Skip to main content

Authoritative new research by Professor Asma Afsaruddin uncovers deep insights into Islam and women’s agency in Muslim-majority societies

Feb 2, 2024
Asma Afsaruddin
Asma Afsaruddin

The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Women, edited by Indiana University Professor Asma Afsaruddin, offers authoritative new research on Islam and women’s lived experiences in Muslim-majority societies. In The Handbook, Afsaruddin and other leading scholars take a multidisciplinary approach to offer deep and nuanced analyses of topics on Islam and women’s agency and contributions to premodern and modern Muslim societies.

“What I hope the reader will ultimately take away from these chapters is the conviction that Muslim women have been involved in the shaping of the Islamic tradition from its very inception in the seventh century of the common era until today,” wrote Afsaruddin. “Only by reinstating their experiences, contributions, and perspectives as an integral part of this tradition can we begin to claim to fully understand it.”

The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Women

Afsaruddin, Class of 1950 Herman B. Wells Endowed Professor in the IU Hamilton Lugar School Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, is an expert in Islamic studies, including Islamic religious and political thought, contemporary Islamic movements, gender roles and Islam in modern society. She is the author and editor of nine books, including Contemporary Issues in Islam, and Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know, which have established her as a leading authority in the field.

In her chapter, Modern Rereadings of the Qur’ān through a Gendered Lens, Afsaruddin offers a sophisticated exegesis of key verses, including linguistic analysis of Arabic terms, and critiques traditional Qur’ānic hermeneutics regarding women’s status and roles in society. She also examines hadīths, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that address women’s issues.

“Male exegetes in the premodern period after the third/ninth century tended to interpret the verses in the Qur’ān in isolation from others, without referencing related passages and contexts provided in other parts of the Qur’ān,” said Afsaruddin. “Often, this meant they veered away from the original textual meanings to impose their own cultural understandings, implying men’s superior status over women.”

Afsaruddin’s exegesis of the Qur’ān emphasizes the cross-referential reading of verses to gain their full context.

“This emphasis on a holistic reading of the Qur’ānic text is a hallmark of modern and feminist exegeses in general, which stresses that single verses, especially those that appear to be promoting gender inequality, should be read in conjunction with other verses that are thematically and semantically related, allowing for the emergence of other interpretive possibilities, an approach that was at best inconsistently followed by premodern exegetes,” said Afsaruddin.

In addition, Afsaruddin also provides a diachronic survey of classical male exegetes’ readings of commonly studied themes, verses and words, including Qur’ān 4:34 and the highly contested terms therein, qawwāmūn, qānitāt, and nushūz.

Afsaruddin notes, “how strongly cultural notions of gendered identities had come to prevail…” in her examination of Qur’ān 4:34 and its misreadings.

Furthermore, she asserts, the terms faddala and daraja that are usually discussed in the context of Qur’ān 4:34 and 2:228, when compared to other verses in the Qur’ān, do not imply God’s “preference” for men over women, or men’s “degree” of status over women. Rather, the meaning of “preference” and “rank” assigned to these terms respectively is non-gendered, referring to merit or morality-based rank, financial advantage, or different degrees of distinction.

Afsaruddin also cites Qur’ān 9:71, which states that men and women are equal partners.

“The verse does not establish a cap on what women can engage in,” said Afsaruddin. “Yet, in the premodern period, men put a cap on what women could achieve under this mandate. It really gives credence to the saying that we often see things the way we’ve been culturally accustomed to. Now, women say we need to take those blinders off and read the text on its own terms.”

With a full contextualization, Afsaruddin presents clear evidence supporting the Qur’ān’s position on men and women as equal and complementary partners in the domestic sphere and in society and refutes the views of those who maintain that the Qur’ān promotes a gendered hierarchy.

Afsaruddin visiting the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during a recent lecture tour Afsaruddin visiting the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during a recent lecture tour

The Handbook’s prominent themes also include Muslim women’s economic power, social activism, academic contributions, and political and cultural agency in shaping the Islamic world. Handbook contributors offer new research stemming from previously unpublished legal archives and public records.

“There are meticulously documented paper trails showing women as economic actors,” said Afsaruddin. “Without this archival previously-unpublished information, without the efforts of the scholars who plowed through collections of receipts of financial transactions, for example, we would have missed out on all of this.”

