Culture vs. Religion: Women in Islam

A common misconception of the Muslim woman is the woman who is not allowed to drive, wears a burqa and virtually has no rights. This is not only a close-minded assumption but it does not represent the values and traditions of the vast majority of different cultures that practice Islam. Islam is the most widespread monotheistic religion in the world. According to Pew Research Center, in 2010 there were 1.7 billion people following Islam. Islam is practiced from the Middle East, Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa to the Asian Pacific, North America and a bit of Latin America, virtually all inhabited continents across the globe. As a result, the women who live in these different regions undergo cultural practices that may not be reflective of the true nature of Islam.

While extreme Wahhabist Islamist government regimes may preach that harsh laws preventing women from basic rights are encouraged by the Quran, what it really comes down to is one’s interpretation of the text. The Quran outlines one of the most egalitarian world-views, more so than any other monotheistic religion. There are multiple excerpts from the Quran that proclaim equality for the sexes: “I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other” (3:195), or “As for those who lead a righteous life, male or female, while believing, they enter Paradise; without the slightest injustice” (4:124). Spiritually, women and men are equal in the eyes of God. Laws that prevent women from driving, from wearing anything other than a burqa, from owning their own property, while seen as the stereotypical Muslim practice, is actually only central to extreme Islamist governments such as Saudi Arabia and the Taliban. The mainstream media perpetuates these stereotypes by highlighting only the “extremist” countries when talking in regard to Islam. In the Quran, women are able to own land as well as keep their maiden name. The practices enforced by the Taliban or the Saudi Arabian governments are deeply rooted in misogyny as well as patriarchal values that do not represent Islam as a whole. To equate the two would be simply wrong and misinformed.

The hijab can be seen as a symbol of oppression, but is in essence incredibly empowering to those who wear it. The hijab represents choice for women. It represents choice to pick who gets to see underneath the hijab and choice of when to channel sexuality. Women who wear the hijab in Western countries regress from media and social pressure. The hijab or burqa, more commonly, is enforced in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the hijab is encouraged throughout the Quran, the Quran does not support using force or coercion into abiding by religious laws. Therefore, while forcing a woman to wear a hijab in these countries is wrong, a woman who does wear one by free will is not. Mainstream media perpetuates the stereotype that a strong, empowered woman cannot also be conservative and wear a hijab by choice. On the contrary, empowerment can come both from promiscuity as well as dressing modestly. That is, empowerment for a woman can come from both wearing revealing clothing as well as wearing conservative clothing. As Westerners, we cannot disregard cultures while trying to empower women. From an intersectional feminist viewpoint, sexual empowerment comes from having control over one’s body. For some, that may mean being sexually promiscuous and for others it is being sexually conservative. Both are equally feminist actions.

Another misconception is that a daughter born in a Muslim household has less “value” and the family is eager to marry her off. In pre-Islamic days, infanticide was very common throughout the Arabic Peninsula. However, according to the Prophet Muhammad, “Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, Allah will enter him into Paradise”. Not only is infanticide outlawed in the Quran, but also the Quran encourages equal treatment between sons and daughters and support for daughters. The Quran also criticizes families that are saddened by the birth of a baby girl instead of a boy (16:58).

In the recent political atmosphere, Islam has been misconstrued and manipulated to mean a religion imbedded in hate, violence and terror. In reality, Islam is a religion with roots in equality, peace and love. All Muslims should not be subjugated to simple generalizations because of the actions of some extreme governments or groups. Especially in a time of Third Wave Feminism, feminism should absolutely take into account different cultures and ways of empowerment for different women. The feminism we fight for should encompass all women, not just the privileged majority. Educating ourselves on different cultures and practices will help us develop a perspective that helps those around us and does their culture justice. As Muslim women currently living in the Western world, it’s pertinent for us to stick by our Muslim sisters whose cultures we may not totally understand. Likewise, as Westerners we must be open to dissecting problems within a cultural lens.