BY MOIN QAZI
JAN 12, 2023 – DAILY SABAG
The portrayal of Muslim women in the media arena is grim and sad: Many articles and incidences suggest that ‘women are treated as chattels’
“Amother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation,” said Hafez Ibrahim, the Egyptian poet.
The most common justification for ridiculing Islam is that the religion is “backward,” particularly in regards to women, as a fundamental part of its beliefs. The portrayal of Muslim women in the media arena is grim and sad. The public perception concerning them is one of stubborn stereotypes. Supposedly powerless and oppressed, behind walls and veils, demure, voiceless and silent figures, discriminated against and bereft of fundamental rights. Many articles and incidences in the press and media suggest that “women are treated as chattels.”
The pictures we get of wife-beating and other retrograde practices imposed on Muslim women are aberrations that should not be generalized as the usual Muslim stereotype. The unfair practices rampant in certain such societies have much to do with illiteracy, ignorance and sometimes dire poverty.
At the same time, the position of women in Islamic countries has dramatically changed in a few decades, with access to education, birth control and jobs. But each advance is resisted, and attitudes are harder to change than laws. From Morocco to Iran, women – secular, liberal and religious, sometimes alone, sometimes together – are challenging traditions, demanding greater rights, and reinterpreting the Holy Quran and Muslim history.
Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are also challenging the patriarchy that most women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society and the objectification of women’s bodies in sections of the media. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts, but that cultural interpretation of these texts disallows what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle but describe it as a reclamation of their faith. They stand with their sisters of all backgrounds in this quest.
Although traditionally excluded from the male public domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in the study and oral transmission of Islamic texts (the Quran and Hadith). In modern times, they have entered both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm, supporting their long-standing role as family educators and moral exemplars, as well as training for professional careers at workplace outside the home. Central to Islamic belief is the importance and high value attached with education. From the actual Islamic point of view, education should be freely and equally available to women as much as men.
Elsewhere, the fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist individual, a woman who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She was married several times and, at least in one of her marriages, stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything.
All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and early Muslim practice. A Muslim woman cannot be forced into marriage without her consent; indeed, she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree in the first place. We now have an inquisitive and empowered female Muslim generation that will not easily accept rules and codes without reasoning them out and arguing on every strand before embracing them.
Feminism and Muslim women
Few Muslim women outside the urban domain may want to behave like Western women. A comparison may mean little outside the cultural context, but it is essential to point out that Western women virtually had no rights in law or practice until a hundred years ago. Over 1,000 years before the first European suffragette, Islam gave women far-reaching rights and a defined status.
Muslim women emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam in the 19th century and, notably, in the later 19th century as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries. Their narratives simultaneously and hypocritically perpetuated the Victorian English narrative that European men were superior to women while denigrating Muslim culture for being oppressive to women. But, of late, Muslim women have transformed a great deal. They certainly do not share the Western notion of feminism. These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe that Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change.
First of all, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Secondly, gender relations structure women’s options in all societies. Thirdly, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women’s rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They must understand the necessity of recognizing and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western concepts of autonomy and respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values.
Historically, Islam was incredibly advanced in providing revolutionary rights for women and uplifting women’s status in the seventh century. Many of the revelations in the Quran were by nature reform-oriented, transforming critical aspects of pre-Islamic customary laws and practices in progressive ways to eliminate injustice and suffering. Still, it is not enough to merely flaunt these values. We must act on them. The reforms that took place in the early years of Islam were progressive, changing with the needs of society. However, the more detailed rules that the classical jurists laid out only allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue. These rules reflected their society’s needs, traditions and expectations, not the progressive reforms that were initiated during Prophet Muhammad’s time. Hence, the trajectory of reform that began during Muhammad’s time was halted in the medieval period through further elaborating of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which was then selectively codified in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Islam also promotes and teaches humans to practice balance in all aspects of life with moderation. As humans, we are influenced by our culture and traditions; political, economic and psychological experiences shape our attitudes and behaviors, and separate and divide us. Consequently, our world views and religious views differ from place to place, era to era, and across cultures, thereby continuing to irresponsibly link religion, in this case, Islam, to the oppression of women. The alleged retrograde practices of the community take the world’s focus away from understanding the overwhelming problems of the Muslim world and the cause of its troubles. It provides an easy scapegoat for those looking to legitimize their illegitimate actions, which are detrimental to humanity. This is one of the reasons for this unnecessary bitterness over plainly innocuous symbols which have culturally bonded these cultures over the years.
