The recent events in the Middle East and the war on terror forced the spotlight on Islam. The whole world had a sudden interest over this religion. In the process, it was discovered that therewere Islamic societies that considered women as inferior to men.
Their beliefs led them to develop rigid rules that were oppressive to women. The leaders in these societies justified their actions on the basis of religious laws. However, a closer examination of Islam would lead many followers to believe that it should not be used to oppress women but to liberate them.
One way to understand the plight of women is to view it from the framework of feminism. In order to be specific, this framework can be traced back to the feminist movement of the modern era. It must be pointed out that in the history of mankind, Muslim women are not the only group that suffered from inequality and harsh treatment from a male dominated society.
As a consequence of such a movement, they were able to develop standards and ideas that helped to determine if women were treated with dignity and respect. When the same standards were used to analyse the plight of women in Islamic societies, even non-sympathetic members concluded that religion could not be used to oppress women.
Even followers of Islam expressed their misgivings with regards to the religious justification of such actions. There were those who asserted that the unfair treatment of women could be considered as an affront against Islam. There can be different views but the truth remains, in many Islamic societies, Muslim women suffer as a result of oppressive rules.
Aside from socio-cultural factors that govern certain rules of etiquette regarding the behaviour of women, there is no other force as significant as religion. This particular assertion is especially true when it comes to Islamic societies in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is, therefore, important to take a closer look at Islam.
Islam was established a few centuries after Christianity, and more than a thousand years after Judaism. The founder of Islam was called Mohammed and he used an interesting label to describe his religious purpose and he said that he was the last prophet. It is important to examine Mohammed’s claim because he made a reference to the other prophets that came before him. His spiritual lineage can be traced back to the Christian Bible.
In other words, Mohammed made the claim that he was connected to Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. For the purpose of this study, it is critically important to link Islam to Christianity. There is no need to elaborate on Christianity in order to determine that it is a religion that espouses the importance of charity. In that line of reasoning, Islam must be viewed in a similar light.
Although Islamic doctrines highlighted the importance of respect and the need to show kindness to a fellow human being, their strict adherence to other tenets of religion forced them to focus on their devotion to God and not to a man. The followers of Islam asserted that to be a Muslim means to submit to God.
It is through this submission that they can be transformed into a person that is worthy to be called a Muslim. Thus, even if they are asked to do a difficult task, they will obey as a way to demonstrate their devotion to God. A Muslim must strive hard to learn how to live his/her life as a form of worship to God.
Part of this worship is the realization that Islam is a way of life and the actions of each believer contribute to the creation of a God-fearing society (Neusner, 2009). It has to be made clear to every believer that a Muslim should anchor his/her identity in the context of a community. In Islam, individualism and liberal minded thinking is considered taboo (Neusner, 2009). Everyone must learn to observe the laws of Islam while they live a life of worship.
It is the strict conformity to rules and the need to maintain the status quo that could help explain the paranoid expression of devotion. It has to be argued that Islam as a religion of peace must be studied closely with the report that Muslim women were treated unfairly. It is important to find out why they subscribed to a belief system that created a society that oppressed women.
It is interesting to highlight a commentary made by a historian studying the evolution of modern day Muslim women and she wrote: “In the earliest centuries of Islam, women’s position was not bad at all. Only over the course of centuries was she increasingly confined to the house and forced to veil herself … that women were studiously kept away from life outside the house often resulted in their being deprived of their rights, and ideas that were basically incompatible with Koranic injunctions” (Schimmel, 1992, p.65).
It is important to emphasise this discovery in order to raise a point that religious zeal and culture influenced the reinterpretation of Islamic laws. In the process, it gave rise to a harsh system that oppressed women. The radical departure from a lenient society to a more rigid adherence to man-made rules can be seen below:
The system of seclusion, nowadays generally called purdah (from Persian parda, ‘veil’) is reflected in Muslim architecture: the women’s quarters form a separate section or are located in the upper storeys; houses often have an inner courtyard or small backyard where women can walk or sit without being observed by non-family members. Often, a special door allows female visitors to slip into women’s quarters without being seen (Schimmel, 1992, p.65).
