Women's status in Islam has been defined by Islamic texts, the Koran, and the culture of the Muslims. Although the general belief is that Islam is very oppressive towards women, some argue that the Koran declares that men and women are equal. Koran 3:195 states: "Their Lord responded to them: I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female - you are equal to one another."
However, the Koran also declares men's superiority over women in 4:34 "Men are in charge of women by right of what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend for maintenance from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in the husband's absence what Allah would have them guard. But those wives from whom you fear arrogance - first advise them; then if they persist, forsake them in bed; and finally, strike them. But if they obey you once more, seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand."
One of the most controversial Islamic laws regarding women is the requirement to completely veil them. According to the Koran and Prophet Muhammad, a woman should not be allowed to leave the house and if she does go out of the house she should wear a loose garment and hide any ornaments she might wear. The garment used for veiling varies from one Muslim community to another. In North Africa it is called burqa. It covers a woman's entire body from head to foot. It has two holes in the head-covering for the woman' eyes, but they are ornamented with embroidery and netting, so that the woman can see her way but nobody can see her eyes.
Muslim theologians claim that the most important duties of a woman are to prepare food for her husband, wash his clothes and satisfy him sexually. If they go with them to visit a friend or a relative, women sit separately from men. Women even eat at a different table, sometimes after men have been served.
In some Islamic universities, in the Arab countries of southwest Asia, female students are separated from male students by a curtain. They are not even allowed to address directly their male teachers, but from behind the curtain. In Saudi Arabia, the university library is allocated to women twice a week and no men are allowed to attend the library on those days.
According to tradition, a female is considered to have reached puberty at the age of nine and marriage at this age is not uncommon. Since girls start wearing veils when they are still children, prospective bridegrooms can't see how their future wives look like. Usually, marriages are performed with the help of an old woman who searches a wife according to the physical characteristics required by the groom.
In all Islamic countries education is important. According to Prophet Muhammad's teachings, men and women are equal before God, so they both should know the word of God. Muslims have interpreted this to mean that both women and men should be literate in order to read the Koran. This explains the fact that the number of girls attending school has increased in the last years in most Islamic countries.
Education is seen as essential for women to understand their role within the family, their duties as wives and mothers. Girls should learn how to support, please and obey their husbands. However, they are withdrawn from school if they are needed by their families for household work. Boys can be withdrawn from school if they are needed to help at home. Generally, girls are likely to leave school more often than boys and thus receive less education.
In some countries, women don't just stay home and occupy themselves with the domestic tasks, but they are part of the labor force. However, their first obligation is to serve their families. If needed to work at home, either in the fields or with children, women are expected to leave their jobs. Although they are a small minority of the paid work force, their number has been increasing in recent years.
The role of the woman in an Islamic society differs from one region to another and one ethnic group to another. If in urban areas women struggle for better salaries and promotions, in rural areas they are only involved in the agricultural sector.
However one of the most important challenges to the impact of Islam is the spread of Western civilization. It will raise women's awareness of their status and make them ask for the right of being equal to men.