weaknesses of Rokn ed-Din [his son], the talents of Razia designated her as the obvious successor and Iltutmish, pressed by his vizirs to explain his choice, which they found surprising, gave a response laden with simplicity:

‘My sons are incapable of ruling, and that is why I have decided it is my daughter who must rule after me’ (Sultanes 131).

After Iltutmish’s death, however, Rokn ed-Din moved quickly to assume the throne and had his half-brother killed and plotted to have Razia killed as well. To draw the people’s attention to her half-brother’s injustices, she went to the bell her father had told people to ring whenever they had any problems, even in the middle of the night. That day, as Rokn ed-Din was making his way to lead Friday prayers, Razia, dressed in the colored garb of the oppressed, rang the bell. People crowded out of the mosque to hear what their princess had to say: “My brother has killed his brother and wants to make me perish as well” (Sultanes 132). She reminded the people of all her father had done for them and that before his death, he had designated Razia as his successor. The crowd went and dragged Rokn ed-Din out of the mosque and brought him to Razia who sentenced him to death. Faced with the unjust alternative of Rokn ed-Din, the people declared Razia their ruler. Therefore, the community will choose whoever is most qualified given the options, regardless of gender as it did for Razia, Bhutto, Zia and Hasina. A Muslim woman may have to prove herself to be considerably better than the men she runs against do [Bhutto dedicates over seventeen pages over her autobiography to proving how much she values Islam], but Islamic history shows that Muslims are not unconditionally opposed to female leadership. If a woman wins, her victory will be a reflection of the people’s trust in her ability to respond to their needs and be a just ruler.


The debate over female leadership in Islam is a splinter of the debate on Islam’s views of women in general. It is no different than a caricature that reveals varying Muslim attitudes toward women. The Quran’s treatment of the Queen of Sheba has failed to convince people of the ability of women to govern wisely whereas the hadith about Khosru’s daughter frequently rolls off Muslim tongues. Even when a Muslim community has chosen or accepted female leadership, general views of the rights and roles of women do not differ substantially from conservative views: even Maududi sided with a woman ‘out of necessity.’ History would laugh if anyone were to claim the Indians who proclaimed Razia their leader believed in the equality of the sexes as do Muslim modernists. The state of Muslim women around the world, even allowing for considerable differences from country to country, shows the dominance of conservative views in family, if not public, life.
If modernist scholars wish to obtain greater popularity for their views, they need to find ways to make their works more accessible and authoritative in appearance. The first modernist movement of Abduh and Syed Ahmad Khan failed because it used rhetoric unfamiliar and unconvincing to the masses. Wadud, Mernissi, and Ahmed produce books that require higher education to appreciate. While few scholars consider changing society among their roles, those who do wish to initiate change in popular views on women in Islam should undertake the tedious but necessary task of translating Muslim feminist literature into terms the average person will understand. Both the average Muslim and non-Muslim suffer from a one-sided familiarity with traditionalist or fundamentalist views and arguments concerning women. Knowing the modernist arguments will enable Muslims to make an informed choice about which representation of Islam is of greater benefit to society: an Islam that confines women to bearing children and parenting or an Islam that, while giving due respect to mothers, encourages women to pursue their interests, be they maternal, political or otherwise?



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