x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Muslim women must regain narrative in bid for equality

Those who say Muslim women are oppressed should understand that certain practices are actually rooted in secular culture, not in Islam.

In some parts of the world, Islam's treatment of Muslim women bears no resemblance to the teachings of the Prophet. Subsequently, Muslim women have become a lens through which Islam is viewed and judged.

Prophet Muhammad was born into a patriarchal society, where women were disenfranchised, sold like chattels. Girls were often buried alive. A man could marry as many women as he pleased and discard them at whim. The Prophet banished all these cruel practices and granted women rights that other women around the world did not have.

The message was clear: while different, men and women were equal. Islam does not regard women as sullied and sinful, nor does it call for a unisex society denying their differences. God created them to fulfil different, but complementary roles and responsibilities in society. A mother's role is important and honourable - three times greater than that of a father, for instance.

Some feminists see society's restrictions as a barrier to women attaining their full potential. But Islam does not prohibit women from pursuing their talents. Muslim history is a reservoir of examples of how women participated in political and social affairs.

Men and women are equal in terms of their religious obligations such as the daily prayers, fasting, charity and the pilgrimage. The distinguishing criterion is righteousness.

Many view the Quran's divergent treatment of men and women in relation to inheritance, testimony and marriage as evidence of inequalities. But this needs to be looked at within the context of Islam as a whole. Treating men and women differently does not mean treating them unequally.

Muslims see the Quran and Sunnah - and the first century of Islam, for that matter - as embodying equality and justice for women. The Quran is not inherently patriarchal, and neither was Prophet Muhammad's message.

From time immemorial women have been viewed as inferior to men in almost all cultures. Aristotle once declared: "The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities."

Essentialist ideas pervaded western philosophy for centuries and were used as a catalyst to deny women the basic rights of education, the vote, inheritance and employment. It was due to these inequalities that feminism emerged as a movement in the West fighting against sexist societies. To this day feminists are stridently determined to expunge sexism from society. But in their quest to emancipate women, feminists have ignored the fundamental differences between men and women and have argued that both sexes should have the same responsibilities.

I remember reading Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, which I found remarkably scathing. She criticised the traditional family structure and argued that heterosexuality is a form of oppression.

I became disenchanted reading feminist books, which seemed to allude to the fact that being a Muslim woman meant male domination and sexual passivity which debilitates a woman and prevents her from reaching her full potential.

Discourse around Muslim women has been tainted since the epoch of colonialism. In some parts of the Muslim world the elite view Islam through the prism of western perception, believing that Muslim women are oppressed. Sadly, throughout the Muslim world, this has created a huge chasm between the westernised elite and non-westernised masses.

Part of this is self-inflicted. Recently I have been reading the works of Nonie Darwish, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan and have been shocked at how they paint a devastatingly bleak portrait of Muslim women. Sadly, though, these voices are hailed as credible in the West for their brashness in criticising Islam.

Like many other Muslim women, I find peace in Islam and don't believe Islam is oppressive towards women. However, the negative depictions of Muslim women are not phantoms. In some parts of the world women are oppressed and Islam should not be conflated with these cultural practices. Muslim women do need liberating, not from Islam but from their indigenous cultures.


Sahar Khan is a British writer completing a PhD on the topic of Islam at the University of Leeds. She is at work on a book exploring Islam and Muslim women