SINCE SAUDI ARABIA IS THE BIRTHPLACE FOR ISLAM, DON’T MUSLIMS FOLLOW WHAT THE SAUDIS PREACH?
Saudi Arabia as a country only came into being in 1932 (less than 90 years ago) or over 1300 years after Muhammad (PBUH)’s death, so no, Saudi is not exactly the birthplace of Islam.
Mecca and Medina are indeed two key cities located within present-day Saudi Arabia. By governing the cities Mecca and Medina after its founding, the Saudi royal family has self-appointed itself as the guardian of the two Holy mosques but this does not in any way make them leaders over the Muslim community worldwide.
PRESENT-DAY MIDDLE EAST IS MODELLED ON AN IDEAL ISLAMIC SOCIETY.
Considering the simple, ascetic lifestyle Muhammad (PBUH) encouraged Muslims to lead, it is shocking the number of Muslim leaders living in sheer opulence in the Middle East and elsewhere today. It is also worth asking how does one generalise the entire Muslim world with the actions of what for example, Saudi Arabia which accounts for less than 2 percent of the world’s Muslim population that is, 34 million population does especially when no other Muslim-majority country around the world has the kind of regressive laws some Middle Eastern countries are infamous for.
Therefore, one could argue present-day Middle East does little to resemble the equal rights Muhammad (PBUH) promised when he was sent to mankind as a Prophet. Having said that, the West is also not exactly a beacon for women’s rights either. America today ranks top of a notorious list, in terms of women abuse and rape in the world today (where every two minutes a women is sexually assaulted and where 44 percent of the victims are under the age of 18) according to statistics by RAINN, America’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. But finger pointing is a cop-out and can go on until kingdom comes.
It is more important people understand, Islam as a religion is not based on the Islam practiced in for example, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East or (Aceh) Indonesia but true Islam practiced privately within the homes of genuine ordinary Muslims around the world – that every Muslim firmly believes only God-Allah is the able judge of what is right and wrong and not some Arab cleric who delivers lengthy speeches on moral codes and religious edicts and yet remains eerily silent when it comes to condemning the chauvinistic rule of some tyrannical dictators in the Middle East.
HOW CAN MUSLIMS THEN STILL BE STUCK WITH A SEVENTH-CENTURY VIEW WHEN IT COMES TO ITS WOMEN?
A number of Middle Eastern countries have strangely regressed to a view that is anything but seventh century, or after the passing of Muhammad (PBUH). Women enjoyed great rights and mobility then unlike present-day Middle East and in many respects the seventh century was inarguably the best century for women given the voluminous rights given to women, a large portion of which the West finally introduced 100 years ago or 1300 years following the advent of Islam.
Consent in marriage, freedom to work and control over economic livelihood, freedom from violence were all indeed unheard of among the monotheist religions until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. But not long after those rights were established men mobilised to undermine these revolutionary advancements and corrode the gains made by women. (Source: Yassmin Abdel-Magied said nothing wrong. She should not have to face this venom, Joumanah El Matrah, 21 February 2017, The Guardian)
In fact, like in all monotheistic religions, middle-aged men controlled how Islam was to be understood and consequently a tradition was produced that favoured the worldview, interests and needs of men, thus there is no denying a large portion of what we see today is the corrupted cultural practices labeled Islamic, when it is anything but.
For example, homosexuality is considered a major sin in Islam but so is disrespecting parents; having sex outside marriage; severing ties of kinship; theft – all considered equally grievous along with 10 other major sins on the list in Islam.
Yet disproportional condemnation is reserved exclusively towards homosexuality and not nearly as much passionate intolerance directed towards some of the other major sins listed above, laying bare the misogynistic hijacking of Islam today by Muslim men which many Muslim feminist theologians, academic and circuit speakers today armed with decades of scholarship are working very hard towards reclaiming while on the other hand – overcoming the mainstream media narrative on Muslim women which is riddled with hyperbole, stigma, and misinformation.
DIDN’T MUHAMMAD MARRY A SIX-YEAR OLD AND CONSUMMATE THEIR MARRIAGE WHEN SHE WAS ONLY 9-12?
Scientifically verifiable, girls from that century and many generations thereafter the world over used to enter puberty much earlier due to varying climatic and geographical conditions then and thus, used to get married much sooner. Even boys were married off by the age of 10-13. This however was not limited to the Middle East but all over the world, including in Christian, non-Christian and atheist’ communities for a good part of the last 1,900 years. In fact, the idea of setting the age limit to 18 only came about less than 100-120 years ago.
