Doctrine vs. Culture: Sources of Sexism in Islam

In 2008, an eighteen-year-old Pakistani woman was gang raped by three men. Despite DNA evidence identifying the men as guilty, they were not convicted.  How could this happen? What could possibly justify this injustice? As I continued reading an article on this report, I was mortified to learn that it was doctrine from the victim’s own religion that was used against her in court. Relying on customary law derived from the Qur’an, the courts declared that the victim had no evidence against her attackers because she could not provide four “righteous male eyewitnesses” to certify her testimony.[1]

I was shocked to hear a religious text being used so blatantly to discriminate against someone. As a person of faith, I have always been accustomed to religious texts sharing messages of mercy, but also of justice. The same week that I read this article, I had the chance to look at the text firsthand as I studied the Qur’an for my ancient literature class. After finding some beautiful passages that taught of testimony, charity, and prayer, I felt peace. I realized that these beautiful writings were likely misinterpreted by men maliciously twisting its true doctrine and intended meaning. After a little research, I found that I am not the only one to have recognized this.

I first looked into the doctrine behind the Hudood Ordinance, the law under which the Pakistani woman’s assailants walked free. I learned that rape is not even mentioned in the Qur’an; the only injunctions concerning sex are in relation to Zina, or fornication, which is defined as a consensual sexual act by adults outside of marriage.  The verse cited in the court decision states, “Those who defame chaste women and do not bring four witnesses (shuhada) should be punished with eighty lashes, and their testimony should not be accepted afterwards, for they are profligates.”[2] According to this verse, the law requiring four witnesses is in place to protect women, not bring them injustice. It is meant to hold men who make false claims about sex with chaste women accountable in a culture where chastity is valued so profoundly.[3] This implies that the doctrine, that which is found in the holy scripture of Islam, attempts to support women’s rights; it is society and culture that has twisted it to make it difficult for women to find justice in instances of rape.

Muslim women may also be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), the cutting and sewing of the female genitalia of young girls approaching the age of puberty. In Gambia, almost 80% of girls were cut as children, predominantly under the pretense of adherence to Islamic doctrine. This, however, is not backed up by scripture and can only be traced back through tradition: “Most anti-women ideas among Muslims, as well as practices like female circumcision… predate Islam and do not originate in, nor are they endorsed by, the Quran.”[4] This shows that this so-called Islamic practice is not actually based in the doctrine of Islam.

According to Hama Jaiteh, an anti-FGM activist, “There is no valid hadith they can bring to support their claims […] he who created a woman knows the benefit of that thing there, leave it. Let everybody go back and read, conduct research. Islam is Islam, it is here to preserve the interests and rights of the woman. This FGM is completely against Islam”.[5] From this, it seems that FGM is not rooted in religious doctrine, but rather cultural practice.

This graphic shows that the practice of FGM is not necessarily confined to one religious group.

Although many of the injustices perpetrated against women in Islamic countries seem to be an oppressive misinterpretation of original doctrine, the reality is that women are suffering. A lack of access to formal education makes the transition to better law and practice difficult, but conditions are improving. According to the Pew Research Center, “The share of Muslim adults (ages 25 and older) with at least some formal schooling has risen by 25 percentage points in the past three generations, from fewer than half (46%) among the oldest group included in the study to seven-in-ten (72%) among the youngest.”[6] I believe an effort to educate and increase literacy in these regions, which may in turn make women more aware of their rights and the interpretation of law, is a great place to start.


[1] 1 Tanoli, Ishaq. “Three Acquitted in Mazar Rape Case for ‘Want of Evidence’.” DAWN.COM, 7 Apr. 2013,

[2] 2 The Qur’an. Trans. by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford UP, 2005

[3] 3 Quraishi-Landes, Asifa, Her Honor: An Islamic Critique of the Rape Laws of Pakistan from a Woman-Sensitive Perspective (1997). Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, No. 287, 1997, Women of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activitists in North America (2000), Syracuse University Press, Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper Archival Collection, Available at SSRN:

[4] 4 Barlas, Asma (2001) “Muslim Women and Sexual Oppression: Reading Liberation from the Quran,” Macalester International: Vol. 10, Article 15. Available at:

[5] 5 Topping, Alexandra. “Muslim Youth Summit Told Female Genital Mutilation Is Not Part of Islam.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Oct. 2014,

[6] “Muslim Educational Attainment around the World.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 31 May 2020,

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One thought on “Doctrine vs. Culture: Sources of Sexism in Islam

  1. V Hudson says:

    Really informative and interesting blogpost! I am sure if there had been DNA analysis in the time of Mohammad, that it would be accepted as evidence in a religious court!

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