If the author discussed an event that occurred two hundred years ago, no interest could be generated from the disclosure. But the realization that this commentary described a way of life in the 21stcentury can compel people to express outrage. For those who support the feminist movement and fully understand the struggle of women all over the world, it is not enough to simply engage in an intellectual exercise. There is a need to go beyond rhetoric and liberate women from the bondage of man-made rules.
Feminism’s Cry for Equality
It is important to elucidate the fact thatthe feminist movement had provided a platform and a framework that facilitated the arguments regarding the rights of women. The purpose for this preliminary discussion is to demonstrate that this study is not an attack against the religion of Islam.
The followers of Islam must realize that the ideas and concepts that can be found in the feminist movement are ideas and concepts that are universally recognized. It is not important to support every idea and every opinion that came from the feminist movement. However, it is imperative to realize that the feminist movement had opened the eyes of many, especially when it came to the issue of gender equality.
It has to be pointed out that in the Western world, the struggle for gender equality was already an important topic many decades ago. As a result, Western-style feminism no longer talks about the rights of women. The discussion has progressed to the need to demand for equal treatment in society. In comparison, women in Islamic states live their lives under the authority of men.
Even with a sophisticated view with regards to the rights and position of women in society, the Western world continues to seek equal treatment for women. In fact, feminism in the 21st century ascribed to the idea that it was not enough to simply desire for equal treatment, they also wanted society to be sensitive to the unique attributes of their gender.
They clamoured for the realization of the principle embedded in the following statement: “The systematically inferior position of women inside and outside the household in many societies points to the necessity of treating gender as a force of its own in development analysis” (Sen, 1987, p.123). Women have special needs that are different from men. The idea of equality must be crafted to consider that women are unique and that differences as a result of gender do not automatically render them as the weaker sex.
This argument stemmed from the fact that even if societies and governments recognized the rights of women, they were still unable to utilize this hard-earned victory. The reason for the failure of women to accomplish their goals is rooted in the argument that they needed the assistance and protection of men. In many Islamic societies, this argument was expounded to develop a belief system wherein women are subservient to the authority of men.
In many Islamic societies, the rights of Muslim women are closely intertwined with the need for protection and guidance from Muslim men. They have to be protected by a male relative, such as a father, husband, brother and cousin. Therefore, they are seen as dependent on the kindness of their male relatives when it comes to their needs. Thus, it is easy for men, especially male relatives, to use this privileged position to force women to obey their rules and regulations.
In contrast to Western societies, the rights of women are recognized. In fact, women are not only given the basic rights such as the right to express themselves and the right to travel, they are also given access to the resources of the state. The progress made in the Western world provides a stark contrast to the slow progress in many Islamic states when it comes to the way their government and societies treat their women.
Taliban, Parda and Hijab
One of the most powerful symbols of oppression in many Islamic countries is a belief system called Parda. It is a set of rules that can be very difficult for a Western mind to grasp. According to one commentary the concept of Parda literally means:
…hiding ones face but in practice, it refers to a set of rules and regulation that determines women’s interactions in society. Observing Parda is an integral part of a Muslim woman’s life. Those who do not observe Parda are besharam or shameless.
There are different ways of observing Parda, depending on the age and social status of women. Children and elderly women do not observe Parda but women of marriageable age are supposed to observe the practice (Cornell, 2007, p.43).
The desire of certain groups of people to practice their religion in a certain way must be respected at all times. However, the freedom of religion does not preclude the right to criticise flaws, excesses and even contradictions. In the case of the Parda, the contradiction becomes very obvious when examined on the basis of religion, even a religion as strict as Islam.
In every religion around the world, it is a common belief that each member has the right to enter his/her respective house of worship. But with Parda, many Muslim women are prevented from a deeper walk with their Creator. Consider the following commentary:
Nonfamily men were excluded from entering the women’s quarters and married women were barred from entering the men’s quarters. Because of this strict Parda, women generally did not worship in local temples (though they might occasionally travel veiled and chaperoned to faraway pilgrimage places or go briefly to a nearby shrine and worship there with their faces hidden from public view).
Nor did they participate in religious ceremonies such as festivals, unless these were celebrated in the zananas of royalty or the nobility (Harlan, 1992, p.37).
It can be argued that the leaders in Islamic societies used their religion to oppress women. These were done in compliance to Parda. However, a close examination of Parda may lead to the conclusion that it was used to justify the paranoia of male relatives when it came to sexual sins. It was an attempt to totally eliminate sexual promiscuity in Islamic societies. However, it has evolved into an oppressive system that stifled the freedom of Muslim women.
These are poorly constructed and obsolete man-made rules disguised as religion. Their intentions may be noble but their methods were not appropriate. A legalistic approach to morality can never be sustainable. There is no better example than to study the plight of women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The Taliban can be rightfully described as a fanatical group that prided itself in their ability to fight. However, a bloody history coupled with grinding poverty contributed to the fanaticism that existed in this part of the world. Therefore, members of the Taliban are not only proud of their warrior spirits but also their religious zeal. As a result, women living in Taliban controlled areas suffered the impact of religious fanaticism.
The Taliban culture can be both fascinating and revolting at the same time. There are value systems that the Western mind cannot fully appreciate. For sure, there are many who believed in the ideas purported by the Taliban. But no matter how hard they tried to explain their position, the whole world questioned the way they treated their women.
According to a government agency, one of the strange aspects of their culture can be seen in the way they stipulated rules regarding the movement of women in their respective communities. In the said report, “if a woman is married she can only leave her house with her husband” (Dodge, 2003).
If the woman is not yet married, she can only leave her home if she can secure permission from her father. Furthermore, apart from the need to secure permission from the head of the household, a Taliban woman can only leave the house if a male relative accompanies her.
It is easy to understand the fact that the Taliban wanted to build a society governed by the rules of Islam. One of the most important pillars of Taliban culture is to create mechanisms that would make it difficult for a woman to be tempted and engage in unlawful acts. The intentions are commendable based on the realization that promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases can inflict economic and health burdens on a particular society. However, the rules no longer served women but became a tool for oppression.
The restrictions imposed on women can easily create a firestorm in the Western world. But aside from strict rules restricting the movement of women in the Taliban, there is another peculiar rule that added to the burden of women in Afghanistan. The Muslim women in this particular society are forced to wear a burqa.
The burqa is a type of clothing that serves as a covering material that covers the woman from head to ankle (Gohari, 2000). In many Islamic societies, women are expected to weal a hijab or veil to cover their head and their face. But the burqa goes one step further because it covers the whole body. In an arid environment, one can just imagine the difficulty experienced by these women.
In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Muslim women should think many times before they dare to disobey these rules. These regulations must be followed because the leaders of the Taliban will not be merciful towards law-breakers. Their ruthlessness was demonstrated in numerous incidents.
For example, in December 1996, “there were 225 women who were rounded up to be punished for violation of the hijab; the punishment consisted of being lashed on the back and the legs” (Gohari, 2000, p.38). If this is the kind of punishment given to those who violated a simple dress code, imagine the backlash for more serious offenses.
The strict adherence to rules made it difficult for Muslim women in Afghanistan to talk to strangers in social functions such as funerals and weddings (Skaine, 2002, p.34). In order to enforce their laws, the Taliban restricted the movement of women outside their homes. There is a need to remind the Taliban that in their strict observance to the letter of the law, they had created an oppressive society that trampled on the rights of women.
The feminist movement has created a significant degree of awareness regarding women’s rights. In fact, the women in the Western world no longer struggle with the idea of inequality. However, they long for greater goals such as the need to be respected and appreciated as different and yet co-equal with men.
The advancements in the Western world when it comes to women’s rights provide a stark contrast to the oppression experienced by Muslim women in many Islamic societies. Muslim leaders wanted their women to be pure. They wanted their women to behave in such a way that their honour could never be compromised. But, in the process, they not only oppressed women, they made it difficult for them to worship their God.
Cornell, V. 2007.Voices of Islam: voices of life: family, home and society. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Dodge, C. 2003. The everything under Islam book: a complete and easy to read guide. MA: F & W Publications, Inc.
Gohari, M.J. 2000. The Taliban: ascent to power. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harlan, L. 1992. Religion and Rajput women: the ethics of protection in contemporary narratives. CA: University of California Press.
Neusner, J. 2009. World religions in America: an introduction. KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Sen, A. 1987.Gender and cooperative conflicts. New York: United Nations University Press.
Schimmel, A. 1992. Islam: an introduction. New York: State University of New York Press.
Skaine, R. 2002. The women of Afghanistan under the Taliban. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.