Contemporary Islam

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 249–265

Piety as a concept underpinning Muslim women’s online discussions of marriage and professional career


    • Department of Social Policy and Social WorkUniversity of York

DOI: 10.1007/s11562-011-0162-y

Cite this article as:
Piela, A. Cont Islam (2011) 5: 249. doi:10.1007/s11562-011-0162-y


In this article, I address piety as a concept shaping Muslim women’s online discussions about gender roles, marriage and professional careers. I also investigate cross-cultural religious encounters in these women-only groups as I am interested in the potential of such online environments to facilitate women’s religious reflection and intellectual engagement. Finally, I explore motivations and religious interpretations of three categories of participants in these discussions: egalitarians, for whom gender equality is a necessary component of piety (Barlas 2006); traditionalists, identified by other authors as Islamists (Karam 1998) or social conservatives (Gül and Gül 48:1–26, 2000; Mahmood 2005) and finally, holists, a group that cannot be mapped out on the political landscape by using the progressive–conservative binary (Badran, Agenda 50:41–57, 2001) and which exists and acts outside of it, neither subverting nor enacting norms of any dominant system, be it secular–liberal or patriarchal. Following Mahmood’s argument that formulating an analysis based exclusively on such a binary is simplistic (Mahmood 2005), I argue that actions of holists can be only addressed by formulating a set of questions different to those used to analyse self-defined egalitarians or traditionalists.


Muslim womenOnlineReligionIslam


Muslim women have long argued for empowerment, liberation and/or gender justice through taqwa,1 a concept often translated, by Saba Mahmood, as ‘piety’ (Mahmood 2005: 144–5, 145 n. 42). Women’s re-readings of Islamic scriptures have signalled a departure from both patriarchal understandings of Islam and secular–liberal feminist frameworks rooted in the secular West (Mahmood 2005: 2). Muslim female scholars argue that women’s inability to interpret Islamic scriptures will preclude them from participating in khalifah2 (Barazangi 2000; Wadud 2006). Khalifah has been translated by Barlas (2006: 107) as ‘vice-regency’; she states that both Muslim men and women are vice regents, and there is no reason that men are vice-regents over women. In the past two decades, Islamic scholarship has seen the emergence of an entire body of female theology, including Mernissi’s critique of authenticity of what she saw as misogynist hadiths (Mernissi 1991), Wadud’s first ‘gender-focused’ interpretation of the Qur’an (Wadud 1999), Barazangi’s study of the Qu’ran-based concept of gender justice (Barazangi 2004), Barlas’s study of gender in Islam based on her understanding of Qur’anic hermeneutics (Barlas 2006) and many others. Whilst receiving much more publicity, these academic works are not the only sites of Islamic feminist knowledge; Muslim women at the grassroots level actively explore the Qur’an and Hadith in face-to-face online groups functioning as halaqas.3 This connection between gender and Islamic piety enables them to seek empowerment independently from other groups, in particular male scholars and secular feminists. Piety has been described by Mahmood (2001: 212) as a state attainable

through practices that are both devotional as well as worldly in character; it requires more than the simple performance of acts: piety also entails the inculcation of entire dispositions through a simultaneous training of the body, emotions, and reason as sites of discipline until the religious virtues acquired the status of embodied habits.

A similar approach, represented by women reflecting online on their acts, dispositions and embodied habits, is a part of a wider phenomenon of women’s unique and unorthodox ways of resisting oppressive power dynamics. Piety is fostered online through interaction with Islamic knowledge and other Muslims; online groups such as discussed in this article are spaces where women can re-read religious texts and hear their own voices, as ‘women’s voices in traditional religions have been filtered through institutional restraints that have shaped, interpreted, translated, and even silenced them’ (Griffin 2004: 195).

Research into relationships between Islamic expressions and new technologies, increasingly intense in the last decade, has acknowledged the importance of the Internet in strengthening both traditional and alternative Islamic authorities (Hirschkind 2001; Bunt 2003). Both mainstream scholars and new knowledge agents on the Islamic stage now have access to new, powerful ways of distributing their message and recruiting new followers. But whilst for the former the Internet constitutes a useful addition to a range of existing communication channels, for the latter, it is often a tool that enables a leap from the fringes of the Islamic tradition to relative popularity (Eickelman 1999). Muslim women in the Middle East have been one of the social groups with marginal access to male-dominated Islamic and mainstream media, since gender issues, including women’s right to education and work, have been often treated as secondary to more ‘pressing’ problems (Sakr 2004: 4). Middle and upper-class women published magazines (El-Sadaawi 1993: 255–6; Baron 1994: 96), but these were often women-oriented and elitist; women could rarely present their religious interpretations through mass media at a national level (Wadud 1999: 2). The advent of interactive and increasingly accessible Internet has enabled Muslim women not only to meet other women from other cultural and geographic settings, but, thanks to blog and website publishing opportunities, to present their theological arguments to a wider audience as well (Rahimi 2008: 41).