Fast forward to 2017, Florida is one of 47 US states today that permits children of any age to be married with their parents’ permission and a ground-breaking report issued in 2011 found that some 9.4 million American girls were married before age 16. Nevertheless, it may be worth guessing the 18-year age limit may be too young in another 50-70 years.
Focusing on the question at hand and at the time of Muhammad (PBUH) 1400 years ago, the concept of schooling or seeking a career didn’t exist either therefore the fact that Muhammad (PBUH) married Aisha, when she was young was never an issue, not even to the Islamophobes of that era, as this was perfectly normal. What was not normal however was to stay married as women were used and disposed of during the era of ignorance (Jahiliya), before the advent of Islam but remarkably, Aisha and Muhammad (PBUH) remained married until his dying day when he died at age 63, with his head in her lap.
To however understand why this marriage took place when it did, Dr. Resit Hay Lamaz, author of the remarkable book “Aisha: The Wife, The Companion, The Scholar” explains it best:
Given the unique proximity to Muhammad (PBUH) thanks to the marriage, “Aisha’s bright, inquisitive mind and quick wit facilitated the transmission of knowledge that would have been next to impossible to transmit. Therefore as a direct result of this marriage, the 9-year old Muhammad (PBUH) married became the most important interpreter of the Qur’an and the main teacher of Hadith, becoming the foremost transmitter of Islam unlike any other. Perceptive scholars such as Hakim have said that one-fourth of the body of religious knowledge [Hadith or narrated teachings of Prophet Muhammad – PBUH] was transferred to us through Aisha [given her unrivalled proximity]. Following Muhammad (PBUH)’s death, when possible controversies arose, Aisha was a kind arbitrator. For mistakes on religious issues that emerged, she was a dignified corrector and a decisive and patient example of the straight path of Islam. If there is one woman responsible for the huge important expansion in the rights of women, Aisha is to be credited first and foremost. Aisha defended women not because they were right. She did not refrain from admonishing women who were wrong, who went too far, who were trying to force the boundaries of religion. Justice and equity was the essence of her decision-making, illustrating how the young nine-year old he married came to become revered throughout the Muslim world rightfully, as the Mother of all Believers”.
BUT ALL RELIGIONS INCLUDING ISLAM HAVE A PATRIACHIAL ATTITUDE TOWARDS ITS WOMEN.
From peddling stereotypes that show Muslim women as constantly oppressed to the hijab, which is seen as the epitome of oppression, the idea that Islam encourages unfairness towards women has been a favorite claim of the Islamophobia industry for years. There is nothing in the Qur’an to justify the controlled seclusion of women.
As an example, Muhammad (PBUH)’s first wife or the very first person to become a Muslim in the Prophet’s era, Khadija (R.A) was a noble businesswomen before they met and there are plenty of historical documents that prove she held her own therefore if not anything else, the Saudi government may have appointed themselves the “Guardian of the two Holy Mosques” and our women but they are not all role models for Muslims within the country let alone, outside the country, a bitter truth most ordinary Muslims will privately, if not publicly admit.
ALL FUNDAMENTALIST RELIGIONS (INCLUDING THOSE ROOTED IN JUDAISM OR CHRISTIANITY) SEEK TO CONTROL FEMALE SEXUALITY.
The key problem with this argument is that it conflates a moral right with a factual inaccuracy. While it is perfectly right to criticise any culture that limits women, one ought to at the very least understand Islam is a religion and not a culture. If the Saudis for example, who account for less than two percent of the world’s Muslim population and are not in any way, shape or form representative of Islam impose prohibitive restrictions on the movement and rights of women, it has more to do with their culture than the rights given to women in Islam. Besides, if this were in any way Islamic, why are the same restrictions not applied in other fifty-odd Muslim-majority countries around the world?
Progress towards women’s rights in the West had to wait until the late-19th and early-20th centuries and even to this day, fast forward a hundred years there remains a huge disparity in those rights, regardless of whether people in the West admit or deny it. Wage inequality, glass ceiling, high heels and dress code expectations to name a few, are still issues in many parts of the West.
