Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day is for Muslims too

This year's Women's History Month offers an oppurtunity for the world to remember the history of Muslim women too.

US army official on International Women's in Afghanistan, 2011

When I was seventeen, a local journalist asked to interview me after I had been selected to attend a well-regarded leadership program. During the interview, the journalist asked me questions regarding my college and career aspirations as well as my service work in the local community, but the tone of the conversation quickly changed as soon as he saw my scarf-clad mother.

At the time, I did not wear the hijab—the Muslim headscarf— but my mother did. Realising that we were Muslim women, the journalist went from asking me questions about my leadership roles to more personal, though unrelated question. Did my dad 'force' my mom to be a homemaker? Would my parents 'choose' who I would marry? Would my father 'require' me to wear the hijab in the future?

It was clear through his questions that the journalist was making one huge assumption about Muslim women—that we have no prerogative. As soon as we put on a scarf, our brains fall out and we are consequently at the mercy of our oppressive fathers, husbands and sons. When the article came out, I was disappointed with what I saw. Despite my insistence that my parents would only be facilitators in my future nuptials to a husband of my choice, my mother enjoyed her role as the caretaker of the home, and I would choose to wear the hijab when I was spiritually ready, none of these points came across. Since I was a Muslim woman, I could only be a pawn of my parents, my future husband, and my community.

Four years have passed since that interview, but not much has changed in the way Muslims are portrayed by the media. The automatic equation between veiling, oppression and passivity has led to a mischaracterisation of Muslim women’s contribution to society. The irony is, despite the underrepresentation of Muslim women voices in the media, Muslim women make up one of the most educated religious groups in the U.S and are often just as active in their communities as their male counterparts. And this is not in spite of their religion. For many, including myself, faith has been the catalyst for their educational and professional aspirations. A famous saying by the Prophet Muhammad is" "It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge."

This year, International Women’s Day will be celebrated on March 8th in the same month as Women’s History Month in the USA. As a student of history, I am aware of the fact that historiography is too often reduced to his-story - that is, men’s roles are well documented, but women are largely left out of the picture. Consequently, it appears that women have not made any valuable contributions to society, which is far from the truth. As a Muslim woman, I am even more painfully aware of the negative consequences of undocumented or wrongly documented history.

Granted, Western media outlets are not the only ones to blame. Many Muslims themselves seem to be experiencing historical amnesia when it comes to giving Muslim women proper credit for their contributions. Although the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved wife, Ayesha bint Abu Bakr was a scholar of jurisprudence, an educator and orator, many Muslim communities refuse to allow women to take on any leadership roles within their mosques, if they even allow them inside, that is. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Muslims often speak of al-jahiliya, or ignorant behaviour, as if it was an event of the past - a time long ago 'when women were treated like chattel' is an oft-quoted line. A critical look at the treatment of Muslim women by some in the community will reveal that ignorance abounds.

This Women’s History Month, I will be celebrating the lives of these 'forgotten' Muslim women - women like, Ayesha, who played an instrumental role in the early development of the Islamic civilisation. Her status as the wife of the Prophet and Mother of the Believers should not make her an exception, but the standard by which Muslim women should want to and should have to opportunity to be able to attain. 

Thanks to extensive research by Professor Salim T.S Al-Hassani of the University of Manchester and many other scholars, there is a growing body of literature on women’s contribution in different periods of Islamic history. By celebrating Ayesha's legacy, I hope to not only correct the misrepresentation prevalent in the contemporary media of Muslim women as inherently uneducated and oppressed due to theological barriers, but also to remind those Muslims who do indeed treat women like pariahs of the historical precedent they are working against. In this way, history will serve not only as a source of remembering, but also as a way to empower today’s men and women. @newreligionEU

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