There is a growing body of research that investigates how Muslims are using new communication technologies. Bunt (2000, 2003) and Eickelman and Anderson (1999) were amongst the first to identify and indicate possible implications of new channels of distribution of information; a growing body of Islamic knowledge online; new opportunities for interaction with religious authorities; and finally, interaction amongst Muslims in discussion groups. Bunt later discussed the use of the Internet for political purposes by Islamists and day-to-day activities such as business and romance (2009). Van Nieuwkerk mentioned the role of the Internet in the rising number of conversions, as individuals could freely access information about Islam and interact with potential fellow believers in the virtual world (Van Nieuwkerk 2006). Iranian women’s blogs and their political and social significance were considered by Amir-Ebrahimi (2008a, b). Bastani (2001) noticed the use of discussion groups by Muslim women, but she focused on social interaction, and although she briefly mentioned religious discussions taking place there, she did not explore their importance for new interpretations of Islam. Brouwer (2006) and Bhimji (2005) analysed the subject matter and styles of interaction in mixed-gender discussion groups, drawing attention to specific gender dynamics that sometimes require women participants to demonstrate a degree of determination in expressing their religious views. Bhimji notes that women who enter into religious discussion are thoroughly educated at a ‘deeper than merely cursory’ theological level. This enables them to take a stand against culturally based expectations, defend their point of view and reference it with Islamic sources. Most ethnographic studies mentioned above are indicating that Muslim women are challenging both the neo-Orientalist discourse and the patriarchal discourse which claims to be Islamic. The fact that women construct a third, oppositional public discourse suggests that the Internet may turn out to be more helpful in creating new discourses than sceptics, such as Roy, have envisaged (Roy 2004).


Despite this literature, the area of Muslim women’s religious activity still remains largely unexplored in spite of the vast amount of data accumulated in various online archives and repositories. Moreover, as Zaman (2008) notes, the existing work focuses on Muslim women in specific geographic locations, thus referring to ‘Iranian’, ‘Afghan’ or ‘British’ Muslim women, which to some extent defines the scope of the exchanges. In contrast, I focus on transnational religious exchanges of geographically dispersed Muslim women, who, although they acknowledge their situatedness, tend to focus on religious goals and issues that they see as generic, regardless of location and cultural context. Moreover, this perspective is strengthened by participants’ own perspectives; their claim to a Muslim identity overrides their other associations, in particular national and ethnic ones. I also frame the activity of group members within existing literature on Muslim women’s religious authority and social autonomy.


The data, generated for the purpose of thematic analysis, were extracted from the archives of 12 women-only Islamic online discussion groups to which I was granted ethical access in 2006. I included all the identified relevant groups in my sample. I do not reveal the groups’ names in order to protect participants’ anonymity, which I pledged in my negotiations of obtaining access with moderators (whose main role was to ensure that group members followed the groups’ codes of conduct). It was my objective to identify women-only groups as I was interested in discussions of Islamic scriptures from women’s perspective; I also wished to engage with women’s priorities (as debated in their groups), bound to be different from those in mixed-gender or men-only groups. These 12 strongly moderated groups were all very similar in their purpose and appearance—they informed visitors that their aim was to further Islamic faith and knowledge (these two are often considered as complementary; this dovetails with Barlas’ statement that ‘Muslims regard the pursuit of knowledge as a form of worship’ (Barlas 2006: xvi), whilst visually they conformed to the strict Islamic requirement of refraining to portray people and animals. Instead, they were adorned with pictures of plants and Islamic calligraphy; their names suggested a strong emphasis on Muslim sisterhood and community, as they often included words such as ‘sisters’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Islamic’, ‘women’, ‘believers’, and so forth. Islam, regardless of geographic location or cultural affinity, was considered the most important quality shared by the participants. This is in strong contrast to groups espousing ethnic or cultural identities, quite prolific on the Internet, whose activities may sometimes overlap with those of the groups I accessed.

The background of the participants remains largely unknown, due to the character of the groups—women are able to set up anonymous profiles and refrain from revealing their location, age or socioeconomic status. Courtesy of a moderator of one of the groups, I had access to the results of a poll in which group members declared their location: about half of the respondents were based in the USA, whilst a quarter lived in other non-Muslim-majority countries and a further quarter in Muslim-majority countries (mostly Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia). However, it is impossible to say how representative that poll was. Furthermore, the number of converts in the groups is not known, although a large group of active contributors declared themselves to be converts. Only one group indicated that it promoted Sunni Muslim views and denounced other sects; all others accepted all Muslim women regardless of affiliation, and all groups asserted that non-Muslim women interested in Islam were welcome to join.

