Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

The Invisible Woman

I have recently become the editor of an online Islamic magazine and one of the things I have asked for from the writers is a picture of themselves to accompany their articles, if they felt comfortable with that.

One of the sisters who writes for the magazine sent me a thoughtful email about this policy:

I was wondering if we should encourage this at all. A Muslim women should remain hidden as she’s precious. Since [the magazine] is not exclusively for sisters, it will also be read by brothers and I don’t want it be a source of fitna instead of education. I’m sure everyone on [your staff] as well as the readers are really nice people, but it’s the shaitan we cannot trust.

It took me several days to send a reply because I wanted to carefully consider my answer, which was in part:

I do understand your arguments and I’m not saying that they are without merit. I agree that women are precious and need to be protected to some extent, but I lay some responsibility at the feet of the brothers to withstand the temptations of Shaytan. I also think it is awfully difficult (although not impossible) for a woman to have a voice when she does not have a face. My personal opinion is that we hurt the cause of Islam more than we help it when we make women invisible, not to mention what it does to the individual woman who is being told that she cannot be seen.

What is your opinion about this issue? Should Muslim women practice modesty to the extent that they are not seen at all? And if so, then does that mean that they shouldn’t speak in public or appear in a video, even if they are teaching or advancing the cause of Islam? And how do women feel when they have no role models that they can see and identify with?

As a feminist, I reject the idea that women should be invisible when men are not required to be as well. I also can’t help but wonder if both sexes would profit from being invisible, at least publicly.  After all, it could be a form of self-aggrandizement to have your picture in a public venue. What do you think Mohammad would do if he was here today?

Let me know what you think!


Bill Maher: Misinformed Islamophobe

I know that Bill Maher can be crude and insensitive, but I admire the way he blends his brand of humor with skillful panel management on his new show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” He’s very good at giving each panel member his or her time to make a point and treats each guest with respect and civility. What I cannot stand about him, though, is his Islamophobia. It’s not just that he’s against religion in general; he is. But he makes no secret of the fact that he utterly hates Muslims and Islam.

What makes his Islamophobia even worse is that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Either that or he doesn’t care if he’s getting it wrong. On his last show (2/18/11) he was trying to make the point that all Muslim men mistreat women, but he kept referring to Arabs as the men he was talking about. If he’d done his homework, he’d know that only about 20% of all Muslims are Arabs.

I’m sure that if I pressed him on this point, he’d answer that all Muslim men want and try to control and even abuse women because their religion teaches them to. In his eyes, Islam is the real culprit. I think he’d also admit that all religions seek to control and abuse women to some extent but that Islam is the absolute worst.

What does he use to prove his point? In this last show he brought up the February 2009 incident where a Muslim man beheaded his wife six days after she filed for divorce. (The man was just found guilty of second-degree manslaughter.)  That’s not playing fair. There’s no evidence to suggest that the man used his religion to justify his actions. (His defense was that he was a battered spouse and that he acted in self-defense.) This was not an “honor killing,” which many people insist is a hallmark of Islam. It was the act of a sick person. I can’t count how many cases of domestic violence I’ve read about over the years where the man killed his wife or girlfriend because she left him, or was threatening to. In fact, there was a case just recently of a Swiss man who allegedly killed his twin girls and then himself because he was distraught over his separation from his wife. No one suggested that he did it because of his faith. But if he had been a Muslim, you can bet that his religion would have been blamed for his actions, especially by the likes of Bill Maher.

Bill Maher contended that Arab nations won’t ever be ready for democracy as long as they treat their women so abysmally. One of his guests, Tavis Smiley, countered by saying that if we were to judge nations by how they treat their women, the U.S. doesn’t exactly win any prizes. Maher was outraged that Smiley would even suggest that American women have it as bad as Muslim/Arab women. (If he hadn’t prefaced his comments by saying how dangerous Muslims are, you’d think he was just targeting Arabs.)

Smiley responded that any mistreatment of women is inexcusable, even the kind that is not obvious. Yes, we let women drive cars in America. No, we don’t punish women (or men) for infidelity (except perhaps in some divorce courts).  But as Smiley said, “The patriarchal system is live and well in America.” We might find some of the restrictions on women in other countries and cultures as incomprehensible, but that doesn’t mean that Americans are blameless in this area.

We have Christian women who never leave the house without their husbands’ permission. No one talks about them. We have women who are expected to have as many children as possible (see my post, “The QuiverFull Movement: Family Non-Planning“). We have plenty of domestic violence (including murder) and rape and incest. We have women being underpaid and rarely promoted. And no one can deny that we sexualize our females (even little girls) for the gratification of males.

I’ve met many Muslim women who have healthy, mutually respectful marriages and they’re not just the ones who were born in America. I know Muslim women (from Libya) who work, who are doctors and dentists and optometrists and scientists. They are funny and outspoken and politically aware. They have not settled for second best. And they definitely are not in fear for their lives.

It’s not all bad that Maher is so vocal about his Islamophobia. In tweets the day after the Feb. 18th show, many people commented on his  “hate-filled rant” and his bigotry about Muslims. Maybe if people see how unreasonable, even ridiculous, he is about Muslims, it will make them question their own preconceptions and prejudices about Islam. One can only hope.

Join the Discussion

I’ve been having a discussion on my other blog, Femagination, with one of my readers who refuses to believe that I can be a feminist and a Muslim. (See the post “Islam and Gender Roles” and the comments about it here.) He or she has raised many interesting questions, but has also been rather aggressive in his or her challenges to my reasoning.

Here are some examples:

You have to be obedient to your husband, he can hit you if you deserve it, you may not leave the house without his permission, and then only in a hijab, and he can have other wives. On top of that your beloved prophet killed the male relatives and kidnapped women and took a child bride amongst his many wives.

I’m just trying to understand how a feminist can buy into a religion that sanctions the near total or total control of a woman. And that is only the written law. The practice in many Muslim countries is much worse: honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the Dutch Muslim “smiley”, and the “cultural defense” to rape in Australia.

However, this person also wrote some things that I thought were worth exploring. For instance:

What most interests me is personal freedom, the right to bodily integrity, freedom of movement, of occupation, freedom to choose, the freedoms that we take for granted in the west, yet are restricted in sharia. Right now you have chosen Islam, but you are not living under sharia law. So you can pick and choose, as you please. But maybe you will feel differently when you are married to a Muslim man, subject to his wishes, and subject to a sharia legal system. Then your personal feelings about these and many other issues will simply be irrelevant.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Shariah. Even so, I answered this way:

Did you know that Sharia is a reflection of God’s will for mankind, but that there is no universal agreement on exactly what the rules and laws of Sharia are? There is room for interpretation and innovation, particularly if you’re a Muslim of the Sunni tradition, which I am. I don’t believe in some of the adjudications that have been made in Sharia courts and would not live anywhere that practices things like stoning adulterers. But just the fact that these practices are not followed in every Muslim country should tell you that Sharia is not set in stone.

When the commenter accused me of not being willing to critically examine Islam, I wrote:

I am most definitely not closed to looking at Islam critically. I did the same with Christianity and when it failed to make sense to me, I left it. I still hold a lot of Christian-influenced views–Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the greater prophets after all–but I no longer feel that the Trinity is the best way to describe the nature of God. I wasn’t traumatized by things that happened to me in the Christian church—on the contrary, I believe that I found what I needed in the Christianity at that time in my life.

Please feel free to add to this discussion either here or on Femagination.

This Feminist’s Look at Islamic Marriage

Maha Muslimah just wrote an excellent post on the distinction between the headscarf and being a hijabi. She explains that observing hijab means much more than wearing the headscarf (which is also known as a hijab). It refers to an entire way of life from dressing modestly to behaving like a slave of Allah. Notice I wrote “slave of Allah.” Contrary to common belief, the Muslim woman is not a slave to any man. Only Allah can, and should, be our Master.

That does not mean that Muslim women—and men—don’t have recommended roles in Islamic society, but I don’t believe that these are hard-and-fast rules. There can be many reasons why a Muslim woman works outside of the home, for instance, or contributes to the financial support of the family. (This is especially true in the economies of many countries where one person cannot make a living wage for an entire family.)

