This post was written by guest contributor Arwa Aburawa.
About a week ago, I was sitting in a cafe talking to a new acquaintance about racism. The person in question had worked on issues of race and racism for some time and I would say is a lot more clued up about the tensions and insidious forms of racism than I am. Even so, I was a little shocked to hear her say that she preferred the outward racism of her childhood than today’s hidden-behind-a-smile-racism. Personally, I didn’t want to go through the experience of having my hijab pulled off and being called a ‘Paki’ (derogatory term for Pakistani) by complete strangers again.
But as she explained, that childish racism was at least easy to confront and fight against. If a kid called you a ‘Paki’, you could at least tell them to piss off, thump them or maybe try and explain that, in fact, you are not of Pakistani origin (not that that matters to them or is even the point). However, about two days ago, another lovely friend of mine found something a little scary on her Apple Mac which made me question the destructive impact of the ‘quiet racism’ that normally goes unnoticed and unchallenged.
While looking up the word ‘relegation’ on the Mac’s own dictionary, this definition came up in the thesaurus section. It reads:
Islamic tradition and tribal custom relegate women to lives at home. DOWNGRADE, lower, lower in rank/status, put down, move down; demote, degrade. ANTONYM upgrade.
I know what you’re thinking. This has to be a joke or mistake of some kind. It’s not. Hidden in the Apple Dictionary version 2.0.3 (51.5) © Copyright 2005-2007, is this prejudiced and exasperatingly simplistic description of Islam and the role that women play within the faith. The source appears to be this 1996 CNN article.
So, let’s break it down a little and unpack that sentence.
First: What is meant by tribal custom? I am assuming that they don’t mean that Islamic tradition is much like the rest of the world’s tribal customs in its “relegation” of women to the home, but that in fact Islamic tradition and Islamic tribal custom are seen as one and the same. This is odd as I imagine that the tribal customs of say, Indonesia or Azerbaijan are very different to those of Saudi Arabia or Nigeria. So what tribal customs are they actually talking about? One might guess that they are referring to the Arab world, given the common assumption that Arab and Muslim are the same – although of course Arabs aren’t necessarily Muslims and Muslims aren’t necessarily Arab. On the other hand, one might also think of the tradition of purdah which crosses religious lines and has historically been observed by both Hindu and Muslim communities in some parts of India and South Asia.
In either case, the attempt to locate which custom is intended underlines the fact that the very idea of an “Islamic tribal custom” is nonsensical, since customs in the Islamic world are so diverse and include everything from patriarchal traditions which stop women from wearing trousers to the world’s largest matrilineal society amongst the Indonesian Muslims of Sumatra.
Second: Islamic tradition does not relegate women to lives in the home. It doesn’t stop them from working, earning their own money, being independent and choosing not to consign their entire lives to the domestic sphere. Yes, there are some conservative Islamic clerics who preach that a woman’s place is in the home – just as there are conservatives in all religions who hold that opinion.
However, there are millions of Muslim women who do work, now and in the past. And if we consider Islamic tradition to be our heritage, the past does provide us with inspiring examples of the public role of women in early Islamic socieities. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Khadijah, the Prophet Muhammed’s (pbuh) first wife who was his employer, owned her own business in the 7th century and was influential in the public arena. Indeed in the Qur’an and hadith, Prophet Muhammad’s wives are portrayed as dynamic members of the Muslim community who were fully engaged in Muslim public affairs. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, for example, was involved in military raids and political affairs and took part in the Battle of the Camel.
If you want to find out more- read anything by Margot Badran, Miriam Cooke, Laila Ahmed, Amina Wadud or just google ‘Islamic Feminism’.
Back to Apple’s thesaurus: what’s more frightening than the casual Islamophobia my friend stumbled on her Mac laptop, is the idea that someone – someone with less knowledge of Islam and Muslims – has looked up ‘relegate’ and now thinks it’s okay and widely accepted that Islam relegates women to the home. That Islam, “downgrades” and “degrades” women and dismisses them as “lower in rank/status”. Whilst this definition has been removed in the updated version of the dictionary – it doesn’t say this in my 2007-2009 Mac dictionary version – I can’t believe there hasn’t been an effort to remove it completely. I don’t think it is acceptable for anyone to look up the word ‘relegate,’ and read a simplistic Islamophobic definition which presents itself as incontrovertible ‘fact’.