Many changes swept the Islamic world during the Abbasid period, some of which indelibly changed the Near and Middle East. This second great era of Islamic rule began in 750 and endured until the Mongol conquest over 500 years later. The University of Calgary’s Applied History Research Group notes that the changes instituted under the Abbasids lasted even longer than the dynasty itself. The status of women in Islamic society was one such change.
In the first two centuries of Islam – the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the subsequent Umayyad period – women enjoyed some autonomy. For instance, in the earliest period of Islam, women could own property and businesses, and remarriage after divorce was legal, if typically frowned upon. Muhammad actually improved women’s status compared to tribal society, according to Islam researcher Sana Ehtisham, forbidding female infanticide and reforming inheritance law.
Some of the most important changes under Abbasid rule concerned broader cultural shifts, as Islam spread rapidly beyond Arabic peoples; for example, the capital moved from Damascus to Baghdad. Along with this geographic shift to the east came Asia’s more restrictive gender roles, specifically from India and Byzantium. The Abbasids also became a hereditary, feudal dynasty, whereas earlier caliphs had been chosen by tribal leaders; Ehtisham points out that feudal societies tend to more narrowly restrict women’s status.
Many of the stereotypes about Islamic gender roles date from the Abbasid period, such as the practice of keeping women out of public life, cloistering them and restricting their movements. Indeed, the status of a free Muslim woman, even a wife or mother, came to resemble very closely that of a slave, contends Julia Bray, professor of Arabic literature at St. John's College, Oxford. The key distinction, she explains, was that a free woman belonged primarily within a family context; but in neither case was the woman considered an autonomous individual with property or professional rights comparable to those of men.
Women not only lost authority under the Abbasids; they also lost control over their bodies. Female infanticide had long been a threat in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, as seen in the need for Muhammad to ban the practice. But it reemerged in the Abbasid period. George Mason University’s Women in History Project records, for example, a condolence poem that equates a son’s death with a daughter’s birth as occasions of equal misfortune. Adult women were increasingly seen as commodities, Bray suggests, and women in this period lost the right to refuse or consent to marriage.