x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Improve opinion of Muslim women one voice at a time

What the West doesn't understand about Muslim women - and what Muslim women can do about it.

My heart beat faster when I saw the invitation to speak next month about women in Islam, at the annual conference of the International Bar Association, in Dublin. This would be an opportunity to address the western fascination with Muslim women - which is as persistent as it is negative - as a Muslim woman activist, not how I usually present myself.

I started writing an address aimed at disconnecting the word of God from the conflicting cultural interpretations that have misled so many in the West into some unrealistic perceptions of Islam.

I also chose to start my talk by presenting myself as an advocate for the empowerment of Muslim women, and for a comprehensive, thoughtful Islamic jurisprudence that reflects the current concerns of Muslim women worldwide.

In Islam, God is not physically located, not carnal, and has no gender. God is unimaginable. Among humans, both genders have free will and each person has his or her own mind and must make individual contributions.

Islamic tradition has many examples of strong, inspired women. Mary's immaculate conception. Hagar raising her son while her husband is away. Asiya, the wife of the Pharaoh, standing up to her dictatorial bloodthirsty husband. These and others are celebrated as role models for both men and women in Islam.

With such robust archetypes, I keep asking myself what went wrong. How did some Muslim women end up not fully empowered, at the unprotected and miserable end of cultural oppression endorsed in the name of Islam?

There is no denying that some Muslim women do suffer and have not been granted the freedoms, choices and opportunities that are the right of all human beings (and are definitely guaranteed by Islam).

What is missing for Muslim women is knowledge, which comes from education, and also the courage to ask questions and have their voices heard.

In any discussion about women in Islam, it is important to point out that good standing in our societies is due to our knowledge of the egalitarian Quranic worldview of gender equity. This understanding has been possible for women like me only through education in Islamic law.

The fact that four Muslim lawyers from four Muslim states are appearing at the IBA conference is to the credit of Islam, and Islamic law. Muslim women lawyers who are strong, competent and committed to the rule of law are exactly what Islam needs.

But still, the idea of a strong role model is certainly not how Muslim women are portrayed in the western media.

The real problem with the West's perception of us is ignorance. Western media attention focuses almost entirely on appearance and stereotype, not substance.

You wouldn't know from western depictions that there have been female Muslim heads of state and there are numerous ministers, lawmakers, business leaders and other professionals. Muslim women are in distinguished posts and contributing to their economies in important ways, even while carrying out their roles as wives and mothers.

The real challenge for Muslim women in the public sphere has always been to change stereotypes, either simply by being articulate or by countering some of the less-than-ideal male Muslim spokespeople so often featured in the media.

But many Muslim women are still shy of media exposure, or are not given opportunities to shine. And unfortunately both Arabic and international media seem to select their "typical" Muslim spokesmen from the less-than-ideal crowd.

The other challenge in the Arab world is the perception of all articulate and outspoken women as "activists" - a term and an idea that contradict the traditional notion of Muslim women if used without the connection with Islam.

Even women's groups see "activism" connected to Islam as counterproductive to promoting empowerment; many of these groups merely promote the submissive portrayal of women instead of working to empower women on the basis of Islamic arguments and references.

But as noted in a recent report on Islamic female activism from the Danish Institute for International Studies, outspoken Muslim women "are potentially important future partners for external actors such as bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and NGOs". Only by speaking out as Muslim women activists will we be heard.

When our cries for improvement are substantiated by reference to the theory and substance of Islamic teachings, Muslim women's mission will become more visible, recognisable and accessible.


Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai