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Gender and Women by Leila Ahmed Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2020


In her book ‘Gender and Women in Islam, Leila Ahmed, is apprehensive about the position of women in Islam and aspires for the complete egalitarianism among Muslims, despite of sex, in civic and personal life.

Even though gender inequality is ingrained in Islam, the scholar makes use of worldly and Western feminist discourse and second International Congress on Islamic Feminism to bring out the argument about the role and position of women in Islam.

Campaigners of gender inequality such as Leila Ahmed try to underscore the extremely deep-seated experience of impartiality in the Quran and query the patriarchal explanation of Islamic philosophy through the Quran, hadith (maxim of Muhammad), and sharia (rule) towards the formation of a new, identical and fair society.

In her analysis, lots of ayaat (stanzas) of the Qur’an appear to pronounce gentleman/womanly sameness (Plante, 2010). According to her, Al- Hujurat is one of the verses, which states that “Oh humankind. We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other not that you may despise one another.

The most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you, the one practicing the most taqwa (Ahmed, 1993). Fundamentally, human beings are identical. They are merely differentiated among themselves on the origin of their legal observations or execution of the essential Qur’anic standard of integrity.

Based on Ahmed Leila’s view therefore, there is no disagreement between feminism and being religious. On one occasion, she identifies feminism as consciousness of limits erected in front of women since sex, dismissal of restrictions erected on women, and attempts to create and employ unbiased gender structure are all patriarchal efforts meant to derail women’s efforts in the society.

Synopsis of Her Ideas

According to the Ahmed, feminist movements in the Middle East employ three approaches, including reinterpreting the ayaat of the Qur’an to rectify bogus information in frequent circulation. For instance, the history of creation and proceedings in the backyard of Eden that alleges male dominance is highly disputed by women in Islamic cultures.

By quoting ayaat that indisputably pronounce the egalitarianism of women and men, and delinking the section of ayaat that supports male and female variation that have been frequently construed in ways that rationalize male supremacy, Ahmed argues that women are just the same as men in society.

In general, her research on the roots of sexual brutality has paid attention on two forms of premises. One of them is the entrenched in individuality of the delinquent, and the other one spots distinctiveness of culture in which she existed.

According to her, none of the theories fully elucidated the occurrence of sexually brutal activities in Islam civilization. Modern research in the discipline of sexual hostility points out that an incorporated theory would possibly have the superlative ability of amplifying what causes sexual cruelty in Islamic culture.

Through the works of Ahmed, it is eminent that the role and status of women in the twentieth century society among Islamic empires was horrifying. Even though historians had been reporting this, they were always cautious due to the complexity of the matter. In many states, patriarchy played an important role in subjugating women to men.

The social structure was characterized by role differentiation based on gender. She reports that women were isolated and relegated to the harems. In other words, they were not supposed to participate in socio-political life. Women could not participate in economic activities such as seeking formal employment.

The labor market was predominantly a men’s affair. In the legal front, women could not defend their rights since they were always supposed to serve men. In case of conflicts, women could not be represented in court. From this book, it is established that women were denied their rights that were provided by the traditional Islamic laws. Initial laws gave women equal rights.

In the Ottoman Empire for instance, men were allowed to marry many wives but women were never allowed to participate in extra-marital relationships. This act was punishable by death. With the strengthening of Islam in the Islamic Empires, women were allowed to inherit property and men could only own four women. However, this was never implemented since only men were invited to implement the policy.

Thesis Statement

Gender as a topic has become very popular over the recent past. The global society has witnessed many changes in social construction of gender. According to World Health Organization, gender is a socially constructed trait, conduct, position, and action that a given society considers suitable for men and women.

Lockheed (2010) defines gender as a given range of characteristics that distinguishes a male from a female. Gender refers to those attributes that would make an individual be identified as either male or female. As can be seen from the above definitions, gender is more of a social than a physical attribute. We look at gender from a societal point of view.

Lepowsky (1993) defines social construction as an institutionalized characteristic that is largely acceptable in a given society because of the social system. Social construction, in a narrower term, refers to the general behavioral patterns of a certain society shaped by beliefs and values. A socially constructed characteristic therefore varies from one culture to another (Barnett, 1997).

Different societies have different beliefs and cultural practices that help define them. Therefore, a social construction of one society would be different from another society. In this paper, gender role and the position of women in the Islamic culture is discussed.

