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Muslim Women & Property Rights


This paper examines the rights to the property accorded to the women in Islam under direct Qur’anic injunctions and compares it to the state of these rights in the present Muslim societies. It then argues that correct application of the Qur’anic law will not only materially improve the status of women in Muslim societies and guarantee them economic security, it will bring economic prosperity to such societies directly by exploiting the human capital of women population and indirectly by changing the means of socioeconomic milieu. In the first part of the study we shall briefly, set out the rights accorded by Qur’an and subsequent changing and slow weakening of these laws to the present period. We will also provide a brief comparative analysis of western women’s property rights and its role in relation to economic development. For the purpose of this study we shall divide the Muslim history into three broad periods. The period of the Prophet (PBUH) and first four caliphs; period when sharia law was codified and few centuries following that and present Muslim societies, for which we shall examine six countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco. Next we shall contrast the state of economic development of these countries. Finally we shall examine the likely impact of fully implemented Qur’anic laws on the economic development of these countries to conclude that there is immense benefit to be accrued by fully following the Qur’anic law.



The status of women in Muslim world has always been a controversial subject. The position accorded to women by Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet, differs vastly from practice within and in between various Muslim societies. Over the centuries, various pre- and post-Islamic cultural (patriarchal) norms and values crept into the body of religious corpus and combined with the lack of education and ignorance, these have lowered the status of Women in the present day Muslim societies.

The well-defined and well-enforced property rights are one of the fundamentals for prosperity. O’ Driscoll and Hoskins wrote that “The difference between prosperity and poverty is property”1; Hayek asserts that “Private property is the most important guarantee of freedom.”2 A clearly delineated property rights system provides the individuals with an exclusive right to own, manage and use their property. This arrangement in turn crucially impacts on and alters the distribution of income. The observed variations in economic performance across countries are related to the presence (or absence, for that matter) of property right institutions3. These facts cannot be better demonstrated than in the case of Women. Women’s property rights are not only fundamental to their economic security, social and legal status, and sometimes for their survival; these are also critical for development and social stability in developing and post conflict situations.4

We present the economic freedom accorded to Women by Islam in particular context of property laws. We examine the level of development and the status of women’s property rights in six different Muslim countries, to demonstrate that there are extensive benefits to be gained by implementing the Qur’anic laws and Prophet’s Sunnah relating to women’s access to the property. We conclude that correct application of these laws is a great tool that can be used for Women empowerment and economic prosperity of the country.  We have chosen Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco because these provide a broad representation of the vast Islamic world from east to west.

Early Reforms under Islam:

Women’s status in pre-Islamic era was poor. They were not considered equal to men in social, economic, political, or even mental and spiritual matters. In most societies they did not have an independent right to own property. At times even their full personhood was not recognized in many civilizations and they had minimal or no legal rights.


Islam eliminated the stereotypes against woman by establishing the laws that ensured human rights and dignity. The Qur’an established the parity between Men and Women by addressing both directly. Annemarie Schimmel states that “compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman had the right, ……. to administer the wealth she had brought into the family or had earned by her own work.”5 Watt explains: “At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible – they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons.”6  “Muhammad, by instituting the rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards.”7


Muslim women’s Property Rights in the light of Qur’an 

Qur’an, first and foremost, recognized and established the separate individual existence of Women by addressing all Human Beings as ‘People’ or ‘Humans’ and where needed addressing males and females together. Islam particularly protects the weak and underprivileged, such as widows and orphans. In terms of property rights, Qur’an proscribes that a Woman has the right to own, acquire (through purchase, gift, or inheritance), manage, administer, enjoy, and dispose of tangible and intangible property.


And “For men there is reward for what they have earned, for women there is reward for what they have earned” (Qur’an 4:32).

All the key Islamic legal materials generally support these rights by women.  Qur’an established an independent legal, economic and spiritual identity for Women.


