Does Islam Have Gender Role Expectations?

We must recognise the ways in which our upbringing and experiences shape how we view the relationship between the sexes.

We must recognise the ways in which our upbringing and experiences shape how we view the relationship between the sexes.

In Muslim circles, oftentimes the conversation surrounding the role of men and the role of women centres around what one gender should do for the other. However, without having a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between men and women in Islam, it can leave room for oppression, misunderstanding, and/or one party not fulfilling their rights. Furthermore, with the increasing discussion in the public domain about gender role expectations, it becomes even more imperative that Muslims discuss the relationship between the sexes. We must look back at the Prophetic tradition to equip ourselves with this knowledge so that we can fulfil the rights of one another and live amongst one another harmoniously.

Historically, women in almost every society were subjugated, oppressed and deemed inferior to men. The role of women oftentimes centred around fulfilling traditional gender role expectations. There was very little room for women in the public sphere and their role was often reduced to serving men. Allah (swt) makes it clear that both women and men were created to serve and worship Him.

“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” [51:56]

Now, humans are social beings and because we are, we have relationships with others and this is why there are rights, responsibilities, and roles that both men and women have in relation to each other and in relation to how they deal with others (ie. parents, children, relatives, neighbours etc). In speaking about the relationship between men and women Allah (swt) frames the genders as partners rather than rivals. He states that “the believing men and believing women are allies of one another…” [9:71]. Both sexes are responsible for establishing a healthy family and a just society. Both are also equally rewarded for the good they do. Furthermore, our Creator tells us that He has given preferences to men in some situations and preferences to women in other situations so as to teach us not to want what Allah (swt) has given the other.

In the Quran, Allah mentions, “And do not wish for that by which has made some of you exceed others” [4:32]. In addition, we cannot discuss the relationship between men and women without discussing Surah an-Nisa, Verse 34. Often deemed a controversial verse by non-Muslims & Muslims alike Allah (swt) states that,

“men are in charge of women by rights of what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend for maintenance from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in the husband’s absence what Allah would have them guard…” [4:34]

In Arabic the word “qawam” is used, the role of qawam comes with a lot of responsibility. Allah (swt) has told men that they are the maintainers (provide for women from their wealth) and protectors of women. In Islam, every leader is required to be just. Whether you are a leader of a nation, a company or the head of a household. In the context of the family unit, men have been given a position of trust and they must honour that by remembering that Allah (swt) will question them on how they dealt with their family. Over and above that, the term qawam is not an unconditional statement of male authority and superiority over all women for all time. Nor does qawam mean that a woman is incapable of providing for herself.

Islam emphasizes through the Prophetic tradition that women have a right to be able to receive an education, to work, to buy, sell and own property, to enter into contracts, to initiate marriage, to choose a spouse, to initiate a divorce, to engage in civic life among many other things. It becomes clear upon reading the Quran that “women are seen as equal to men, but the degree to which that is honoured is largely cultural. While some cultures encourage men and women to take on the same roles, others promote a more traditional, less dominant role for the women.” [Global Connections]

The relationship between husband and wife

The husband-wife relationship is one of compassion, cooperation, and complementary roles. Allah purposely created the two genders for a reason. He designed us in such a way where we would have some shared similarities and also some differences. Allah also establishes that women and men are equal in worth but that they have distinct, though equally important roles. Men are required to take care of their family financially and because women give birth, their primary role is taking care of their children and family. Does this mean that a woman is stuck in the home? No, a woman can work, volunteer, be a board member, participate in civic life as long as her family life does not suffer at the expense of her job/other activities. This also means that although men are held responsible for financially providing for their family, their family has a right over them as well. They should not work excessively long hours and not spend quality time with their family. Men must remember that raising the children is not the sole responsibility of the woman. It is the responsibility of both the husband and wife, even if the woman may end up shouldering more of the responsibility.

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A union built on both spouses recognizing the areas the other is better in and working together to build a stable family foundation is imperative to the overall success of the family.

However, some in our society may deem this outlook disadvantageous to women as they may perceive it to be falling in line with the traditional gender roles of the sexes. Those of us living in the Western world are living in societies that are pushing this agenda that there should be no gender distinctions and that the genders are the same. Many believe that gender roles should cease to exist because these roles are socially constructed and have very little biological basis. I would argue that although from a young age, boys and girls are shown images of appropriate male and female behaviour, that gender roles themselves are not the issue; the issue is when people in a relationship stick rigidly to gender roles without allowing for room to determine their own roles for themselves. Marriage is about cooperation after all. In regards to the argument that gender roles do not have a biological basis, I would argue that various studies have shown that men and women are biologically different. Gender roles serve as a framework for how men and women should dress, behave, etc. It’s not bad in its entirety, but it can become a tool of oppression when one person limits the freedom of another on the basis of subscribing to a gender role.

As Muslims, we must recognise the ways in which our upbringing and experiences shape how we view the relationship between the sexes. We must also look at ourselves and see the ways our views and outlook differ from the Prophetic tradition on this matter. Allah has given us the formula to follow and to navigate the relationship between a husband and wife. By understanding the rights, responsibilities and roles of men and women in the family unit it can lead to more cooperation and understanding.

by Sumaya Hassan


“Global Connections. Roles of Women.” PBS. www.pbs.org.

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