Perspectives on Women in Islam: Qur'anic Injunctions, Salafi-Wahhabi Behavior, and Islamic Feminists' Arguments
Gender roles in Islam is a contentious topic that has lingered in the Islamic world, especially from the twentieth century. Islam has widely and historically been regarded as inherently misogynist and particularly oppressive towards women. Specific verses in the Qur’an can be seen as controversial in terms of women’s rights and their status in society, and they have frequently been used as grounds to justify restrictions imposed on women, such as on their mobility and economic empowerment. Various scholars and ideologues have nonetheless sought to re-evaluate this claim, advancing the Qur’an’s progressive and egalitarian character. Islamic feminists in particular, such as Leila Ahmed, have argued that Islam is “stubbornly egalitarian” and that the original message has been corrupted by a male-dominant interpretation that has controlled the Islamic narrative over the centuries. This debate surrounding women’s status in Islam has been increasingly salient with the rise of Islamist radicalism and jihadism globally. ISIS has, for example, despite its brutality, attracted many Western Muslim women who have sacrificed their home, family, and Western livelihood to join the Islamic Caliphate in Syria or Iraq. This has been shocking and incomprehensible to many people who do not understand why any female who enjoys democratic rights and equality before the law would want to join a group that actively promotes her own oppression. What are Salafi-Wahhabi groups’ behavior towards women? What role should women occupy according to Salafi-Wahhabi thought? What are the Qur’anic injunctions on gender relations, and how do they differ from the arguments put forward by Islamic feminist scholars and Salafi-Wahhabi groups like ISIS? This paper seeks to analyze and compare these three different perspectives, presenting an overview of what the actual situation is for women in Islam according to these views and how the latter two may contradict or be in harmony with the Qur’an.
Qur'anic Injunctions on Women in Islam
Islam has often been blamed for the prevailing conditions of women in the Muslim world. The Qur’an cites men as the protectors or providers of women, the righteousness of the latter defined in terms of obedience to males: “Men are in charge of (or: are the protectors) of women, because God has given preference to the one over the other, and because (men) provide support for women from their means. Therefore, righteous women are obedient…” (4:34). This verse has repeatedly been used and interpreted by male rulers and jurists to showcase a naturalness of the circumstance in which women, because of their innate qualities and characteristics, have clearly defined roles and cannot appropriate the functions of men, who thus have authority over women. It offers a justification for the role of the male as head of the household and the final decision-maker, but these gender differences do not deny Muslim women equal rights and responsibilities.
The Qur’an explains that men and women were both created from dust, from one soul, and that God “placed between them affection and mercy” (30: 20-21; 4:1). Eve was therefore not created from Adam, as it is portrayed in the Bible, but the two were created independently and emanated from the same source. Indeed, the two genders were created to complement each other and the combination of the two reflects God’s perfection in His feminine and masculine attributes. God’s jamal names (feminine names of beauty) and jalal names (masculine names of majesty) constitute kamal (divine perfection), and both manifest themselves in the human domain, for example through women and men. More importantly, the original sin does not originate from Eve in the Qur’an, unlike in the Bible; the fault is attributed to both Adam and Eve. Both genders are therefore put on an equal stance in the Qur’an. The male/female dichotomy in the Qur’an in regard to gender roles and relations are not indicative of inequality or characterized by hierarchy; on the contrary men and women were created differently to complement one another and are considered equal in the eyes of God. It is often confused, however, with inequality because many argue that males’ innate attributes or characteristics, such as strength and authority, require them to provide for women or take care of them, which must imply that they are superior in some way to women, who are viewed as forgiving, compassionate, and acquiescent. However, as previously explained, both masculine and feminine characteristics are considered important in the Qur’an as they reflect God’s binary attributes and His divine perfection in being both majestic and feared, but also merciful and caring.
Another issue that has led to the common misperception that the Qur’an is discriminative towards women or even misogynistic is the way the Qur’an was interpreted in the decades following the Islamic revelation, which translated into patriarchal norms and bias policy issues. These norms or policies discriminated women for their perceived inferiority relative to men, as it was understood by Muslim male rulers, and because of a male-dominated Qur’anic interpretation that excluded half of the Muslim population.
The Qur’anic revelation provided clear progress for women in the pre-Islamic period. The Qur’an lays out specific legal protections for women in marriage, divorce, and inheritance, more so than in the other Abrahamic religions. With the rise of Islam, women gained inheritance rights, although they are only given one half of what men are offered because men act as the provider for his wife and their family. The Qur’an prescribes clear guidelines in 4:11 regarding inheritance rights and the division of property among your children: “For the male, what is equal to the share of two females. But if there are [only] daughters, two or more, for them is two thirds of one's estate. And if there is only one, for her is half. And for one's parents, to each one of them is a sixth of his estate if he left children… [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah.” While women are offered relatively less than men in terms of inheritance, they are still incorporated in the share of a family’s heritage, which is more than they received prior to the Islamic revelation.
As for marriage, there is no references as to the age of marriage in Islam in the Qur’an. Various contradictions exist in regard to this topic, notably discrepancies among different Hadiths and between the Sunnah and the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not state a specific legal age of marriage; however, it does provide guidance and mentions clearly two situations that should be considered before marriage: that one must be physically mature (i.e. sexually) and be of sound judgement (i.e. mentally mature) in order to get married. It is to be noted that these conditions are subjectively defined as they are meant to depend on and evolve with time and space. The Qur’an is indeed atemporal, designed for all of mankind in the past, present and future, so while it might be morally acceptable back then to marry as a child, now it is not, and the Qur’an allows flexibility with the interpretation of the age of marriage so that it supports values of different times. In 4:6, the Qur’an states: “And test the orphans [in their abilities] until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgement, release their property to them. And do not consume it excessively and quickly, [anticipating] that they will grow up.” Hence, according to the Qur’an, one can test the mental ability and maturity of a young man or woman—and whether they are of a marriageable age, if he/she is capable of managing her own affairs well. This verse also warns those entrusted with wealth not to consume or waste it before they grow up, and grown up is referred to in Arabic as “shudud,” which means physical maturity, the period from adolescence to adulthood. This means a marriageable age begins at post-puberty, from adolescence onwards. References to post-puberty or the need to be physically matured before marrying is further referred to in 4:6, 24: 31, and 24: 58-59.
There are other guidelines provided in the Qur’an to consider before marriage such as determining mutual attraction and compatibility, (2:221, 30:21, 33:52), ascertaining whether the potential partner is of similar beliefs/faiths (2:221, 60:10), discussion of and agreeing to the level of dower and other terms if any (4:4, 4:24), understanding and mutual acceptance of marriage as a solemn covenant or strong oath (4:21, 2:232, 2:237, 24:33), and if male, capable of providing for the household (2:228, 2:233, 4:34, 65:6). Thus, according to the Qur'an, marriage is a solemn covenant of mutual trust and faithfulness for each other that arises when two individuals are ready to move on to a new phase of adulthood in their life.
