There is Islamic tradition, the illustration of Divine Will, which advocates women’s rights and gender equality; and then there is the non-Islamic culture of misogyny, the creed of patriarchal systems, which male-biased machinations have stamped on Islam. The grossly oppressive practices perpetrated against women in Muslim communities are not reflective of the dictates of Islam. They are the manifestation of customs that date back to jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era), which are rooted in the socio-cultural and political dynamics of male-driven society. Islam neither levies undue hardship on believers, nor does it restrict a woman’s human rights. But self-serving male structures have craftily woven Islam and culture together, devising a religious formula for oppression and basing their argument on unreliable hadith as well as perverted interpretation of proven hadith and religious text. Tragically, this distorted un-Islamic mindset still finds place in the moral fabric of Muslim societies.
These prevalent practices revolve within the realm of dark-age logic. Although they may vary by country, nevertheless, the framework is consistent; men are superior beings, and women are inferior and compelled to be submissive to men. It is a powerful and bulletproof institutional order, which, in my particular community, capitalizes on the Muslim woman’s natural aspiration to attain excellence in worship and obedience to God. It derives its strength and success from conditioning that begins very early in the developmental stages of childhood. Boys are nurtured as superior authority figures, while girls are primed to be subservient. The conditioning ultimately creates an inbuilt propensity for women to resign themselves to subordination, and readily accepting of male justification based on ambiguous Sunnah.
This conditioning tactic provides one of the answers to the question of how women, even the well-educated who hold master’s and doctorate degrees, succumb to subordination and the imposed position of second class citizens. Those who do not toe the line or dare challenge the status quo face certain retaliation. And, any attempts by outside third parties to contest the subjugation of women are vehemently opposed by conservative Islamists, who insist that the reforms are anti-Islam.
As a Muslim woman, I became increasingly apprehensive of what I was experiencing, and, consequently, I spent the majority of my life running away from what I only knew to be a “rigorous, oppressive and unfair religion.” Like my counterparts, I saw Islam as the problem, and I took refuge in western society where I could thrive as a woman on my own terms. This decision was not without some level of repercussion, but I was willing to take that risk. It took many years before I dared return to my roots. By then I had become complete as a woman in Islam, motivated and empowered by my God-given rights as ordained in the Qur’an. Over the years, it had become painfully obvious that the very reasons for my fear and apprehension had nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, but they were the upshot of the age-old world order of female oppression and devaluation. Nevertheless, it still took me many years before I was able to push through the childhood conditioning, and embark on an independent study of Islam through the revelation of God, and not on the footing of any human manifesto.
I want to be clear about my objective for this op-ed. It is not to condemn Muslim men, but intended to join others in bringing more awareness to the salient fact that the repressive cultural practices, that harm and disadvantage women, do not represent Islam. Hence, these customs must be publicly and privately separated from Islam, both in words and actions. Among many others, these include domestic violence and abuse, honor killing, forced marriage, arbitrary divorce, female genitalia mutilation, and denial of equal gender rights and access to education. Muslim women must not be barred from exercising and enjoying all of the rights and privileges granted to them by God, as evidenced in the Qur’an. That is the reason why it is critical that we consistently keep this issue in the forefront. Not only to shatter the myths, but, also, in the hope that Muslim leadership will be moved to adopt measures to better protect women and uphold their God-given rights. And, additionally, for the same to outlaw the un-Islamic barbaric practices of murdering or maiming women, and bring to justice any man that commits these crimes in the name of Islam. It is unfathomable how a father or a brother can unleash abject brutality on a daughter or a sister. But, the distressing reality is that many men sincerely believe this to be a God-given right and directive, and not what it truly epitomizes, which is an atrocious anti-Islamic cultural ritual.
Although there is some progress being made in segments of Muslim communities, the high risk societies remain unmoved largely due to the reluctance of male-dominant structure to conclusively separate Islam and culture. In their thinking, such initiative will only serve to undermine the authority and control they exert over women; and, in one case, the argument was that this will “strip them of their humanity.” Such disparaging standpoints speak volumes about male attitude toward women in some Muslim communities.
Given the uninspiring stance of leaders who could help curtail oppressive practices, but do not do so, the situation seems hopeless. Nevertheless, we cannot be discouraged. A call to action is in order for Muslim women to judiciously study their religion and read the Qur’an, which contains many verses that uphold women and validate their equal rights. Many Muslims rely on translations of the meaning of the Qur’an in their native tongue. But, it is important to remember that these translations are the work of human hands and subject to the author’s comprehension of the Arabic text. That is the reason why it is strongly advisable that non-Arabic speaking Muslims strive to learn the language of our faith so as to have the advantage of reading the Qur’an from that vantage point. This is of specific importance for women, since the translations in circulation are predominantly authored by men. This very subject is at the core of efforts by a growing body of modern thinkers and female scholarship to challenge the theories and methodologies used to interpret the religious texts. Their focus is on the field of Qur'anic interpretation, or tafsir, in a quest to prove that the inequalities entrenched in Islamic law are not illustrations of divine will, but rather the result of human constructions. Muslim women also need to venture to become more active and outspoken in their communities about the edicts of Islam in relation to the position and rights of women. Additionally, younger generations should be encouraged to consider the field of Islamic Studies as a career option, because it increasingly is important that we have more female representation in that discipline.
Undeniably, Islam does not oppress women. This may sound cliché, but it is the simple truth. The Muslim woman’s oppressor is the male ego and its machinations; just as it has always been for women of every race and religion, and in every country and society around the world. In all actuality, Islam is the solution and source of liberation for the age-old male culture of female oppression and devaluation. That is the divine decree handed down more than 1400 years ago. So, my tears today are for those who are still trapped, with little to no hope for reprieve. But, the reality is that any improvement in the condition of Muslim women cannot be lasting and successful without a comprehensive restructuring of Muslim societies’ outlook and way of life. In essence, the Muslim world needs to bring itself closer to the ideals of Islam. The plight of Muslim women and the problems of Muslim communities are not a result of excessive attachment to religion; but the severe consequence of a long and deep detachment from Islam in all of its purity and splendor.
Habiba Kavalec is the founder of Muslimah Compass, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of the Muslim woman. She is an example of the type of Muslimahs, serving our Lord(SWT), which are so desperately needed in our Ummah at this time.