The language of the discussed online groups was English. There are a number of issues that reflect the uneasiness of the relationship between Islam and English: British colonisation of Muslim territories in the past; the fact that the current occupant armies in Iraq and Afghanistan are mainly Anglophone (Karmani 2003); the fact that English has been a carrier of Judeo-Christian values and has been used for missionary purposes (Mohd-Asraf 2005; Makoni and Pennycook 2005); and the fact that English is an exclusion factor in the developing world, where a gap exists between the English educated and non-English educated, with the former belonging to the socioeconomic elite and the latter representing the non-elite (Mohd-Asraf 2005). Despite these concerns, in the current status quo, English seems to have gained popularity as the online language of Muslim users. The use of English in online presentations of Islam may increase Islam’s potential influence on non-Muslims. Some participants reported that their first contact with Islam happened online, during casual browsing of websites. Van Nieuwkerk reports the case of a woman who converted on the internet, taking the shahada4 in English in the presence of two women who were chatting to her at that moment (Van Nieuwkerk 2006: 113). Online groups such as the ones I discuss here exemplify the appropriation of English by Muslims online who share religion but differ in cultural and linguistic terms.

I accessed discussions from the period 2001–2006, the period preceding my joining of the groups, to ensure that my presence, made known to group members, did not influence the course and content of the discussions. Having explained my role, I browsed discussions and single posts written by group members; I finally selected 42 threads which on average included 15 contributions, ranging in size from ten to 2,000 words. I was guided in my choice by the frequency of appearance of certain themes which I could determine thanks to atlas.ti, a computer package designed to aid in data coding and organisation, which simply added up occurrences of words and phrases. This analytic approach was a result of careful and detailed reading and coding of the online discussions; the original corpus of the data provided themes such as Islamic education, Muslim gender practices, marriage, sexuality, employment, hijab and Islamic sisterhood. Consent for publishing selected quotes was obtained from participants prior to analysis. Discussions included contributions from members representing different cultural and political backgrounds, including egalitarian and traditionalist5 US converts, Egyptian and Pakistani feminists and Indonesian Salafis, as well as holists from the USA, Iran and Turkey. A combination of these backgrounds, as well as other factors such as family dynamics and personal situation, influenced members’ views on gender roles in Islam, a theme that appeared with the highest frequency in all newsgroups. As I was interested in an active, dynamic negotiation of members’ identities as Muslim women, I found the newsgroup discussions particularly useful in my investigation of this research question.

For analytic purposes, I have organised members’ political positions on a continuum between ‘egalitarianism’, a view that promoted interpretations of Islamic sources that emphasises equality of the genders, and ‘traditionalism’, a view that espouses complementarity of the genders, and, in its most conservative iterations, posits that there was a specific hierarchy of the genders with males being intellectually and morally superior to females. Most members were located in between the two extremes, often arguing that every situation requires a unique consideration, and principles may be applied differently under different conditions. I also identified various degrees of members’ openness to others’ viewpoints, but in general, women with more extreme views were less open to exchanges with representatives of other viewpoints. Adapting Badran’s terminology (‘holistic cultural feminism’, see Badran 2001), I refer to members most willing to accept difference as ‘holists’, since they often try to find merit on both sides of newsgroup discussions, and act as advocates of Islamic sisterhood.

Representatives of different positions have varied priorities. Traditionalists argue in favour of a lifestyle based on the complementarity of genders, where each gender has a prescribed repertoire of behaviours. Unlike in the case of Mahmood’s mosque participants (2005: 174), in the newsgroups, women pursue piety, but their views on gender roles vary. Egalitarians advocate gender equality understood as equal (not always identical) roles for men and women, whilst holists emphasise the necessity of individual negotiation of gender roles and seek a compromise between spouses. Holists take on a reconciliatory position and point out overlaps in traditionalists’ and egalitarians’ arguments, thus attempting to introduce at least partial consensus. This diversity of views in one ‘space’ seems to be a factor differentiating online groups from localised communities of women, which tend to represent a more homogenous position.

Participants representing different categories read the Islamic sources differently and have different preferences in the choice of sources. As egalitarians and traditionalists represented opposite camps, differences between them are the most visible. Women representing the holists took on the role of offering a ‘buffer zone’, indicating points of consensus and shared interests. In the discussions analysed in this article, egalitarians preferred to focus on the parts of the Qur’an that emphasise partnership and on modernist Muslim writers. On the other hand, traditionalists chose to use hadiths, although they also referred to some Qur’anic verses. However, the verses used by traditionalists were the debate-provoking verses, read very differently by various women. While egalitarians preferred to put these verses in the context of the entire Qur’an, which was a hermeneutic strategy promoted by Barlas who claims that this is the methodology of reading provided by the Qur’an itself (2006), the traditionalists tended to read the Qur’anic verses literally and supported their interpretation with hadiths (often challenged by the egalitarians as ‘weak’), in the same vein as Abdul Rahman’s observations (Abdul Rahman 2007: 481).

Marriage, sexuality and career: Muslim women’s negotiations of a pious lifestyle

Addressing what Muslim women regard as pious lifestyle, I focus on the dilemma, faced by many women regardless of denomination, of choosing between staying at home, working outside the home or balancing the two. I investigate their perceptions regarding Islamic teaching on the roles of a wife and a mother, sexuality and pursuing a professional career.


Marriage is a central institution in Islam for facilitating religious and social life (Sherif 1999). It is recommended to every Muslim who can afford it, because it serves two important functions: it connects two human beings who were originally created ‘for each other’, and it allows procreation (Sachedina 1990). The Qur’an reads: ‘And Allah has made for you mates (and companions) of your own nature, and made for you, out of them, sons and daughters and grandchildren, and provided for you sustenance of the best: will they then believe in vain things, and be ungrateful for Allah’s favours?’ (16:72).6 The institution of marriage is therefore enshrined in Islamic texts, and women’s employment outside the home is often debated in the context of women’s primary roles as a mother and a wife (Badawi 1995). This perspective is shared by traditionalists such as CT7:

It is better if you look after the house and spend time with your children, as Allah (swt)8 made the woman to be the queen of the household and the man to provide for his family. I don’t know if you have kids but it is a privilege to see them grow up. There are resplendent evidences in Islaam that require women to stay at home and not to go out except when necessary—for example in the Quran ‘And stay in your houses, and do not display yourselves like that of the times of ignorance’ (33:33). If you don’t have kids, you may look for a job in a female-only environment (avoid gender-mixing!!!), but you need your hubby’s permission to go out/work.

In this response to another member who ponders the possibility of taking up paid employment, CT mentions a Qur’anic passage which she interprets as justification of women’s domestic roles. Furthermore, she emphasises the advantages of staying at home, including watching the children grow up. She further emphasises her point by identifying the role of a wife as glamorous and important. This suggests that CT sees domesticity as a privilege bestowed on women by Allah. Another member, LB, argues that in marriage, because wives are responsible for the domestic sphere, they ‘deserve to be treated as MUSLIM QUEENS AND PRINCESSES’ (emphasis hers). Thus, traditionalists’ posts suggest that while they recognise they have specific roles to fulfil, they find them enjoyable, satisfying and glamorous, in contrast to the common perceptions of housework as dull and repetitive. However, traditionalists are aware of the financial demands faced by Muslim families, especially immigrant families in the West, where kinship network support may be limited or non-existent. Therefore, many see women’s paid work as permissible when the family is in financial difficulty. This concession, however, has its limits. In line with Secor’s Islamist interviewees (Secor 2003), traditionalists argue that it is necessary for the wife to obtain her husband’s permission to leave the house and work, and they give preference to women-only workplaces,9 as this environment protects women from dangers such as sexual harassment. Finally, the domestic role has to remain a priority, with paid work being organised around it.

One theme that visibly stands out in discussions on marriage and marital duties is sexuality. In contrast to Christianity, in Islam, female sexuality is considered ‘active’, rather than ‘passive’ (Gerami 1995: 5). Mernissi indicates that Islam’s view of female sexuality is that of a powerful force (2001). Sexuality is seen not only as an element of the procreative function, but also as a sphere of life to be enjoyed by both spouses (Arnfred 2003). However, the theme of women’s sexual pleasure is but one in a complex discourse of female body politics in Islam. This discourse includes other elements such as safeguarding women’s modesty (and men’s honour) through segregation, control of women’s sexuality through body part removal (clitoridectomy or female genital mutilation) and construction of female sexuality as a threat to men’s honour (Rashid 2003). These phenomena have been discussed in the literature as characteristic of some cultures where Islam is predominant (Badawi 1995). Also, it is characteristic of Islam (and in this it is similar to other monotheistic religions) that sexuality is celebrated only within marriage, whereas outside of marriage, sexual relations are considered zina (fornication, unlawful, punishable) (Husni and Newman 2007: 52–54). In the newsgroups, central to discussions of sexuality is the concept of women’s sexual submission to their husbands. Traditionalists argue that it is Islamically sanctioned by a number of Qur’anic passages and hadiths; hence, a pious Muslim wife responds to her husband’s sexual needs without protest. ZA said:

In the matter of sexual rights, we all know that Qur’an tells us that we have rights on them similar to what they have on us. The similarity is in the fact that they must fulfil our needs at least once in a four-month period. We, on the other hand, must fulfil their needs at any moment they require us, as long as the means are halal.

