In my adult life, I have often been asked questions about Muslim women, more often than not put in a defensive position as I speak to what I know and have experienced. For everything from the hijab or burqa to a view of family and work, western women are curious, incredulous, or judgemental. While I am in no way an expert, I have been privileged to have life experience that included growing up in Pakistan until I was 18, and living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult for a total of 10 years. What is most important to me in my conversations is challenging the assumptions that are made through limited contact and knowledge of the Muslim world, more specifically women in the Muslim world.
I grew up with Muslim women surrounding me and friendships were formed at early ages, some that continue to this day-but I am always aware that my words and thoughts are inadequate to the complexity of their role on the local and world stage. There is one thing I can say with surety: one of the first assumptions to be challenged is that Muslim women are monolithic. The diversity at every level is astounding and the image often conjured up of a fully veiled woman walking behind her husband is only occasionally correct.
It is because of this inadequacy that I continually read books and articles, but more importantly ask questions of my Muslim friends. This is also the reason I was so excited when my husband came home with the book “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think“. In an earlier post I wrote about this small red volume and wanted to expand a bit on this today.
The part of the book that is of most interest to me is the section on women. While I love narratives and they resonate with me, I am aware there are many who want “just the facts”. This study works for the ‘data’ people and has information that cannot be ignored. Several examples of vast differences in view-point are given. For example, when western women were asked what they admired least in the Muslim world the response was ‘gender inequality”. Interesting to note is that responses from Muslim women did not include gender inequality. Equal legal right and gender inequality did not appear, rather the three most significant concerns for women were lack of unity of muslims, political corruption and extremism.
Undeniable in interviews with Muslim women was disapproval of the way western women are treated in the west. The perceived promiscuity, pornography, public indecency and lack of modesty were equal, in the eyes of those interviewed, to a degraded status for women.
Even as I write this, I am aware that books can only take us so far, that there is no substitute for relationships to challenge our assumptions and move us into friendships with those who think differently. I have two voices in my head as I write this: my mom – who spent over 30 years in a Muslim majority country; and a woman Bettie Addleton who spent the same amount of time. Both are examples of people who worked to form relationships in a part of the world that was different from the homes in America where they were raised.
In her book The Day the Chicken Cackled: Reflections on a Life in Pakistan Bettie recalls a Halloween party that she was putting on for her family and ours when we were little kids. The party was interrupted by a note from two Muslim women in the town who had heard of Bettie and were curious, and the note stated, “bored stiff” in this smaller town as compared to the larger coastal city of Karachi. Bettie goes on to say this “Improbably, this single event marked the beginning of a wide network of friendships with Muslim women living in Shikarpur. Their generosity provided a window into a world that I otherwise would never have experienced. Indeed, the young woman …who sent me the note became the closest friend I ever had in Pakistan. She also became a willing and trusted source of information for the many questions I had about customs and traditions of our corner in Upper Sindh.”
Being willing to have assumptions challenged is not easy, but it is critical, particularly in a world often driven by stereotypes posed by the loudest voices on both sides of the divide.
As the quote by Dr. Daniel Brown on the back of Bettie’s book says, we need “a balance to media driven images of Pakistan and Muslims” and “an account of real Muslim-Christian encounters that (are) filled with humanity, humor, and hope.”
- Casting a Stone (communicaatingacrossboundariesblog.com)
- Burqas, Hijabs & Charlie Sheen (communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com)
- Books that Inform (communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com)
- Report Offers Surprises on Muslims’ Growth (nytimes.com)
- Demystifying Islam in a strained Britain (msnbc.msn.com)
7 thoughts on “Challenging Assumptions”
Christian-Muslim understanding based on dialogue hopefully resulting in friendships is most vital for peace to prevail in this world. The Quran tells us to talk to Christians as they are closest to us in religion. Unfortunately criticism of Muslims and Islam is rife in the Western world. There seems to be a wall built all around that is so strong that it will not allow even a glimmer of understanding to seep through. This wall is no doubt the handiwork of the western press that leaves no stone unturned in demonising Islam and Muslims.
Yes it is true that terrorism, extremism and political corruption in that respect are the true concerns of todays Muslim woman or even man for that matter. Our stomachs get turned as much as anyone else’s by the daily terrorist incidents, the killing, murder, bloodshed, mayhem that rules our world and which it seems is stemming from Muslims. The misinterpretation
of the Quran and Hadees by religious figures of various sects that have turned what seems to us Muslims to be the Greatest Gift, a sign of Mercy, Forgiveness and Beneficence from Allah, into an extremist religion that spreads hatred and intolerance and turns the creatures of Allah into mortal and dreaded enemies of each other is unbearable. We stand by almost helpless while what we know to be most beautiful and love and cherish the most is turned into some sort of grotesque monstrosity. Nobody can have any inkling of the extent of our pain.
Modesty in dress is not just an Islamic thing. The statues of Mary and pictures of other ladies of the time show that modesty in dress was a Christian practice too. Even today the catholic nuns cover their hair and dress in a habit. The Catholic priests wear long white gowns very like what the Arabs wear. Jews keep long beards and cover their heads. some Jewish sects strictly require women to cover their heads.
The Western women who dress to show their bodies are looked at more for their bodies than their minds. To be ogled at and to appear in the indecent dreams of strange man is NOT a liberating factor. A Muslim woman reveals her mind, her thoughts, her emotions, her sense of humour, her education, her compassion, etc but she is liberated enough to keep that which is private and sacred to her for herself only to be shared with close family. She is never a body, never a pair of legs that excite attention nor a pair of breastsfor strange men to drool over. She decides who sees her. That is true freedom.
While the western woman indulges her sexual appetite, she is often left feeling used and cheap and with an empty or bitter after taste. Many times she is left holding the baby, while the man wanders off and her own dreams of the future crumble at her feet. If she practises birth control it many times plays havoc with her body and leaves her barren and infertile at the age when she is desperate to have a baby. She also risks infection of STD or even HIV, putting her very life at risk for a few moments of stolen pleasure.
In most cases the woman is the loser and except for an HIV infection the man does not get affected. this in no way seems to be any kind of equality of the sexes.
The idea that a woman should show her body or should indulge in sex as often as she wants is one that only benefits men in truth. No doubt the very ideas have originated from the brains of men who wish to turn their women into mere playthings. Women have to think and take control of their lives.
A modest Muslim woman waits till a man offers her his home, his life and the his name and till their union is sanctified in the eyes of God and the world in marriage, before she entrusts her body to him. This is not so far from the Christian ideal or even the Jewish ideal.
Marriage is not just an institution to satisfy one’s bodily needs but it is a state that promotes living a life that is in every way pleasing in the eyes of God, where a husband and a wife help each other in strengthening their piety and crating a home based on love and tranquility and when they procreate they nurture and teach and guide their children on such a path that will not only bring them closer to God but will also benefit their fellow creatures in every way. God did not create humans to be prisoners of their lusts but thinking beings who, while enjoying the Grace and bounty of God still keep all their duties and responsibilities in mind. Many of my Christian friends living in the west feel the same. It is time for people to unite on the things they agree upon rather than always fight about their differences. Differences too can be good for we have a lot to learn from each other if only we will keep our minds open.
I would love to read your friend’s book.
Often our thoughts are not our own thoughts but results of the seeds sown subtly or unknowingly into our minds by others. So one should be very careful before offering ones mind as fertile ground to the ideas of others.
The part I find most interesting is the way Muslim women view western women as being in a degraded status. Great article. Love your perspective.
Thanks for the comment. I felt the same way when I read that – I had heard this from women but didn’t know it was a perception that was so widely believed until I read the book. It reinforces the importance of relationships to breakdown stereotypes. Would love to get one of these strong beautiful women onto Glen Beck!! Thanks again for reading and for your voice through media. So important.