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Do Muslim women need liberating?

We certainly need more freedom to question our faith without being accused of rejecting it

I attended a session at IslamExpo at the weekend on a topic that keeps coming up: "Do Muslim women need liberating?" I expected that there would be the usual preoccupation with defending the faith and restating that Islam does not oppress women. But I was pleasantly surprised to listen to open criticism of indigenous culture in the Muslim world and a more profound examination of the role Muslim women themselves play in their own oppression.

Merve KavakÁı - the former Turkish politician - claimed the modern evaluation of the situation of Muslim women was inherently biased. She believes there is a Western assumption that Muslim women are subjugated, which is attributed to Islam - a non sequiteur in her view, since while Muslim women do need to be liberated, it is not from the religion but from their indigenous culture. This is a crucial point: it's worth noting, for example, that female circumcision - the biggest stain on Islam's reputation - is predominant in Egypt, a secular country, and virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia. The distinguishing factor is the different cultures in both countries.

She should have been more mindful of the reasons why Islam is seen as
oppressive by non-Muslims - she failed, for instance, to tackle the question of whether the Qur'an and the hadith may have inherent qualities or messages that lend themselves to a male dominant interpretation, a monopoly she herself acknowledged. Women from the very beginning of Islam participated in military combat and were given rights of divorce, alimony and so on, but such scriptural verses which compromise women's credibility in testimony, raise issues surrounding women's inheritance rights in addition to controversial texts in the Qur'an cannot be ignored in any debate about whether Islam subjugates women.

Ironically, Yvonne Ridley defended Islam using her own Western experience as a departure point, declaring herself a lifelong feminist and stating that women do not need liberating from Islam but from ubiquitous male chauvinist fear. Her argument smacked of the stereotypical zeal with which converts to Islam take to the religion. As a cultural defector, 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. Her assertion that the conservatism from which women suffer in the Muslim world is a direct result of colonial times which spawned a male backlash in fear of cultural erosion, may have some truth but is used as a perennial excuse; a type of absolution that does the liberation movement no favours and contradicts her feminist, "men fear women, period" strain of absolution.

More could have been said about the political motivations of the campaign to pigeonhole Muslim women as victims. Maleiha Malik questioned why Muslim communities were not delivering for Muslim women. In her view, Muslim women not only need liberating from other Muslim women who peddle a utopion view of Islam, but from themselves and the internalised ways of living they have adopted. This applies to Muslim women who are told there is only one correct form of Islam and that the hijab is an enforceable obligation rather than a choice. Malik hit the right balance for me: I resent being told by non-Muslims or ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali that I am oppressed, but I also resent being told that I am not oppressed at all by those who urge me to go back to the roots of my faith and find liberation by shedding my Orientalist views and being more understanding of the colonial hangover from which Muslim men suffer.

The difficult question is, if Islamic scripture and heritage provide a healthy paradigm within which to enshrine women's rights, why isn't it happening? I think it's because too few Muslim women probe issues that stem immediately from the Qur'an and the hadith, and fail to ask the more searching and disconcerting questions. We women need freedom to question aspects of our faith without necessarily being accused of rejecting it.

What definitely does not help is trivialising the real and sustained pressure exerted upon young Muslim women by their families. When Yvonne Ridley was asked by a member of the audience whether she viewed the enforcement of the hijab on young girls as justified, she unhelpfully replied "All I can say is that if I had listened to my mother when I was younger, I wouldn't have made half the mistakes that I had made in my lifetime".

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This article was first published on on Monday July 14 2008. It was last updated at 16:51 on July 14 2008.

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