Again, a discussant refers to the Qur’anic verse (2:228), which says that women’s rights over their husbands are similar to their husbands’ rights over them. However, her understanding of this similarity is that wives are obliged to have intercourse at any time, whereas husbands only once every 4 months. This disproportion in sexual obligation is fortified by other participants’ references to a hadith that says that women refusing to have sexual intercourse with their husbands are ‘cursed by angels’.10 However, traditionalists offer a practical explanation again and suggest that the underlying reason for the requirement of women’s sexual submission is biological:

Sis i know that man is verry eager specially in bed, and yes thier libido is greater than women.. We women can be patient without man in our life but most man can’t be patient because they are most greater in libido than women… (…) Because if our husband needs us and we dont come or obey them, then that man will find a way to get out his libido in his body (…) And we all know that Zinah (sexual intercourse to non of her wife or husband) is a great sin…

Due to what is seen as men’s greater libido and more powerful sexuality (Dunne 1998), traditionalist participants claim that it is a wise marital strategy to make oneself sexually available to the husband, so that his sexual desires are channelled towards the wife, not other women (which prevents him from committing zina, a sexual sin). The view that females have a naturally lower libido than men is propagated by traditionalist Islamic websites, for example, where a Q&A section dealing with sexual health reads: ‘In many ancient and even modern cultures, the discrepancy between the male and female libido is so recognized that mothers hand down “secret” herbal formulas with instructions to their daughters on their wedding night. (…) It is normal for females to have less sexual desire; therefore, this reality should not be viewed as dysfunctional or stemming from a lack of desire’ (Burns 2001). Notably, this conceptualisation contrasts with the projection of femininity as the source of fitna and sexual chaos that needs to be controlled socially whilst depicting masculinity as rational and capable of self-control (Dunne 1998).

Discussions reveal that in their argumentation, traditionalists may significantly differ in their approach; while they argue for the same/similar outcome, they may do so for different reasons. Some traditionalists simply believe that their understanding of Islam and gender is the correct one, possibly because religious perspectives and gender roles are passed down in the family. They do not particularly wish to question the West as long as they are allowed to continue their lifestyle in peace. On the other hand, there are traditionalists who are likely to have, in some measure, adopted their understanding of gender relationships in reaction to the Western claims of gender equality, often used in arguments by non-Muslims to produce ‘evidence’ that Islam is oppressive for women. These women’s adoption of traditional understandings is more political and situated in the ‘Islam vs. West’ discourse. Amir-Ebrahimi also observes this perspective in her study on Iranian religious bloggers (Amir-Ebrahimi 2008a, b).


Discussion participants in the online groups fail to agree on a single, clear-cut lifestyle that would reflect piety. Among the newsgroup members, there is a pronounced view that working outside the home is a legitimate activity for Muslim women and that they are not required to fulfil household duties at all. Some participants argue that women after marriage should expect a lifestyle that is at least equal to what they experienced in their parental home, that the husband should pay for a wet nurse and maids to do housework, and if the wife decides to participate in housework, she should receive payment from her husband. This is in harmony with Afshar’s findings (Afshar 1998), which discuss these relatively unknown privileges a Muslim woman obtains upon her marriage. Participants who advocate this view tend to profess satisfaction with their working careers.

In the body of research on Muslim women and paid employment, there are two main streams. The first one focuses on the hijab as an object that enables Muslim women, both in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts, to transcend the boundary between the private and the public, join the labour market and maintain the reputation of being a ‘decent woman’ (Esposito and Burgat 2003: 61). However, some authors have recently argued that a strong focus on the issue of veiling may silence those Muslim women who would prefer to focus on other significant issues that affect their lives (Ho and Dreher 2009: 115). This criticism is well targeted in that literature on the hijab in the context of the public sphere, citizenship and community participation is very prolific whereas there is little literature providing an analysis of other issues, particularly those related to Muslim women and the labour market. There is research that examines the reasons for high levels of unemployment of women from the main UK Muslim ethnic groups (Pakistani and Bangladeshi) in comparison to women from other ethnic groups (Sly et al. 1999; Brah 1993, 1994). Some recent studies focusing on Muslim women’s paid employment have explored related issues such as the upward social mobility of working class Muslim women who increasingly attend university and engage in professional employment (Mellor 2007; Ahmad 2001). This is reflected in the professions of some women in the newsgroups (IT specialists, civil servants, accountants and health workers, for example). They argue that it is their Islamic right to develop abilities and talents given to them by God and refuse to accept the traditionalists’ argument that being a wife and a mother is the primary feminine role. LN wrote:

I worked as an accountant for a Health Insurance company for a while, My dh [dear husband] did not care one way or the other whether or not my so-called Islamic duties around the house were fulfilled (…) [in] his view cooking, cleaning, and bearing children are not the true essential elements of defining a good wife or a bad wife.

