In the seventh century A.D., Islam’s prophet Mohammed was married to a successful business woman named Kadijah who bankrolled the founding years of the religion.

Today, Muslim businesswomen are a rare find: There isn’t a Muslim country in the world where women’s participation in the ranks of business management or administration reaches even 20 percent, according to the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report 2002.

In the seventh century, Mohammed, whose beloved daughter Fatima was highly educated, said that according to Allah, “the pursuit of knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, man and woman.”

Today, more than half of Arab females are not schooled, with the illiteracy rate for women and teenage girls at 52.7 percent, according to the United Nations. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, 62.2 percent of women and adolescent girls are illiterate. Together, these rates make Muslim societies the least literate in the world.

In the seventh century, Allah made clear in the Koran that the sexes were equal in both spiritual matters and in daily life, telling men and women to “reverence your Lord, who created you from a single person,” and that “whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him We will give a new life that is good and pure.”

Today, the inferior status of millions of Muslim women is plain to see, from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to Iran, judged by the fact that women’s mobility is restricted, that under many interpretations of sharia law women have weaker rights in family matters than men do, and that women are scarce in leadership roles.

These illustrations have gained starkness since 9/11 cast a spotlight on Muslim societies. Outsiders with a little bit of knowledge — they’ve read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran or Jean Sasson’s ghosted Saudi Arabia journal Princess — have come to associate Islam with the trampling of women’s basic human rights, and thus societal backwardness.

Naturally, some Muslims respond to this defensively. “The most restrictive elements toward women can be found first in Judaism in the Old Testament then in Christianity and then in the Koran,” writes Egyptian feminist Nawal Saadawi. Others point out, rightly, that American women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920, that men dominate corporate ranks in Europe, and that Islam is a big advance over ancient tribal customs of the Middle East. Moreover, they chafe at the lumping together of retrograde Muslim states with advanced ones, noting that millions of Muslim women enjoy lives of relative equality in Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Yet the broad and enduring inequality that beleaguers a majority of Muslim women, from North Africa to Central Asia, remains. It has lasted through the 20th century, a period during which women in non-Muslim countries around the globe advanced politically, economically, and socially by leaps and bounds. Where in 1910 only 1 percent of American women had completed high school, today 83 percent have. Where in 1893 not a single woman on the globe had the right to vote, the Muslim world now houses the only countries where universal suffrage has not been granted. And where at the turn of the century most of the world’s women were relegated to the home or to work outside the formal economy, most regions of the world now see half the female population participating in the work force. By contrast, to this day in the Arab world only 30 percent of women work outside of the home. From the traditional cultures of South Asia and Latin America to the modern societies of Europe and North America, few women are as badly off, in the aggregate, as are women in Muslim societies.

Since 9/11, the position of women has become a high-profile vulnerability for Muslim states. Scholar Bernard Lewis calls the deprivation of the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people the main reason why Muslim countries have fallen behind the West economically, politically, and otherwise. Coalition forces in Afghanistan identified the egregious mistreatment of women by the Taliban regime as a casus belli. And U.S. government officials have, in private though only a little jokingly, referred to oppressed women as our fifth column in the Muslim world.

Indeed, there are many ways the U.S. could leverage the Muslim women’s issue to mutual advantage: By using public diplomacy, state-funded broadcasting, and education programs to nudge the women toward greater educational enlightenment, understanding of their egalitarian religion, and political participation, the U.S. could gain a loyal and modern constituency in the Muslim world. Muslim wives and mothers could be a force for progress and stability, potentially serving as a counterweight to the Muslim world’s plague of political violence and to the “substitution of jihad for worship,” which, according to Iraq scholar Kanan Makiya, is “the greatest travesty perpetrated upon Islam in modern times.”

With any luck, internal pressure from enlightened women could undermine oppressive governments. Just as valuably, Muslim women around the globe could finally enter the 20th century, pulling their sons and daughters along with them.

Until that happens, though, Muslim women will continue their existence as one of the least-free groups of people on the planet. If their fates are ever to change, it is necessary to understand how they fell so low in the first place.

The first reason is the widely documented ignorance and illiteracy that has kept women from helping themselves. Then there’s what Mahnaz Afkhami, pre-revolution minister of women’s affairs in Iran and founder of an advocacy group called the Women’s Leadership Partnership, identifies as the abuse of religion for political power.

Iran’s mullahs wrote the book on this one. After their 1979 revolution, they quickly reversed decades of progress in which women had gained the vote and prominence in the academy, the professions, and politics. In the name of Islam, the clerics forced all women to cover themselves, made 9 years old the age at which girls could be married off (with deadly physical consequences for the too-soon-pregnant girls), and almost completely segregated women from men in public places. By targeting women, the Islamists and their leftist allies not only put tight reins on half the population, they also created a handy scapegoat — women who strayed from the clerics’ interpretation of Islam — for all that ailed Iran. In addition, targeting women allowed the clerics to keep their thumb on the men: Any misstep by a wife or daughter could be harmful to husband or father.

Abuse of Islam for political aims isn’t limited to Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries, however.  The Taliban used a similar formula.  Authoritarian-minded politicians in Algeria, Pakistan, and elsewhere have also had that instinct, as have state-level governments from Nigeria to Malaysia.  And in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family and its Wahhabist clerics have woven their political power into the religion itself, critics say. They abuse the nation’s position as host of holy Mecca and Medina, to secure themselves in power: If you don’t follow Wahhabist strictures about women’s conduct, you don’t have the approval of the Saudi government.  And if you don’t have the approval of the government that hosts the holy cities, you aren’t a good Muslim.  In other words, to obey the Saudi government is to be closer to heaven.

Politicians perceive a third benefit from shuttering women — and an economically spurious one at that.  More than one Muslim command economy has tried to cut unemployment by cutting women out of the work force.  Most recently, Iraq discouraged women from working after U.N. sanctions were imposed in 1991.  Needless to say, the idea did not succeed.  Workers are consumers, and an economy shrinks when its workforce is forcibly contracted.

The melding of religion and authoritarianism is not unique to Islam.  But in modern times, it has been more prominent with that faith than with any other.  At the risk of earning the scorn of my Muslim friends for the superficiality of my understanding, allow this Christian to respectfully venture a few of their theories explaining why.

First, there’s the sheer volume of “Islamic rules.” Islamic religious writings, like the Bible, have quite a few passages that, interpreted a certain way, relegate women to positions of subservience.  But because Islam is a religion of duties and obligations that govern all aspects of human behavior, there are far more passages affecting women in Islamic texts than in, say, Christian ones.

Consider the commonly noted Muslim practice of wearing a head cover.  It is governed by the principal exhortation in the Koran that women “subdue their eyes and maintain their chastity.” They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary.  They shall cover their chests [with their khimar covering] and shall not relax this code in the presence of [men other than their husbands and some other males of the family].  In addition, Islam’s principal texts — the hadith, or practices and pronouncements of Mohammed, and other writings that together with the Koran form sharia law — contain other explicit passages that clerics interpret to mean that women should dress in all-covering loose clothing.

While this amount of specific guidance is to many followers an attractive feature of Islam, it is also the source of conflict and misunderstanding.  Muslim critics of the head cover say that religious writings other than the Koran are of secondary importance.

Similar knots of interpretation affect divorce — a man’s ability to divorce a wife without notice; inheritance — a woman’s receipt of half the inheritance her brother receives; polygamy — a man’s permission to have up to four wives; and women’s liberty to be seen in public, to name a few.

The complications don’t end with multiple sources of religious guidance.  There’s also the fact that Islam is a remarkably decentralized religion.  There is no priesthood — any man can learn enough about Islam to lead others in interpreting the faith. He can choose among numerous schools of legal interpretation. While the self-directed learning has virtue, it also has resulted in more than a few religious leaders falling into the sorts of interpretations that leave the weaker sex in a position of subservience. Purushottam Bilimoria, an expert on Islamic law in India, has chronicled how interpretations of sharia law involving women can vary from one religious judge to the next, depending on his amount of formal learning.

Problems arising from the complexity of Islam’s rules are compounded by women’s virtual exclusion from the rules’ interpretation. Even though a Muslim woman can study to become a mujtahid — someone with ijtihad, the authority to interpret Islam for herself and to offer advice if it’s solicited — very few women may do so.  Data are hard to come by, but my research suggests that there are only handfuls of woman mujtahidat in the world, at Indonesia’s State Institute of Islamic Studies, for example, or Egypt’s Azhar University, and a few other locales.  Iran has some woman mujtahidat as well, though exiles consider them to be co-opted by the regime.  Mujtahidat are scarce in large part because the women need their husbands’ or fathers’ permission to leave the home to study Islamic law or fiqh.  Since autocratic rule of the home can be as convenient as autocratic rule of the state, that permission isn’t always easy to come by.

Moreover, women are forbidden in both Shia and Sunni Islam from rising much farther to an actual leadership position in the faith, where they would lead others in prayer or in interpreting aspects of Islamic doctrine. To be sure, some denominations of Christianity and Judaism have similar restrictions. But in Islam there are no “liberal” denominations that waive the restrictions away.  Add to the universal prohibition the fact that Muslim women are so overwhelmingly illiterate, and it’s easy to see how — not only in the public sphere, but in their homes as well — women are virtually shut out of debates on what Allah says, or doesn’t say, about their behavior and treatment.

A third difficulty — and the one that is drawing greatest attention in foreign-policy circles — stems from sharia law itself.  The collection of laws from the Koran, transcribed practices and pronouncements of the Prophet, and other writings by which Muslims govern themselves, covers most aspects of personal life including marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child rearing, not to mention dress. Put another way, sharia covers most of the life of a Muslim woman living in traditional conditions.

Defenders of sharia ably point out that in its most enlightened form the sharia that guides family or personal-status matters allows for women’s equality with men. Indeed, on some questions sharia is very pro-woman; it empowers women to ask their husbands for payment for household chores, for example. Alas, sharia is more often interpreted as pro-man.

Take polygamy — permitted under sharia as long as the man can treat his four wives equally. Where a woman can insist to a judge that her treatment will worsen when the husband takes a new wife, she can safely ward off any co-wives under sharia. But a woman needs her husband’s permission to leave the house and talk to the judge, so it’s easy to see how a man can easily get away with polygamy.

Or take divorce, which has several aspects that leave women in an inferior position to men. First of all, women have no right to divorce if they don’t ask for their husbands to give it to them as part of the marriage contract. Secondly, if a man utters “talaq,” or “you are divorced,” to his wife three times, he has divorced her under sharia.  In an enlightened sharia system, a fiancée might know that she can ask her husband-to-be for the right to divorce him — something she might want if he took on a second or third or fourth wife, for instance. But in the unblissful ignorance that is reality for more than half of all Muslim women, that prenuptial request is rarely known, made, or granted.

Many U.S. human rights activists blame sharia for much that ails Muslim societies and see the cleaving of sharia from national legal systems as the way to fix Muslim women’s lives. Most recently, these groups have been demanding that sharia play no role in the legal systems of a post-Saddam Iraq or post-Taliban Afghanistan. Yet few Muslim countries — Turkey being the leading exception — have such a degree of secularism in their legal systems. Whether the United States will be able to impose secularism on Afghanistan and Iraq — and whether such an imposition is desirable — remains to be seen.

Far less controversial would be moves by U.S. officials to use their bully pulpit to point out that women have insufficiently prominent status. Through public diplomacy and state-funded broadcasting, the U.S. should push women’s equality. It should be non-negotiable that the U.S. appoint women to not one, not two, but several positions of power in the successor governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Visiting U.S. dignitaries should invite women to their official functions. U.S. ambassadors should make sure to invite to social events not only Muslim male officials but also their wives. And official speeches should harp on the point that Muslim countries are all signatories of the International Declaration of Rights of the Person, which guarantees equality of men and women. In addition, the U.S. should aggressively fund women’s and girls’ literacy programs.

Even such steps are likely to ignite charges that the U.S. is meddling in domestic affairs, hating Islam, and imposing its Western utilitarianism and rule of law in the worst tradition of French or British imperialists. But if liberating people from oppression remains a tenet of U.S. foreign policy, then such accusations shouldn’t give the U.S. pause.