Powerful Actors or Oppressed “Others”?: Violent Muslim Women in the News

In recent news, Muslim women have been highlighted for their violent actions towards in men in their society.

While comparing different articles reporting on the incident of the unnamed Iranian woman (whom I will refer to as the Bad Hijabi for convenience) who beat up the cleric who policed her for her “bad hijab,” I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkably imaginative accompanying photos:

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via CNN.

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Daily Mail.

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Global Post.

Iranian women dressed – surprise! – all in black. Via Huffington Post.

Iranian women dressed in purple with pink stripes and lime green polka dots. Just kidding. They’re wearing black. Via Bloomberg.

Okay, women in Iran wear black chadors, we get it. But there’s a class and ideological dimension to the chador, just as there is a class and ideological dimension to the women in Iran who wear manteaux, show some (highlighted) hair, and wear visible makeup. In fact, just like many of the harassed women, the Bad Hijabi was probably dressed like this:

An Iranian woman wearing some colour (for real). Via NPR.

More Iranian women. Are those coloured headscarves? Via RFERL.

By showing Iranian women only as black tents, living in a country where women’s rights are in a “sordid state,” these articles serve to compare Iranian women to their Western counterparts who are fighting to “go topless.” The lack of women’s rights is framed to focus on what they cannot wear and what they cannot do, even as similar restrictions on what they cannot wear are underway in FranceNetherlands, and Canada. Once again, we are invited to pity these Muslim women who must live under such repressed conditions, and support their efforts to fight against the men who hate them.

But it’s not actually about the hijab. [Read more...]

One Muslim Woman’s Perspective on Violence

Shahina Siddiqui’s article “True Muslim society protects women,” published this past weekend in the Winnipeg Free Press, presents one woman’s response to some of the sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities that has been in the media recently. Siddiqui condemns the murder of an Afghan women’s rights activist, the flogging of a young women in Pakistan, and other crimes committed by Muslims against Muslim women. She does so from her point of view as a Muslim woman, and argues passionately that these acts violate some of the most central principles of Islam.

It’s nice to see something hit the mainstream media that takes the perspective of condemning the violence without condemning Islam itself. In fact, Siddiqui argues that it because of Islam’s teachings on gender issues that Muslims should be condemning this violence. She reminds us of the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, a practice now symbolic of the jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic era or ignorance and oppression. Islam, she argues, “came to abolish” such practices; the prevalence of violence against women in Muslim communities should therefore be seen as profoundly un-Islamic, and as a source of shame for those who not only allow but even encourage such acts.

Siddiqui’s words are important, better quoted than summarised:

The history of Islam attests to the fact that when injustices and evil doings started to infest Muslim societies, it was the scholars, the keepers of wisdom, the guardians and trustees of shariah, that came out in droves to condemn, recapture and reform societies. They became mentors, role models and activists. Many were killed, imprisoned and exiled, but they persevered and brought about the cleansing that was necessary for social justice to prevail. Where are these holistic reformers today?

We know there are brave souls that have spoken up, like the imam who brought justice to Mukhtar Mai — a Pakistani victim of gang rape — or the hundreds who marched on the streets of Pakistan against the flogging in Swat. However, these will remain isolated events unless they can get leadership and support from people of knowledge who personify what they teach.

Unfortunately, today most Muslims, and especially women, are ill informed or have very rudimentary knowledge of their faith and can easily fall prey to spiritual parasites. These parasites need to be fumigated and our scholars alone can clean up this mess by challenging these warped understandings and interpretations. They must challenge these spiritual oppressors to public debates and defeat them in the public square to help release the hold these oppressors have on the innocent populace. Our sisters must believe that they are entitled to the same human rights as men. They must rise on the shoulders of our scholars, since there is nothing more empowering than the knowledge that one is in the right and that one’s oppressors are ignorant and despised by Allah. “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women” (Qur’an 2:228).

I found the following paragraph the most powerful:

The decline of Muslim societies is closely connected to the decline of the rights, status and security of women. When our mothers are mistreated and we rationalize it, we give rise to a generation of traumatized children. When our sisters are unsafe at the hands of their brothers and the law looks the other way, we give rise to a warped pathology of gender apartheid. When our women are abused by their husbands and no one speaks up, we foster resentment against the faith.

As Siddiqui points out, Muslims who ignore women’s issues do so to the detriment of the entire community. Even in communities where women are not being killed or flogged, daily abuse is leaving us in its wake “traumatized children,” “gender apartheid” and “resentment against the faith.” And yet, Islam calls us to read, to gain knowledge, and to challenge systems of oppression.

While I loved seeing this article, and I agree with many of Siddiqui’s comments, I do wonder if she paints too rosy a picture of Islam’s history. Even if Islam came with a message of gender equality, I would argue that there have been people from the beginning who have resisted that message, or who implemented it only partially, or who even twisted the concept of equality and respect of women in order to justify ideas that did the opposite. When Siddiqui claims that “these [contemporary] criminal behaviours are being cloaked in religious terms,” I’m not sure this only a recent phenomenon.

Further, I’m not sure we can count on knowledge and scholars for the answers. Of course, knowledge is necessary, for many of the reasons Siddiqui highlights, but I’m wary of assuming that it will automatically result in a more equitable society. There are a lot of scholars out there who support various forms of abuse towards women, and maybe I’m just being cynical, but I would argue that this is a more widespread problem than just a few “spiritual parasites” here and there. Knowledge needs to come with a heavy dose of critical reflection and willingness to ask hard questions about the way that our societies operate, and even about the ways that the “knowledge” that we currently value might be contributing to oppression.

That said, Siddiqui’s overall argument – that oppression of women violates some of the core values of Islam, that a “true Muslim society” is one in which women are treated well, and that responses to sexism, violence and misogyny can be found within Islam – is a powerful one, and one that Muslim communities need to take seriously. It is also an important response to accusations that Islam is inherently misogynistic or that Muslim women need to be saved from Islam.

This post was originally published at Muslim Lookout.