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Islamic Feminism is Alive and Well- Part II

 

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Many Muslim women are finding that religious affiliation is often more freeing than restricting. A woman wearing hijab, modest dress, is able to move more easily in crowded streets and can expect respect rather than harassment in the work place.

As more and more Muslim women become religiously identified and objects of public respect more than sexual desire that is changing. Islamic dress also carries authority with it- I have certainly noticed both in the Middle East and in the UK, that I am afforded much greater respect since wearing hijab than I ever was before by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

A growing group of highly educated, religious women see themselves as engaged in a new effort to use their education to, as they say, look deep into the spirit of the Koran and find there the gender justice they believe was the original intent of the Prophet Mohammed. Hundreds of women's groups -- with more than 300 in Cairo alone -- have sprung up all over the Middle East. They have been formed not only as secular consciousness-raising groups, but also as Koranic study groups. Thus women have become today not only the subjects of intense religious debate, but also participants in that discourse. In the past, men interpreted the Koranic verses and the hadiths that described women's rights. Women themselves are now arguing for new evaluations of those older interpretations -- and supporting their arguments with evidence from the sacred texts.

These new movements differ from earlier Middle Eastern women's movements because they cross class lines. Further, they must be seen in the background of other developments in Middle Eastern society in the past 50 years. The new nationalist governments that came to power after the end of European colonial rule made many promises: equal access to education and health care for men and women, land and judicial reform, industrialization. Though not all promises have been fulfilled, most countries have made great strides in education. From a tiny minority of elite men and women in school before the 1950s, the number of men and women receiving primary, secondary and post-secondary education has jumped enormously. In Egypt, which has a literacy rate of 50 percent, half the students in universities are women- which is as it should be. According to UNESCO comparative surveys, in 1959 in Morocco, three years after independence, only 2,500 men and women were enrolled in university programs. By 1997 the total was more than 250,000 students; half were women. In Saudi Arabia, literacy rates for women have climbed from two percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 1990.

The transformation of the Middle East economy from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial has meant that most families need two incomes to survive. Thus, for the first time, women have entered the labour force, not to take "creatively fulfilling jobs," but to put bread on the table. In 1973 studies showed that only 7 percent of Middle Eastern women worked outside the home. Today, that figure is nearly 30 percent. And official statistics do not include women who work part-time, domestic workers, nannies or seasonal agricultural laborers. The new Middle Eastern woman can be found in almost every arena: education, economics, the media, hospitals, factories, the courts, banks and industrial complexes. One of the newest representatives to OPEC is Kuwaiti Siham Rizouki, who was elected chairman for 1998. And although some countries still do not allow women to serve as judges, 20 percent of all judges in Morocco are women, more than in the U.S. Egyptian Heba Handoussa, an economist, heads the powerful Economic Forum of the Middle East and North Africa.

What if we don't want to be "like the West"? What do we, as Middle Eastern women, want? Equal pay for equal work is the law in many Middle Eastern countries, though it is not always implemented. Egyptian factories employing more than 100 women are required to provide free childcare. Maternity leave, which is justified as better for the family, is taken for granted in professional jobs. Abortion is more or less accepted, if it is seen as better for the family or for the mother. Middle Eastern women do not seem interested in destroying the family structure, but they do want to equalize their position in it. Hence the call for equal access to divorce, equal access to child custody, equal inheritance and an end to polygamy. These issues are seldom discussed publicly in Saudi Arabia, but Moroccan women campaigned successfully in 1994 to partially improve child custody laws. In the past, custody automatically went to fathers, but now mothers receive custody, at least until they remarry.

Women in Egypt recently celebrated a great triumph: the passage by the People's Assembly of khula, or consensual divorce. Women are now free to ask for and get a divorce if they are willing to return their dowries; the law was justified on religious grounds.

