Islam is the official religion of the Muslim people but it can be said that there are different types of Muslims. This assertion is easy to understand as there are different sects and denominations within every major religion. Aside from denominational and sectarian differences, the variation can also be explained through differences in the culture of a particular nation, tribe and region. But even with these differences there is one constant factor when it comes to women of Islam. Muslim women in Islamic societies suffer from inequality.
In the aftermath of September 11, the whole world was forced to take a closer look at Islam. The inadvertent discovery as a result of many queries resulted in a more nuanced look at women in Islamic societies. In the course of the investigation and analysis, it was discovered that in most Islamic societies, women are treated as inferior to men. The oftentimes harsh conditions that they are in and the rigid rules that they are forced to obey all stem from a belief system anchored on religious tenets.
It is difficult to understand the role of Muslim women in Islamic societies without an overview of Islam. In Islamic societies one can observe that religion is the most important factor that governs their rules. This observation is supported in Islamic societies that are found in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
A rough translation of Islam means peace. But a follower of this particular religion is called a Muslim. In a nutshell, a Muslim is someone who submits to the will of Allah. It is only through a process of submission that a Muslim can hope to attain perfection and be considered as a worthy follower of Allah. Thus, the more difficult the standard, the greater is the level of satisfaction when it comes to a deep religious experience.
According to one observer “A significant component of worship is the realization that Islam is a way of life and the actions of each person is a tribute to the creation of a God-fearing society.” Another important realization is the fact that a Muslim person cannot exist beyond the confines of a community. Every believer must learn to obey the rules or suffer the consequences.
It is an understatement to describe an Islamic society as a conservative one. There is need to conform to the rules. In many instances, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the expression of worship can be considered as fanatical. It is therefore important to find out the extent of the harsh treatment of Muslim women in Islamic societies. It must be pointed out that Muslim women in the United States and Europe are guaranteed the same basic rights. But apparently the same cannot be said of their fellow believers living in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The Plight of Muslim Women
This study must be prefaced with a commentary made by an observer who had the chance to study Muslim women up close and he 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.” It is imperative to highlight this insight in order to give the assertion that a modern reinterpretation of the tenets of Islam could help explain the drastic changes in the lives of Muslim women in many parts of the world.
A new perspective when it comes to the expectation of Muslim women in Islamic societies contributed to the establishment of a harsh system that in turn led to the oppression of women. In order to clarify the degree of difficulty faced by Muslim women, consider the following comments:
The system of seclusion, nowadays generally called purdah or parda 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.
If the commentaries regarding seclusion and inequality occurred a thousand years ago, it may not arouse any interest from the reader. But if Muslim women continue to suffer at the hands of their male relatives then it is time to take a closer look at their religion in order to determine what can be done to change their lives for the better. It is imperative to go beyond mere intellectual pursuits and start the process of emancipation.
Before going any further it is important to point out that there are other factors that contributed to the oppression of women in Islamic societies. There is no need to elaborate the fact that in Third World countries the rights of women are not yet part of the national consciousness. In other words, the traditional view that men are superior is still considered the basic principle in many Asia and Middle-Eastern societies. The combination of culture and religion has created what many in the Western world consider as abhorrent.
Muslim women in America and Europe enjoy a great degree of freedom. But not Muslim women in conservative societies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In these states, the status of Muslim women is closely intertwined with the lives of their male relatives. In the eyes of Muslim men, their women are helpless and desperate for their protection and guidance. In these societies, male relatives like father, husband, brother and cousin have control over the lives of their female relatives.
The Parda and Hijab
Muslim women are expected to follow the basic tenets of Islam like dietary restrictions, prayers, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. But the belief that women are helpless and useless without their male relatives gave rise to an oppressive system known as Parda. Culture, eastern traditions, and religion created Parda. This belief system was described as follows:
It 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.
At the heart of this belief system is the paranoid concern that women are prone to sexual promiscuity. Thus, their male relatives took it upon themselves to prevent their female relatives to violate this rule. The Parda was designed in such a way to reduce the chance of sexual intercourse outside the bonds of marriage. In the case of the husbands, they tried to reduce the possibility that their wives will commit adultery. It is a legalistic approach to achieve purity before and after the marriage vows.
In Afghanistan the Parda system has evolved into another level of oppression against women. In a report submitted by a US agency the following statement was made: “if a woman is married she can only leave her house with her husband.” If a female is not yet married then there is only one way to leave the house and it is to ask the permission of a male relative.
After permission has been granted the woman must request a male relative to accompany her outside the home. Apparently the strict adherence to the Parda system did not satisfy the Muslim men of Afghanistan. In addition, they also required their women 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.” The burqa is a form of hijab, the traditional covering used by Muslim women for many centuries. The only difference is that a burqa covers the whole body and therefore an uncomfortable covering in an arid climate such as Afghanistan. The Muslim men in Afghanistan are not yet contented with the use of the burqa. They also added another rule. They do not permit their female relatives to talk to strangers.
Muslim women in the Western world had no idea that their counterparts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East suffer from inequality. They suffer because of the Parda system. It is a system perpetuated by Muslim men who believed that they can legalize morality. The Muslim men in Islamic societies wanted their women to behave in accordance to the tenets of their religion and the dictates of their culture and traditions.
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