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Perceptions and Impressions of Islam and Women

The topic of women and Islam (or the Qur‘an, or veil, etc) seems to reduce to one of perceptions or impressions; in other words, worldview. Higher-level treatments of the topic are not that different. If the primary focus of the author is to contextualize Qur‘anic teachings within the scope of feminism, Marxism, modernism, post-modernism or any other -ism, the -ism is the basis for conceptual framework within which the exegesis of scripture and tradition is discussed. This makes sense, of course. How else to perform exegesis? It is an endeavor aimed at making sense of scripture and tradition in a world usually vastly different from that in which the scripture was established or codified.

Two feminist Muslim scholars utilize both the scripture and tradition of Islam, the Qur‘an and hadith, respectively, to demonstrate the place of women as equal to men. Amina Wadud argues that “[t]he perception of the role of women affects every aspect of the lives of Muslim men and women.”1 By this the author is clearly arguing for a logically internally consistent point of view: that the worldview of Muslims has an effect upon the way that the roles of men and women are expressed in their social and interpersonal interactions with one another. Asma Barlas utilizes a hermeneutic approach similar to Wadud’s and applies it not only to the Qur‘an itself, but also to accounts from within the context of Islamic history in an attempt to demonstrate a new way to read Islam as something other than a patriarchal religious and social system.2

In spite of such efforts on the part of modern feminist scholars to rationalize away the patriarchy, there still exists an acceptance of that patriarchy on the part of conservative male Muslim “scholars” who argue a very different hermeneutic approach to the Qur‘an. In their view, the ideal place of Muslim women in and out of the Islamic world is to be a good Muslim wife and support the spiritual development of her husband. In an online article titled “Vision for Muslim Women in the West,” Shaikh (Dr) Haitham Al-Haddad “posit[s] that the best role, the most honorable and worthy role for a woman is striving to be a fine wife, a good mother, or both. This role does not only secure the best for a woman in the hereafter, but also fits perfectly with her natural disposition.”3

Reading these very different internally consistent approaches led me to wonder more about perceptions of women and Islam from the view of both Muslims and non-Muslims. So, I decided to write something a little different this week. Instead of a review, I wanted to explore these perceptions of women in Islam a bit. I asked the women I know what they think about the position of women in Islam (via email and Facebook).4 The question I posed is as follows. I intentionally left it open-ended so as not to shape the responses too much:

Please tell me what you think about the topic of women and Islam. Tell me your perceptions, impressions, opinions, etc. Do not restrict yourself to politically correct commentary. I want to know how you really feel. Also, try to give me some sense of whence you think your perceptions derive. Are you getting things from the media, your friends, books, family, spouse, etc.?

And here are the responses that I received:5

“I think that since the ways people practice faith vary due to a host of other more important determinants of behavior, assessing women’s status in societies according to religion is a mistake.”

Patricia G., Political Scientist, Washington, D.C.

“When I was younger I thought all Muslim women were in [a state of oppression]. I don’t think there are more women (at least in the US) who are Muslim that experience greater oppression than any other group of women. The few students I have had that are Muslim are feisty and super smart! Honestly, I was taken aback when I had two of them that wore the veils. I expected them to be docile and meek. They were anything but. They let me know what they were thinking, were willing to work hard and ask questions. I have my original perceptions from the media and my mom. My current perceptions are from getting to know people.”

Beth R., Adjunct Instructor, Grand Rapids, Michigan

“I guess for me, it is a question of dress requirements. Seems to be a wide range of accepted practices. I could care less what anyone wears if it is a personal choice. On this point my ‘American individualism’ is a little exposed. [My m]ost positive observation was on the beach in Tunisia: everything from bikini to fully covered. [It] left me with the impression that women wore what they wanted. Not so good observation from one of my students during her time student teaching: one high school girl removed part of her dress and other female students started to harass her. I don’t like the idea of anyone being told or forced to live or behave in any manner. I’m a little worried about Tunisia now. NPR did a story recently about political developments there. I don’t remember who they were talking to—some government official—and he was saying how “open” they were being because they weren’t planning to change restrictions of women’s clothing. This worries me, because why should it even be a topic of discussion then?

