Ms.-conceptions of women in Islam

When Muslim women are oppressed, don’t blame the Quran.

by Sara Almalla, Staff Writer

As an American Muslim woman who was born in the United States and raised in Saudi Arabia, I was given the privilege to experience both Western and Eastern cultures from opposing perspectives. As I matured, I came to the realization that the rift between these two cultures was enormous, they were more similar than different in many aspects. Yet Western culture has come to the dangerous conclusion that Islam, the dominant religion in the East, is a misogynistic and oppressive religion.

It is important to make a distinction between culture and religion. While each may have a significant influence on the other, they are not one. The reason Islam is so often misconceptualized as a misogynistic religion is because many of the countries where Islam is widely practiced have misogynistic cultures.

As Dr. Zakir Naik, founder of the Islamic Research Institute said on, “Status of women in Islam should be judged according to authentic sources of the teachings of Islam on the subject and not by observing what individual Muslims do or what any Muslim society does.”

Women were actually administered rights with the emergence of Islam more than 1,400 years ago, when they were still deemed inferior to men in the rest of the world. Among other things, they were given the right to inheritance, divorce, equal participation in political processes and property. Most Western countries did not catch up until the mid-19th century.

Despite horrible practices such as female genital mutilation in some Muslim-dominated countries, the claims that this is a “religious obligation” are erroneous. The Quran (Islamic holy book) does not touch on this subject at all. Furthermore, the Quran forbade the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide.

In the case of divorce, the wife is allowed to divorce if she wishes – specifically, if the husband cannot perform his marital duties, which include sexually satisfying her, a direct contradiction to the notion that female circumcision which prevents a women from ever being sexually satisfied – is an Islamic practice.

In terms of modesty and the hijab (head cover), many non-Muslims often make the assumption that this practice is oppressive and degrading.

However, the hijab is not to cover your body so nobody can see it. It is, among other things, about fighting beauty standards set for women that are not set for men in society. It is the rejection of the objectification and sexualization of the wearer’s body without their explicit consent.  It is meant to deter the judgment of others based on material beauty.

While many argue that the hijab is oppressive, it is just as easy to make the same argument about Western beauty standards. The hijab is not an Islamic duty, but a choice- simply another way to express appreciation and respect for my faith.

Many non-Muslims ask, “How come only women have to cover?” This assumes that covering is a negative convention; it also assumes women are, in practice, treated the same as men. Women are immensely more sexually objectified in most societies than are men, Muslim or not. This of course, does not mean that modesty is the only option, or that choosing not to cover would mean supporting these sexist standards, but to those who choose to wear the hijab, it can be liberating. In addition, Muslim men have a dress code of their own and are expected to follow the same behavioral regulations as women.

Despite the many cultural restrictions placed on Muslim women in the East, Muslim women all over the world continue to rise to power and succeed in fields across the board. If Islam were inherently misogynistic, how could there be a female Muslim president of Indonesia and many more prominent female leaders in Muslim-dominated countries?

In addition, the youngest doctor in the world, Eqbal Asa’d, is a Palestinian Muslim refugee. She began to attend Weil Cornell Medical College in Qatar at the age of 14 and received her bachelor’s degree in medicine at 20.

Vilifying a religion and its values only because it differs from Western norms is ignorant, and while there is not doubt that sexism is a real issue in many Muslim countries, the assumption that it is due to Islam is  wrong.

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