Women’s Rights and Islam: Truly Incompatible?
Words by Eman Elhelw
- Muslim women are _______ to wear veils such as the hijab/burka
b. not allowed
c. free to choose
2. The reason why Muslim women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi was:
a. It is prohibited in the Quran
b. For economic reasons
c. Regressive cultural interpretations of religious texts
3. Forced marriages:
a. Are an Islamic practice
b. Are encouraged in the Quran
c. Are a cultural practice
4. In Islam:
a. Female Genital Mutilation is compulsory
b. Female Genital Mutilation is an Islamically supported practice
c. Female Genital Mutilation is explicitly prohibited
If you answered:
You most likely subscribe to the “Islam is all that is wrong with the world” philosophies of Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi. You’re not to be blamed for your perception of Islam; negative discourse surrounding the religion is given way too much air time on TV, radio, and in our papers. Just remember to diversify your sources in the future!
You’re a little clueless when it comes to Islam, but you don’t let your ignorance translate into bigotry and fear! Good on you but you could probably do with brushing up on Islamic teachings!
Mirror mirror, on the wall, who is the least bigoted of them all? Congratulations, you have a sound understanding of basic Islamic principles and you understand the nuanced ways in which culture can influence how the religion is practiced! Keep doing you, boo.
Fact Check: Women in Islam Edition
At its core, Islam is grounded in the notion of human liberation from the worldly life. When the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad it was seen as a progressive tool. It combatted classism, racism, and sexism within 7th century Arabia. However, since the golden era of Islam, Muslims have often struggled to actualise the progressive concepts contained within it into society. A large cause of this is the influence of regressive cultural practices in the way that Islam is practiced.
Today, most hold the view that Islam is a repressive religion that aims to produce subservient women. We hear horror stories of honour killings and fights to liberate women from the “oppression” of the hijab. Often these stories are held up as the only interactions between Islam and Women’s Rights. As an Australian-Egyptian-Muslim woman, I disagree: Women’s Rights and Islam are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Misconception #1: Muslim women are forced to wear veils such as the hijab/burka
In the Quran, modesty is encouraged for both men and women. For women, this modesty is defined by some as:
- modest and conservative dressing with no hair-covering,
- the hair-covering veil (the hijab),
- or a face covering veil (the niqab or burka)
The hijab and burka are often perceived as tools of oppression that are forced on women by the patriarchs in their lives. However, most women wear it with conviction and as a form of worship. While there are countries in the Middle East that force women by law to wear the hijab, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are ample examples of Muslim practicing countries in which it is a matter of personal choice.
Omar Suleiman, a religious leader from the United States says, “as an imam, more cases come to me of parents who are trying to convince their daughters that it is not safe to wear hijabs than parents who force hijabs on their daughters.” Similarly, when I went through my own phase of wanting to wear the hijab, the first in my first generation migrant family to do so, my parents actually discouraged me for the same reasons.
Misconception #2: Islam prevents Muslim women from driving
Ah, another niche problem that is dumped on all Muslim shoulders. While the only two countries in the world where women are prohibited from driving, Afghanistan and (until recently) Saudi Arabia, are Muslim nations — this is in no way a Muslim problem. Of the 50 Muslim majority countries, now only one country has restrictions on women’s right to drive. This is another prime example of a fringe Islamic practice that is taken to represent the entire religion. Islam is not a religion that encourages the idea of the subordination of women, with strong examples of empowered women such as the Prophet’s wife Khadija who was a self-employed business woman in 7th Century Arabia. There is nothing within pure Islamic teachings about women being prohibited from driving and these laws are largely still in place due to the cultural influences.
Misconception #3: Islam supports forced marriages
Another cultural practice pinned on Muslims — yes, you might be catching onto a trend here. In Islam a forced marriage, in which neither the groom nor bride consent but are forced to marry by third parties, is deemed a huge sin. The prevalence of forced marriages exists largely within communities in which it is practiced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Misconception #4: Female Genital Mutilation is an Islamically supported practice
This is a horrible practice that has existed within and adjacent to Muslim countries. UNICEF found in 2016 that 27 African countries, and several Middle Eastern countries, practiced Female Genital Mutilation. In these countries it is practiced by Muslims as well as Christian and Jewish minorities. Until recently this pre-Islamic cultural practice has largely been attributed to Islam due to the lack of authoritative ruling on its prohibition. In 2007, the highest religious authority in the Islamic World, the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar Mosque Ali Gomaa came out and denounced the practice, saying it is most definitely prohibited in Islam with a majority of Muslim countries following suite and criminalising the practice.
The relationship between women’s rights and Islam is one complicated by cultural influences, political instability, and religious factions. My experiences as a first generation Muslim woman in Australia are not the same as my own female cousin’s experiences in Egypt. To understand women’s rights in Islam in isolation, to ignore cultural and social factors, is unfair to both women and the religion. It is important to understand the nuances that exist within our misconceptions, and correct them, or else our society risks being guilty of the oppression we claim to fight.