‘There is a share for men and a share for women from what is left by parents and those nearest related, whether, the property be small or large – a legal share.’ (Qur’an 4:7) 8

The general principle of inheritance was laid down in the Surah (4:11, 12)

“Allah enjoins you concerning your children: the male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; but if there are two or more than two females, they shall have two-third of what he has left; and if there is one, she shall have half; and as for his parents, each of the them shall have sixth of what he has left, if he has a child; but if he has no child and only his two parents inherit him, then his mother shall have the third; but he has brothers then his mother shall have the sixth, after the payment of any bequest, he may have bequeathed or debt. And you shall have half of what your wives leave, if they have no child, but if they have a child, then you shall have a fourth of what they leave after payment of any bequest, they may have bequeathed or a debt they shall have the fourth of what you leave, if you have no child, but if you have a child then they shall have the eighth of what you leave after payment of any bequest you may have bequeath or a debt; and if a man or a woman having no children leaves inheritance and he or she has a brother or a sister then each of this two shall have the sixth but if they have more than that they shall be sharers in the third after payment of any bequest that may have been bequeath or a debt that does not harm others”.9

Period of Prophet (PBUH) and first four Caliphs

The prophet brought great changes by discouraging discriminatory customs and rules and teaching people to respect the women. He led in this by his personal conduct. Women enjoyed and exercised their rights to the full during his lifetime. Muslim women played a variety of public roles and exercised property rights as independent individuals. The Prophet in his farewell sermon spoke of property rights for both men and women. His wives held their own separate property. These rights were accompanied by economic freedom to act. There is ample historical evidence of women’s full participation in various aspects of the life of the Muslim community during the period of the Prophet.


The first to grant refuge to the Prophet at Medina,(Umm Sa’id), the keeper of the keys to the Holy Ka’aba, the custodian of the first copy of the Qur’an (Hafsa), the manager of the first hospital (Rafidah Aslamiyya), one of the Imams appointed to lead the prayers of both men and women (Umm Waraqa) and a superintendent at the market at Medina (Samra’ bint Nuhayak al-Asadiya)10 were all women who played significant roles in different fields of life. Women continued to acquire better status during the rule of the first four caliphs.

Shariah Schools of thought and transformation of rights into legal frame work.

During the ensuing two hundred years, of which the first hundred were under Umayyads and the following hundred under Abbasids, the Fiqh (Legal framework and body corpus) took shape and different schools for what came to be known as Shariah, were established. Several of these schools more or less continue to be followed today.


Muslims are broadly divided into two major sects: Sunnis & Shi`ite, with at least four major schools among Sunnis and two among Shi`ite. Sunnis and Shiites are roughly 5:1 in population. Majority of the Sunnis are the adherents of Hanifia School, while the Shi`a predominantly follow the 12 Imams (Twelvers or Ja’afris). Under the Sunni law there are 12 shares in a deceased person’s property, four for males and eight for females. The Shi’ite law recognizes nine shares and does not include grandfathers, grandmothers and son’s daughters11. These laws also elaborate shares of grandmothers, son’s daughter/s, uterine sisters, full sisters etc., and the circumstances under which they can receive inheritance. Female shares are similar under both the laws.


However even in the cases where these laws are practiced, these are not accompanied by economic freedom to act. In their social practices Sunnis & Shiites accord the Women almost identical status, which is more in accord with the local cultures in different countries than Islam. The traditions in both the sects discourage the role of women as an independent person; but they are given comparatively better status than the women of Wahabi (a conservative reformist Sunni group) households, the officially followed custom in Saudi Arabia.

Present Age: Analysis of the Cultural Practices and Legal Status of Women’s Property Rights

The countries selected for this analysis, practice Shariah according to the laws of different schools. Hanafii & Ja’afri codes are practiced in Pakistan. Indonesia favours Shafi’i code; Saudi Arabia adheres to the Wahabi code; and Iran follows the Shiite Ja’afri School. Secular Turkey doesn’t base its laws on the Qur’an and Morocco’s majority practices Maliki Code.  At the conservative end of the spectrum are Iran, where mullahs are the ultimate authority, and Saudi Arabia, a monarchy with a state-imposed interpretation of the law. Turkey stands at the other end of the spectrum.


Article 23 of the Constitution states that, every citizen shall have the right to acquire, hold, and dispose of property in any part of Pakistan. It further guarantees the rights to property and equality of citizen as fundamental right, and calls to strike down any custom having the force of law as far as it is inconsistent with fundamental rights. There is no direct provision in the Constitution on women’s inheritance but it does provide guarantees and principles to ensure justice without discrimination.13 Inheritance in Pakistan is governed by Islamic Shariah as codified in the Family Laws Ordinance 1961 and the Muslim Personal Law Act (1962).


