"Liberating" Muslim Women

Displayed on the poster was an image of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, accompanied by the words, "how can we liberate them?"

The poster was disturbing enough, but even more disturbing was the fact that it was distributed all over Amsterdam in 2003 as a government public service announcement.

Two persistent false images dominate the propaganda used by Islamophobes. One is that Muslim women are oppressed because of — not in spite of –” the teachings of Islam.

The other is that Western imperial powers, particularly the United States, are genuinely interested in liberating Muslim women, especially following the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In reality, these false images are not new at all; their roots date back to the European occupation of Muslim lands during the 1700s. Today they are so widespread thanks to Western media.

While Reformation-era Europe learned much from its Muslim neighbours (especially in sciences and medicine), it seems Western culture has a very short collective memory. Present-day media rarely refer to Islamic truths that paint a very different image from the depressing and confusing portrayals of women that readers are more likely to find in their pages.

Where can non-Muslims learn, for example, that in Islam women –” contrary to Jewish and Christian teachings — have souls; that they have equal intellectual capabilities as men; that they have as much right and need of advanced education in every field of human inquiry; that they can initiate divorce; keep their family names after marriage; or have separate and distinct careers in their own right?

Alongside the false imagery of missing information is the insidious media-hyped disinformation that Muslim men (especially "religious" ones) are sexist, oppressive and wife-beaters.

You’d think that the media in our so-called "liberal" society would pay more attention to concrete issues that genuinely compromise and demean the quality of life of Western women, who are statistically at greatest risk from the effects of poverty, pornography, domestic abuse, marginalization, or lack of educational opportunities in career-building fields (like maths and sciences).

And you’d think that these same media would invest far more emphasis on the urgency of exposing human rights violations committed against Muslim women in Palestine, Bosnia, or any other area in which war and civil unrest produce many more victims among non-combatants.

Other truth to keep in mind when confronted with media stereotypes are that ultra-orthodox Muslim women often have more traditions and practices in common with ultra-orthodox women from other faiths (Judaism, for example) than with many of their own co-religionists. This is even true of many Christian sects and denominations, and has been so for generations.

Similarly, Muslim women in the developing world suffer the same deprivations and obstacles as woman of all religious groups in the same socio-economic circumstances.

Very little is published about high-achievers (past or present) among Muslim women. Even today, surprisingly few people know that in our modern era, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all had Muslim women as their prime ministers; or that in many Muslim countries women routinely achieve high-profile professional careers as medical doctors, lawyers, government ministers, academics, judges, ambassadors, airline pilots, athletes, actresses, directors, writers, poets, corporate CEO, political officials, or that they serve in the army, police forces, and as customs and border officials – to name but a few occupations that are still considered "non-traditional" in Western culture.

As well, you’ll find little mention that in many Muslim countries female university and college students in engineering and science classes far exceed the numbers per capita found in the West. Some of these women are fully practicing Muslims, some are not. Some are bare-headed and indistinguishable from any women you’d meet working or studying in Europe and North America; others wear head scarves, or hijab; and a few may wear a full head-to-toe Burqa. But the way they choose to dress has nothing to do with their level of competence.

In the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Muslim women athletes from Egypt, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Pakistan proudly represented their countries. Two of them, Bahraini track star Roqaya Al Ghasara and Iranian rower Homa Hosseini — both of whom wear the hijab in public — won the honour of being flag bearers for their countries at the opening ceremonies.

"The hijab has never been a problem for me. In Bahrain you grow up with it," 25-year-old Al Ghasara told a Reuters reporter [1]. "There are more women in sport all the time from countries like Qatar and Kuwait. You can choose to wear the hijab or not. For me it’s liberating," she added.

Al Ghasara’s close-fitting running hijabs come in red or white, the Bahraini colors. In fact, Reuters reported that the women in Al Ghasara’s home town were so proud of their pioneering Olympic sprinter that some got together to design and sew a set of tailor-made aerodynamic hijabs for her to run in.

Al Ghasara made news in 2005 as the first female medalist of the West Asian Games after the event was opened to women and the first Bahraini athlete to win gold in international athletic competition.

Egyptian fencer Shaimaa El Gammal, 28, wore the hijab for the first time in Beijing – her third Olympic competition. She called the change a sign she has come of age and, like Al Ghasara, feels more empowered than ever.

Hijab-wearing Muslim women athletes began appearing at the Olympics and other international sporting competitions a few decades ago and they have always drawn curious stares.

"People see us wearing the scarf and think we ride camels," El Gammal told a journalist recently. "But Muslim women can do anything they want… When I fence I’m proud that I’m a Muslim. It’s very symbolic for women in my country."

Iranian women with hijabs competed in the 2008 Olympics in rowing, tae-kwon-do and archery. From Afghanistan, where a majority of women still wear the head-to-toe burka, sprinter Robina Muqimyar competed in the 100 metre race wearing a hijab.