Egalitarians suggest that women should not avoid employment on the grounds that they will face a double burden of work. Those who do not refuse to do housework outright often agree to perform half of the housework, with the husband performing the remaining half. They regard the belief in the priority of domestic roles for women as a backward custom unrelated to Islam, yet characteristic of some Muslim communities, similar to participants from the research by Dale et al. (2002). It is notable that some egalitarians, for example LN, admit that this firm stand on the right to work outside the home is facilitated by an accepting attitude of the husband.

Some egalitarians criticise women who, upon marriage, expect the husband to bear the entire financial burden of family maintenance. They suggest that all women should work in order to contribute to daily living costs and put a certain sum of money aside as savings. ZG wrote:

I am tired of this idea or mentality that the husbands are doing us a favor by doing their Islamic duty by fulfilling their obligations to provide for their family. (…) Some sisters do not come from poor families, or were not struggling prior to getting married. This is a horrible misconception by brothers and worst of all by sisters. Sisters have their own lives and their own wealth, so the right has already been given to them by Allah to continue its maintenance. Marriage should not take away from this. If a sister seek to own and leave property, to her children upon her death, then it is her right and responsibility to maintain this, not the husband’s.

In the above quote, ZG refers to a right given to women by Allah to have their own wealth (Qur’an 4:7; 4:32) and points out that this right has been given so that women can not only accumulate, but also produce wealth, as verse 4:32 reads: ‘to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn’. Other justifications for women’s employment and ability to generate an income are found in Islamic history. Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, was a powerful merchant (Ali 2003), and Sawda, the Prophet’s second wife, was famed for her leather craft, which sold at high prices (Brooks 1995). Therefore, egalitarians argue, it is sunnah11 that women generate their own income and become financially independent. Other egalitarians point out that some husbands may be wary to permit their wives to have professional careers because they fear their wives could earn more money and take over the role of breadwinners. Egalitarians are critical of such an attitude; ST commented:

If a brother can’t deal with his wife having more wealth or a better career than himself and is aware that he is not secure enough in his own manhood to cope. He should marry a sister who doesn’t have these things or these needs.

Egalitarians’ views on marital relations rule out feminine submission, whether in the general or the sexual sense. They express a preference for paid work, partnership, shared domestic duties and shared sexual pleasure. They contest the traditionalists’ position on the necessity of sexual submission, arguing that the right to sexual pleasure is one of Islam’s great gifts to women. In a discussion over Muslim spouses’ sexual rights and responsibilities, KD cites a hadith12 reporting that the Prophet Muhammad admonished a man who preferred prayer and fasting over intimacy with his wife; the Prophet said that not only the Lord but also the man’s soul and his wife and family had rights over him which had to be respected. She uses this example from Islamic history to indicate that a wife’s sexual needs must not be ignored by her husband:

A sahabiyat13 divorced her husband because he could not satisfy her sexually. You can also read about Salman al Farsi,14 radhi Allaahu anhu, who advised a man who was married and neglected his wife. The principle of “giving everyone their rights” came from that incident, i.e., the body has its rights, the wife has her rights, and Allaah has His Rights. A man who has no interest or capability, and his wife is not being satisfied must make the effort, or else he is an oppressor (…)

This quote indicates that KD possesses knowledge of both the content of the Sunnah and the wider implications of the incident described in the hadith. She is aware that the hadith sets a standard for a couple’s sexual relations, and she focuses on the prerogatives of the wife in this respect. KD’s focus on women’s rights and husbands’ obligations in the sphere of sexuality suggests that women take a particular perspective depending on the subject of the matter and, possibly, their life experiences. Egalitarians argue that women’s sexual submission to their husbands is linked to problems of abuse and marital rape. The latter is sometimes justified as an Islamically permissible act, and verse 2: 223 is cited as confirmation of this (Touray 2006: 81). Muslim women are indeed reported to have been battered on these grounds for refusing sex (ibid.). In this exchange of views, ST makes a connection between a belief in gender hierarchy and the claim that a husband has an unlimited right to intercourse with his wife, both of which she regards as un-Islamic.

Egalitarians’ arguments are based on the premise that there is gender equality in Islam—they believe that marriage in Islam is a union of equals and that such a concept should be instilled in children through positive role modelling. They derive gender equality from such passages in the Qur’an as verse 2:187. WN wrote:

One of the most beautiful descriptions of the relationship between a husband and a wife is the aya15 that says that the wife and the husband are garments for each other. I read that aya, and I understand that there is MUTUALITY in it. I understand that there is EQUALITY in it.

