Around 1,420 years ago a man in his twenties named Muhammad lived in Mecca located in the Arabian Peninsula–which is now considered part of Saudi Arabia–was known among his tribe as being honest and genuine. This excellent reputation afforded him many opportunities to take handle business for other people who were unable to travel for trade. One of the wealthiest business owners in Mecca was a woman named Khadijah. She had heard that Muhammad was trustworthy and believed that he could take her merchandise to Syria for trade. Muhammad was successful in his trade mission for Khadijah, and over time she saw him as a respectful man who could make a good husband. Khadijah proposed marriage through her friend Nufaysah, and when they did marry, their relationship was full of love and respect. Khadijah supported Muhammad when he began receiving revelations, and in fact was among the first believers in Islam. This relationship has had a great impact on how women in Islam have shaped their interaction with the religion and its practice. Unfortunately, stories of this relationship are not well-known among non-Muslims. In fact, women’s rights and efforts to improve them are not very well known out of the Middle East.
The various efforts being made today on the part of Western countries and international organizations sometimes feels tone deaf to Muslim communities both within and outside of the Muslim-majority countries (aka. Muslim world). This is primarily for two reasons. First, Muslims know that women’s rights are held in high regard in Islam, as evidenced by Quranic principles and various parts of the Hadith (or, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad). Second, there is a feeling among Muslims that when Westerners attempt to discuss topics such as women’s rights, they are imposing their own understanding of what that should look like in a society which, in some cases, may not even be completely practiced in Western countries. This complex topic often brings out the Orientalist stereotypes most commonly discussed about the treatment of women in Islam which has been informed by centuries of tense relations between the Middle East and the West.
The discussion of the role of women in Islam has been a topic of conversation in the West since the first trade merchants of the region made their way into Muslim lands. The way these merchants wrote about their interactions with women–or a lack thereof–reflects a larger perception about life in Islamic cities. This has affected the very same stereotypes many people still hold today. We can see these stereotypes played out most recently in the discussion of the French banning of the Burkini. The general discussion around this topic is similar to that of the Hijab. On one hand, the media discusses whether or not the wearing of a Burkini has been forced by men or whether it’s very appearance in public implies extremism. On the other hand, Western feminists find themselves in conversation with Muslim women about whether or not modern perceptions of feminism even permits women to choose the Burkini. Women’s rights in general, regardless of the society and religion in which they are discussed, are incredibly sensitive.
One way of understanding this is by framing our perception of women’s rights in terms of a woman’s body and society. The morality of a society is played out over the role of women; the ways in which women choose to act is often a topic of conversation in societies because her actions are very much tied to perceptions about society’s morality and whether or not the society as a whole is in decline. This is one of the reasons that Western countries discuss this topic at length when it comes to Muslim women. It is part of a perception that Western societies are superior or that their ways of developing women’s rights are more modern.
The main issue here is that these conversations are already happening inside of Muslim countries and they have been for many years. There are countless NGOs and initiatives in Muslim countries dedicated to promoting women’s rights and helping women to overcome challenges that they face in their societies. Muslim-majority countries indeed have many issues, ranging from unemployment to access to quality health care. These issues–just like women’s issues–are part of larger conversations taking place in society. The fact that Western feminists are not aware of these initiatives is not surprising, since there is very little awareness of social issues that Muslims face daily. It can be frustrating for Muslims to hear Westerners discuss human rights issues in relation to Islam because they often misunderstand or misinterpret the meanings of a variety of Quranic verses or other religious literature. By taking verses out of context, the Western critic finds ways to demean the religion and its believer. Blaming religion for a society’s problems is a common tactic in secular societies. However, it is not a new or even religious phenomenon to regulate women’s dress–this has been happening a long time.
Many books and articles have been written about women’s rights in Islam–from the point of view of Muslims and from outsiders’ perspectives. The fascination with symbols of women’s oppression in Muslim countries such as the Hijab really only creates more of a division between Muslims and Westerners since Muslims believe that those living in Europe and the U.S. take these symbols out of context and make no effort to understand. Much of this has to do with the perception that the Middle East is a monolith, having no distinction between individuals (despite the fact that the region is religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse). By grouping all differences into a single classification, Westerners can lose the often important pieces of understanding the Middle East. Conversations about women’s rights must include the opinions of Muslim women who are already involved in such efforts in their societies. Without their valuable opinions, more constructive collaboration cannot occur.
Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. New York: Inner Traditions International, 1983.
Rubin, Alissa. “From Bikinis to Burkinis, Regulating What Women Wear.” The New York Times. N.p., 27 Aug. 2016.