Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reevaluating Oppression

There is an incorrect stereotype held by many in the United States that all Muslim women throughout the world are oppressed. This belief is often further perpetrated by the fact that it is challenging to find any female Muslim characters in American main-stream media that are not portrayed as victims. Without an accurate portrayal of what it means to be a Muslim woman, these stereotypes will continue to occupy the American psyche and be cited as a legitimate validation for going to war against Muslim nations.

Evangelist Franklin Graham was recently un-invited from the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer service after complaints from Muslim members of the military that his comments on Islam were divisive and inappropriate. Graham is on the record as saying, "I love the people of Islam but their religion, I do not agree with their religion at all. And if you look at what the religion does just to women, women alone, it is just horrid. And so yes, I speak out for women. I speak out for people that live under Islam, that are enslaved by Islam and I want them to know that they can be free." Statements such as these by religious authority figures send the wrong message not only about Islam, but that all Muslim women, regardless of culture or nation, are homogeneous. The Muslim community across the globe is so incredibly diverse, that it is absolutely impossible to make vast generalizations that will hold true for all Muslim women everywhere.

There is a huge difference between what it means to be a Muslim woman in Somalia, for example, under the rule of the Islamic militant organization, al-Shabaab, and a female Muslim living in America or some other stable country. Islam, itself, has deeply rooted beliefs in equality between the genders, but some groups, like al-Shabaab, misrepresent or misinterpret their religion. As noted in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “Many local al-Shabaab authorities devote extraordinary energy to policing the personal lives of women and preventing any mingling of the sexes.” Such actions have led to numerous cases of beating, flogging, and/or jailing of women. HRW interviewed women who were beaten for interacting with male non-relatives while simply trying to support their families by selling tea in public. HRW also documented the case of a woman who was beaten for running out of her home after her toddler without properly covering herself. While al-Shabaab may believe that they are acting in the name of religion, they do not represent the majority view of how Muslim women should be treated. There is an important difference between what members of a particular group or culture sanction for women and what the Quran actually says about the fair treatment of women.

Although Sharia law is widely portrayed in Western media to be a negative and archaic system, a 2005 Gallup World Poll conducted on Muslim societies found that the majority of Muslim women associate equal rights for women with Sharia compliance. In fact, throughout the 20th Century, Muslim women had fewer social restrictions under Sharia law than under Western legal systems. In many former British colonies, women, who had previously had the right to land ownership under Sharia law, lost those rights under British rule.

In a recent interview on Chicago Public Radio, Dalia Mogahed, the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, presented an alternative view on Sharia law and how it can benefit the lives of women. She noted that many negative “practices or laws that were done in the name of Islam are being repealed and questioned, not through secularization, but through a more analytical look at their basis in Sharia by using Sharia to…oppose anti-woman practices.” To prove her point, Mogahed cited a case in Pakistan, where Sharia analysis led to the repealing of a law that punished women for being raped.

In presenting the results of the 2005 Gallup World Poll that inspired her book, Mogahed noted that both Muslim men and women believe that women deserve equal rights in society including equal voting rights, the right to any career that the women qualifies for, and the right for women to be leaders in government. Although this may confuse and challenge those who believe that Muslim women are oppressed, it is important to see the advances that Muslim women are making throughout the world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women now account for 60% of university students and growing part of the work force. Additionally, debate is beginning to stir regarding the ban on women drivers. In Iran, women took to the streets last summer to protest disputed elections in ways and numbers that Iran has not seen in years. Throughout the world women are making themselves heard and accounted for in new and different ways that both challenge the status quo and help women to reassert the rights provided to them in the Quran.

To this day, women in the United States are still struggling for equality. Women only make 80 cents for every dollar that a man earns. Even in the female majority profession of nursing, a male nurse makes more money that a female nurse. American women have come a long way in the past 100 years, especially since the 1970’s, and, as a result, Americans should understand that achieving equality in the social sphere is sometimes a difficult and challenging process that takes time, but is worth the struggle.

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