Burqa Barbie

Image via Caters
Women’s groups and conservative spokespersons alike have been sputtering with outrage over the decision to auction off Burqa Barbies for a Save the Children “Rewrite the Future” fundraising campaign. (The organization’s purpose is “to educate children in conflict areas around the world”.) Italian designer Eliana Lorena has outfitted 500 Barbies in their respective cultural clothing; Burqa Barbie was meant to represent Afghani culture, not make a political statement.

Why the uproar, then? First of all, the burqa is seen as a symbol of oppression by Western feminists. In essence, what these feminists are saying to women who wear them is: We’re sure that you wouldn’t wear these if you weren’t being forced to. What they fail to take into account is that the clothing has cultural and religious significance for Muslim women in many areas of the world. Imagine if you had worn the burqa all your life, if all the women around you wore them and, furthermore, that you don’t have to wear them all the time (you can wear what you want at home). You might wonder what all the fuss is about.

Then imagine also that your faith means a lot to you and that you believe that the burqa is a sign of your devotion to God. The burqa, or other forms of Muslim dress, may make you feel closer to God and more a part of your religious community. Would you then be so quick to throw it off?

Obviously, though, the burqa is offensive to many people for another reason: it is used in anti-Islamic propaganda to symbolize what is seen as the dark side of Islam. (See this poster that was used in the campaign to ban minarets in Switzerland.) The burqa, and especially the niqab (the face covering), bring to mind all kind of sinister images. What are they hiding under there? Why won’t they show who they really are? What are they so afraid of?

When I tell people that I converted to Islam, at some point I’m usually asked if I’m going to wear the headscarf. The implication is always that if I did, I would be seen as extreme, even threatening, definitely “other.” And that’s just if I wore the headscarf. Imagine if I covered everything! (Some Muslimahs–Muslim women–cover their hands and/or faces as well.) But if I did, that would be my choice, not something that is foisted upon me.

Muslims sometimes criticize Western women for their “immodest” ways of dressing. In some cases, I think there’s justification for that. But Muslims and non-Muslims both need to cut each other some slack. What is considered immodest to Muslims is usually perfectly acceptable to non-Muslims and what is extreme to non-Muslims is ordinary to Muslims. Non-Muslims are arrogant when they insist on judging others by their own standards. Muslims can be arrogant as well. But the arrogance is usually a mask for fear: we’re all afraid that our cultures will be taken over by the “other.” Until we learn that we can co-exist without losing our identities, we will continue to be threatened by Barbie dolls.

Saudi Arabia: Majorities Support Women’s Rights (via Gallup.com)

December 21, 2007
by Magali Rheault

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The “Qatif girl” has put the spotlight on the Saudi justice system. Last year, several men abducted and raped a young woman and her male friend in Saudi Arabia. While the court sentenced the rapists to prison, it also ruled that the 19-year-old woman (and her male companion) would receive 90 lashes. The woman was in the company of a man not related to her in the absence of her legal male guardian (khulwa), which is illegal in Saudi Arabia. After her lawyer appealed the ruling, the court increased her sentence to 200 lashes and added a six-month prison term. Earlier this week, Saudi King Abdullah pardoned the woman.

The plight of the “Qatif girl” has drawn much international attention and public outcry, but it has also oversimplified the debate over women’s rights in Saudi Arabia by focusing on a dramatic case of government action. Findings from a recent Gallup Poll conducted in Saudi Arabia show that majorities of respondents support freedoms for women. Although Saudi men are less likely than Saudi women to agree that certain rights should be guaranteed to women, it is important to note that majorities of men do support such freedoms. People surveyed in Egypt and Iran, where women experience various levels of restrictions, express different opinions and interpretations of women’s rights in the Muslim world.

Freedom of Movement and the Right to Work

Age and a valid driver’s license usually determine whether an individual can operate a vehicle, but in Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from driving. Poll results show that 66% of Saudi women and 55% of Saudi men agree that women should be allowed to drive a car by themselves. In light of the ban on female driving, such relatively high levels of public support are remarkable. Recently, several Saudi women founded a group to raise awareness about this issue. This fall, the Committee of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia collected more than 1,000 signatures and sent the petition to the king asking him to rescind the driving ban, which has been official since 1990.

Both sexes also support the right to work outside the home. More than 8 in 10 Saudi women (82%) and three-quarters of Saudi men (75%) agree that women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home. As a point of comparison, in Iran, the gender gap on this issue is 17 points and in Egypt, it stretches to 21 points.

In recent years, more Saudi women have been entering the labor force. And although less than 20% of women in Saudi Arabia participate in the workforce, they represent 31% of professional and technical workers, according to the United Nations’ latest Human Development Report. Speaking at the Tallberg Forum this summer, Princess Deema Bint Turki Ben Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia told the audience that Saudi women “are able to achieve success in several areas of public and social life.” For example, in 2005, female candidates ran for seats on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and two women were elected, a great achievement in conservative Saudi society. Currently, four women sit on the board.

The Meaning of Equality

Under Islamic law, men bear full financial responsibility to provide for their households and women are not obligated to work outside the home. But if they do, they have the right to keep their wages. This distinction between the genders casts light on the complementary roles that women and men have in Islam, where each is a partner to the other.

Gallup findings reveal that there is no gender gap among Saudis with respect to attitudes toward women keeping their earnings. Eighty-four percent of Saudi women and 83% of Saudi men agree that women should be allowed to keep all earnings from their jobs for themselves and that their husbands should support their households in full. It is noteworthy that a law that appears to disadvantage men receives such strong support from them. The Gallup Poll also asked this question in three European countries: Fifty-eight percent of French respondents agree that women should keep their wages and that their husbands should support them. But in Germany and the United Kingdom, only 38% and 34%, respectively, agree.

However, Egyptian respondents express far less enthusiasm than Saudi respondents do for such a right, as 48% of Egyptian women and 51% of Egyptian men agree on this issue. This finding suggests that in light of the challenging socio-economic realities in Egypt, many families may be forced to ignore rights women do have under Islamic law out of financial necessity. As a comparison, in Iran, 63% of women versus 51% of men agree that women should have the right to keep their wages.

When asked if both sexes should have equal legal rights, almost 8 in 10 Saudi women (79%) and two-thirds of men (66%) agree. In Egypt, respondents express similar levels of support for “equal legal rights” and Iranians, especially women, are even more likely to agree on this issue. But “equal legal rights” do not mean men and women have the same rights. In Islamic family law, rights reflect the different obligations of the wife and husband, acting as partners in life. The issue of “same rights” in Muslim communities could actually mean a loss of rights for women. For instance, in some Muslim societies, women would have to share their wages with their husbands, which they do not have to do under current law, as interpreted by Muslims globally. Such nuance is frequently overlooked in conversations about gender parity in the Muslim world.

The Right to Lead

In 2006, Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a religious opinion (fatwa) stating that women, under Islamic law, have the right to become heads of state in contemporary Muslim nations. But just as women have the right to keep what they earn or inherit, tradition in patriarchal, conservative societies may take priority over the legal codes.

While the right for women to lead a nation is the issue that elicits the greatest differences of opinions between the sexes in Saudi Arabia, that a slight majority of men agree is remarkable. Sixty-six percent of Saudi women versus 52% of Saudi men agree women should be able to hold leadership positions in the cabinet and the national council. In Iran, the gender split reaches 18 points and in Egypt, the gap between women’s and men’s attitudes on this item widens to 24 points. In September 2006, findings from a Gallup Panel survey conducted in the United States revealed that 57% of women and 65% of men said that Americans were ready to elect a woman as president.

While many in the international community have focused on the unfairness of the sentence of the “Qatif girl” before the king’s pardon, the case should not be considered representative of Saudis’ attitudes toward women. In fact, the poll findings reveal that support to ensure certain rights for women exists in Saudi Arabia. Although much remains to be done, Western analysts should not conflate the government’s interpretation of Islamic law’s restrictions of women and the perspectives of the Saudi public.

[This post is copied directly from Gallup.com.]

Gender Roles and Religion

Just so I don’t seem to be picking on Islam, I’m going to write first about Christianity and then about religion in general when it comes to gender roles. Islam is generally seen as the most oppressive to women, followed by Judaism and then Christianity. But in reality, Christianity has mixed reviews when it comes to its attitude toward women. On the one hand, it has the whole Mary devotion thing going on (which ironically it shares with Islam) and women had key roles in Jesus’ ministry. On the other hand, it has Paul whom my mother used to call a misogynist, and whose writings heavily influenced the Church’s attitude toward women.

The thing about the Christian religion is that it is hung up about sex. And since women are the objects of men’s sexual desire, they are often seen as temptresses and whores. There’s also the little matter of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden and through her actions (some say) unleashing sinfulness among mankind. The Church Fathers never forgave her for that. (Nor did they assign Adam equal responsibility for his actions.

The Catholic Church has its Mariology and female saints to whom its adherents pray. And orders of nuns have done incalculable good in this world. (Tell that to a Catholic who went to a parochial school, particularly in “the old days.”) But it has also done more to give people (especially women) sexual hangups than any other Christian denomination–or other religion, for that matter.

But what about gender roles? When you compare Christianity to Islam for example, it’s important to compare like with like. That means that you have to take into consideration that it is the fundamentalists on both sides who are the most rigid about gender roles. You can’t compare a liberal Christian–which means almost everyone who belongs to a mainline Protestant denomination–with an Islamic fundamentalist. There are plenty of Muslims, even devout Muslims, who don’t see women as strictly bound into their roles as wives and mothers. And there are plenty of Christians, especially those who are conservatives, who insist on specific gender roles for men and women.So in essence it’s not the religions themselves that are the culprits. They may lay the foundation, but it is the adherents who build the building that most people see.

The more germane question is: are gender roles a bad thing? Most feminists would say yes. But developing an identity that is consistent with your sexual identity could be seen as an important part of your maturing process. I think the real question is, how rigid are these roles? If a woman feels forced into having children, for instance, that’s not a good thing. And it’s no accident that insisting on rigid gender roles is a key component in homophobia. People just don’t like those who don’t fit in boxes.

The problem with gender roles is, it’s hard to tell how much is biology and how much is socialization. Feminists are most interested in allowing people to develop according to their unique personalities. When socialization occurs, it obscures what might be a very broad spectrum of gender behavior. This is especially important when we consider trans-sexuals. What if a person doesn’t fit into gender roles and descriptions? What if a person feels like he or she was born into the wrong gender? Few, if any, religions do a very good job of ministering to people with gender “confusion,” let alone accepting them the way they are.

Gender roles can be comforting. They guide us through the tricky business of living. But when they get in the way of personal fulfillment, they’re not doing what God intended. I don’t mean to say that religion is all about feeling good about yourself. There are times when you shouldn’t, when your behavior doesn’t hit the mark, so to speak. But if you believe, as I do, that God has a plan for each of us, then it is a matter of following Him and discerning His will for you. That may mean that you stay home with the kids or provide for the family. But it could also mean that you do the opposite of what gender roles tell you to do, or at least that you don’t fit into them completely.

I believe that the most mature religious people recognize that their religions are strong agents for socialization. And that this is not necessarily a good thing, when it comes to each person’s standing before God. It should not be man who socializes, or shapes, us into who we are. It should be God who does the shaping.