In the chapter, Women as Economic Actors in the Premodern Islamic World, Amira Sonbol shows that women had rights to own property in their own name, even after marriage, from the very beginning of Islam, well before the 19th century, when married women’s property rights were first established in Europe.

“This allowed wealthy women in the Middle Ages in Muslim-majority countries to exercise quite a bit of economic power,” said Afsaruddin. “Records show women endowing hospitals, institutions of higher learning, and inns. They engaged in a lot of charitable activities. Many of them had access to higher education and became scholars in their own right. Women professors could teach men, women, boys and girls in the premodern period, roughly between the 9th-16th centuries. Only now through pioneering scholarship, we are realizing the extent of women’s contributions in their own societies.”

A chapter by Samer Ali uncovers important insights on the recognition of women’s literary prowess as a form of personal sovereignty, societal influence, and power.

“In Women as Littérateurs, Ali establishes categorically that the poetry and literature that women produced had a huge influence on cultural life at the time,” said Afsaruddin. “That their cultural contributions were acknowledged at that time was significant. Gifted educated women poets shaped the literary cultural milieu. Women also ran literary salons. The social dimension of the salons created a forum for collegial exchange on the merits of literary works. This was very important to knowledge production, and not something that Muslim women have received full credit for in the past.”

While the thread of women’s societal contributions is woven throughout The Handbook, 14 chapters are dedicated exclusively to Muslim women’s religious and social activism around the world. Chapters focus on Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and North Africa, Iran, Turkey, South and Southeast Asia, China, South Africa, the U.S., Western Europe, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Countries.

The word activism, Afsaruddin explained, must be carefully parsed.

“Activism can consist of daily activities that challenge existing unjust structures,” she said. “It’s not only about public organization of your activities; your daily, mundane activities can incrementally bring about change. If you can keep your language and culture alive while political forces are trying to stamp them out, that can be a much more meaningful act of subversion. Empowerment is not through public spectacle alone; how you teach the next generation to think and analyze is an important part of this process. As educators, if we can plant a seed here and another one there, they can add up to a revolution.”

Seema Golestaneh’s chapter on women’s activism in Iran notes the many ways “women have been organizing, writing, reading, meeting, marching, and speaking out for change through disparate avenues, and in ways not always immediately legible as ‘activism’ since the nineteenth century.” Advocacy for early education in the nineteenth century is one such example of these less visible forms.

Women’s sartorial agency is also a topic that surfaces throughout The Handbook.

“The very powerful global media – primarily western — tend to portray Muslim women as being forced to wear the hijab. Although this is true in Iran and Saudi Arabia, how do you explain the rest of the world, including the West, where women choose to wear it as a means of self-empowerment?” said Afsaruddin.

The Handbook’s final chapter, Muslim Women as a Cultural Trope by Katherine Bullock, addresses the representation of Muslim women as victims in the western media, particularly how the trope of victimization was used to justify the war on Afghanistan after September 11.

“The idea in the West that Muslim women are perennial victims was evident in Laura Bush’s remarks that we were in Afghanistan to ‘save the women’ there. ‘Saving the women’ became a fig leaf for military invasions carried out by her husband and weaponized Muslim women’s bodies to justify these projects of imperialism,” said Afsaruddin. “Given the toll of civilian casualties during the so-called War on Terror that widowed women and orphaned children, we must question such obscene, paternalistic rhetoric. No one actually asks the women themselves what they want; powerful foreign men, and sometimes women, speak on their behalf instead. We see this also happening in France and other parts of western Europe today where it’s been decided unilaterally by the political elites that women have to be prevented from wearing religious attire for their own good. How do they then explain why educated and professional French Muslim women are protesting bans on the hijab?”

Afsaruddin hopes The Handbook will challenge stereotypes about women in Muslim societies. She especially hopes her students will take note of the examples in her book, and through her Islamic Feminisms class.

“I hope to challenge lazy assumptions that are fostered by the global media, not exactly known for nuancing their reports,” she said. “Muslim-majority societies are not monolithic. We can’t generalize, and I want to challenge students’ perceptions. Media stereotypes, often sensationalized, don’t capture the diversity of women’s lives and their agency.”

The multiple ways in which women are shaping Muslim societies around the world are reflected in the diverse topics in The Handbook, illustrating as Afsaruddin remarks, “a broad constellation” of histories, and futures, written by women.


Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies

Sarah DeWeese

More stories