Sherry Sayed Gadelrab on Victorian Scientific Theories and their Influence on Muslim Understandings of Gender

Analysis, posted 12.21.2010, from United Kingdom, in:

In his fatwa ruling on women’s eligibility to perform political duties, the South African mufti Moulana Muhammad Karolia cited women’s deficiency in intellect as a reason for his objections to women assuming political office. [For the full text of this fatwa see] The opinion of Muhammad Karolia is not exceptional. Other religious scholars from different parts of the world regard women's presumed physical and intellectual inferiority to preclude women’s participation in politics and some professions, asserting her main social role to be within the domestic sphere. Ideas that women by their very nature have lesser mental and physical capacities than men were based on contemporary scientific theories, originating in Europe, which interpreted anatomical and physical differences between male and female bodies as evidence of women’s inferiority. Such theories eventually became the new foundation of a modern patriarchal discourse on Muslim womanhood and the role that women were expected to play in a modern society. Accentuating trends found in medieval Muslim scholarship, these European enlightenment ideas about gender difference often found expression in the writings of late nineteenth-century Muslim public intellectuals who argued that women’s physical and intellectual capacities made them suitable only for domesticity, as highlighted below.

In the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century, the investigation of sex differences became a scientific obsession in Europe. Biologists, anatomists, evolutionists and psychiatrists engaged in a fervent search for any differences between male and female bodies, ranging from the differences in brain sizes to differences in the width of veins. The scientific findings were interpreted as evidence of women’s biological and intellectual inferiority. Whereas men were seen as reasonable, rational, capable of controlling their emotions, as well as naturally more aggressive and competitive, women were believed to be governed by their reproductive function, and thus she was instinctive, less reasonable, non-competitive, physically weaker than men, yet nurturing and morally superior to men. [For a discussion of medical and scientific theories on sexual science in the nineteenth century see Katharine Rowold ed., Gender and Science: Late Nineteenth-century Debates on the Female Mind and Body (Bristol: Theomme Press, 1996); see also Susan Sleeth Mosedale, “Science Corrupted: Victorian Biologists consider The Woman Question,” Journal of the History of Biology 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1978):1-55.]

With the enlightenment came ideas of governance based on the liberty and equality of all persons. Interestingly, with European enlightenment science, gender and race became two main areas for investigation. Humans were divided into “superior”, that is white Caucasian races, and the non-Caucasian “lower races”. Analogies were often drawn between women, including Caucasian women, with negroes believed to be characterised by narrow, childlike, and delicate skull, and thus, like women, believed to be of inferior intellectuality, innately impulsive and emotional. By the mid nineteenth-century, such ideas about physical and mental differences between men and women underlined a sexual division of political and legal rights as well as social and economic rights. The great prestige acquired by science in the nineteenth century made it difficult for feminists to challenge these Victorian concepts of gender difference. [On this subject see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Massachuttes; London: Harvard University Press, 1990); see also Nancy Leys Stepan, “Race, Gender, Science and Citizenship,” Gender and History 10, no. 1 (Apr. 1998): 26-52.]

It was not long before these scientific ideas flew outside Europe reaching Muslim societies and became the foundation for intellectual debates on modern Muslim womanhood, female education, and women’s public roles. These scientific theories of sex differences, upholding men’s superior intelligence and physical capacities vis-à-vis women were taken up by many influential late 19th and 20th century Muslim scholars, such as Muhammad Farid Wajdi [for biographical information see] and Muhammad Rashid Rida [for biographical information see].

Some scholars, including Muhammad Farid Wajdi, used ideas of women’s deficiencies in intellect and physical capacities to curtail women’s demands for educational and social opportunities. [For another example of such a view see] For Wajdi, nineteenth-century anatomical theories of sex differences were compatible with accepted patriarchal interpretations of the Quran and hadith. He argued that men’s physical superiority over women, manifested in men’s taller, heavier, and more muscular bodies, compared to women’s smaller physique, “emotional sensitivity” and lack of “rationality,” were proof of men’s “natural authority” over women. [See Muhammad Farid Wajdi, al-Mar'ah al-Misriyah (Cairo: Matb'at al-Taraqi, 1901)].