Pakistani law is an amalgam of Islamic and British colonial law synthesized by the male legislators over the time. In practice the physical property is almost always in the name of male household head. Women, who are nearly half of the population, are deprived of their property rights. Women from different social classes own property, with differing levels of control, according to their monetary resources and social status. The main factor that defines the level of women’s participation in economic activity is the perception of her social position. Although there is no research that directly measures women’s access to their property; however, from the low level of the social and economic indicators for women it can be inferred that a large majority of the women in Pakistan face social & economic obstacles to own or administer their property. The secondary position of the women in the society is reflected in the social indicators showing lower literacy rate, low labor force participation and a high maternal mortality ratio14. There are various social, economic and construed religious impediments to women’s access to own property.


The judicial system in Pakistan does not protect property rights effectively. Serious corruption taints the judiciary and civil service (The Index of property rights 2008)[*]. According to ‘The Index of Economic Freedom’[†], Pakistan’s economy is 56.8% free, which makes it the world’s 93rd freest economy. The rank of Pakistan in property rights index is 30 which put it in the ‘repressed group’.


Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Saud dynasty since 1932. The constitution of Saudi Arabia states that the Government is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah. Article 7 of the constitution reads “Property, capital, and labor are essential elements in the Kingdom’s economic and social being. They are personal rights which perform a social function in accordance with Islamic Shari’ah.”  The article 18 states that “The state protects freedom of private property and its sanctity. No one is to be stripped of his property except when it serves the public interest, in which case fair compensation is due.”

The law protects an individual’s rights to their property, but it does not offer the direct and specific provision for women’s rights. However the legal, economic and social institutions generally claim that according to Shariah a woman’s place is in the home caring for her husband and family. Women face severe discrimination in many aspects of their lives, including education, employment, justice system and are clearly regarded as inferior to men. Although they make up 70% of those enrolled in universities, women make up just 5% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia,15 the lowest proportion in the world. The treatment of women has been referred to as “gender apartheid.”16 A few business women as they are, come from privileged backgrounds and rise through family businesses.

According to the Index of economic Freedom 2008 Saudi Arabia’s economy is 62.8% free which makes it the world’s 60th freest economy. Its rank in the property rights index is 50. But the rank does not show the equal rights and enforcement of laws for women folk. The high ranking of Saudi Arabia’s GDP is also not an accurate indicator of the gender empowerment as roughly the 75% of the budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from its oil industry.17




Iran is a theocratic republic and the condition of women is very much affected by the Shi’ite traditions. The constitution provides that “All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.” (Article 20). Article 21 states that the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the goals of women’s empowerment, provision of security to widows & divorced.

While the law supports the rights of women, its enforcement is often poor. Discriminatory provisions persist; and the traditional and social percepts influence the practice of the law. The law thus accords more rights to men than women. This is shown in several articles of the Iranian civil code. In the section of the penal code devoted to blood money, or Diyya, the value of woman’s life is half that of a man (“for instance, if a car hit both on the street, the cash compensation due to the woman’s family was half that due the man’s”).18

Although there are no legal restrictions on women’s land ownership, yet there are few women landowners. Various reports indicate that the number of female land and property owners is fairly low due to social and cultural norms that prevent them from acting independently in seeking loans or referring to government.19 The laws have the legal effect of depriving women of their economic and legal rights, domestic violence, and polygamy without consultation, honor killings and divorce without any compensation.20

Iran’s economy is 44% free, according to Economic Freedom Index (world’s 151st freest economy). Its rank in the property rights index is 10, one of the lowest.






According to the property rights index 2008, Indonesia is included in the repressed group with the rank of 30. Women are guaranteed equality under the constitution in Indonesia but it has failed to back up rhetoric with resources and political will to enforce these laws. Indonesian traditions place women in the role of homemaker and caregiver. This view of women is explicitly mentioned in the country’s constitution, and in the government’s main development policy. This policy states that women’s participation in the development process must not conflict with their role in improving family welfare and the education of the younger generation, and it includes the role as wife and mother among the duties of women.21

The incidence of poverty in Indonesia is significantly higher among female-headed households. Women have fewer opportunities to participate in economic activities. There are various obstacles in the full achievement of women’s equality ranging from legal impediments, due to weak judiciary, to social and cultural practices that harm women. Women’s literacy rates and health status are generally lower than men’s.


