The western perception of Muslim women is often contradictory. Although generally pitied as objects of oppression, visibly Muslim women also bear the brunt of anti-Islam sentiment. Last week two Australian Muslim women, Randa Abdel-Fattah, and Anne Azza-Aly appeared on ABC’s Q&A and expertly cut through many of the myths and distortions surrounding Islam and terrorism. As the tension mounts in the wake of Australia’s recent “terror raids”,I enlisted the help of Randa, a former lawyer and current PhD student, and Anne, a counter-terrorist researcher, in order to dismantle some of the common myths around Muslim women.
Myth: Muslim women are all oppressed
The assumption that all Muslim women are oppressed owes much to Islamic dress requirements (hijab). While the Quran calls for both men and women to be “modest,” in practice it is primarily women’s dress that is policed, and the various denominations have differing interpretations of what this means. While women belonging to the small Alawite sect stopped wearing any form of hijab in the 1960s, Sunni Islam (which encompasses Salafism, by far the strictest interpretation), has seen a trend towards ever-more conservative dress, with more and more women covering their face as well as hair.
It should go without saying that any woman who is forced, whether by the state or her own family, to wear the burqa or headscarf is indeed oppressed. Nonetheless, many Muslim women do choose to veil of their own volition. That this choice is required only of women does lead to legitimate questions of whether such a choice can actually be free. However, Randa cautions that, “We are all subject to the influence of certain norms and expectations about how we dress, behave, express ourselves…I don’t think much of any of our decisions are completely ‘free’ whether we wear hijab or don’t, whether we are religious or not.”
In other words, all of our choices are limited by the patriarchal society we live in. The perception that all Muslim women are subjugated is linked to the mistaken belief that the liberation of women in the west is complete. However, the idea that women’s bodies exist largely as sexual objects is just as entrenched in the west as it is Muslim societies, the difference is that Muslim women are called upon to conceal their sexuality whilst western women are encouraged to exploit it.
Overturning these systems of oppression is not as simple as banning certain items of clothing. Just as western women took the reigns of their liberation into their own hands, so too must those Muslim women who feel constrained by their culture. Anne says one way for Muslim women to do this is “to start a discourse on the niqab (burqa) that takes it away from the question of rights and looks into the political symbolism of it and the religious interpretations.” Ironically, the more the west fixates on the burqa and attempts to dictate what Muslim women should wear, which only serves to put Muslims on the defensive, the more Muslim woman are actually denied the opportunity to have this conversation.
Myth: Muslim women are (or should be) uneducated.
While anyone who saw last weeks’ Q&A would know that Randa and Anne put paid to this notion, the perception that Islam itself frowns on women’s education is fanned by the hostility towards women’s education in some Muslim nations.
“It is a travesty that Muslim majority countries have forgotten or chosen to ignore the rich history of Islamic jurisprudence which featured at the centre- not in the periphery- so many amazing Muslim women,” says Randa, “There is a huge gap between Islamic doctrine, our history and what we see today.”
Indeed, the world’s oldest university was founded by a Muslim woman in the 9th century, and today, Muslim women are working tirelessly to ensure women have access to education. This includes, of course, Malala Yousafzai, but also women like Sakeena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute for Learning, which began surreptitiously educating girls under the Taliban in the 1990s.
The sad truth is, misogynistic fundamentalists deny women (and some men) their education simply because it makes it all the easier to oppress them. This, however, far from being sanctioned by Islamic doctrine, is actually in opposition to it: the first words in the Quran are, “Read. Read in the name of your Lord.”
Myth: Muslim women are a security risk
When Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi used the recent “terror raids” to once again call for a ban on the burqa, he was quickly joined by PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie, with both claiming the veil is a security risk.
Anne says that while some Arab countries have indeed banned the burqa for security reasons, Australia has “not had any incidences to warrant a level of concern.” Furthermore, “there are some very high level fatwa’s (religious decrees) that dictate that the niqab (burqa) should be removed in circumstances that require identification for security or medical purposes. So religiously there is already an avenue for mitigating risks associated with wearing face coverings.”
The upshot is, there is no point blaming women for terrorist activity perpetrated primarily by men. “There is no proven relationship between terrorism and niqab wearing,” Anne says. “It really is a non-issue.”
Myth: Muslim women are inferior to men
Growing up as an Alawite Muslim, I certainly felt my brothers were given preferential treatment. However, I also recall that the reasons (or excuses), given by my parents were more related to status and reputation than religion, including the all-too familiar refrain, But we can’t let you go out! What will people say?
There is a fine line between culture and religion. My friend Sofia, a university lecturer, says that religion is culture, and that regarding it as a separate phenomenon only obscures the reality – that human societies shape and modify religion according to their own peculiarities and practices (which is indeed what we are seeing with modern terrorist groups).
But that doesn’t change the fact that the often-abhorrent treatment of women in Muslim societies is largely at odds both with Islamic history and with what is written in the Quran. Whilst I view Islam through a secular rather than spiritual lens, for Randa, every day is “a struggle to reconcile my deep conviction in, and devotion to, the Islamic faith with the sickening reports of abuses of many women in the name of Islam.”
However, she adds, “Not for a moment do I think that the oppression and brutality directed against women stem from sincerely held religious beliefs. Whether it is targeting girls who seek an education in Afghanistan or treating women like second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia, the fact is that the oppression of women is essentially about coveting power and dominating women.”
For all their differences, the underpinnings of both Muslim and western societies are fundamentally the same, for each is built on the shaky foundation of patriarchy. As much as we like to blame religion for much of the world’s ills, the truth is, much of what we recognise as religious oppression is actually cultural misogyny.
On that note, I’ll leave the last word to Randa, who calls for, “A kind of radical surgery in Muslim countries in order to remove the festering, diseased pustule of patriarchy that attempts to define one half of society as walking sex organs…This would entail promoting theologically grounded arguments that would empower women to make dignified choices based on their own religious tradition.”