Women have a distinctive role in Islamic teachings. The religion itself teaches that the sexes are equal in the sight of God, but cultural traditions have influenced how relationships between the two play out in the real world. Also, men and women play separate parts, acting as complementary to each other in society and at home, with men generally holding a position of greater authority.
Women at the Time of Muhammad
In his day, Muhammad brought new teachings about women that contrasted with the culture of the time. The Quran includes passages addressing the status of men and women, including 9:71: "The believing men and believing women are allies of one another."
Modesty and Separation from Men
Modesty is a key attribute for Muslim women. The word purdah describes veiling, as well as general seclusion, according to Zepp. He suggests, "The primary concern of the Quran is modesty in dress" so as to prevent women from being "abused by men." This practice does not play a large role in the Quran and seems to come from pre-Islamic traditions. Sex outside of marriage is forbidden as a form of indecency, but the punishment is equally severe for men and women.
Culture Versus Teachings
In spite of some of Muhammad's guidelines, a culture dominated by men found it hard to see women in a new light. Zepp notes that the Quran has an entire sura called "Women," which is the longest chapter in the entire book. However, the content of the Quran and other Muslim texts does not give women an entirely equal status. For example, women inherit half of what a man would and, in court, a woman's testimony is only considered half as serious as that of a man. In this way, although Muhammad may have changed the culture of his time, the status of women arguably remains subordinate to men in the Quran.
In the family, it is clear that the man is in charge. At the same time, he should treat his wife with respect and kindness. For her part, the woman is bound to be obedient and loyal to him. A woman can divorce her husband and is allowed to set conditions for him to follow before she agrees to marry him. Verse 2:228 of the Quran lays out the rules for divorce and mentions that men "are a degree above [women]." While married, women are responsible for the household and children, while men take care of financial needs. However, Muhammad was known to do household chores, so it is not clear how separate the roles are supposed to be.