"The khula right is undoubtedly provided in the Islamic sharia. It is mentioned explicitly in Quran and sunna," said Muhammad Hakashi, a leading scholar at Dar al Ifta, the official body which issues religious decisions (fatwas) in cooperation with Al-Azhar University, the Islamic institution that helps define the laws of public morality in Egypt. My friends in the religious women's groups who supported the move said that the right had been in Islamic law all along, but they had to point it out to the men.

Western feminists may rightly ask about the incidence of honour crimes (whereby a brother may kill a sister who has committed adultery to uphold the family honour), female genital mutilation and the total suppression of women by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. It is important to note that these practices are based on local social mores, rather than on Islam. The difference today, I believe, is that women are no longer content to accept the status quo or worse, but are actively taking steps against these crimes. Women's groups in Eqypt and the Sudan are fighting against genital mutilation, and have won some victories. For example, a joint effort by Muslim and Coptic women has helped end the practice in Upper Eqypt. Rana Hussaini, a Jordanian women's activist, heads a task force seeking to reform laws governing honor crimes in her country. Women's non-governmental organizations across the Muslim world are battling for better lives for women and children. Organizations such as Mara al Jadida in Egypt are fighting domestic violence, while women-run orphanages and adoption agencies in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are dealing with the growing numbers of abandoned children. Other groups, such as Parsa Kabul, an NGO based in Kabul with an office in the U.S., are quietly sending aid to the isolated women of Afghanistan.

Certainly, women of any society will see women of another society through the prison of their own values and stereotypes.

Posted by Arima at 11:10 AM  

10 comments:

olching said...

Interesting bit about respect and sexual harrasment. However, I suggest that the perceived respect that women encounter in the UK when wearing a hijab (and similar) is not so much respect, but division. As a non-Muslim male in the UK I find it very difficult to talk to women who are covered in a religious-symbolic way. For instance, I don't mind just talking to people on the train. If I am sitting next to a woman wearing a hijab, I am far less likely to strike up a conversation (this has, of course, nothing to do with sexual advances etc, just simple conversation). So the respect, which the article talks about is really just a sign of distance and division.

Two other questions arise (note the difference in stress):

Why
should women dress modestly?

and

Why should
women dress modestly?

It suggests either that women are naturally predisposed towards being sluts or that men are latent rapists (or indeed a bit of both). Personally, I find both suggestions offensive.

Now, as far as sexual harassment at work etc is concerned. Fine. I can see a point there. But, it kind of suggests that Muslim societies have a better record of sexual harassment (or rather less of it). This is of course nonsense. The fact that women are to some extent expected to cover themselves is in itself a form of sexual harassment (or at the very least sexual discrimination).

I also find the dichotomy of western women/society = sexually promiscuous and Muslim women/society = chaste slightly bonkers. It glosses over the very nature of sexual discrimination of Muslim societies and over the rape etc which goes in both east and west.

So much from me for now.

5/18/2008 12:55 PM Wassim said...

Olching,
If Arima would allow me, I would propose an answer to you on her blog. In answer of both your questions, in fact it is not just women who should dress modestly but also men. Form revealing clothes and anything which defines the person as a sexual being is kept only for people who are married to each other. It is not the business of anyone, nor the place, for them to flaunt it outside of this sphere.That at least is the philosophy behind womens, and what should be, mens dress. This is not necessarily a Muslim approach, but also one which has been in place in Judaism as well as Christianity.

That Western (as well as Arab or (allegedly) Muslim) societies have, because of extenuating circumstances, forgotten, or chosen to ignore, sexual ettiquette is unfortunate (as can be seen in your labelling of it as sexual harrassment in itself) but not irreversible. I think I've answered your second question though.

As for your first, by use of the word modest, you accept the implication that there is a standard or form called immodest. Your emphasis on why, in that case women, should dress modestly implies you understand there is immodest as well, and that for some reason, that state has negative connotations. So your question is really "Why should "anyone" dress modestly?"

