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The deconstruction of the myth of the "oppresses Muslim women"

By Zahra Seif-Amirhosseini

The situation of Muslim women is often treated as if their condition was a direct consequence of their "Muslimness". The socio-economic and political milieu is not considered. The position of women in Islam can not be considered in a vacuum, it must be placed within socio-political and historic framework. One can not consider social change outside of the world/global context. In order to understand the role of women within the family, for example, it is necessary to examine economic development and political change-which in turn are affected by regional and global development. For Europe the memory of the fear of the advance of the Ottoman Empire as far as Hungary is not so distant. The early part of the 20th century saw the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and by the mid 20th century most urban Muslims could not but be aware of the westernization of much of their daily life. 

Veiling & Segregation

The question of the position of Muslim women must be placed within this overall schema and can not be considered as an independent entity. It would be wrong to consider the whole of the historic development of the Muslim world in terms of the challenges of the western world. One, can not, however, overlook the global impact of the west. The evaluation of the west and western civilisation has become a necessary component of the recent Islamists movements. During the 18th century the west as a conceptual entity played little or no role in the thinking of the leaders of the Islamists movements

Veiling and segregation of women in Islamic countries are seen as the two most obvious symbols of women's oppression and male dominance. The refusal to give up these "backward", "unmodern", "uncivilised" customs may be, alternatively viewed as the refusal to part with ones own cultural identity. The maintenance of one's own identity instead of making oneself over in the form desired and accepted by another. If we consider the concept of clothing in its global context, it is obviously divers. Clothing only becomes "problematic" when it serves as a political symbol, the outward manifestation of an ideology. In the 20th century the wearing of the veil has become highly politicised, a means of reaffirming identities. 

The Iranian Revolution is a prime example, a lot of women who did not previously put on the chaddor began to wear it to show their support for the revolution and rejection of western ideals. It is interesting to note that in Iran today the loose wearing of the veil by women is used to illustrate their opposition to the regime. This point clearly demonstrates the politicisation of Islamic principles to suit the particular needs of particular times. 

During the Algerian struggle for independence, the use of the veil, modesty and segregation of women were attributed to religion and "magical, fanatic" behaviour by the colonisers. The wearing of the veil as the assertion of a distinctive identity, concerned with keeping intact the few shreds of national identity. It was precisely because the colonisers were so intent on removing the veil, that it became a mechanism of resistant. So far we have dealt with Islam as it is socially and politically manifested. 

Is Islam inherently oppressive?

The question which still remains is; "is Islam inherently oppressive to women? What are the Islamic teachings concerning women? Is there consistency or contradiction between Islamic teachings and its manifested reality? 

We would argue that there is definitely contradiction. Many of the rights of women stated in the Qur'an are not fulfilled in reality, mainly due to the inherent patriarchal structures, which throughout time have come to take on an Islamic guise. The denial of the intrinsic rights of women in many Islamic countries is argued by some scholars as being a consequential effect of suppressive cultural traditions. Tradition which do not have Islamic roots but rather pre-Islamic ones, which are established within and thrive through the following factors:

1) The oppression of society as a whole, (as discussed earlier) and the double oppression of women.

2) Lack of substantial funds directed at "Grassroots" educational programs which are sensitive to the particular needs of women. 

3) The inaccessibility to unbiased centres of doctrinal and spiritual education for women.

4) The formation of "extra-Qur'anic" gender-roles, due to the lack of education, i.e.: Gender roles derived from cultural traditions, rather than Qur'anic teachings.

5) The perpetuation of these gender-roles within the family. 

6) The acceptance of the" given" gender-identity, and its consequential outcome for women: Lack of education, illiteracy, lack of political representation, economic dependency, and violence, to name but a few.

Qura'nic teaching

So what are the Qur'anic teaching concerning women? The interpretations on women can be divided into three basic categories:

1) Those who argue that according to the Qur'an women are equal but have socially different roles to men, which are view as prescribed and defined by the Qur'anic teachings. The primarily role of the women is motherhood and the raising of children. Her domain is the domestic sphere, which is "best suited" to her nature. The man's domain is the public realm, as the provider. It is argued that although spiritually there is no difference between the sexes, socially man is a "degree" above woman.

2) The new interpretations offered by Muslim women scholars, such as Amina Wadud-Muhsin. Muhsin argues that the Qur'an does not support a specific stereotype role for its characters, male or female. Many popular and dominant ideas about the role of women do not have sanctions from the Qur'an, pointing these out , causes problems not so much with the logical analysis of the texts, but within the application of these ideas in the context in which Muslim societies operate. There is no inherent value placed on man and woman, there is no arbitrary preordained and eternal system of hierarchy. 

The Qur'an does not strictly delineate the role of women and the role of men to such an extent as to propose only a single possible outcome for each gender. In the Qur'an, there is no indication that mothering is theo nly exclusive role of women. Respect is given to the female procreator and to the function of childbearing, this does not, however, mean that women must only be mothers.

3) A Gnostic interpretation of gender roles, which is concerned with a higher reality and the essence of Islam, such as one offered by Seyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr views the difference between the sexes as not reducible to anatomy or biology, but in terms of a microcosmic reflection of a higher reality. The duality of the sexes is the earthly representation of the dual principles of the Divine Nature. Namely, the principle of Absolute Majesty and Infinite Beauty. Man is the representative of the principle of Majesty and women of Beauty. The relationship between the sexes is not hierarchical but rather mutually interdependent. It is through the unity of these two aspects that one attains inner contentment. Hence the saying that marriage is half of Islam. 

In Islam sexuality is seen as a means of perfecting the human state and on the highest level a symbol of the union with God. Love between the sexes is seen as inseparable from the love of God. It is precisely because of this that the theme of love as realised gnosis, dominates Islamic spirituality. God is symbolised inters of the Beloved and the female as the precious being that is the keeper of the inner paradise, which is hidden from man as a result of the loss of the "eye of heart". Female beauty can aid man to return to the centre once again, to inner peace, which is inseparable from the name "al-Islam", meaning peace. 

It is interesting to note that Nasr offers a alternative interpretation of "Modern", in terms of that which is cut off from the Transcendent, it is all that is divorced and cut off from the Divine source. 

The need for educational programmes

For far too long Muslim women have argued that Islam per se is not patriarchal but rather it is the male-dominated religious institutions, which have presented a negative and inherently patriarchal interpretation of Islam, and have called for a process of 'reinterpretation'. The time has come to take this argument a step further and not only ask why is it that the legal status and social position of women in the Muslim world is worse than anywhere else in view. Muslim countries of the Middle East and South East Asia have a distinct gender disparity in literacy and education, as well as low rates of female labour force participation. 

In 1980 the proportion of women to men in paid labour force was lowest in the Middle East, only 29%, though not far behind Latin America. High fertility rate, low literacy and low labour force participation are commonly linked to the low status of women, which in turn is often attributed to the prevalence of Islam in the Middle East. This can not be explained purely in terms of Islamic theology and jurisprudence as the major determinant of women's status. Wider socio-political issues need to be primary addressed, and fundamental obstacles need to be removed and this can not only be achieved through higher access, not only to formal education, but to grass-roots education. There is a need for grass roots educational programmes, which encompasses both doctrinal and specialised learning, targeted at those women who may have little or no access to formal educational opportunities as wellas those who do, in order to over come cultural prejudices which stand in their way.


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