This story appeared in the March 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
It’s safe to say that the first two things Americans think of when they think of Muslims are violent terrorist attacks and the oppression of women.
In the minds of many—ranging from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to Bill Maher—Islam is uniquely violent and sexist.
Images of women shrouded from head to foot, and stories of women arrested for driving cars, beaten for showing their hair or wearing nail polish, and prevented from going to school or aspiring to be anything other than chattel are the backdrop to intensifying rhetoric about a “culture war” between the West and Islam.
Oppressive fundamentalist regimes, from the Taliban to the Islamic State, do, in fact, target women.
Resistance to these regimes by brave Muslim women, like Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, inspire people in the United States.
But it is a peculiarity of U.S. foreign policy that our country drums up support for wars and bombing raids that kill mass numbers of civilians by denouncing the oppression of the same people we are bombing. Enormous damage has been done to civilian populations around the globe in recent decades in the name of democracy and freedom.
The image of the oppressed Muslim woman is part of this destructive propaganda campaign.
After September 11, 2001, the U.S. public supported the war in Afghanistan, primarily in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. But the real heartstrings appeal was the oppression of women there. Contributions flowed to school-building and development projects that aimed to free Afghan women from opression.
But the U.S. military has not succeeded in liberating women in Afghanistan. Instead it has inflicted massive suffering and death—and the situation of women, though better than during the Taliban era, remains dire.
“There are slight improvements in women’s lives in urban areas, but if we look at statistics, Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women,” Reena of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan told Democracy Now! on the tenth anniversary of the invasion. “Self-immolation [and] suicide rates are extremely high. It has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They don’t have health care. It has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.”
In Iraq, the United States has arguably helped set back women’s rights by centuries, deposing a brutal secular dictator, and destroying a civil society and a large middle class where women were well represented in the ranks of educated professionals. Now not only is Iraq’s civilian infrastructure destroyed, much of the country is ruled by ISIS, and fundamentalism is on the rise.
These facts alone should give Americans pause.
A better understanding of Muslim people who, after all, are fully one-fourth of the world’s population, is crucial to peace.
Part of the project is understanding the role of women in Islam, and what Muslim women themselves have to say about their religion, their culture, and how it comports with feminism.
Hind Makki, a Muslim-American activist and blogger, is proud to combine Islam and feminism.
“I don’t shy away from using the term feminism because as a woman of color and a woman of faith, I want the agency to define what that means for myself,” she told The Daily Beast.
A 2009 Pew Forum study depicts the world’s second-largest religion as complex and nuanced, “challenging the notion that its trajectory is defined by a minority of Islamists,” The Guardian reported a few years ago.
“Like all religions, [Islam] contains within it both the deep and the simple, the sublime and the cruel, the exalted and the ignoble,” comparative religion professor Reuven Firestone has written. “Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is multifaceted, offering a variety of responses to the questions and perplexities of the human condition. It cannot be fairly forced into a single wrapping.”
Just as most Christians reject the murder of abortion doctors in their name, Muslims around the world would prefer not to be represented by violent fanatics.
“It is important to recognize laws imposed upon people by nonrepresentative governments (such as the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia), and to differentiate between patriarchal cultural practices versus the actual teachings of Islam,” says Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. “In spite of issues in many predominantly Muslim countries, they have still managed to have a number of heads of state that were female (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey), but we still haven’t managed that here!”
Islam’s image problem, Muslim women activists contend, is a caricature.
“Islam is one of the most egalitarian faiths, if you are comparing scriptures,” says Najeeb. “Too often people compare modern-day America with sixth-century Arabia. Prophet Muhammad was a staunch women’s rights advocate in his time, facing immense challenges in the patriarchal society in which he lived. We need to understand what the faith teaches as opposed to what some Muslims practice or what Islamophobes contend.”
“If people see that not in practice, then blame the person or the government, not the faith,” she adds. “We don’t blame Christianity for pedophilia in the Catholic Church or Christianity for the high rate of domestic violence and deaths in this country.”
Najeeb attributes misogyny in the Muslim world to socioeconomic reasons, not religion.
“The return of patriarchal practices, many of which had been abolished by the Prophet Muhammad and the Qu’ran, is a result of many factors,” she says. “These are poverty, lack of education, devastating wars, and the imprisonment and killing of many religious figures and scholars over the past decades by despotic regimes. Patriarchy due to these factors is not just specific to Muslims, and you will find it in other cultures and religions where the same formula exists.”
Professor Asma Barlas of Ithaca College, the author of “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qu’ran, has made it her life’s work to interpret the Qu’ran, in a woman-friendly way.
Problematic Qu’ranic verses are “open to alternative readings and also to being historically situated,” she says. “There are less than a dozen such references in a text of about 80,000 words and 6,000 verses, so it’s up for question whether it is more legitimate to hang oppression onto these few lines or whether we should go with egalitarian readings of the Qu’ran based on many more references. Unfortunately, so far, Muslims are happy to stick with the former strategy because they live in patriarchal societies and the dominant tradition is normatively patriarchal as well.”
Both Najeeb and Barlas agree that there needs to be a reinterpretation of Muslim source texts.
“I like to foreground the Qu’ran’s teachings that affirm the equality of women and men as a way to counter the obsessive Muslim preoccupation with sexual inequality and hierarchy in the Qu’ran,” says Barlas.
Najeeb agrees with this assessment, even if she is concerned about its chances.
“It is, in fact, the return to scholarly Islamic tradition that will rectify this for Muslims,” she says. “Unfortunately, this is very difficult to do in many predominately Muslim countries, because many Muslim clerics are limited by their governments in what they can say. Plus, people are simply trying to find jobs to feed their families, or survive devastating wars imposed upon them.”
She sees a ray of hope in Western nations.
“We see the light amongst Muslim scholars and intellectuals in the West, where addressing these issues is very common,” she says. “Very devout Western Muslims do not suffer from the same patriarchal issues that their counterparts overseas sometime do.”
We living in the United States need to recognize the complexity of Islam—and give reformers space—instead of tarring all Muslims with the same brush.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive and the author of 'Islam' Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger, 2011).
Image credit: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)