I got a comment the other day that Islam cannot be compatible with feminism because it requires the man to support his wife and family while the woman’s money is her own. Apparently the commenter feels that feminism should stand for absolute equality; in other words, that men and women should not only be exactly alike, but should share all burdens equally. (At least I think that’s what he meant.)

But the brand of feminism that Islam subscribes to, in my view at least, is that men and women are meant to have complementary roles, not competing ones. I like this view because I think it is divisive to insist that all things be split equally. For instance, if a couple insists on keeping their finances separate or making decisions independent of one another, how is their relationship any different than that of room-mates? They may be able to get along, but in the end I think they will have sacrificed intimacy for the sake of individuality.

The Islamic ideal for marriage is that each person gives up at least some of his or her personal concerns in order to create a new organism. Husbands and wives are meant to be shaped partly by their connection to their spouses. They are both meant to change to conform to the relationship. But nowhere, in the Qur’an, or the Sunnah, that I have been able to find, does it say that women are to be obliterated as persons and completely taken over by their husbands.

Feminists have long had the saying that “Marriage is one person, and that person is the husband.” I believe that the Muslim marriage would be best described by saying that “Marriage is an entity made up of two persons who have joined their lives together in order to glorify Allah.” Their mutual goal should be to help each other to submit in peace to Allah.

Marriage is like a microcosm of society. Neither men nor women should treat one another any worse than they would treat someone outside of the marriage. Too often, abuses take place within families that would never be tolerated in any other situation. Islamic marriages should show the world the very best of human behavior.

How I View Feminism and Islam

How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:

  1. Being an advocate for women.
  2. Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
  3. Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
  4. Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
  5. Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.

The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address  the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.

I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)

The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)

Continue reading “How I View Feminism and Islam”

Sexual Rights, Human Rights

As part of the “One Day, One Struggle” 2010 campaign to promote sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, Lebanon-based groups Nasawiya, Helem and Meem developed this video campaign, focusing on bodily autonomy and sexual rights of individuals.

On November 9, 2010, the 2nd international “One Day One Struggle” Campaign called for public attention to issues like Right to Information, Sexuality Education, Sexual Health, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Rights of Individuals, LGBTTQ Rights, Sexual Diversity and Islam, Sexuality and Shari’a as well as the struggle to stop sexual rights violations ranging from Polygamy to killings of women, gay people and transsexuals. The campaign took place in 12 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Almost 50 participating human rights organizations, universities and municipalities will participated.

Launched by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), “One Day One Struggle” is a unique effort to underscore the joint struggle against the violation of sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. Nasawiya, Meem and Helem are part of CSBR.

Some Muslims take offense at campaigns like this because they feel that a person’s sexuality, while a private matter, should be regulated by Islamic rules and regulation and the morés of Muslim society. However, sexuality is often used as a tool for political oppression and human rights violations. This is especially true among militaristic, conservative Muslims who politicize Islam as justification for their attempts to control society, chiefly through their control of women.

I’m not arguing that Muslims should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. But their obedience in these matters should be to Allah and not to civil or religious authorities.  Judgment and punishment is Allah’s to dispense. We have no business punishing individuals, especially all out of proportion to the act itself,  like execution for adultery.

A society that punishes its women for wanting to come and go as they please or to socialize with whom they please is a society that doesn’t trust Allah’s ability to guide those who believe in Him. Sure, people will make mistakes, but the only time that sexual actions should be punished by man is when they are perpetrated willfully against the innocent (such as rape or child abuse).

And I especially do not agree with judging women more strictly than men for the same actions. For example, women are told that they have to be modest so they won’t tempt men. Why isn’t as much emphasis put on men to control their thoughts and actions (as well as to be modest also)?

One reason I’m a feminist and a Muslim is because I believe that men and women are equal before God. They should share the same burden to be chaste and to fulfill the obligations that are put upon them by Allah. I don’t buy the idea that women are the source of all evil and therefore have to be controlled by men “for their own good.” Men and women are to help each other to be virtuous.

Education and example are the keys, not punishment and control.

Read more about the “One Day One Struggle” campaign here.