Quoting directly from another important article on the subject: “Islam on the other hand institutionalised gender equality upon its inception, in far worse circumstances”. (Source: Islam Is Actually A Feminist Religion: 5 Myths About Islam, Mint Press News)
The pre-Islamic environment of 7th century Mecca, with its tribalism, lack of law and order and constant warfare, was strongly male-dominated. The advent of Islam challenged the status quo and sought not only to introduce a new kind of social order but to limit the excesses of Meccan society, which directly harmed women and girls. (Source: No, Islam Is Not Inherently Misogynistic. Here’s Why by Bina Shah, 23 July, 2015, Huffington Post)
It is therefore bewildering why the religion that had revolutionised the status of women is still being singled out and repeatedly misrepresented as so repressive of women. This misinformation about Islam is inarguably one of two most widespread myths about Islam in our world today, with the role of violence in Islam as the other contentious issue often exploited and misrepresented by Islamophobes. Having said that, this may in large part have to do with the way the loudest voices (and most unrepresentative of ordinary Muslims) act, speak and behave in public, while calling themselves Muslims.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record for this has been repeated more times than it has been necessary, it is unfair to blame Islam if a group of people or a given society does not follow the edicts based on the Qur’an and Hadiths (narrated sayings and recorded actions of Muhammad – PBUH). After all, it is only fair to look at what the religion of Islam or any other religions says about women and not what its deviant followers or people who call themselves Muslims do.
Put simply, blame the driver, not the car.
ISLAM AND MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES SHOULD BE CRITICISED IN THE MEDIA FOR FEMALE GENETILIA MUTILATION (FGM), FORCED MARRIAGES AND HONOUR KILLINGS.
People or countries that show little sign of wanting to bring to an absolute end to female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriages and honour killings should not only be condemned and criticised but every effort should be made to boycott these countries however, we need to first get our facts straight.
Female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honour killings are all often misreported as inherently Islamic issues, despite well-substantiated evidence of their presence in many other non-Islamic cultures around the world, including in Africa, sub-continent Hindu India and many non-animist countries around the world. In fact, why does the fact that Islam has clear precedents calling against all of the above seem to matter little in the generic media reporting while the fact that these are practiced by some Muslims and non-Muslims as part of their ancestral tradition and patriarchal culture (and not religion) matter so much?
The key is education and generating willingness from the community. Else nothing will change and women and girls in these cultures will remain in the same quagmire.
WHY THEN IS FGM SUCH AN ISSUE IN SO MANY MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES IN AFRICA?
Muslims account for only 12 percent of the population in Liberia while Christians account for 85.5 percent of the population and yet half of Liberian women and girls are estimated to have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), illustrating how FGM is not an Islamic issue but a cultural practice in Africa with zero health benefits that no doubt needs to be banned.
The same could be said for Eritrea that has a 50 percent Christian population or Ethiopia where Christians make up to 62 percent of the population and Kenya as well as Central African Republic where 83 percent are Christians. In all these cases, FGM remains a prevalent issue today. Undeniably, FGM is also a challenge for a number of Muslim-majority countries in Africa including Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti while Nigeria and Gambia, are two leading Muslim-majority countries in the African continent that have decided to move with the times with the relevant legislations enacted recently to help bring this barbaric practice to an end.
In reality though, unless tough legislation is enacted and properly enforced, it will remain an uphill battle to accelerate change in this abhorring form of child abuse and the lives and wellbeing of millions more girls will continue to be put at risk.
WHY ARE MUSLIM WOMEN DISRESPECTED IN ISLAM AND REQUIRED TO COVER UP SO MUCH?
In the words of Imam Mongy Elquesny, leader of the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center in Crown Point: “If your definition of disrespect is due to the requirement of women in Islam to dress modestly then you can make the same argument for nuns and the Virgin Mary being disrespected in the Christian faith . . . You can also make the argument that those women in the entertainment industry who are encouraged to not dress modestly are creating an environment that focuses on the physical appeal of women rather than their intellect. Therefore, that ends up disrespecting women too”. (Source: Muslim leaders address questions about Islamic faith, culture by Jerry Davich, 3 April 2016, Chicago Tribune)
WHY DO MUSLIM WOMEN INSIST ON WEARING THE HIJAB OR HEADSCARF?
Hijab has little to with the headscarf given how Hijab encompasses much more than an article of clothing. In the eloquent words of Rawan AbuShaban: Hijab refers to one’s behavior, speech, countenance, and dress. It is a habitual practice that is applicable to both men and women. Not engaging in obnoxiousness, boisterous behavior, resisting flirtations, prolonged staring, and idleness with the opposite sex, and wearing clothes that conceal one’s figure, and preserve one’s beauty . . . Hijab isn’t something one wears; it is how one is. A person’s hijab is one’s modesty in its entirety. It is an Islamic code of conduct, respect for oneself and for one another. (Source: Differentiating the Hijab From the Headscarf by Rawan AbuShaban, 15 Feb 2016, Huffington Post)
In a separate article, Assignment Editor/Producer and Writer Slma Shelbayah at CNN shares: “At a time when a woman’s body is often depicted sexually in the fashion and media industry, it can feel liberating and empowering not caving into these idealized images . . . Let me not forget those who are forced to wear hijab unwillingly. They also exist. To their perpetrators, I say, “you do not represent Islam nor do Muslims want to be associated with you for imposing your political agenda on women . . . It sits on my head so silently, yet says so much as a symbol. It makes me stand out from the crowd. It screams that I am different. And though my body is physically covered, the scarf puts all of me on display”. (Source: Removing hijab, finding myself By Slma Shelbayah, Assignment Editor/Producer and Writer, CNN, November 11, 2015, CNN)
Perhaps Dr. Ali Merad, a professor of Arabic literature and civilisation at the University of Lyon, France says it best: “If a woman wears a short skirt and drinks wine, Frenchmen don’t care about her skin colour. But when she wears a headscarf, France becomes neurotic”. (Source: Dining with Terrorists, Author, Phil Rees)
WEARING A BURQINI IS AN OBVIOUS SIGN A PERSON DOES NOT WISH TO ACCEPT THE CUSTOMS AND HABITS OF THE COUNTRY WHERE THEY HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE.
Telling Muslim women they have to be at least semi-naked in order to prove their inclusiveness is astonishingly hypocritical: Politicians too talk constantly about integration, and then proceed to push to the fringes the very women they claim are oppressed and excluded from society. (Source: Five reasons to wear a burkini – and not just to annoy the French, Remona Aly, 15 August 2016, The Guardian)
In France, a nun in traditional dress is seen as going about her day, whereas a woman in a headscarf is taking over public space in the name of Islam. (Source: The West can have burkinis or democracy, but not both, Yascha Mounk, 27 August 2016, Foreign Policy Magazine)
If there was any doubt that the French belief in freedom of expression is wholly one-sided, it has surely vanished now. France cannot be in favour of free expression when it offends Muslims, but whines about provocation when Muslims and others choose to be different. (Source: France defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to o end – so why can’t a Muslim woman in a burkini ‘offend’ us too?, Sunny Hundal, 25 August 2016, The Independent)
Isn’t it bizzare that when the Saudis tell you how to dress it is oppression, but when France does it, it’s called liberation. If women in thongs and string bikinis can express themselves, who is being harmed if a women chooses to cover up on a beach? (Source: Burkini controversy puzzles North Jersey Muslim women, Patricia Alex and Monsy Alvarado, 28 August 2016, USA Today)
A burqini is simply a garment, for example, for a modest person, someone with skin cancer, or a new mother who doesn’t want to wear a bikini. It is not symbolic of Islam. (Source: Why we wear the burkini: five women on dressing modestly at the beach, Carmen Fishwick, 31 August 2016, The Guardian)
As sociologist Agnès De Féo said during an interview with CBS News: It is easier to accuse French Muslims “than to solve real social problems: unemployment, poverty, and social inequality”. (Source: France’s burkini bans justifiable security measures or Islamophobia, Pamela Falk, 25 August 2016, CBS News)
The French establishment talks about “liberty, equality, fraternity”. It claims to want Muslim women to achieve independence from their men, but deprives them of the means to acquire it, by keeping them indoors. This is a betrayal of its own core values. (Source: How a legal misunderstanding is fuelling France’s witch-hunt of Muslim women, Christine Delphy, 29 August 2016, The Guardian)
In fact, if the self-professed feminists of the world really want Muslim women not be oppressed, it may be worth asking what we are all doing about the rising Islamophobia slowly becoming a legitimate ideology in the West, because that Islamophobia disproportionately hurts visibly Muslim women most.
Susan Carland, a lecturer at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, says it best: Yet for something about which so many people are adamantly sure, I feel there is very little information from the women actually involved . . . It’s uncanny how often people try to demonstrate their concern about the alleged oppression of Muslim women by humiliating them. (Source: If you want to know about Muslim women’s rights, ask Muslim women by Susan Carland, 7 May 2017, The Guardian)
YET THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT ISLAM THAT LEADS INEXORABLY TO THE SUBJUGATION OF WOMEN.
We ordinary Muslims need to fully [re-learn], understand and acknowledge the unique rights of Muslim women in Islam and distinguish this [indisputable] fact with the un-Islamic and poor treatment of women in certain if not most Muslim-majority countries today. While Islam offers more than equal rights to women in our midst, the powers that be as well as patriarchal societies in Muslim-majority countries continue to repress such rights to women in their own societies. Muslim women today suffer social and cultural marginalization, political exclusion, economic discrimination and threats, and acts of violence all over the world. (Source: How can the rights of Islamic women be improved? By Maha Akeel, 23 March 2016, Newsweek)
The point is, women are certainly not mistreated in Islam but also do not enjoy the optimal equal rights in many Muslim-majority countries they rightly deserve.
However, the same argument could be made for many non-Muslim countries around the world today. From violence and rape against women that has become rife in reality and on TV, the cinema and on stage to the unashamed mourning of celebrities accused of sexual abuse let alone mainstreaming of pedophilia, pornography and sexual abuse, the West is hardly a beacon for women rights.
After all, aren’t celebrities in the West often compelled to take their clothes off to “grace” covers of magazines with soft-porn photo shoots to help with their profile while advertisements involving women having orgasms about food are increasingly commonplace today? Indeed, no one does it better than the West when it comes to reducing women into “empowered” sexual objects especially since pornography, became widely available on the internet at the turn of the century.
In fact, some women are under so much pressure today to be “sexy” that they have stopped standing up for themselves and each other in matters relating to sexual abuse, body shaming and rape. Again, volumes have been written about this, to no avail.
Granted, rape is not only just confined to the West but is endemic in many shady, impoverished corners of the globe as well but to claim women in the West are better off than their counterparts in the East let alone parts of the Middle East could not be more further from the truth and is most certainly an issue that can be vigorously argued from almost all sides.
WHY THEN ARE FEMINISTS THE WORLD OVER CONCERNED ABOUT DETERIORATING RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN ISLAM?
How then would you explain the deafening and choking silence from white feminists (ever ready to liberate Muslim women from Muslim patriarchy) and yet stony, hypocritical silence when it came to condemning the French and the EU courts for policing women how to dress and restricting the fundamental liberties of Muslim women in France?
Women’s rights are theirs, and the subject has no place being bandied about by uppity Muslim women. Feminism is something the West beneficently imposes on Muslims, never something that can be indigenously theirs, and certainly never in a form that isn’t Western, liberal and secular. To them, the only way a Muslim can be a feminist is to view Islam with the same unwavering misogyny-goggles they do. (Source: Yassmin Abdel-Magied and the Australian crucible, Susan Carland, 25 February 2017, The Saturday Paper)
Citing a number of further examples of leading commentators starting with: Sunny Hundal at the Independent Newspaper wrote:
“France cannot be in favour of free expression when it offends Muslims, but whine about provocation when Muslims choose to be different. This is astonishingly hypocritical.” (Source: France defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend – so why can’t a Muslim woman in a burkini ‘offend’ us too?, 26 August 2016, The Independent)
Arundhati Roy too, eloquently put it: “Coercing a woman out of the burka instead of enabling her to choose is an act of violence, humiliation and cultural imperialism.” (Source: The burkini ban is misogynistic – and Western feminists are turning a blind eye, Huda Jawad, 13 August 2016, The Independent)
A nun is allowed to wear a headdress and not be called oppressed because she is devoting her life to Christianity, but as soon as a Muslim woman wears a headscarf, suddenly it’s called oppression and racists say these women are being forced to do things, but people forget it’s their own choice. (Source: Muslim girls fence against Islamophobia in the UK, Zeb Mustafa, 8 July 2016, Aljazeera.com)
There have been multiple incidents of schoolgirls being forbidden from wearing ‘long skirts’ to school – not when they’re worn as a fashion statement, but when they’re worn by Muslim girls because then it suddenly becomes a ‘religious symbol’. (Source: Dear white people of France: being forced to undress wasn’t exactly the liberation I was longing for, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, 24 August 2016, The Independent)
Given such, can a Muslim be faulted for asking where were the usually loud intersectional feminists of the world or actresses trying to brand themselves as feminist icons when Muslim women came under attack in one of the self-professed leading democracies of the world?
Alarmingly, the decision the EU judges made is strikingly like the anti-Jewish legislation that was passed in Germany prior to the Second World War. The Nuremberg laws specifically targeted a social group by restricting them on an economic level. Jews were banned from professions such as midwifery and law, and state contracts were cancelled with Jewish owned businesses. That is not dissimilar to telling a woman that she is not welcome at a workplace if she decides to identify as a member of a given faith. (Source: Europe has started to enshrine Islamophobia into law – history tells us this can’t end well, So a Ahmed, 14 March 2017, The Independent)
Therefore, how can we consider ourselves advocates and guideposts for feminism for the progression of all women and at the same time sideline Muslim women who are fighting systematic discrimination in the West?