Child marriage has been a very contentious issue in the debate surrounding women’s rights in Islam. It has been practiced in the Islamic world, principally justified through different Hadith reports, specifically the one narrating the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha when she was six years old, and the consumption of this marriage when she was nine. This has offered legal justifications for certain states to accept and tolerate this practice. Nonetheless, while providing volumes of historical information about the Prophet, these hadith narrations were written 200-300 years after the Prophet’s death and thus are not free from faulty and self-contradictory materials that were gathered and orally transmitted from flawed human beings going back to the companions of the Prophet himself. In fact, the information about Aisha’s age when she got married to the Prophet is widely quoted and found in many books but only comes from a single person: Hisham bin Urwah. This information was reported through Iraqis, which has been quoted as unreliable by Yaqub ibn Shaibah. Furthermore, the Qur’an clearly stipulates that all marriages of the Prophet were lawful: “O Prophet, indeed We have made lawful to you your wives” (33:50). The Qur’an also declares Muhammad to be a man of highest moral standards (68:4; 33:21) and the best exemplar for humanity, instructing Muslim believers to follow Muhammad’s teachings and accept him as a final authority in all of their affairs. If the Prophet was so righteous and if all his marriages were lawful, and considering Qur’anic guidelines on marriage, this would imply that Aisha could not have been six or nine when she married Muhammad, but could have been at least 16-19 of age at the time of her marriage. The Qur’anic guidelines in regard to physical and sexually maturity (4:6) tell us that Muhammad could not have married a young girl of age six or nine.As for polygamy, a practice that was fairly common before the Qur’anic revelation, was restricted to two conditions in the Qur’an: “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice]” (4:3). First, this verse states that men can take a second, third or fourth wife if he is afraid that orphan girls will not be provided for, and thus under this condition, can marry them to provide for them. Second, a man can only marry another woman if he treats his wives equally and justly. Only under these conditions is polygamy accepted according to the Qur’an. Marriage is considered a significant sacred alliance and solemn covenant that unites a man and a woman as companions for life. Because of its importance in the eyes of God, divorce is strongly discouraged in the Qur’an. However, when it is necessary, the Qur’an not only guarantees women a right for divorce without requiring the husband’s consent (khul divorce), but also protects women and assures equal rights with men (compensation if husband initiate divorce and right to child custody).
In terms of seclusion and veiling, the Qur’an promotes modesty for both men and women: “Say to the believing men that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts. That is purer for them… And tell the believing women to cast down their glances and guard their private parts and not display their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers…” (24:30-31) Seclusion was also adopted as a practice in the Islamic world from the Byzantine and Persian empires, and was perceived as a sign of privilege, reserved to elite women who were not required to work in the fields along their male counterparts. However, what began as an attempt to protect women—as a sign of prestige, respect, and wealth, or as a “partition” from men to make clear that veiled women were not available, actually led to a real lack of freedom for many women who became excluded from the world of males and from life outside their homes. Even the mosque, guaranteed to them by the Prophet as a place of worship, became inaccessible to some.As such, the Qur’anic revelation provided a clear progress for women in pre-Islamic societies. Historic circumstances have unfortunately worked in the disfavor of Muslim women, particularly due to a male-dominated interpretation of the Qur’an that excluded women from this process. Pre-existing patriarchal norms were also reinforced over the years, coinciding with the rise of Islam, and therefore these norms were mistakenly seen as emanating from the Qur’an. These predominant traditions of male authority made it difficult for women to avail themselves of the rights guaranteed in the Qur’an, and they faced particular hardships in divorce, employment, and political activity. Gender relations and inequality in the Islamic world hence did not originate from the Qur’an but was a product of history, culture, geography, and politics. I will now examine how Islamic feminist scholars and how ISIS have interpreted Qur’anic injunctions on women in Islam, analyzing how different these two perspectives are from each other and how consistent they are with Qur’anic injunctions.
Islamic feminists argue that the Qur’an is fundamentally egalitarian and provides agency for women. They believe that the original message was corrupted by male Islamist jurists and Qur’anic scholars who have controlled the Islamic narrative, excluding women from this process. Because of this, Islamic feminists have often held that Islam needs re-interpretation to include women’s interpretation of the Qur’an, which they argue would reduce some of the underlying biases that have resulted from this unfair or unbalanced analysis. Several prominent scholars emerge from this debate, including Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, and Amina Wadud. This paper will look particularly at the arguments of Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed, and Albert Hourani.
Asma Barlas highlights that the dominant male-voice in the discussion and interpretation of the Qur’an, and subsequent exclusion of women, was a major factor in the patriarchal interpretations of Islamic religious texts and the corruption of the original message. She blames in particular the early companions of the Prophet for excluding women from the interpretation process and for formulating Islamic tradition and society based on patriarchal and misogynistic values. Her critique focuses on Hadith traditions as she perceives the Qur’an to be in line with gender egalitarianism. She specifically denounces male biases and interpretations of the Prophet’s life and actions as restricting women, and views Islam as portraying women equal to men, arguing that the Prophet did not treat women inferiorly. In fact, the Prophet’s wives and many women after the Qur’anic revelation had a prominent role in the transmission of the Prophet’s sayings and the spread of Islam, notably Khadija, Aisha, Fatima, Mariam, among many others.
Leila Ahmed assumes that Islam is stubbornly egalitarian. She states that “Islam’s ethical vision […] is thus in tension with, and might even be said to subvert, the hierarchical structure of marriage pragmatically instituted in the first Islamic society,” suggesting that Islamic scholars and/or ruling men curtailed women pre-Islamic autonomy and participation to serve their own political purposes, establishing institutions of patriarchal marriage as solely legitimate. Primarily, she holds responsible “the political, religious, and legal authorities in the Abbasid period,” for hearing only and instituting the androcentric voice of Islam, which “has defined Islam ever since.” She also accuses negative foreign influences of the Byzantine and Persian Empires, as well as the Prophet Muhammad’s own practices of secluding and veiling his wives for subverting Islam’s egalitarianism. Identifying these different “corrupting” influences of Islam and the Qur’an, Ahmed’s argument is perhaps too thoroughgoing as it confuses different social dynamics that had unintended consequences, notably in relation to veiling and women’s seclusion from the rest of the society. As explained above, veiling and women’s seclusion was a sign of privilege and of belonging to the upper-class in various societies, like in the Persian, Byzantine, and Chinese empires. As the Islamic polity grew in strength during the Islamic conquests, the Prophet and its successive leaders imitated the practices of privileged families to assert Islam’s power. However, veiling was never intended to be a patriarchal custom, it only became one gradually in later decades, as Islamic rulers and scholars installed the veil to control women’s sexuality. Moreover, Ahmed overlooks pre-existing patriarchal institutions of Arab tribal societies during the Jahiliya period and paints a too optimistic reality of Jahiliya societies, which Albert Hourani recovers from in his argument. Ahmed’s argument can also be problematic because the Qur’an declares the Prophet Muhammad to be a man of highest moral standards (68:4; 33:21) and the best exemplar for humanity. In many verses, the Qur’an enjoins Muslim believers to follow Muhammad’s teachings and accept him as a final authority in all their affairs, which is therefore in direct contradiction to her statement about the Prophet’s corruption of the original message of Islam.
Albert Hourani looks at women’s deprivation of inheritance, their tight monitorization through marriage alliances, and limited spatial mobility during the Jahiliya period. He argues that Islamic rules were “incidental to the process of patriarchy,” which he believes has resulted “from the incomplete and degeneration of the tribal society and of the structure of defense it erected to maintain integrity.” He therefore infers that Islamic rulers did not bring up patriarchy, but that patriarchy was already present in Arabian societies before the Qur’anic revelation and it was only reproduced and reinforced throughout the centuries.Hence these three scholars all perceive the Qur’an and Islam as fundamentally egalitarian and most generally agree that patriarchy in Islamic societies resulted from various political, geographical, and/or cultural factors, which reinforced patriarchal norms and misogynistic values over the centuries.
Muslim women taking part in the Islamic feminist movement actively sought to rectify the oppression they were facing by resorting to Islamic principles and using Islamic sources to show that gender egalitarianism is a discourse valid within Islam. Women’s oppression was seen as originating from the absence of proper Islamic principles, which pushed Muslim women to call for an Islamicization of their societies and a recommitment to Islam in order to regain their rights guaranteed under Sharia law. This mission was not merely a call for women to stay at home, but a call to enhance and reconceptualize women’s role in the family as mothers and wives that was different but as equally important as men’s duties, as they prepare the next generations for a leading and productive role in society.
These women also argued for a re-interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and a new form of ijtihad that include women, using Islamic religious texts to justify their arguments and showcase their capability to provide social and political leadership. In order to assert their presence in previously male-defined sphere, they negotiated their entrance into these arenas by relying on specific Qur’anic verses and Hadith reports that historically secured their subordination to male authority. According to them, women’s subordination to feminine virtues such as shyness, modesty, and humility was a necessary condition for their enhanced public role in religious political life. Concretely, these women aimed to revive Islamic values in social life by establishing for example neighbourhood mosques, institutions of Islamic learning or da’wa training centres, and Islamic charities dedicated to social welfare for the poor and religious activities. Essentially, they sought to educate ordinary Muslims in Islamic religious virtues, moral uprightness, and pietistic conduct, as well as in the proper performance of religious duties and acts of worship.