“I wonder too about the driving restrictions… is it in Saudi Arabia (that is media driven question)?

“One could just as easily ask the same set of questions you did but replace Islam with Republicans!”

Madelaine B., History Professor, St. Cloud, Minnesota

“I have had many Muslim children in my classroom when I was teaching and found that there is a huge difference in how people practice this religion somewhat based on what country they came from. Many of these differences have to do with women’s rights. What the women are allowed to wear, what they are allowed to do, who they can associate with, is not uniform throughout the religion.

“Frankly, I think it is pretty awful and restrictive. We have been on a cruise and there was a Muslim couple. The husband was wearing a swimsuit and enjoying the pool and his wife was covered from head to foot. Ridiculous. The one thing that I have learned is that in the Middle East, the women have the friendship of all the other women and they are not isolated like here in the US. The rules of their faith are not as difficult to follow as it is here and everyone is in the same boat. The Muslims I have met were (usually) very calm and peaceful and were very nice to me as their child’s teacher.”

Louise F., Retired High School Teacher, Lima, Ohio

“In general, I believe religion is used primarily for control of the masses. [Women] have historically been lumped into that category. That’s all I have to say about that.”

Beatrice M., Community Relations Director, Kalamazoo, Michigan

“I think the topic of ‘women in Islam’ has been hijacked by a host of morons. the men have opinions about many frivolous points that do not scratch the surface of belief or spirituality or indeed the spirit of Islam itself—I believe the spirit of Islam is love—and more offensive than that to me are the women who speak like men about the same frivolous points (often through their veils). There were many things I used to feel unsettled about as a woman regarding Islam, when I realized these things were often a framework imposed on me by the menfolk and turned my attention away from these things, I found that pursuit of knowledge, and dispensation of love were the two factors that remained prominent in my world as a Muslim woman, not what could potentially be going on between my legs. [I mean ‘dispensation’] as an umbrella term to include things such as kindness, and helpfulness and honesty. By living through love you will elevate your soul closer to the highest love of all. I may be way off the mark, but I must follow my heart where it leads me and hope to finish at the destination Allah intended for me.”

Amanda W., Journalist, London

“I often feel very deeply depressed for Muslim women and men alike who actively accept the teachings of charlatans not only on the role of women but of humanity in general. These conflict greatly with how I was brought up as a Muslim and what I believe my faith is about. I believe Islam teaches humanism and anyone who thinks/acts otherwise is doing so out of their own volition with the intent of maintaining the status quo of subjugating women (this applies to both men and women).

“Also, burqas are for falcons, not for women.”

Sumaya A., News editor and mother, Ramallah

“I think [‘Women and Islam’] is a topic used to scare and control people both within and outside the religion. Within the religion it is about ‘respect’ for women, dignity and protection, so they say… From outside we are warned of the inequality and suppression. I think all religions do this to some degree. The topic is too broad to be of any use to anyone really. I mean, just connecting the two words, women and Islam, means almost nothing, but must be looked at in reference to family, work, dress, social life, dating/marriage… Would one discuss ‘Men and Buddhism’? It’s just too vague. And yet the topic is very hotly debated. And it seems much more cultural than actually religious. Also, seems to vary a great deal family to family and even person to person. In my experience, Islam has many representations.

“My husband is a Muslim. He is super smart, highly educated, kind, very generous, extremely peaceable and by most people’s standards not a “practicing Muslim.” But he believes in Islam and I try to support that. It used to make me somewhat nervous that he was a Muslim because of the mainstream portrayal and view of Muslims in the U.S. As our relationship passes the test of more and more time, I am less concerned about this. He has never asked me to convert, or even hinted that he would like it. But then, supposedly in Islam, it is OK for a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, but not a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man. I find that unfair and difficult to accept. Then, when I am with my husband’s family, I am sometimes somewhat uncomfortable. It is hard to say how much of that is the religion, and how much is language or culture. (Really when I stop to think about it, it amazes me how much we are alike when our language, culture AND religious backgrounds are different.) [My husband’s] parents accept me completely.