Muslim women face particular obstacles to equality before shariah courts. The Indonesian constitution provides for protection from discrimination to all, but it allows for civil law, customary, and religious laws to coexist. Recent developments in the status of Indonesian women include a new draft law against pornography and “pornoaction”. This law, specifically directed against women, provides strict guidelines for clothing, behavior and mobility. It would, for example, declare bus stations off-limits to women after sundown.22




Turkey is a Muslim country but constitutionally it is secular. Turkish women are a political pawn between religious and secular extremism. Women’s lives have become the stage where the effort to change Islam is played out.23 By law, Turkish women have their political, social and economic rights clearly stated in the constitution. Although these rights are not enjoyed equally by all women yet many women obtain rights as good as those in developed countries. “When we look at the 1970s, statistics show that one in every five lawyers and one in every six doctors in Turkey was a woman. Turkey ranked third among all nations, following the United States and Canada in recruiting women into academia.24

Turkey has restructured its legal system in an effort to transform the discriminatory social traditions and values. The Turkish constitution states that everyone has a right to own and inherit property. With the new Civil Code and other legal reforms in 2001, all discriminatory provisions with regard to women’s access to land have been eliminated. Therefore, there are no legal constraints to women’s land ownership and the male and female children inherit the equal part of their father’s estate.


However, the situation in practice does not comply with the legal provisions completely. The strong traditional and patriarchal discriminatory practices still hold sway in large part. Despite the legal provisions women’s labor force participation rate was only 24.8% in 2007, while this rate was 71.3% for men. Agriculture is still the sector that most employs women, who have low levels of income and even the uncertainty about income and job for them. The system or structure to facilitate the enforcement of the law is still lacking. The 2008 Economic Freedom Index gives the country a score of 60.8 (74th in the world) and the property rights are measured to be 50%.



Morocco gained independence from Spain in 1956 and established a Law Reform Commission to draft a code of personal status. The Code, passed into law the following year, is based on dominant Maliki doctrines and legislation from other Muslim countries (perhaps most importantly the Tunisian Code of Personal Status 1956). Major amendments to the Codes provisions relating to marriage guardianship, polygamy and divorce were made in 1993.25

The Muslim women in Morocco are subject to the discriminatory laws of the Code. Morocco has tried to reconcile the law of the Quran with the universal human rights part of the country’s Constitution. It has resulted in two sets of legislation – one that is open and liberal for matters relating to public law, and another that is closed when it comes to applying private law26. Since laws relating to women come under the private laws, so they are mostly the victims of this dichotomy. According to the economic freedom index Morocco’s economy is 56.4% free and the property rights are measured to be enforced to 30%.

Evolution of Women’s Property Rights in West


In the general Western discourse it is taken for granted that women’s rights, including the property rights are secured and implemented in Western countries but are often non-existent in the developing, especially in the Islamic countries. However it is forgotten that this improved social status has been gained only very recently, through a long discourse and active movement.

The property rights of women in the West during most of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their marital status. According to the English common law, the property that women took into a marriage, or acquired subsequently, was legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands’ consent. It was not until the late 1870s onwards in England (and even later elsewhere in Europe) that married women achieved the right to enter contracts and own property. In France, these same rights were not recognized until 1938.27

Women’s Property Rights, Economic Freedom and Economic Prosperity


The empirical studies have shown that property ownership increases the economic development by alleviating poverty. The economic empowerment of the female population becomes apparent by looking at the gender related social indicators for the country. We have combined data from different indicators into the following table.


Female Economic Participation & Economic Growth


Countries GDP $M (PPP)


GE Ranking for Property rights (2008) Female Economic Participation & Opportunity Ranking[‡] Economic Freedom


USA 13,811,200 9.3 14 80.56
UK 2,046,780 10 32 79.55
China 7,055,079 6.1 60 52.83
Brazil 1,843,601 6.3 62 55.92
Indonesia 841,140 5.4 82 44
Turkey 922,189 6.3 118 60.8
Morocco 125,250 4.5 121 56.4
Iran 776,538 123 30.6
Pakistan 409,973 3.4 126 53.9
Saudi Arabia 554,250 127 56.8


Sources: IMF, Global Gender Gap Report- 2007 & International Property Rights Index 2008, Economic Freedom   Index-2008


While we do not make any claims about its high or definitive statistical value, we use it as providing a strong and clear indicative value crucial for socioeconomic indicators. It is seen that the countries that secure the property rights of women are at the top in terms of GDP earnings.  It clearly shows the secure property rights results in higher opportunity ranking for female economic participation. This in turn translates into economic freedom and higher GDP.


The score for GE ranking for property rights runs from 0-12 (weakest to the strongest score). This includes five measures; women’s access to land, access to property other than land, access to bank loans, property inheritance rules and their social rights. The Index shows that countries with higher rank in gender equality concerning property rights have the higher position in economic freedom index and thus have higher opportunities for economic growth resulting in higher GDP.


Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights: a key to Economic Development


Islam granted women the right of independent ownership 1400 years ago. Islamic Law ensures woman’s right to her property. These rights do not change whether married or not. The Qur’an and Sunnah completely support the women to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any or all her properties. There is no discrimination of the rights on the basis of gender. These rights are further accompanied by freedom to exercise these rights.

It is very unfortunate though, that with the passing of time Islam has become mere implementations of rituals. People in power have manipulated the Qur’anic legislation and altered its interpretation. And it has proved to be a classical example of institutional disconnect.


Ownership of the property has direct economic benefits. For example landownership is a source of income that is a key input for production and can be used as collateral for credit. It helps by creating security beyond the short-term; incentivizes investment over long-term and increases coordination among the individuals and groups of an economy and facilitates trade. It is a necessary condition for a successful market economy and efficient allocation of resources. The Property Rights Index shows that the countries in the top quintile of IPRI scores enjoy a per capita income that is more than nine times that of their counterparts in the bottom quintile.


We have thus seen that ensuring women’s participation in the economic activity, particularly by ensuring their property rights can bring immense economic prosperity. It is clear that if Muslim countries acted to bring their laws, but more importantly their practices, in conformity with the Qur’an and practice of Prophet Muhammad, they will ensure well-protected property rights of women.  In turn these will provide channels to enhance the economic activity both at micro and macro level of development by empowering the women (nearly half of the population) and thus accelerating the economic activity.


The full and proper implementation of the women’s property rights and its consequent economic freedom promotes women entrepreneurship. Women’s status, both in their communities and in the country, becomes prominent when they are responsible for managing loans and savings. They benefit from microfinance services that empower and enable them to generate and control their own income. Research shows that credit extended to women has a significant impact on their families’ quality of life, especially their children.  Women also tend to have better credit ratings. In Bangladesh, for example, women have shown to default on loans far less often than men.28 It is common sense: Women with children and home are unlikely to run away or default.

The property rights enforcement also brings immense social benefits and changes in the form of increased strength for the underprivileged, the most fundamental tenet of Islam. Asset control gives women greater confidence and decision-making power within households and helps protect against the risk of domestic violence. Research in Kerala, India, found that 49% of women with no property reported physical violence compared to only 7% of women who did own property29. Moreover, women ownership of property makes them less vulnerable to the diseases such as HIV/AIDS and exploitation30.




Islam has provided us with the clear cut strategies for empowering women; to augment their status and to add to the social and economic well being of the society. It has placed women and men equal in granting economic independence, property and legal rights. Assigning ownership of valuable assets and properties to women enables increased economic participation in the society and lessens the burden of economically dependent population.


Qur’an and Sunnah offer strong strategies for economic prosperity. It is unfortunate that Muslim societies have seen gradual erosion of the rights granted by Islam, throughout their history and failed to realize the importance of independent women in the course of developing a successful state. As a result the cultural values hostile to women and the self serving interests of the so called interpreters of Islam have not only harmed the individual women through the course of the History, but they have also created hurdles in social progress and economic prosperity of Muslim Ummah.


It is now imperative for Muslim countries and societies to focus on identifying and eliminating the discriminatory practices, including complex or antiquated legal systems and the local customs and traditions which are often conceived as part of Islam. They must create and implement policies that empower women with such skills, to become aware of and to be able to own, administer and manage their property. Guaranteeing women’s property and inheritance rights as well as equal access to credit, technical information, legal literacy and other inputs must be an integral and major part of any development agenda. Muslim countries need to enrich, support and protect women who control property and assets by providing them legal protection and financial support. Islam provided the platform for these steps 1400 years ago. It is time Muslims use that platform.






























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[*] The property rights index measures the degree to which a country’s laws protect private property rights, and the degree to which its government enforces those laws. Higher scores are more desirable, i.e. property rights are better protected. Scores are from 0 to 100.


[†] The 2008 Index of Economic Freedom covers 162 countries across 10 specific freedoms such as trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. The score runs from 0 to 100.


[‡] the variable measures the participation gap through the difference in female and male labor force participation rates, ratio of estimated female-to-male earned income, wage equality wages for similar work and the ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials and managers, and the ratio of women to men among technical and professional workers.


This entry was posted in: Sina Series


Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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