Analysis of Ahmed’s Views

In her postulations, Leila Ahmed is non-historical because she does not consider the past as regards to the positions and roles of women in the Middle East. The tribulations of women in society can only be understood after reviewing the origin of gender inequality. In the Middle East, various empires existed, each with different views regarding the existence of women in society.

In the Safavid Empire for instance, women had a different role as compared to that of the Ottoman. Women were given the responsibility of furthering the works of art. In fact, historians observe that the entire region of Safavid, Mashad, was a flouring centre of arts in the 16th century, a fact that Ahmed does not capture in her analysis.

The Empire of Safavid emphasized on intellectual values and women were supposed to provide them in society. Confidential data from Safavid prove that literacy was a policy among the privileged women at the majestic court.

From available data, historians observe that literacy and access to excellent education, as well as physical exercise appears to have been imperative issues that advanced the societal positions and tasks of Safavid women. With time, Irano-Timurid mores allowed women to take part in academic and inventive life.

The intellectual surroundings of the Safivids and Qizilbash semi-nomadic Turkmen armed groups allowed significant contribution of women in political and occasionally armed quarters (Veit, 2007).

This was changed along the line mainly because of male domination and introduction of Islam, a fact that is not clearly brought out in Ahmed’s review. The Old Turkic legacy of prairieland itinerant culture may have been the basis of the certain social positions of women under the Safavids, permitting unique societal human rights of the majestic women.

Still on historical positions of women in the Middle East, women had a higher standing as opposed to men since they could inherit rulers in case of mischief such as death in the Timurid Empire. In the Timurid Empire, the nomadic leaders had no Chinggisid men to take over the affairs of the empire after the death of the ruler.

This is because men were always angry for power. It was dangerous to trust any man with power hence the society was comfortable with the custodianship of a female member. Societal peace and coexistence was achieved through marriage.

Therefore, women were important figures in matters related to state security (Hambly, 1999). During succession, children from different mothers would fight for power, which was also viewed as a negative role of women. Women were consequently mistrusted since they perceived to contribute to disunity.

In the modern society in the Islamic world, women are not supposed to occupy positions of influence in society. They are to abide by the rules and regulations set by men. Their rights and freedoms are usually hampered by factors such as religion, male patriarchy, social structure and culture.

Through analysis, it is established that feminist organizations started in the beginning of 19th century in Middle East, with the major focus being universal female suffrage. In mid 19th century, female activists in Middle East focused on revising social structure. At this time, various feminine groups emerged, with each advocating for diverse rights.

The modern day activism is realistic in that it focuses on achieving equality but not domination. The feminist groups have achieved many objectives and goals such as abolition of sexist language, revising the social structure and participating in political processes (Flowers, 1994). This aspect is well captured by the works of Ahmed.


Ahmed underscores the fact that, although women have managed to do away with problems affecting them, there are still some issues to deal with. The first one is related to labor market, which favors men in many ways. The Middle East governments should come up with policies that aim at empowering women economically.

Since the Second World War, women are still incorporated in the financial system as underdogs in the Middle East. Wealth lies in the hands of men implying that women are likened to the proletariat who produces goods that he or she does not consume. In most families, male partners are known to control political and economic affairs, which are more important in an individual’s life.

At work places, women are forced to work and produce goods and services just like men. Women are further required to take care of homes. This is unfair because both partners must share domestic roles in case they both work.

The Middle East governments should therefore look for ways to eliminate this problem because it affects the productivity of women in society. The works of Ahmed can be used for policy formulation since they bring out clearly the suffering of women, although they do not explain the historical basis of gender inequality.


Ahmed, L. (1993). Women and Gender in Islam. Yale: Yale University Press.

Barnett, H. (1997). Source book on Feminist Jurisprudence. London: Cavendish Publishing.

Flowers, R. (1994). The victimization and exploitation of women and children. North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

Hambly, G. (1999). Women in the Medieval Islamic World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lepowsky, M. (1993). Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lockheed, M. (2010). Gender and social exclusion. Paris: Education Policy series publishers.

Plante, R. (2010). Doing gender diversity: readings in theory and real-world experience. New York: West view Press.

Veit, V. (2007). The Role of Women in the Altaic World. New York: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag.

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