Muslim women belie stereotypes

SUN JOURNAL

Customs: The degree of freedom - or oppression - experienced by women in the Islamic world depends on the country in which they live.

October 20, 2001|By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje | Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje,SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, images have flowed out of the Middle East, scenes that depict fiery street protests, quiet prayer services or people just going about their day-to-day lives in the public sphere.

After a while, something curious about these images emerges. There are no women in them. Ever. It's as if the other half of the population doesn't exist.

When Al-Badr Al-Hazmi, the San Antonio radiologist who was first suspected and then cleared of complicity in the attacks, returned home after his detention, something equally curious happened, at least by Western standards. His wife couldn't come outside her home to talk to the press, and only female reporters were allowed inside to talk to her.

The images of Islamic women in some countries of the Middle East and Central Asia typically show them draped in concealing fabric and often sequestered from society. News reports tell of circumscribed females lives - Afghan women who can't work, leave their homes, even seek medical care, and Saudi women who can't drive. News clips document horrific executions of female adulterers and show mosques and schools open only to men.

To the average American, unversed in the ways and means of Islam, these images tend to lead to one obvious conclusion: Muslim women are oppressed. Their culture and their religion relegate them to secondary status, where they lead joyless lives of servitude to the men who run their world.

But attempt a closer look at the subject of Islam and women, and such certitude quickly slides out of view. Is Islam at root a sexist religion? Do Muslim women lead lives of oppression? Does the veil necessarily mean subjection? Are all Muslim women in the same miserable boat? These questions turn out to be exceedingly complex, the answers defying broad-brush generalities and easy stereotypes.

"There is no monolithic Muslim society," says Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a retired University of Texas professor who has written five books on Islam, including In Search of Islamic Feminism. "There is an amazing diversity across the Islamic world with regard to women. Take extremists like the Taliban, with the way they've shut down schools, hospitals, forbidden women to work. Many in the Muslim world would say that goes against Islam, goes against the Quran."

Scholars such as Fernea are quick to point out interesting ironies about the perception of Muslim women as downtrodden. Morocco, for example, has more female lawyers per capita than the United States; Egypt has more female engineers than Germany. The Muslim world has also produced female heads of state.

Then there is Saudi Arabia, where women aren't permitted to travel without a male relative, work in occupations that feature men (except medicine) or receive an education without their father's permission.

"All these kinds of practices vary from country to country," says Geneive Abdo, a journalist who has spent many years covering the Middle East region for The Dallas Morning News and The Guardian, a British newspaper. "Saudi Arabia would be considered much more extreme even by Muslims living in Iran, where women can hold jobs, be in the street, be a public presence."

Muslim women across the world are subject to the same reality that affects women everywhere: Money matters.

The economic status of Muslim women "has a lot to do with their material well-being," says Anne Hargrove, professor of history at the University of Texas, San Antonio who specializes in Islamic issues. "Rich women live better, healthier and longer than poor women."

For wealthy Muslim women, the world might be a much kinder place. Fernea says rich women even in conservative Saudi Arabia may travel to, say, Paris to buy sexy, chic clothes (though they couldn't wear them in public).

Wealth might also play a role in how stringently a woman is veiled or sequestered. In some Muslim societies, says Hargrove, it is considered a status symbol for a woman to never have to leave her home for something as mundane and low-class as work.

"That doesn't seem too dissimilar from the lives of the wealthy in the United States, does it?" she says.

Even within the practice of veiling, there is wide variety, says Abdo. In some Muslim cultures, women must be completely covered from head to toe and can never be viewed otherwise by unrelated males. In others, a simple head scarf and coat will do. Some don't veil at all.

Scholars such as Fernea argue that it is not the veil that is offensive; it is women being forced to wear the veil that is troubling.

The practice of veiling springs from the prophet Muhammad's words in the Quran endorsing female modesty. But just how modest is modest?

In this and many other areas affecting the lives of women, it all comes down to interpretation. The Quran, Fernea explains, is taken by believers to be the true, immutable word of God. It cannot be changed. Still, its language is rich, complex and open to ambiguity and differing interpretation in places.

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