In the summer of 2008 British singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) became a high-profile victim of false accusations regarding "veiled women." He won libel damages and an apology from a news agency after it reported erroneously that he had refused to talk to non-veiled women at an awards ceremony. [2]

Islam, 59, is best known for a string of 60s and 70s hits such as "Moonshadow." He changed his name after becoming a Muslim during the late 1970s. He said he plans to donate the "substantial" libel payout to Small Kindness, a UN-linked charity he chairs.

When interviewed by Reuters about the court case brought by Islam against World Entertainment News Network, Islam’s lawyer Alam Tudor described the article as suggesting that the singer was "so sexist and bigoted that he refused at an awards ceremony to speak to or even acknowledge any women who were not wearing a veil." Tudor said the article had embarrassed the singer, creating a false impression of his attitude to women and also casting serious aspersions against his religious faith.

As in any culture, however, some Muslim women do fall victim to domestic violence, despite the volume of teachings by the Prophet that condemn spousal abuse. Instead of studying the problem within in the broader context of violence against women, Islamophobes cling to a narrow interpretation of isolated and out-of-context Qur’an verses, which supposedly show a correlation between domestic violence and Islamic teaching. This counterproductive practice, known as proof-texting, is an ongoing problem for Christianity as well; it applies to any self-proclaimed religious expert who attempts to justify an opinion based on partial and/or misleading "proof."

Deeper study and understanding will show that Islam actually gave women more rights from its inception than either Judaism or Christianity. Islam, for example, treated women and men as equal life-partners. None of the demeaning, restrictive or judgmental teachings about women found in the Jewish Torah or Christian Bible (both Old and New Testaments) appear in the Qur’an.

A Jewish woman, for example, cannot remarry unless her divorcing husband gives her permission. St. Paul taught that a woman has no "head" (i.e. identity or personal authority) of her own, but that her husband is her head as much as she is his body. In 1st Timothy 2:12-14, Paul writes: "I do not allow women to teach or to have authority over men. They must keep quiet. For Adam was created first and then Eve. And it was not Adam who deceived. It was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law."

Renowned Christian theologian, Prof. Rosemary Radford Reuther, notes: "Traditional Christianity adopted this reading of the Fall story, in which Eve was the primary guilty partner in causing historic evil in the world… Woman’s subordinate status, therefore, not only reflects her original inferior nature but also is a just punishment for her guilt in causing evil to come into the world, thereby leading to the death of Christ. Far from saving her, the death of Christ only deepens her guilt, while it absolves the male of his faith and allows him to represent the male saviour." [3]

The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, echoed the same tradition as St. Paul whose theology he most admired: "The wife was made subject to the man by the Law which was given after sin … The rule remains with the husband and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages war, defends his possessions, tills the soil, plants, builds, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home …" Ironically, Luther’s own wife (a former nun) was an accomplished businesswoman, musician, scholar and mother!

Prof. Reuther comments further; "Grumbling by women about this status or their efforts to change it represent for Luther a wrongheaded effort to revolt against a punishment that they must be forced to accept and bear as an expression of their sinful status … The story is no better for women when told by John Calvin."

Confronted by centuries of Catholic and Protestant teachings filled with judgmental — or at best, ambiguous — attitudes toward women, one cannot blame Muslims for being both confused and skeptical about the message of Christianity. This kind of anti-feminist theology is totally alien o Islam.

Prof. Reuther explains that: "… the Council of Toledo in AD 400 decreed that if a wife of the clergy transgresses his commands, the husband may beat the wife, keep her bound in their house, and force her to fast but ‘not unto death’." She adds that canon (church) law gives a cleric the "right to beat his wife harder than does the ordinary man … Most customary and town law in the medieval and Renaissance periods gave husbands the right to beat their wives, although it was usually said that they should do so ‘reasonably’ or ‘moderately’."

For the past 1400 years, no such laws or practices have been decreed or sanctioned in any Muslim country.

Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam said that, based on her lifelong experience as a feminist, "women do not need liberating from Islam but from ubiquitous male chauvinist fear." [4] In the process of studying Islam and its beliefs, she re-examined the liberal tradition of her Western Christian upbringing and "saw its paucity in relation to the rights granted to women by Islam 1400 years ago."

The Qur’an mentions two women – Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the wife of an Egyptian Pharaoh — as models of piety for all humanity, men and women alike. The Qur’an also mentions two other women who should not be emulated by anyone — the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot (66:10-12).

For both genders, the Qur’an explicitly states (in 9:71-72 and 10:62-64, for example) that the entry-way to sainthood was, and still is, open to all. Among the female saints honoured in Islam is Khadija, the first wife and faithful supporter of Prophet Muhammad, as well as the first Muslim (and protector of the fledgling Muslim community), and mother of his children.

Another revered saint is the Prophet’s second wife, Aisha, a scholar who taught an entire generation of male students and who provided political leadership after her husband’s death. And then there is Muhammad’s courageous daughter Fatima, who served in the first Muslim army. More than a century later, Rab’a al-Adawiyya (d.801) was a revered woman saint who inspired a generation of Sufis.

Islam was the first to introduce the legal right of women to inherit a proportional share of a family’s wealth and assets; in some cases, her share would even be more than that of a male relative. Islam was also the first to officially limit the number of wives a man could have to four, but with emphasis on one as the norm. Zina (adultery, or any other sexual misconduct) was pronounced off-limits for men and women alike and both were granted the right to dissolve their marriages. Remarriage was granted to both genders, including divorcées and widows – a right still withheld from many women today. The Islamic dress code for men and women emphasized modesty; in fact, the draped head cover seen in many famous portraits of Jesus’ mother Mary is thought to be very similar to what Muslim women used to wear.

Setting Islamophobic propaganda aside, societies and governments must work together to solve the negatives issues all women face in today’s world.

"Poverty is still very much a women’s issue," asserts Canadian researcher Monica Townson. "While there have been improvements in the past decade or so, women are still more likely than men to be living in low income … But statistics on low income do not tell the full story of women’s poverty.

While governments and advocacy groups redouble their efforts to ‘make poverty history,’ the United Nations has suggested that poverty cannot be eradicated unless we adopt a more comprehensive view of poverty — one that recognizes poverty is more than a shortage of income. As the United Nations describes it, poverty is ‘the denial of opportunities and choices most basic to human development — to lead a long, healthy, creative life and to enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, dignity, self-esteem, and the respect of others’." [5]

Townson is the author of five books, as well as many studies and reports on the economic situation of women. She was Chair of the Ontario Fair Tax Commission, and has been a consultant to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on the economic role of women.

"In Canada at the time of the 2001 Census, based on before-tax incomes, more than 36% of Aboriginal women, compared with 17% of non-Aboriginal women were living in poverty," she noted. "Data from the 2001 Census, based on before-tax incomes in 2000, indicated 29% of visible minority women were living in poverty. While the poverty rate for all foreign-born women was 23%, women who immigrated to Canada between 1991 and 2000 had a poverty rate of 35%. It is perhaps significant that the majority of these women were also from visible minority groups."

"Racism and discrimination almost certainly contribute to high rates of poverty among racialized women," she continues. "Immigrant women may also face difficulties in finding paid employment because credentials from their countries of origin are not recognized in Canada. Access to language training may also be a problem. Many immigrant seniors do not receive Old Age Security benefits because they have not been in Canada long enough to qualify for a benefit."

And "women are much more likely to be poor if they are on their own without a spouse or partner. The depth of poverty of lone-parent mothers is a serious concern. For example, in 2003, the average income of the 208,000 women who were heads of lone parent families was $6,300 below the poverty line … In 2003, the low-income rate for women aged 65 and over was 8.7% compared with 4.4% for senior men. For the past decade, however, the poverty rate of older women on their own has varied between 27% and 19% with no significant downward trend over that period. In 2003, 19% of senior women on their own compared with 15% of unattached older men were considered low income. Average incomes of women aged 65 plus who were on their own and living in poverty in 2003 were $2,300 below the poverty line."

"I find it really outrageous and inconceivable to watch this fierce campaign rallying in ‘defence’ of ‘our rights,’ the rights of Muslim women," wrote Nahida Izzat, articulating what many Muslim women feel and want to say. [6]

Izzat, a 47-year-old mother, describes herself as "… a Jerusalem-born Palestinian refugee living in exile for over 40 years. I was forced to leave my homeland, Palestine, at the age of seven during the six-day war. I am a mathematician by profession, but art is one of my favourite pastimes; I love hand-made things, so I make dolls, cards, and most of my own clothes.

"What disturbs and frustrates me about this impious movement," she continues, "is the fact that those who are holding the banner of our ‘liberation’ are precisely the ones whose hands are dripping with our blood, the blood of Muslim women! Wouldn’t it be a good idea if they stop killing us first (in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine with the imminent threat to Iran)? I mean, honestly, at least their hideous and bogus calls might gain some legitimacy and credibility then.

"Wouldn’t it be a good idea if they could spare us their fake concern, and their crocodile tears, weeping over our state of affairs and act honestly for once, by stopping their genocide against us, and by washing our blood off their hands? This shrieking and fussing calling for our liberation from the ‘oppression’ and ‘dominance’ of Islam is not innocent; it’s rather sinister and disturbing…"


[1]. http://www.reuters.com/article/world

[2]. http://www.reuters.com/article/oddly

[3]. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Editors, "Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse," The Pilgrim Press, 1989.

[4]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/

[5]. http://www.swc-cfc.gc.ca/resources/

[6]. http://poetryforpalestine.spaces.live.com/