This article, meant to be a basic introduction to the topic of Islamic women’s rights in Africa, argues that the two are not mutually exclusive and that women’s rights are in fact provided for within the main frameworks of Islam. While this has been largely little or misunderstood, there is a growing awareness of the fact that neither Islam nor women’s lives are static, and the movement to increase the rights of women is growing within a framework that does not harm the positive and strengthening aspects of Muslim culture.
Issues of human rights for women in African Muslim regions are usually highly contested, though more often they are little understood. Too frequently the discourse surrounding Muslim women’s rights in Africa centers on their lack of empowerment, which can be seen as ironic, considering that Islam is in fact a highly egalitarian religion at its core. Devastated by colonialism, war and poverty, many Muslim African countries are challenged with the task of rebuilding societies based on religious beliefs and cultural identities. At the same time, the recognition of the legitimate and Quranically provided for rights of women must be taken into account, taking also into account the international treaties and global pressures of democracy and rights.
Islam and women’s rights are not mutually exclusive, in spite of the fact that Islamic laws are often disconnected between how they are enacted in practice and what they officially state in writing. The allowance of custom into the legal system and the right to freedom of conscience (interpretation) are two of the ways in which the laws or Shariah of Islam have been narrowed, among numerous others. Further, it is difficult to interpret or critically assess Islamic law without Islamic education, which has been denied to many Muslims across the globe (due to colonialism and political control, among other reasons). Thus, there is widespread misunderstanding as to what the Qur’an actually says.
At the core of Islam is its creation story, which affirms that male and female were created equally, thus leaving no hierarchy in gender creation. Furthermore, Muslim women are independent legal entities, able to retain their own names, financial independence and property at all times. Women are also to be provided for in the instance of divorce. They are to be given a share of relative’s inheritance on the passing of a husband or father. Muslim women, in the Qur’an, are also given the opportunity to work, and to provide an income for themselves. At the same time, while housework and the raising of children is in many instances still prescribed along gender lines, children are to be brought up by both parents, with each consulting one another on important matters. These are just some of the examples of the rights accorded to women within Islam – according to the Qur’an, the hadiths and Sharia (Islamic law). This is obviously a cursory overview of a complicated and deeply historical issue, but it hopes to show simply that there is a side of Islam not often represented in mainstream media or discourse. Further, while many of these rules and ideas are recorded and guaranteed in writing, they are not always practiced. In reality, many Muslim women do not have access to any of these rights.
There are many issues important specifically to Muslim women in Africa, and these are in fact integral to a global perspective in terms of guaranteeing basic human rights. Women comprise over half of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa, including those countries where Islam is practiced. These nations include Mauritania (100% Islamic), the Francophone countries of Burkina Faso (50%), Chad (50%), Cameroon, Mali (90%), Niger (80%) and Senegal (92%) and the Anglophone countries of Ghana and Nigeria (which has a 50% Muslim population). In these places, Islam has a strong influence on women’s roles, access to information and rights. These issues are embedded, for African Muslim women, not only within their religious beliefs but also larger local culture, tradition, and customs.
In some places, the respect accorded to women within Islam is upheld; in other places, women struggle to gain access to these rights. This is the case because within Islam (and many other religions, for that matter), women symbolise a large part of tradition and cultural identity. Changing anything in regards to women’s rights is thus regarded as changing Islam. Those involved in the women’s movements of these countries struggle against this idea. Their protests are sometimes banned, or greeted with backlash – rarely welcomed by those in power. But their movement is growing – they are participating in debates, conferences, television and radio talk shows. Many of those involved are educated women – lawyers, social workers, and academics. This struggle against religious conservatives means that the criticism they receive is invoked through religious and theological means, whether valid or not. This, for many of these activists, means that the work they must do for women must be centered on civil rights, rather than religious ones, as efforts to reform Islam from within, keep failing. Women’s Islamic discourse cannot be discounted, however, as it is starting to provide counterpoints. This is limited at the highest level, however, by the fact that women lawyers are banned from representing women in the Sharia (Islamic law) courts.
A brief overview of some of the most pressing issues facing Muslim women in African nations shows that there is a lack of legal reform in areas traditionally governed by customary and religious laws. Women suffer discrimination in the areas of marriage and divorce laws, property and inheritance laws that favor men, societal norms that condone violence against women, lack of access to proper reproductive and sexual health and rights and lack of access to education. In some of these nations, women are still forced to undergo female genital mutilation. Further, on an everyday basis, women’s roles are confined to those traditionally performed along gender lines – transgressing these boundaries is not a choice for most, should they desire to live beyond these prescribed roles. Freedom of movement and lack of a public life or voice are also a reality for many.
The solutions to these complex and ingrained problems will not come easily. Women’s behavior and roles, in many ways, uphold the core of what Islam is. Changing the way women are valued and treated thus requires not only legal, political and cultural change, but also a shift in attitude. Accomplishing this task without harming the positive essence of Islamic culture and tradition will be difficult, but integral towards realizing women’s rights.
However, there are numerous groups in Africa working towards realizing the rights of Muslim women. Their political and community level participation is in fact an important part of Islam, and is a duty owed to their society. In many African nations there exist small groups of dedicated women working for little pay, in conditions which are sometimes dangerous, to promote the rights of Muslim women. They work to strengthen laws that protect women within customary, statutory and religious laws, lobbying at local, regional and national levels. These groups provide knowledge and awareness to rural and urban women regarding how to exercise and develop their rights and advocate on their behalf in social and legislative realms.
* Researched and written by Karoline Kemp, a Commonwealth of Learning Young Professional with Fahamu.
* Please send comments to
Further Reading for International Women’s Day:
Exercising Power for Change - Statement by Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of UNIFEM, on the occasion of International Women’s Day
Global: Millions of girls still out of school on International Women's Day
Inspiring Potential – Background and Tool Kit
Groups blast U.N. on gender parity
Sex worker rights group participating in national bus trip to stop violence against women and children
IWD - Aspiring decision makers do battle with tradition