Several prominent Islamist women activists are reputed for their role in leading this women’s liberation movement, notably Zaynab al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali played a leading role in developing and spreading Islamism in Egypt in the 20th century. Her modernist religious activism emphasized on women’s visibility within the boundaries of Islam, calling for women’s active role in public, intellectual, and political life in accordance with Islamic standards of reserve, restraint, and modesty that were required from pious Muslim women. Her speeches and writings often invoked that Muslim men and women were equally called upon to serve God and emphasized equity and compatibility between men and women. She also held weekly religious sermons and organized religious lessons, which she claimed had a following of three million women.
Even today, many Muslim women have used their Islamic expertise to enter politics and negotiate with male leaders in the midst of conflict. Their religious knowledge and piety were key factors for them to gain esteem and respect, and they were able to use their religiosity to effectively settle differences and bring peace. A notable success was the role of Afghan women when they negotiated directly with Taliban leaders, addressing violence and bringing attention to social and humanitarian concerns. For example, at the 2004 constitutional convention, women successfully reached across ethnic lines to push for a written commitment to equal rights for all Afghan citizens. They also worked in schools and community organizations to counter extremist narratives for the peaceful upbringing of their children and life within their community.Thus, Islam has repeatedly been used as a ground to justify women’s liberation or equality to men. Scholarly but also practically, Islamic feminists have defended women’s rights on the basis of Qur’anic injunctions and Islamic law, which they perceive as granting them specific rights to assert their presence in public, intellectual, and political life. While some scholars may have been too thoroughgoing in their arguments, especially when they criticize the Prophet Muhammad, most arguments put forward by Islamic feminists are in harmony with the Qur’an, particularly in relation to women’s different but equal role to men in society.
ISIS’ interpretation of women’s rights and their treatment in society according to Islamic principles is in stark opposition to Islamic feminists’ interpretation of the Qur’an. This paper will show that ISIS’ interpretation is less accurate because it is less in harmony with the Qur’an and the group has manipulated certain verses to fit its political purposes.
I will closely analyze ISIS’ manifesto published by the all-female police ‘Al Khanssaa Brigade’ to recruit Arab Muslim women to join the Islamic Caliphate. This manifesto is not aimed at a Western audience but is clearly designed to draw women from the region, particularly those in the Gulf. We can also deduce from the numerous references to Saudi Arabia in the manifesto, that the target audience can be narrowed down to women in the Kingdom and that ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic sources is the closest to Saudi Wahhabi Islam and can be associated with the Salafi-Wahhabi trend of Islamic political thought.
I have chosen to focus my analysis on this manifesto to analyze ISIS’ Salafi-Wahhabi ideology towards women because these guidelines present something that is more akin to the realities of living as a female jihadist in IS-held territories, in comparison to ISIS propaganda targeting Western women. From it, we generally learn that while there are indeed women operating to battle, police, and fight under certain circumstances, this is actually very low on the list of responsibilities given to women. The manifesto specifically emphasizes the importance of motherhood and family support, stating the role of women is “divinely” limited, and overall it has a very misogynist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith.
The manifesto reflects ISIS’s archaic, literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, imposing a strict attire on all women, which resembles the Saudi niqab (all-black dress covering every inch of their bodies, including gloves to cover their hands and fingers). The manifesto encourages women to remain hidden and veiled, confined within a single space that they cannot leave unless under exceptional circumstances—to wage jihad when there are no men available or to study religion. Women are also allowed to exit their houses if they wish to go to Shariah courts and are legally entitled to openly talk about their issues for consultation on marriage, divorce, and inheritance, without the need for bargaining or bribery.
A sedentary lifestyle is declared to be women’s divinely appointed right, revolving around motherhood and maintenance of the household, while men provide for women and wage jihad to build the Caliphate. The guide also urges Arab Muslim women to emulate the women first called to Islam, like Khadija, Aisha, or Fatima. This is a contradiction to the previous statement about women’s sedentariness because the wives of the Prophet, his daughters, and others had a prominent role in supporting the Prophet to spread the Islamic message and in the transmission of Islamic knowledge after his death. The manifesto completely discounts this key role and even neglects it. Furthermore, as previously discussed, this sedentariness and need to remain hidden or veiled from the rest of society was not initially a restriction imposed on women, but rather established as a sign of privilege, wealth, and power. In 33: 32-33, the Qur’an states: “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women. If you fear Allah, then do not be soft in speech to men, … but speak with appropriate speech” and “abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as was the display of former times of ignorance.” This shows that the wives of the Prophet, despite being veiled and hidden, had enormous power and influence both within the household, in supporting the Prophet, and in guiding believers with their speech.
Furthermore, the guide clearly stipulates that men and women are not equal under Islam, saying “upon examination of the state of the human condition, it is clear that God provided for man’s needs.” It further declares that “woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam.” We know after discussing Qur’anic injunctions on women in Islam that this statement is false because Adam and Eve were created from the same soul and that God created them as mates, placing between them “affection and mercy” so that they may find tranquillity among each other (30: 21). The manifesto nonetheless uses this same verse to illustrate that there is no greater responsibility for women that to be a wife to her husband, which is an inaccurate interpretation of this verse because the emphasis is on the complementarity of the genders who become soulmates, and not on women’s submissiveness to and housework for men. Furthermore, the manifesto explains that men, notably in Western societies, have felt emasculated due to women supporting or helping to support their husbands and family. In 4:34, the Qur’an says: “men are in charge of women by right of what Allah has given over the other and what they spend for maintenance from their wealth.” This verse has been used to assert that having a job is only a task reserved for men, arguing that men have been “given the body and brain to tend to his wives, daughters, and sisters. ISIS further justifies women’s limited ability to work with “monthly complications”, “pregnancies”, and “nature of her life and responsibilities to her husband, sons, and religion.” However, if she is forced to work outside of the house, ISIS stipulates that women must be rewarded for this service, through assistance with household chores and childrearing as well as limited working hours so that she can tend to her family.
In regard to education, in order for woman to fulfil her role to bring up, educate, protect and care for the next generation to come, ISIS highlights that she cannot be illiterate or ignorant and that Islam does not ordain the forbidding of education or blocking of culture from women. Learning shariah sciences and fiqh is indeed ordained for women in ISIS. Ideally, girls begin studying from 7 and end at 15, sometimes a little earlier. They must be taught mental arithmetic and skills according to their age as well as their mental and physical development. Curricula focus on fiqh and religion, especially related to women and rulings on marriage and divorce, as well as important household skills, such as knitting, cooking, and other manual skills. Schools are naturally gender segregated, and girls are required to stop studying when they marry. Their role as mothers or wives can begin as early as nine years old, but the manifesto states that “most pure girls will be married by 16 or 17, when they are still young and active,” while men will not be more than 20.
ISIS’ manifesto imposes many restrictions on women and clearly portrays women as second-class citizens. Overall, this ultra-conservative religious narrative glorifies women’s roles as mothers and wives, depicted as a religious duty, and denigrates women who seek anything else than to dedicate herself to giving birth and rearing her children, which can happen as early as nine years old.
This paper has allowed us to examine the actual situation of women in Islam and the rights granted to women according to the Qur’an. From the analysis, we can deduce that the Qur’an indeed provides an egalitarian discourse on gender relations and justifies the male/female dichotomy on the basis of the complementarity of the genders, which reflects God’s divine perfection in His binary attributes (feminine and masculine names). Islamic feminists undoubtedly offer the closest interpretation to this religious text, using Qur’anic verses to defend their liberation and rights as Muslim women. On the contrary, ISIS portrays women as second-class citizens, manipulating Qur’anic injunctions to justify women’s subordination to men and their brutal misogynist ideology.
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