In the egalitarians’ view, it is integral to marital happiness that the union is made on the basis of piety and personal compatibility between spouses-to-be. They see divorce as a necessity in cases where there is abuse and incompatibility in marriage. Sexuality is understood as a gift from God to be enjoyed by both spouses, with sex not being enforced on the wife, denied to her or her pleasure ignored. They challenge the traditionalists and argue that the ‘greater’ male libido is a social construct, used to control women.


In contrast, women representing the holistic position believe that both lifestyles, as a professional and as a stay-at-home mother, are equally acceptable and Islamically valid (Afshar 1995). They give a number of reasons for this. First of all, they point to the different wives of the Prophet, some of whom pursued careers, while others looked after the household. Secondly, they argue that as people are created with different personalities, talents and dispositions, they need to follow their own individual callings. WM wrote:

Some sisters are better at maintaining the household and caring for the children, if they worked. While others are better at by staying at home. It doesn’t make a sister any better or any less than the next if she chooses to do work and have a career. There used to be sisters who would make remarks about my having a career, and small children. I used to tell them to mind their own business.

She claims that those who recognise the divine gift and accept their talents will be effective and successful while, in contrast, those who go against it will become depressed, stressed and take this tension out on people in their immediate surroundings—the family. Therefore, it is best if the lifestyle choice is left to the person in question, as only she knows exactly what her intuition suggests. Women should not be forced into either kind of employment or derided for making a particular choice.

Holists argue that women can pick and choose from different lifestyles, for instance, like participants LT and RW, who have switched between their roles, the former as an employee and a stay-at-home mother and the latter as a stay-at-home wife and an employee. Both report having acted on the knowledge of their inner needs and both are satisfied with their choices, especially because they are aware that if they wish, they can switch back again with the full support of their husbands.

LT: I left my career for a minute. I just got tired of the fast pace lifestyle and wanted to spend time with my kids. So here I am 1 year later and enjoying. At times, I miss my paycheck, but you know when my last child is in school, I can pick my life back up and keep on achieving the things that are sought by myself.

RW: I would like to share my thoughts & U wont believe it that am writing from my office now. yessss am a working woman, got a break in July last year then resumed my work last week only. I really enjoyed my days when I was not working& asked for a break from my husband cz wantd to give time to myself & I enjoyed cz there was no restriction i could get up for Fajr16 & pray & read Quran and all & i even used to go for Tajweed17 & tafseer18 classes as well and MASHALLAH have learnt a lot of Surahs19 & am striving hard to keep up with my Tajweed class now that I am working.

Both LT and RW express satisfaction with their lives due to the ability to make choices based on their Islamic rights and have these privileges financially supported by their husbands. They give different reasons for their decisions to temporarily suspend paid employment: LT wanted to spend more time with her children, and RW wanted time for herself, which she spent studying Islam and praying. Notably, RW enrolled on an intense religious education course that involved learning to read Qur’anic commentary and Qur’anic elocution. They both mentioned that the intense life that resulted from working outside the home prevented them from pursuing their priorities, but did not entirely dismiss paid work. RW seems to be happy to be back in the office, having intensified her spiritual endeavours, which she has not given up upon her return to paid work, and LT points out that she can concentrate on herself and pursue her interests and goals. The role of the husband is important in both accounts, as his financial support is a prerequisite to the wife’s choices, affecting the financial situation of the family. Presumably, single women and mothers and women from families with a low socioeconomic status would not have had this opportunity to withdraw from the labour market.

Debates on sexual rights and responsibilities attracted many contributors, some of whom tried to reconcile their positions and create a middle ground. One of the negotiators, GH, considered sexual obligations in marriage in light of her knowledge of Islamic scriptures:

I agree with sister ZG—but also I would like to say that yes while the angels will curse the woman who refuses her husband sex—we don’t actually know if he will be punished for refusing her. What I mean is, there is no hadith or ayat that specifies that he will be punished as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible—all is possible in the sight of Allah swt and Allah swt knows best. A husband has duties to his wife as she has duties to him.

GH posits that the husband’s rights are acknowledged and explained at greater length in Islam, but these rights do not impinge on the wife’s rights—they are also considered and supported by the hadiths, which is further emphasised by Barlas (2006). The sources report that Prophet Muhammad did not force himself on his wives, but still satisfied them in the sexual sense, thus expressing his love and respect for them. Through this, Barlas attempts to bring the two arguments together and achieve consensus with regard to the sexual rights and responsibilities in Islam.

It is characteristic of this group that the women stress that what they say is their opinion, which, although based on their understanding of the sources, is personal. Holists do not attempt to provide absolute guidelines on a pious lifestyle, but prefer to suggest certain points and encourage other women to make their own conclusions. They also strive to be balanced and careful in their contributions as they point out potentially erroneous interpretations that they might unknowingly produce and disseminate. This indicates that holists successfully avoid certain normativities promoted by the traditionalists and egalitarians. Through this, they coordinate interactions in the group, as their actions negate the need to take one position and reject another.