Well that's a different question and one which I imagine Western post modern thought, as well as skepticism, would give a far from satisfying answer - at least that's what I hope you'd consider it as. My answer is, I don't know, and haven't got the time to investigate that fully, but I'm happy to assume that such a question had been answered more than satisfactorily with the first human communities. For myself, I'm happy with accepting that to dress modestly is a good thing and I see such a question as a non-starter for whatever you have in mind. Good luck! 

5/19/2008 12:05 AM Wassim said...

Olching,
If Arima would allow me, I would propose an answer to you on her blog. In answer of both your questions, in fact it is not just women who should dress modestly but also men. Form revealing clothes and anything which defines the person as a sexual being is kept only for people who are married to each other. It is not the business of anyone, nor the place, for them to flaunt it outside of this sphere.That at least is the philosophy behind womens, and what should be, mens dress. This is not necessarily a Muslim approach, but also one which has been in place in Judaism as well as Christianity.

That Western (as well as Arab or (allegedly) Muslim) societies have, because of extenuating circumstances, forgotten, or chosen to ignore, sexual ettiquette is unfortunate (as can be seen in your labelling of it as sexual harrassment in itself) but not irreversible. I think I've answered your second question though.

As for your first, by use of the word modest, you accept the implication that there is a standard or form called immodest. Your emphasis on why, in that case women, should dress modestly implies you understand there is immodest as well, and that for some reason, that state has negative connotations. So your question is really "Why should "anyone" dress modestly?"

Well that's a different question and one which I imagine Western post modern thought, as well as skepticism, would give a far from satisfying answer - at least that's what I hope you'd consider it as. My answer is, I don't know, and haven't got the time to investigate that fully, but I'm happy to assume that such a question had been answered more than satisfactorily with the first human communities. For myself, I'm happy with accepting that to dress modestly is a good thing and I see such a question as a non-starter for whatever you have in mind. Good luck!

5/19/2008 12:05 AM Zeynab said...

Great post!
I hope you don't mind if we link to them both for our Friday links?

5/19/2008 8:18 AM Amre El-Abyad said...

Great post, However I have some reservations on them.

First using the word Middle-East at this particular historical Juncture when the criminal Iranians, Americans and Israelians are doing their best to alter the identity of the region.

It would have been better if you used the term Arab feminism instead of Islamic or Middle eastern one.

Who do we have in the Middle East aprt of Arabs???? Israelian colonisers and Iranian enemies who are lauching a massive campaiogn to de-Arabise Iraq. And it is not just about governments, but rather people.


And objectively speaking Iranians are not part of the Middle-East they belong to the Indian civilisation sphere

For instance, you attracted that Arab hater black hearted grudgy Zeynab from that site " Musliamh media watch"

I could send you a private email exchange with her, where she expressed openly her hatred and jealousy from her Arab masters and tutors.

In all of her links she focuses on Iraqi suicidals, Saudi Arabism chauvinism but never comes close her criminal medieval country which owes its entire history and exstance to ARABS WHO BROUGH THEM ALPHABET, SCIENSE, CIVILISATION AND LETTERS. EVEN their totally insignificant and unorignal ancient ( I dont know wherther it is corrrect to use the word ancient, because comapred to Arab Iraq or Arab Egypt, those Iranians are very modern adverse phenonmenon).


And when I try tp post comment discussing objectively the biases in her posts. She rejects them.

However the persian creature has got no qualms whatsever or even shame to come by an Arab blog after all the crimes and blood shedding they are commiting in Iraq.


And trust me it is not just about govenmnets..they are all like this it is a part of their culture.

However their DIRTY TAQUIYAH CULTURE prevents them from expressing thebselves with integrity untill the time is right for to spit their venom. lIke twhat they are doing in Iraq

5/19/2008 12:37 PM Arima said...

Thank you for your comment Wassim, it was really well thought out and answered Olching's questions much more articulately than I could have done :)
I would like to put my agreement behind that it is NOT just women that should be modest, this also should include men and why should people be modest...well this is a matter of belief but personally I can see a number of benefits
-people treating you as a person rather than an object
-a sense of privacy, that there is something private between you and ur significant other
-for me personally it is a personal reminder of the kind of values that I wish to embody rather than anything else.

Another thing, you referred to "the perceived respect that women encounter in the UK when wearing a hijab" that is actually my own addition, like I said the post is edited from Warnock Fernea's and I have also added my own thoughts and experiences. In this regard, I can speak from direct personal experience that I definitely find that I have more respect from those around me. I do not find that people avoid me or do not know how to approach me but to my surprise they treatment exactly as they did before I decided to don Islamic head covering (and no their behavior with me prior was not affected by my skin colour/ racial traits- I am half British and very pale)in fact a few more people than usual come up to talk to me, either asking questions about my origins or faith or just to tell me how nice my scarf looks (I have a very colourful collection).
Admittedly, I don't have many randoms striking up conversations with me on trains, but then I never did before and nor would I particularly like to- I'm usually in my own little world when on the train.
Actually, my experience with starting to wear the hijab made me much more optimistic about religious and cultural integration in the UK, people are much more accepting than I had ever imagined and that is something that is wonderful about the UK and a testament to its multiculturalism. I think maybe the Netherlands takes a much more conservative view to different customs/ cultures than the UK as they do not have such a long history of migration.

5/19/2008 2:04 PM olching said...

Arima, Wassim, thanks for your responses.

First and foremost I did not want to give off the impression that women who choose to wear headscarves are treated differently
per se. It makes no difference to me. The point I was trying to make was to say that women wearing e.g. the hijab are, for me, more difficult to talk to (ok, you don't like being talked to on the train, but you get my drift here).

It creates a sense of otherness and separatness, and I'm aware that to a point this is desirable. But when it separates someone out of society, it should at least be questioned.

To be sure, I'm all in favour of multiculturalism and nothing is more blindingly stupid than for example the ban on headscarves in France. But this doesn't then mean that I ignore the issues that I think arise from this focus on modesty.

Which leads me nicely to my next point: Wassim, you say it's not just about women, but about men too. But I must say, that discourse is completely absent from the public sphere certainly, if not beyond. The focus seems to be always on women. I hate stereotyping and therefore the following image is just designed to reflect some experiences I have had: I have seen on a number of occasions Muslim couples where the man is wearing a football shirt and shorts whereas his wife/spouse/girlfriend is dressed modestly (the most absurd contrast I've seen was just that: Barcelona shirt in front and a woman with a hijab behind). Clearly the focus is on women. Perhaps not in theory (as you outline), but I'm interested in cultural manifestations. Morevoer, women are often seen to be walking at a distance behind the men. How can you say this is an equal address of modesty or gender relations?

Arima, you say "people treating you as a person rather than an object". I would say that by wearing a headscarf women draw attention to their sexuality. It highlights I am desirable therefore I cover myself up (to an extent). I am not saying wear miniskirts and revealing tops (although that's up to each and everyone), but what I'm saying is that modesty dress accentuates precisely the issue of sexuality and desire. It's a public statement of it.

I think both of you make the mistake of setting up a false dichotomy. The choice is not between either being modest or 'flaunting', but it's about being able to say 'I'm a human and want dignity'. I would argue that isn't obtained by 'flaunting' and probably not by making an issue of sexuality by covering it up (covering things up makes people always more curious in all walks of life).

Wassim, I used the word modest as a conventional way of describing religiously symbolic clothes, and yes you are right, it is not at all exclusive to Muslim thought.

Could you also explain what you mean by extenuating circumstances? I'm intrigued.

That's it for now...

5/19/2008 5:46 PM Arima said...

It creates a sense of otherness and separatness, and I'm aware that to a point this is desirable. But when it separates someone out of society, it should at least be questioned.
Hmmmm...Well I think that very much depends on the person and their behaviour. I think anyone who is open and friendly can fit into any society regardless of what he/she looks like or dresses. By contrast you can find people totally alienated from those around them just by their attitude/ behaviour. And that is what it boils down to in the end. ATTITUDES. I freely acknowledge than many members of the Muslim community- Arab, Pakistani or other- have a tendency to mentally ghettoise themselves from their neighbours. That’s to say that they make a point of not mixing with other religions/ races etc. It is this phenomenon which is to blame rather than what one wears per se.
In a previous post of mine I highlight how you can see many extreme forms of dress in the UK and they are usually accepted maybe not as the ‘norm’ but at least as a legitimate part of society- not the ‘other’.
http://je-suis-ici.blogspot.com/2006/10/niqabi-chic.html

Secondly, your point to Wassim regarding male/ female modesty “The focus seems to be always on women. I hate stereotyping.....”
Actually on this point I completely agree with you, it is bad and a gross misinterpretation of the faith. Both men and women are supposed to be modest but somehow these principles get lost in the folds of a patriarchal society. Thus it is society that is at fault rather than the religion. It is an Arab woman’s –Muslim, Christian or Jew- to fight against this misrepresentation which goes against all forms of religion.

“modesty dress accentuates precisely the issue of sexuality and desire. It's a public statement of it”...well that kind of logic could argue that black is white. Black accentuates white and thus is a public statement of it. But seriously, I do think that wear a loose fitting blouse is going to inspire fewer erotic feelings than if a woman wore a clingy t-shirt. And as I said before, for me the issue of the headscarf is more of a reminder to me of my values and concept of modesty than anything else. I definitely do not say that others MUST do it and indeed believe that many women can be modest and excellent practicants of the religion without it needing a physical reminder...some people need a little extra. 

5/19/2008 6:31 PM Amre El-Abyad said...

"I think anyone who is open and friendly can fit into any society regardless of what he/she looks like or dresses. By contrast you can find people totally alienated from those around them just by their attitude/ behaviour. And that is what it boils down to in the end"

That is very good point,I have been living in Europe for 5 years, and I even lived in London for year, and I have to say that I have made dozens of friends all over europe and I get along in every day life despite of being very opn in my Arab nationaliusm, support for Saddam Hussien and contempt for Israelians and Iranians.
The whole thing ultimately goes down to confidence, once you have confidence in yourself, culture, civilisation, upbringong....etc opening up to other cultures and integrating into them will not just be a simple process but also a fun one that provides a pleasure that ticles senses.

It is the pleasure of discovery, novel experiences inflitrating into you being.


One of the main obstacles of integration of Arabs in Europe lies like you have you said in attidude. Secondly, We have monkeys like Ayatollah Khomeini and Ahmadi Najad ( they are monkey in both LOOKS AND CHARACTER) who try by all means to impose themselves on the Arab world

5/20/2008 10:25 AM olching said...

These are all cogent points you put forward, but please step back a moment: I'm afraid to say that a veil can be a sign of separation. Arima, you are assuming that people experience other people regardless of their appearance. That is, at best, wishful thinking. Even non-voluntary appearances (size, height etc...) impact on people's perception. If it is then a religious-symbolic dress, then this clearly has an influence on the way we perceive other people. I'm not sure the experiment has been done before, but a woman were to not wear a veil and then wear a veil, I suspect she'd encounter different experiences.

Of course attitude and personality comes in to it, but there are societal issues, which we cannot simply neglect due to case-by-vase studies.

Again, I want to emphasise that the multicultural aspect is highly welcome. But to pretend there are no difficult issues to address with the hijab (and that's it's all down to those who don't understand it) is of little help I suspect.

Arima, your point about a patriarchal society is entirely valid, but I will suggest that this is inherent in Abrahamic religions. Christianity, Judaism, Islam all infers a system of patriarchy. Such is the nature of the beast.

5/20/2008 1:27 PM

http://je-suis-ici.blogspot.com/2008/05/islamic-feminism-is-alive-and-well-part.html 

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