Other reformist scholars such as Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida took contemporary scientific ideas as evidence that women’s and men’s roles in society were complimentary. In his book on women’s rights in Islam, Rida explains that only “arrogant or ignorant” people could challenge men’s superiority over women, endowed upon them by God, who made men more intelligent and muscular. These natural differences, according to Rida, were purposeful, since women’s role in society should be first and foremost domestic, while men should be pre-occupied with the external sphere. This division of labour was, according to Rida, the “basis of all great civilisation,” as men’s superior intellect and physique make them more capable of earning money and defending their families and nations, while women’s natural duties are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and upbringing of children. Subsequently, women’s education should be tailored to her role in society. For instance, Rida asserted: “what a woman needs to learn about her religion, its duties and basics is very limited but she has to know much about her domestic duties, and the upbringing of children especially as these sciences are now paramount.” [See Muhammad Rashid Rida, Huquq al-nisa fi al-Islam (Dar al-Adwaa, 1989), p.48.]

The use of these scientific ideas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries undergirded an existing patriarchal system by justifying already circulating notions about the duties of women in modern Muslim society. Ideas about women’s natural physical weakness, inclination to compassion, and lack of rationality continue to be influential rationales for limiting women’s civic roles and encouraging domesticity. Even amongst scholars who upholf the equality of men and women, it is argued that women are better suited physically for domestic jobs. [For examples of this type of opinion see,, and]
Not only are the theories scientifically invalid, but they also contradict the long history of women’s engagement in Muslim societies as scholars, politicians, transmitters of hadith, scientists, doctors, and other professionals.  Yet, among some contemporary religious scholars notions of women's inferiority and the appropriateness of women's domesticity continue to be the dominant framework for assigning gender roles.

There are several reasons that could explain the continuity of these ideas in contemporary Islamic fatwas, the most important of which is the continuity of patriarchy. The use of these scientific ideas in the early twentieth century provided the already existing patriarchal system new basis for continuity in the modern era. For the exact same reason, namely the continuity of patriarchy, many contemporary scholars choose to continue to use ideas about women's natural weakness as a basis for justifying their notions of the modern Muslim social order and the specific duties of women in the Muslim society. But an even more important reason could be attributed to the increasing alienation between modern science and religion in contemporary Muslim societies; a topic that deserves a study of its own. Many 'ulama use medical and scientific theories or discoveries to affirm the verity of Quranic verses and prophetic traditions (Sunna), they rarely resort to their contemporary scientific theories before issuing their own fatwas in a variety of issues, ranging from women’s physical capacities to organ transplantation. 

For related content see:

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Sherry Sayed Gadelrab is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter (Ph.D. expected 2011). She holds a Masters and Bachelors degree from the American University in Cairo.  

Sherry's doctoral thesis examines examines the impact of the shift in the medical understanding of the differences between male and female bodies on the construction of gender and sexuality in nineteenth-century Egypt. The study begins by exploring how medical authorities in medieval Islamic society understood and analyzed Greek authorities' opinions on the the differences between males and female and their mutual contributions to the process of reproduction, arguing that that these thinkers' interpretations of sex differences were both complex and divergent, reflecting and contributing to the social and cultural constructs of gender. Although medieval interpretations of sex differences implicitly or explicitly emphasized the inferiority of the female body and mind, the plurality and complexity of ideas about sex differences and the acceptance of the flexibility of barriers between the sexes make it difficult to assume that the biological knowledge about sex differences formed a unitary ideological foundation for a system of gender hierarchy. 

Her recent publications include:

Sherry Sayed Gadelrab (18th April 2010) Discourses on Sex Differences in Medieval Islam, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, doi: 10.1093/jhmas/jrq012, 1-42

Sherry Sayed Gadelrab, Medical Healers in Ottoman Egypt, 1517-1798, Medical History, vol.54 (July 2010).