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Missions

Stolen voices of Muslim women

By Joumanah El Matrah

April 22, 2005

Western discourse on the plight of Muslim women reflects ignorance at best, and racism at worst, writes Joumanah El Matrah.

The shedding of crocodile tears over the plight of Muslim women has come to characterise many self-proclaimed feminists, journalists and government officials. The plight of Muslim women has become a paradigm of victimhood.

Instead of working with Muslim women as one disadvantaged group among many in Australia, Muslim women have been misrepresented and used under the pretence of feminist discourse and exploring multiculturalism in a way that reflects at the very least ignorance and at worst racism.

The situation of Muslim women globally is too complex and contradictory for one comprehensive critique. In some nations Muslim women experience horrendous forms of violence and oppression, often under the label of Islam. To explain the reality and suffering of women in such nations by reducing it to a simple consequence of Islam becomes impossible when, in neighbouring Muslim nations, women occupy positions of power in significant social and political institutions.

Without denying the inequities and barriers women face in these countries, we can say that women in Syria and Tunisia hold 10.4 per cent and 11.5 per cent respectively of seats in parliament, compared with 12 per cent in the United States and 11.8 per cent in France.

In Tunisia, 24 per cent of magistrates are women and the penal code now defines domestic violence as aggravated assault, bringing heavier penalties than assaults between unrelated individuals. In Syria, maternity leave and national child care for many professions are provided by the state.

Muslim women have arrived at those positions with greater speed and impact than women in Western nations, given that significant literacy and education levels are new to many Muslim-majority countries.

Perhaps concern for the oppression of Muslim women is more correctly identified as concern at the intrusion of Muslim women into Australia.Just as there are vast differences in the situation of Muslim women, there are significant differences in how women define, understand and practise Islam. In Australia, the representation of Muslim women has been deceptively homogenised, particularly among public commentators who have taken it upon themselves to speak on behalf of Muslim women.

One of the most common strategies in the attack against Muslim women is the representation of the hijab, or head scarf. There appear to be two major arguments: firstly, that most Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and, secondly, that the hijab is by its very nature oppressive. These arguments not only misrepresent Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab, but also those that do. The reality is far more complex.

In Saudi Arabia and other so-called Islamic states, Muslim women are punished for not wearing the hijab. In non-Islamic “progressive secular” states such as Turkey and France, Muslim women are punished for wearing the hijab.

Many Muslim women have resisted laws enforcing different forms of veiling. In response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree that all Iranian women must adopt the chador, a long scarf that completely covers women’s hair and body, women staged massive demonstrations, sit-ins and work stoppages; Khomeini responded by having women tortured and murdered by law-enforcement agencies.

Nonetheless, women continued to resist and many religious women participated because they opposed the chador’s violent enforcement. In 1981, in part as a result of demonstrations against enforced veiling of women, it was widely believed that more than half the political prisoners in Iran were women.

Yet even in such dire circumstances, Iranian women repeatedly stated that the chador should not be the focus of international activism or condemnation; there were far more oppressive and life-threatening violations requiring attention.

We need to relinquish this homogenising equation that veil equals oppression or, more absurdly, that veiling is the worst form of oppression. Continually ruminating on the oppressiveness of the hijab has become more than a stale obsession; it is actively preventing an understanding of the situation of Muslim women and the various meanings the hijab has for them.

The feminist tradition has always treated women’s voices as sacred, so why isn’t it enough when some women state that the hijab is both meaningful and empowering for them? Why must the interrogation continue, to the neglect of all else?

The focus on the hijab often conceals other, more important issues. In Afghanistan, the preoccupation with the burqa – an all-encompassing robe that covers the head, face and body down to the ankles – as evidence of Islamic excesses blinded many to what would have been obvious if Afghans had not been Muslim.

The Taliban, among other violations, excluded women from education on the grounds that it was a violation of Islamic teaching. A basic understanding of Islam shows that the Koran teaches that women have a right to education. An astute analysis, then, would have focused on the Taliban’s incipient fascism rather than questions of Islam’s compatibility with human rights and women’s dignity.

Judging from the commentary in Australia, it would appear that Muslim women are capable neither of understanding nor of speaking on such issues as sexism, discrimination, equality or justice.

In reality, Muslim women have a notable and proud tradition of activism. Why is it, then, that we hear so little of it? Perhaps the concern for the oppression of Muslim women is more correctly identified as a concern about the intrusion of Muslim women into the Australian landscape.

Instead of being understood, Muslim women have been relegated to being saved. The historical discourse on Muslim women’s emancipation might be crudely summarised as follows: colonising nations were to save us from Islam’s misogyny, then the socialist/nationalist movements were to save us from our imperial masters, then the Islamists were to save us from nationalist heresy and the evils of the West, and now the human rights movement offers itself as our saviour. Pardon us if we don’t faint in anticipation!

Muslim women have long responded to the calling of a movement of themselves and for themselves, working against the historical tendency of Muslims and non-Muslims to speak about and for Muslim women. There is now a 1400-year history that resolutely proves that neither Muslim men nor Western societies are fundamentally interested in facilitating our rights, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect otherwise.

In the West, and Australia in particular, a significant amount of Muslim women’s time “on air” has been used to either explain the hijab or to advocate women’s right to wear it. There are many consequences of this, but two urgent issues are that Muslim women increasingly appear incapable of addressing any other issue and that in restricting ourselves to this topic, an opportunity has been created for Muslim men to monopolise and define Islam. (This is one of the major issues women have with the current explosion in inter-faith dialogue meetings.)

To have men as sole representatives significantly skews not only the representation of Islam and Muslims, but also what Islam and Muslims will develop into in this country.

Similarly, allowing ourselves to be co-opted by “democratic” movements in the West has also compromised the position of Muslim women, as Western powers have repeatedly demonstrated their delusion that they have a God-given right to do as they please in Arab and Muslim lands.

Joumanah El Matrah, a former psychologist born in Lebanon, is manager of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria. Her comment is adapted from an article in Arena.

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