Women studying Islam’s scriptural sources are not a new phenomenon; Ahmed identified women’s interpretations of the Quran during the time it was still transferred orally (Ahmed 2006). These interpretations were always more or less contextualised—produced by women who knew each other and were affected by the same cultural codes and challenges. Over time, the sphere of Islamic influence has expanded, and the Internet has come to act as a platform for the exchange of personalised understandings of Islam between believing women (and men) globally, in both the geographic and social meaning of the word. The openness of the Muslim women’s newsgroups has ensured that the understandings which emerge there are a result of the interaction of different intellectual and cultural contexts, personalities, experiences and modes of study. This is consistent with Ramadan’s (2004: 4) observation in regard to global Islam:

Far from media attention, going through the risks of a process of maturation that is necessarily slow, they [Western Muslims] are drawing the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies. This grassroots movement will soon exert considerable influence over worldwide Islam: in view of globalization and the Westernization of the world, these are the same questions as those already being raised from Morocco to Indonesia.

It is important to note that Ramadan mentions a “grassroots movement”, which signals that Islamic debates have long expanded beyond academia, which, although useful for developing the theory underlying current grassroots Islamic activity, may not be very helpful in marrying theory with practice. The process of change he writes about is two-way, with both majority and minority Muslim contexts affecting the way Islamic principles and their applications can be understood. In the age of digital technologies, this seems to be additionally facilitated by platforms such as Muslim newsgroups, where exchange is not restricted by geography.

The approach of newsgroup members to addressing real-life questions (such as, for example, ‘Is it preferable to be a stay-at-home mother and wife or pursue a career outside the home?’ or ‘What are sexual rights of women in Islam?’) based on reflecting on the principles of Islam intertwines with a pragmatic, down-to-earth way of understanding problematic issues. This indicates that both Islamic education (obtained either from scholars or individually) and life experience (especially location and family situation) are the main factors shaping the online discussions. However, regardless of each participant’s point of view, discussants strive to use Islamic references in their contributions. From their point of view, this increases the degree of their dawah activity while, from other members’ point of view, it makes the contributions more valuable. Postings including no references to the Qur’an, hadith or, at the very least, works of Islamic scholars, are not engaged with as much—responses to them are posted much less frequently.

The fact that Islamic scriptures are the main frame of reference in the groups indicates that piety is present at all levels of discourse in the discussions. Women debate issues that concern them and ask others for suggestions of the best course of action in particular situations; they also discuss theoretical problems and ways to address them from an Islamic perspective. There is an important element of interaction and collaboration in these discussions—agreements, disagreements, comments and references to other members’ postings shape a dynamic environment that facilitates collaborative readings of Islam. The opportunity to engage with other religiously framed viewpoints, as many participants admitted, improved their understanding of Islam and bonded them to other Muslim sisters. Thus, the activity in the newsgroup may be defined as empowering.


Taqwa—a Qur’anic concept of the moral framework of human action, an ethical awareness related to God and society.


Khalifah—a Qur’anic concept of human mastery over creation and their destiny, ordained by God.


Informal religious seminars that may include presentations, discussions and prayer.


The Islamic declaration of faith.


For the terms ‘egalitarian’, ‘traditionalist’ and ‘holist’, as used in this article, see below.


My quotes from the Qu’ran are taken from the Yusuf Ali translation.


All initials used in this paper are pseudonyms, and all participants’ contributions are kept in their original form.


The abbreviation ‘swt’ stands for subhanahu wa-ta’ala, ‘may He be glorified and exalted’, an Arabic phrase commonly recited whenever the name of Allah is mentioned.


Muslim women creatively fill niches in the market with their women-only services, for example women-only taxi companies, popular in the Middle East, are springing up in the UK (Firth 2008).


Al-Bukhari, volume 7, book 62, number 121–122 and Muslim, book 8, number 3368.


Sunnah—sayings and habits of the Prophet Muhammad, constituting a source of Islamic knowledge secondary to the Qur’an.


Al-Bukhari, volume 3, book 31, number 189.


One of the female companions of the Prophet Muhammad.


One of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. The following Arabic phrase means “May Allah be pleased with him”.


Qur’anic verse.


The first of the five prayers recited daily by Muslims.


The set of rules that define how the Qur’an should be read, including proper pronunciation.


Interpretation of the Qur’an; commentary.


A chapter of the Qur’an; there are 114 surahs in the Qur’an.



I would like to thank Joseph Covey, Cirihn Malpocher and two anonymous reviewers for reading this paper and providing insightful comments. All mistakes and limitations, however, are mine.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011