At its very core, Islam prescribes the principles of justice and equity for peace and human development and compassion for all humanity. Not to mention that the same root word of Islam itself is derived from the word “Salaam” (peace). Islam is a universal religion speaking to humanity. In his last great address at Arafat, the Prophet summed up his philosophy by decrying barriers between people. For him, Islam transcended caste, color and race divisions. “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by good action.”
They are not just enlightened and responsive but have the same innovative trait that makes them attuned to their Quranic obligations. They have evolved approaches that meet both their secular and religious commitments. Modesty has to do with clothes and should not be unnecessarily enforced. Freedom is about having the choice to do and wear what you want; banning clothing would only counter that freedom.
Islam: The most discussed religion
Islam is arguably the most discussed religion in the West today, in both media and society. After terrorism, the plight of Muslim women is probably the most controversial topic of debate.
Women are exposed to organized education for the first time and are now enlightened enough to channel their cultural, parental and religious practices and beliefs. Their skepticism on various issues is an understandable reaction from a minority community that has remained pawned in a bewildering swelter of ideologies. Muslim communities and much of that focuses on women who see Islam as inherently part of the problem – if not the whole problem – that Muslim women face. Muslim women must be extricated from the religion entirely before anything close to liberation or equality can be achieved.
Women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe that Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. They argue that Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women’s rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They want them to understand the necessity of recognizing and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western concepts of autonomy and respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values. Muslim women must work in full partnership with Muslim men, reject Western models of liberation, but also, and more importantly, assert their own Islamic feminists, insisting that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for both men and women.
They are arguing for women’s rights within an Islamic discourse. Some leading proponents are men – distinguished scholars – who contend that Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts. Islamic feminists claim that Islamic law evolved in ways damaging to women, not due to any inevitability but because of selective interpretation by patriarchal leaders. Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic philosophy to highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion. They seek accommodation between a modern role for women and the Islamic values that more than a billion people follow.
Muslims need to look at themselves realistically instead of their imagined selves. The Prophet was centuries ahead of the men of his time in his attitudes toward women, and not surprisingly, right after he died, men started rolling back his reforms. The Prophet may have been too advanced for the mindset of seventh century men, but his compassion for women is precisely the model that Muslims in the 21st century need to emulate today. Muslim women, like their counterparts in other creeds, are known as an empowered community. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts, but that interpretation of these documents with the prevalent cultural lens disallows what is rightfully theirs.
Quest for gender equality
The stereotype of a Muslim woman as a passive victim is a dangerous myth. It is promoted by the opponents of gender equality both within and outside Muslim societies. It has to be challenged, debunked, and laid to rest. These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities is often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are also challenging the patriarchy that all women experience around unequal social power hierarchies and the objectification of women’s bodies in some sections of the media.
Women are now elbowing their way into politics, civil society and universities. Despite present cultural and political obstacles, they are finding opportunities to raise their societies. They feel the key to do so lies within Islamic paradigms. There is a need to engage in Islam from a position of knowing and to ensure that Muslim women have access to this knowledge.
Only through this knowledge can women assert their rights and challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam. While giving priority to a literal, puritanical reading of the Quran, they want to discard the historical reality of the Muslim world in favor of the ideal society of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Their unifying vision has made collective action possible.
There is no denying that the Muslim world has a significant amount of ground to cover to protect women’s rights and freedoms, and the quest for gender equality remains paramount. However, the idea that all Muslim women are oppressed because Muslim men are misogynists is wide off the mark because women’s oppression manifests itself in several ways. Not all Muslim men are the oppressors.
It is clear that Muslim women’s empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must find their reasons and justifications to allow women a fuller societal role. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. In today’s increasingly global world, everyone has higher stakes than ever. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become more prosperous, stable, better governed and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and political voices get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption and are more prone to extremism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Based in Napur, Ph.D., Economics, author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar