Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves
“Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms.” The Qur’an, The Chapter of Light
I deal a lot with stereotypes working with Muslims. I do love busting the stereotypes Americans have of Muslims, which is the best part of my job. It seems the biggest stereotype I smack my head against every time I talk about Muslims is about women. Maybe just behind the big one, the granddaddy of all stereotypes that all, and I mean all Muslims, are terrorists. All Muslim women are oppressed. It’s interesting to me that we have this view of them, considering most people I engage on this topic don’t actually know a Muslim woman. But, they vehemently believe every Muslim woman that covers is oppressed. Oh, and all Muslim men live to oppress them because Islam itself is oppressive to women.
I think I can safely say, with all the places I have traveled to, that women are oppressed worldwide. Regardless of age, ethnicity, religion, education, or socio-economical status, women are oppressed to some degree or another all over the world. For that matter, since the beginning of time, even in my own country, as modern and equal as America is in the 21st century. How long have women been able to vote, held positions of power, such as president, or received the same amount of pay for the same job as a man? Shall we consider the objectification of women in advertising or how pornography runs rampant in our culture? We have much to think about in our own country about sexism and misogyny. But, it’s just easier to point our finger at another culture and religion and assume how oppressed other women are. Also, how much they need us to free them.
Here’s the thing. We might want to ask them. Or better yet, have relationship with them. I understand, maybe better than you do, how much of a boundary is there. The world of a Muslim woman is steeped in mystery. It’s a world rarely visited and rarely understood. I do have Muslim friends, some very close, some acquaintances, and some that I’ll never be close to, just like any of my American friends. Many barriers separate us as women; add a different culture and religion to that already steep wall between us. I do believe that it’s my responsibility to cross over any barrier to engage others with love.
Would it surprise you to know that most of the Muslim women I know aren’t forced to cover? Some are, don’t get me wrong, most are not. Many view it as a way to be modest, a way to show their devotion to God. Many cover because it’s cultural; it’s just what you do in a Muslim culture. And still others cover to be viewed for what they say and do, not what they look like, as a way of not to being objectified.
This is only one aspect of their lives, whether a women is covered or not but it happens to be the one aspect many people get stuck on, it somehow defines a Muslim woman completely. Maybe, we should just ask them about their lives. Why they cover, why they don’t, what they hope for, what they long for, what hurts them, what their dreams are, what their spiritual life looks like or just what their lives are actually like. To see them without our pity, without our biases, without our fear, to see them as women just like us, as equals.
It is a very real possibility that they don’t want the kind of freedom we have. Maybe freedom isn’t letting your hair down or dressing provocatively. Maybe freedom or life isn’t found in outward appearance. Maybe our freedom is found in the sacredness of the feminine by recovering our voice and to be all God created a woman to be. The feminine gets so beaten in this world. That’s why I love Jesus, despite what Christianity has done to women throughout the ages, Jesus loved women and they were prominent throughout his life and ministry. Who was the first to see him after the resurrection?
Instead of me, some white American Christian woman telling you what Muslim women think about being a Muslim or if they are oppressed, I asked a friend. She’s Muslim, well educated, and a dear friend. Here’s what she wrote in its entirety:
“I was asked by a friend of mine to write what being a Muslim means to me and this really got me to think. I have identified myself as a Muslim quite early in my life. I have spent my early childhood in Saudi Arabia and was familiarized with detailed aspects of Islam early on. In fact, I have memorized big parts of the Quraan (our holy book) when I was just 6 years old. The Quraan is written in Arabic and its language has been described as "rhymed prose" as it partakes of both poetry and prose and thus it is not an easy task for someone so young to memorize it.
My parents although religiously devout, they encouraged us to read and learn instead of following blindly what we are told. This helped me makeup my own mind and follow my own religious journey when I came back to Lebanon. I returned to my home country (Lebanon) as a teenager which opened a new world for me. Lebanon encompasses people of different religions and sects. It has the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East, comprising 18 recognized religious sects. The main two religions are Christianity (the Maronite Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East) and Islam (Shia and Sunni). There is also the Druze minority religion. During my years at school and college, my closest friends were from other religions and we reached a point where we can discuss our different religious beliefs and practices in a very mature and respectable manner. I had to say mature and respectable knowing that this religious diversity caused a civil war in my country around 30 years ago. The moment you understand that the person in front of you was born and raised to follow a specific religion just like you and not only that but this warm unexplainable feeling of peace you get when you are connecting with god is something they have felt too, then you realize that we are not as different as our society forces us to think. I think what I am trying to say is although being Muslim has guided me to God just like any other religion is supposed to do. It has helped me with my religious journey but it does not define me as a person; only my faith does. “
*A great resource on learning more about Muslim women is the book, Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks.