As a woman living in an Islamic country as a researcher of women’s issues, the matter of religion frequently rears its unresolved head. After reading several articles by Muslims, feminists and Muslim feminists (ie: Anouar Majid, Iman Hashim, Margot Badran) as well as a recent biography of Muhammed’s life written by a woman (Eminent Lives: Muhammad by Karen Armstrong), I will try to share a little of what I’ve learned of women in Islam.
The first important point is interpretation. Even with a book like a Qur’an, which is to be followed verbatim, there still remains historical context and diverging interpretations among the community. Muslim friends explained that many people who consider themselves Muslims have never read the Qur’an, but only hear other people’s interpretations. With the intent of the speaker differing across the world, many messages of the Qur’an are distorted. A friend said, “we should read the Qur’an as individuals, and what we get out of it is how we should practice. And not read just once – but many times. I have read the Qur’an when I was 18 and one message stood out to me. Read again at 25, other messages stood out. When I was 40, I learned something entirely new.”
This notion of interpretation leads into how there were particular intentions of Islam that were lost in dominating cultural pulls. “The gender question should be reexamined, as the gender revolution was intended in Islam but never took off. It was aborted arguably for two reasons…[one being] the door of ijtihad [intellectual effort] closed and the gender revolution was thereby aborted. (Mazrui, 1993)" The end of the intellectual effort (ijtihad) referred to what my friend mentioned above: individual interpretation. But because many followers cannot speak or read Arabic for themselves, the message and intellectual interpretation was lost.
Also, Muhammad faced intense adversity when trying to spread his message. One message was the equality of men and women: “Whoever performs good deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did” (Qur’an, 16:97). However, some of Muhammad’s followers began to turn on him when he began to profess equality of women – equality extending as far as allowing women to take arms to fight for Islam.* In chauvinist Arabia, enemies against Islam became to use this ‘weakness for women’ against Muhammad while even his closest followers were aggressively disappointed in his equality stance (Armstrong). Muhammad’s message of equality, even with his charismatic ways, could not beat the ties to local culture (Armstrong gives an excellent review of how local culture affective the development of Islam). Overall, full gender equality was destined for Islam, however, like the development of the whole religion, was trapped by pre-existing Arabic culture. This entrapment is why the Qur’an permits men to beat their wives, which Muhammad feared and abhorred.
Then if these interpretations are accurate, then why do we hear so much anti-women and anti-equality professions of Islam?
First, sexism, chauvinism and misogyny still exists – everywhere. Those who preach male superiority quoted in Islam are widely considered to not be Muslims by Muslims. Second, Western media bombards us with the worst of the worst. Replaying images of women dashing out of their houses after the liberation from under the Taliban seeps into our mind, molding us to view all Muslims as the Taliban. We receive little public and personal exposure to Islamic ideals outside of the media because of the small population living in the west. It’s important to make judgments about a group of people that many of us have barely had a conversation with. One comedian, Russell Peters, put it so eloquently: “The only Muslims we see on Western TV is like people of the Middle East seeing Rednecks as the only Westerners.”
It’s important to remember that there are deeper layers of colonialism and exoticism at work. The West, past and present, perpetuates negative images of Islam in order to maintain it’s own superiority (as if we are perfect.) Attempting to make us sympathize with ‘subjugated veiled women’ gives the support they need to sanction their ulterior motives of wars.
“Muslim women’s entrapment in a false debate may well have started…with the publication of Qasim Amin’s book Tahir Al-Mar’a (The liberation of women) in 1899. [He] used the pretext of the veil…to launch an assault on Islam, despite Victorians England’s own patriarchal attitude towards British women… ‘Amin’s book then marks the entry of the colonial narrative of women and Islam—in which the veil and the treatment of women epitomized Islamic inferiority—into mainstream Arabic discourse. The opposition it generated similarly marks the emergence of an Arabic narrative developed in resistance narrative, not in the inferiority of the culture and the need to cast aside its customs in favor of those of the West, but, on the contrary, the dignity and validity of all native customs coming under attack—customs relating to women—and the need to tenaciously affirm them as a means of resistance to Western domination. ‘(Lelia Ahmed)” – Anouar Majid
Simply put, when people are attacked for their traditions, they are on the defense, griping even more tightly and fervently to what they are chastised for. Key point, however, is that the attackers hypocritically, aggressively and imprecisely combat ancient traditions.
I was once talking to someone about Islam and how misunderstood it was. Making a what I thought to be an obvious remark, that “not all Muslims are terrorists,” their response was, “but it is odd that most terrorist groups are Islamic.” Sadly enough, you can’t help but agree with their point, however the answer is deeper than their identity as Muslims, but into experiences as the colonized.
Like mentioned above, Islamic practices are so often being attacked that certain groups respond by vigorously asserting the exact practices that they are reproached for. The West’s past and present roles as colonialists and so-called ‘global leaders’ is in part at fault for exploitation of culture, resources and labor. Even apolitical, non-academics such as Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, explains that the more we keep pressuring people to change, the more they will tightly grip onto traditions. Mortenson prompts us to work with and teach the on-the-ground population of other countries, especially by fiercely supporting education instead of bombs (please review article discussing Islam and Mortenson’s potent approach)
Islam in itself is pluralistic and ever-changing, as is the role of women in both Islam and global society. Trust me in that I’ve only scanned a brief surface of the issue and am still learning myself. But what we should already know is that it’s important not to assume we understand everyone experience and beliefs because of one label. We are more individual than that.
I want to end with a rather cute quote by the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi:
“The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by an animal ferocity. They have no kindness, gentleness or love, since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and sensuality belong to the animals. She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is a creator - you could say that she is not created.”
* The concept of the jihad is complex and historically rooted. When I feel I’ve grasped the doctrine better, I will speak on it.