“When I first met [his] brother, I think I made him nervous and he didn’t really understand me or our situation at all. But since then, he has traveled and lived abroad and now we can talk easier, although I don’t agree with his idea that abeya and scarves are an Islamic way of ‘respecting women.’ They are middle of the road, educated conservative Muslims. He and his family are very friendly and loving towards me. As for [his] sister, our first meeting was when she and their mother came to stay with us when we had only been married one year. If we hadn’t been married yet, I doubt that we would have gotten married. Although she spoke English, I don’t think that she understood anything that I said. Again, culture? Language? Religion? She is extremely conservative, as is her husband.

“I also had a friend [with whom] I taught ESL [who] was a middle class white American that had converted to Islam. She dressed like everyone else around her, was open-minded and kind. So, that is where I see it from my outsider’s inside view. It is a personal belief and personal experience. Each Muslim woman that I have met seems to embody ‘Women and Islam’ in a different way. And as a side note I personally don’t like any form of outwardly religious symbols: the veil, the burka, necklaces with crosses on them because this leads everyone to immediately judge and connect, or NOT, with the person displaying the symbol. I wish we could all just see each other as people. But it’s hard to do when a religious symbol is waved in your face.

“And yet, I am saddened by the fact that Islam is used as a weapon against women’s freedoms and choices is many places.”

Mary T., ESL Teacher and mother, Kalamazoo, Michigan

“Well, I have no problem with the idea of religion, although I am not religious myself. As someone who was raised not to believe in God I think I am remarkably tolerant. What I dislike is people. When a kid I would see Pakistani mums in my town get in the back of the car so their five year old son could sit in the front, in Egypt I experienced or witnessed harassment on a level with southern Italy. But equally I experienced being shut out of finalizing deals with my money because the vendor was showing me respect as a woman! I have to say that was the most frustration I felt. Equally I noticed non Muslim men fall into smaller habits of excluding women in Arab culture. When it comes down to it I know plenty of decent Muslim men and women, both very pious and less keen. Perhaps as a result of that I’m more likely to judge the individual—I would not acknowledge or give time to a man who expected his wife to take the back seat of the car or who expected his wife and daughters to cover their faces.”

Siobhan K., Researcher, London

“It makes me sad when I think about women and Islam. Maybe I don’t know enough about them, but it seems like they are not allowed to live up to their potential. Things I hear give me the perception that [Muslim women] are only thought of as ‘baby makers,’ maybe I’m wrong, but I was just talking to someone about this the other night, a former US soldier and a journalist. They were having a political discussion.”

Lorraine H., Administrative Assistant, Lapeer, Michigan

“I have heard lots of stories from internet news sources about women being persecuted in Islamic countries, the controversy about to wear or not wear the burka, and some sexual freedoms-related issues. On the burka, I have caught wind of the group of women who say they love it, and feel freer in it, and also the other camp who do not want to wear it and are forced to by their families or their governments. I have no direct experience (don’t know anyone who does or doesn’t wear them that is expected to by their community) and cannot recall the source of this. Of course I feel everyone should be free to wear what they want to, whatever it is, even if it is ridiculous or inappropriate because they make that choice knowing that this is a superficial world and they will be treated according to how they look. If they cannot make that choice, that sucks. I can relate a bit to wanting to be hidden or covered, as I have many times dressed way, way down so that my sex would not be a factor in what I was doing and I wouldn’t get hit on or have to deal with men looking at me. I have also had the thought that if I were wearing a burka, it would cover up my acne, and that would be nice.”

Rachel M., Student, Detroit, Michigan

1 Amina Wadud, Qur‘an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 104.
2 Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Austin, Texas; University of Texas Press, 2002), 203.
3 Haitham al-Haddad, “Vision for Muslim Women in the West,” Islam21c, published online March 12, 2012: http://www.islam21c.com/islamic-thought/4608-a-vision-for-muslim-women-in-the-west. Accessed March 12, 2012.
4 I restricted this question to women because I felt the need to limit my sample in some way. This was an arbitrary decision, but no more or less reasonable than any other arbitrary limitation that I could have imposed. All names and some places have been changed to protect the identity of those who replied. I wish to extend thanks to those friends and acquaintances who offered their frank and honest perceptions and impressions to me for this purpose.
5 These responses have been edited for spelling and clarity. I have used brackets when making edits to delineate them from the words of the respondents.
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