Muslim women are sometimes typecast as victims; oppressed and down-trodden by their faith in need of being “rescued” by the West.
However, a Melbourne-based scholar looking at Islam through a feminist lens, has found that it is not difficult to uncover progressive aspects within Islam.
Susie Latham, a PhD student doing research on women who live in a rural, conservative town in Iran, found that elements that are often used to evidence oppression of women in Islam (namely forced marriage and female genital cutting (FGC)) are more closely associated with poverty than with any religion.
“If you look where those practices are most prevalent, they’re all the most impoverished countries in the world,” Latham said. “It’s true that these things happen and they’re terrible, but what’s not true is that they are specific to Muslims and that they happen because of the people being Muslim.
“I had the opportunity to interview women who are ‘the worst case scenario’ in the Western imagination. They are women who are living under an Islamic republic. They’re living in one of the most conservative areas of the country. They’re living in a rural area. So if these women are happy and have agency, I’m not saying it’s a paradise, but certainly, in general, they’re no less happy than any of my friends in Melbourne.”
Jeemaan Mougharbel, a Lebanese Australian woman, and Faraz Haider, an international student from Pakistan, shared their views on Islam and how it interacts with Western feminism.
“The whole thing about Islam is the modesty aspect of it,” Mougharbel said. “It’s all very ‘you have to cover up, you have to stay modest in public’.
“…In terms of oppressing; they [Westerners] view it as males oppressing females, and I don’t think that’s entirely correct. It’s more of a cultural norm that came from an interpretation of the Quran.”
Haider said: “The whole point of the covering up is to de-sexualise the female body, so if you look at it, that is a feminist approach. The modesty thing isn’t just taught for women. If you read the whole thing, even guys are taught; ‘don’t wear skin-tight t-shirts’. Guys are supposed to be dressed modestly, nothing that is show-offy or materialistic.”
The “modesty aspect of it.” Source Fickr
Mougharbel and Haider stressed the importance of the distinction between cultural practices and religious ones, especially in a climate of Islamophobia.
“In the countries that Islam is dominant, there is a lot of intermingling between culture [and religion],” Haider said. “So people are still adhering to certain cultural things and are putting that into religion, when it’s not even there. And then when you do have that hybrid thing, that’s what’s presented to the global population. So their understanding of Islam is mixed with historical culture.”
Haider said: “Any approach or ideology that’s based in history – like more conservative and more back-dated – they’ll have those aspects. If you go a bit deeper, you’ll see a lot of things in Islam where women have been given a lot of rights, but the way it’s been interpreted and implemented, was by the male dominant government. It’s intermingling of politics in religion.”
Haider also highlighted the lack of gendered language in the Quran, reinforcing the point that traditional culture has been the dominant force oppressing women, not Islam.
“There’s this one saying, and I’m paraphrasing it into English, that the importance or the value of a person studying, is higher than the importance and value and supremacy of the moon over the stars and someone who is praying. And that doesn’t specify the gender in the language, it says anyone. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy, girl, anything in between or outside,” he said.
Mougharbel said understanding and questioning Islam is encouraged within Muslim communities and vital to adapting the religion to the modern world.
“We, as Muslims, the brothers and sisters of Islam, have to question, and have to learn and understand it [Islam] and not take it as ‘someone is telling you this, so this is what it is’,” Mougharbel said.
Some note that allowing stereotypes to label Muslim women as oppressed and down-trodden only contributes to remove their voice and agency.
“‘Muslim women’ itself is just a stupid concept; it’s as stupid as saying ‘Christian women’ and trying to make a generalisation about them,” Latham said.
“…We’re always talking about the differences and that they’re so kind of huge, and there’s a lack of concentrating on sameness and things that we’ve got in common. There’s never any discussion about what Muslim communities might do better than our Western, individual, liberal type [of society].”