The tragic events of September 11 in the United States have brought questions about the nature of Islam to the forefront in a newly urgent way. While it is clear that any understanding of Islam which supports such attacks is a perversion of Islam, negative stereotypes of Islam still linger. The status of women in Islam remains a thorn in the side of many Westerners who would otherwise be more sympathetic to Muslims and the prejudices they too often encounter.
As a Westerner who has lived among Arabs and Muslims in Palestine for seven of the last ten years, including two in the very conservative Gaza Strip, I have had a glimpse of one face of Islam. As a woman I have been privileged to spend countless hours with Muslim women in their kitchens and living rooms, chopping vegetables and playing with children while trying to understand the opportunities and limitations of the lives of Palestinian women.
When my family and I receive North American visitors in our home in Jerusalem I am continually amazed at how many of them assume that I am experiencing an intense degree of patriarchal oppression because I live in Palestine, certainly more than I would face had we remained in a Mennonite community in the United States. They are inevitably surprised to find that I am very happy and comfortable as a woman raising a daughter and a son in an Islamic context. In light of the perception that women in the Muslim world are more oppressed than their Western Christian sisters I offer my own limited yet heartfelt experiences in one Arab and Muslim context.
Islamic dress often strikes Westerners as one of the most discriminatory aspects of Islam. After living in North America where women and men of all ages, shapes and sizes unthinking show their hair, arms, legs and sometimes more in public, arriving in a country where most women cover arms, legs and hair in veils and loose fitting garments comes as quite a shock! When women who add gloves and face veils are thrown into the mix, it easy to understand why most Westerners conclude they are dealing with major patriarchal oppression. Given the huge gap in language and culture between North America and the Middle East, a cultural element as external, nonverbal and immediately obvious as dress quickly captures the attention and often provokes the indignation of international guests. I think many of the folks who conclude that the veil and other aspects of Islamic dress automatically denote oppression of woman would be surprised to learn the variety of perspectives that Middle Easterners themselves hold toward these garments.
Virtually all of the many Muslims with whom I have discussed Islamic dress stress that adoption of such attire must be the woman’s own decision. Kifayeh, one of my most devout friends who herself wears gloves and a face veil, believes it is wrong for anyone to force a girl or woman to cover her hair or dress a certain way. She herself has taken on these clothes in order to assert that she wants to be viewed as a person and not as a sexual object for the visual enjoyment of men. Kifayeh pities rather than envies scantily clad western women. To her they are victims of sexual objectification rather than symbols of personal freedom.
Of further surprise to many Westerners is the notion that many young Muslim women view the veil as a ticket to freedom. Dressed in conservative Muslim garb they demonstrate to relatives, friends and neighbors in a conservative society that they are not leaving the house in order to meet men or shame their families, but rather to work or further their education. Without such clothing, which in this context clearly proclaims the wearer’s respectability, many of these young women would not have the freedom to work and study that they currently enjoy.
A final assumption I wish to challenge regarding Islamic dress deals with my personal experience of what women are wearing under those Islamic outer garments. Many westerners assume that under conservative Islamic dress women are wearing drab, unexciting clothing. In addition some wrongly assume that the Islamic attire is worn constantly. In fact, it is only donned in the presence of men outside the family. Many of the women who wear long clothes on the street sit at home in shorts and sleep in sexy lingerie. Unfortunately for tour groups, the conservative public appearance is often all they see. As any woman who lives in the Middle East knows, reality is quite the opposite.
I will never forget my first experience with an Islamic wedding. Early in our first MCC term my husband and I were invited to the wedding celebration of the daughter of some friends. As it was a conservative Muslim family the men were gathering in the house downstairs and the women were shown to the rooftop where a tent had been erected and refreshments were being served. Because the sexes were segregated, as the devout Muslim women emerged onto the female only atmosphere of the roof they quickly shed their outer Islamic garb for a variety of colorful, stylish and surprisingly revealing party dresses. I felt drab in comparison in a plain dress more consistent with my Mennonite tradition!
My next surprise came when the dancing began. I had been a little apprehensive about being urged to dance since my Mennonite upbringing had left me inhibited about such a physical public activity. Since I was only weeks away from delivering our first child I planned to use my advanced state of pregnancy as an excuse to sit out and watch. I realized this would not work when a beautiful, young and thoroughly pregnant woman took to the dance floor in front of the enthusiastically clapping and ululating women. Using her veil as a prop she proceeded to perform the most sensual and erotic dance that I had ever seen, all for her own pleasure and that of the other women present. I marvelled at how this image would never occur to the average Western visitor who saw her clad in a headscarf and Islamic clothes while walking down the street or shopping in the market. Yet this dance which embraced and celebrated her womanhood was as much a part of her life as the traditional Islamic clothing she wore in public. I suspected that although I had grown up showing my legs, arms and hair to the public I had yet to achieve the comfort level with my body that this young Muslim woman from a Palestinian village enjoyed. Indeed as I think back years later to that magical evening of music and dancing I wonder if the festive atmosphere hinted at a healthy appreciation of female sexuality painfully absent from too many Christian contexts.
Certainly the beliefs that we as Western Christians bring to our experiences in the Islamic world color our impressions of the situation of women in Islam as well. I recall my surprise upon learning that the majority of Arab women keep their names upon marriage. (How many Western Christians were shocked when their daughters or daughters-in-law pioneered this longstanding Middle Eastern tradition!) In addition I will never forget taking a Mennonite religion professor to meet a very devout Islamic family in the Gaza Strip. He listened respectfully while they explained their belief that Islam demanded the equality of women and men, their critique of groups like the Taliban who forbid women education and their commitment to Islam as a source of justice for all people, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Yet when he debriefed privately with me he still expressed doubts about women in Islam because of what he called the issue. I reminded him that headship is a Christian, not an Islamic concept, and that they had not even mentioned anything of the sort. Despite this American religion professor’s opportunity to experience directly the life of a conservative Islamic family, when processing the experience for himself he returned to his own preconceived categories based on the widespread notion of gender inequality in Islam.
In a conversation which would probably surprise this professor, a Palestinian Muslim friend once confided in my husband and me his shock at the low status of the women he met while studying at a conservative Christian university in the United States. He was not prepared for the many female students he met who were only interested in marrying and starting families. My aunt went to university in Beirut in the 1930's to study he observed, while the women I met at this Christian American university in the 1990's viewed themselves only as potential wives and mothers! This is not right, he told us, clearly appalled.
Obviously we as Christians have our own difficulties with an anti-feminist history and theology. Many people have criticized our decision to raise our daughter in an Arab, largely Muslim environment. Yet the most difficult time I have had explaining gender apartheid to her in the Middle East has been in a Christian context. Once while my husband, son and a few male friends toured the famous Mar Saba monastery, my five year old daughter and I waited outside under a tree for over an hour because these Christian monks believed the presence of any female, even a small girl, could take the form of the devil and lead their monks into temptation. Other discriminatory practices that we have observed here, such as serving men first at meals or celebrating the birth of a boy more that a girl, are found among both Christian and Muslim Palestinians. When I once jokingly asked a Christian Palestinian friend at a wedding why the men were eating first she said, We Christians have learned this from the Muslims, and now we practice this more than they do! The last Palestinian woman I saw crying when she learned she was pregnant with a girl was Christian, not Muslim, and she already had a son! Clearly some of the practices we Westerners interpret as Islamic are more accurately Arab, and not associated with a particular religion. This is illustrated by the struggles of an American Muslim friend who lives in Gaza. She often complains that in the United States she can go into any mosque and not be criticized, yet in Gaza some people say she should pray at home. This is Arab culture, not Islam! she declares.
In fact, according to Islamic law women, the only religious task forbidden to women is leading prayers in front of men. This is because Islamic prayer involves prostrating the body and not because of a supposed spiritual superiority of men, which is doctrinally false in Islam. Except for this one exception based on modesty, Islamic women enjoy full rights to exercise all other functions of religious authority , including religious education, spiritual and social counseling and Islamic scholarship. Indeed, Islam has a long history of female scholars who taught both genders. If only the Mennonite church could claim half as much freedom for women in the context of church leadership!
Of course these examples are not meant to imply that life for women is better in the East than the West. Women around the world face numerous gender related difficulties as we all know. What I hope to suggest is that when we compare one culture and/or religion to another, we keep in mind that we are seeing different faces of the same patriarchal oppression, rather than one relatively progressive and one misogynist society. For example, many Westerners object to the Palestinian tradition of separate schools for girls and boys, yet Palestinians are shocked that Americans allow their daughters to attend schools with boys who sexually harass them.
In addition, there are some Muslim families who refuse to allow their daughters to go out alone at night. While this is discriminatory, is it any worse than the plight of the many Western women and girls who can not go out at night because of fear of sexual assault and other crimes? Either way, females are stuck at home.
Of course I don’t like my daughter (or my son!) to grow up in a culture which prefers sons to daughters. Yet would my daughter be any better off living in the states, facing tremendous pressure to be thin, sexually active and to look a certain way to please boys? The lives of girls and women are easy now here, but to compare the gender practices of one country with the gender ideals of another only compounds ethnic and religious discrimination with its sexual counterpart.
I hope that as a church we can find the pro-female resources within our own tradition and work at making Christian contexts healthier and happier places for our daughters and sisters to grow and flourish. At the same time, let us not allow pre-conceived notions and stereotypes of other religions and cultures to turn us away from meaningful relationships and honest and often surprising dialogues with our Muslim sisters and brothers.