The deconstruction of the myth of the "oppresses Muslim
By Zahra Seif-Amirhosseini
The situation of Muslim women is often treated as if their condition was a direct
consequence of their "Muslimness". The socio-economic and political milieu is not
considered. The position of women in Islam can not be considered in a vacuum, it
must be placed within socio-political and historic framework. One can not consider
social change outside of the world/global context. In order to understand the role of
women within the family, for example, it is necessary to examine economic
development and political change-which in turn are affected by regional and global
development. For Europe the memory of the fear of the advance of the Ottoman
Empire as far as Hungary is not so distant. The early part of the 20th century saw the
breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and by the mid 20th century most urban Muslims
could not but be aware of the westernization of much of their daily life.
Veiling & Segregation
The question of the position of Muslim women must be placed within this overall
schema and can not be considered as an independent entity. It would be wrong to
consider the whole of the historic development of the Muslim world in terms of the
challenges of the western world. One, can not, however, overlook the global impact of
the west. The evaluation of the west and western civilisation has become a necessary
component of the recent Islamists movements. During the 18th century the west as a
conceptual entity played little or no role in the thinking of the leaders of the Islamists
Veiling and segregation of women in Islamic countries are seen as the two most
obvious symbols of women's oppression and male dominance. The refusal to give up
these "backward", "unmodern", "uncivilised" customs may be, alternatively viewed as
the refusal to part with ones own cultural identity. The maintenance of one's own
identity instead of making oneself over in the form desired and accepted by another. If
we consider the concept of clothing in its global context, it is obviously divers.
Clothing only becomes "problematic" when it serves as a political symbol, the
outward manifestation of an ideology. In the 20th century the wearing of the veil has
become highly politicised, a means of reaffirming identities.
The Iranian Revolution is a prime example, a lot of women who did not previously
put on the chaddor began to wear it to show their support for the revolution and
rejection of western ideals. It is interesting to note that in Iran today the loose wearing
of the veil by women is used to illustrate their opposition to the regime. This point
clearly demonstrates the politicisation of Islamic principles to suit the particular needs
of particular times.
During the Algerian struggle for independence, the use of the veil, modesty and
segregation of women were attributed to religion and "magical, fanatic" behaviour by
the colonisers. The wearing of the veil as the assertion of a distinctive identity,
concerned with keeping intact the few shreds of national identity. It was precisely
because the colonisers were so intent on removing the veil, that it became a
mechanism of resistant. So far we have dealt with Islam as it is socially and politically
Is Islam inherently oppressive?
The question which still remains is; "is Islam inherently oppressive to women? What
are the Islamic teachings concerning women? Is there consistency or contradiction
between Islamic teachings and its manifested reality?
We would argue that there is definitely contradiction. Many of the rights of women
stated in the Qur'an are not fulfilled in reality, mainly due to the inherent patriarchal
structures, which throughout time have come to take on an Islamic guise. The denial
of the intrinsic rights of women in many Islamic countries is argued by some scholars
as being a consequential effect of suppressive cultural traditions. Tradition which do
not have Islamic roots but rather pre-Islamic ones, which are established within and
thrive through the following factors:
1) The oppression of society as a whole, (as discussed earlier) and the double
oppression of women.
2) Lack of substantial funds directed at "Grassroots" educational programs which are
sensitive to the particular needs of women.
3) The inaccessibility to unbiased centres of doctrinal and spiritual education for
4) The formation of "extra-Qur'anic" gender-roles, due to the lack of education, i.e.:
Gender roles derived from cultural traditions, rather than Qur'anic teachings.
5) The perpetuation of these gender-roles within the family.
6) The acceptance of the" given" gender-identity, and its consequential outcome for
women: Lack of education, illiteracy, lack of political representation, economic
dependency, and violence, to name but a few.
So what are the Qur'anic teaching concerning women? The interpretations on women
can be divided into three basic categories:
1) Those who argue that according to the Qur'an women are equal but have socially
different roles to men, which are view as prescribed and defined by the Qur'anic
teachings. The primarily role of the women is motherhood and the raising of children.
Her domain is the domestic sphere, which is "best suited" to her nature. The man's
domain is the public realm, as the provider. It is argued that although spiritually there
is no difference between the sexes, socially man is a "degree" above woman.
2) The new interpretations offered by Muslim women scholars, such as Amina
Wadud-Muhsin. Muhsin argues that the Qur'an does not support a specific stereotype
role for its characters, male or female. Many popular and dominant ideas about the
role of women do not have sanctions from the Qur'an, pointing these out , causes
problems not so much with the logical analysis of the texts, but within the application
of these ideas in the context in which Muslim societies operate. There is no inherent
value placed on man and woman, there is no arbitrary preordained and eternal system
The Qur'an does not strictly delineate the role of women and the role of men to such
an extent as to propose only a single possible outcome for each gender. In the Qur'an,
there is no indication that mothering is theo nly exclusive role of women. Respect is
given to the female procreator and to the function of childbearing, this does not,
however, mean that women must only be mothers.
3) A Gnostic interpretation of gender roles, which is concerned with a higher reality
and the essence of Islam, such as one offered by Seyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr views the
difference between the sexes as not reducible to anatomy or biology, but in terms of a
microcosmic reflection of a higher reality. The duality of the sexes is the earthly
representation of the dual principles of the Divine Nature. Namely, the principle of
Absolute Majesty and Infinite Beauty. Man is the representative of the principle of
Majesty and women of Beauty. The relationship between the sexes is not hierarchical
but rather mutually interdependent. It is through the unity of these two aspects that
one attains inner contentment. Hence the saying that marriage is half of Islam.
In Islam sexuality is seen as a means of perfecting the human state and on the highest
level a symbol of the union with God. Love between the sexes is seen as inseparable
from the love of God. It is precisely because of this that the theme of love as realised
gnosis, dominates Islamic spirituality. God is symbolised inters of the Beloved and
the female as the precious being that is the keeper of the inner paradise, which is
hidden from man as a result of the loss of the "eye of heart". Female beauty can aid
man to return to the centre once again, to inner peace, which is inseparable from the
name "al-Islam", meaning peace.
It is interesting to note that Nasr offers a alternative interpretation of "Modern", in
terms of that which is cut off from the Transcendent, it is all that is divorced and cut
off from the Divine source.
The need for educational programmes
For far too long Muslim women have argued that Islam per se is not patriarchal but
rather it is the male-dominated religious institutions, which have presented a negative
and inherently patriarchal interpretation of Islam, and have called for a process of
'reinterpretation'. The time has come to take this argument a step further and not only
ask why is it that the legal status and social position of women in the Muslim world is
worse than anywhere else in view. Muslim countries of the Middle East and South
East Asia have a distinct gender disparity in literacy and education, as well as low
rates of female labour force participation.
In 1980 the proportion of women to men in paid labour force was lowest in the
Middle East, only 29%, though not far behind Latin America. High fertility rate, low
literacy and low labour force participation are commonly linked to the low status of
women, which in turn is often attributed to the prevalence of Islam in the Middle East.
This can not be explained purely in terms of Islamic theology and jurisprudence as the
major determinant of women's status. Wider socio-political issues need to be primary
addressed, and fundamental obstacles need to be removed and this can not only be
achieved through higher access, not only to formal education, but to grass-roots
education. There is a need for grass roots educational programmes, which
encompasses both doctrinal and specialised learning, targeted at those women who
may have little or no access to formal educational opportunities as wellas those who
do, in order to over come cultural prejudices which stand in their way.