Challenging Assumptions

This piece was first posted in February of 2011, soon after I began blogging. I was reminded of it recently when a favorite blogger of mine, Rachel who writes at Djibouti Jones as well as various other places on the web, began a series “Let’s Talk About Hijab”. I love what she is doing with this topic, inviting several voices into the conversation. And here is a glimpse of my perspective.

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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. In everything from the hijab or burqa to a view of family and work, western women are curious, incredulous, or judgmental   

While I am in no way an expert, I am 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 developed 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.”

10 thoughts on “Challenging Assumptions

  1. I spent 1 year in Senegal and continually explain how Islam and Muslims are different everywhere. I also just read a great book by Miriam Adeney called Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women that connects well with this post. I love your blog- thank you!

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  2. Still one of my favorite of your posts . . . thanks for bringing it back. We can never hear enough how critical it is to challenge assumptions, especially because, as you so eloquently state, it is frequently stereotypes (not individual truths) that are “posed by the loudest voices on both sides of the divide.”

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    1. Thanks so much Cathy. This is why I love our ‘veil’ exercise. It never fails to work. Thanks for being a voice to challenge assumptions about Muslim women and many other things.

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  3. Marilyn, what a lovely post that debunks so many of the myths. When we lived in Khartoum, Sudan, many of my friends were Muslim women who wore the traditional “tobe” of Sudan – yards and yards of gorgeous fabric, elegantly draped by practiced hands – worn over western style clothing. When we discussed the topic they said, “It’s just how we dress.” I’m guessing that a lot of women can relate to that phrase. Thanks for challenging assumptions. All the best, Terri

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    1. Terri – thanks so much for this comment! I’m responding late as I took a short break from blogging. I’d love to hear more about you time in Sudan. We met several Sudanese while in Cairo and I’ve met a couple who are were resettled in the Boston area. One of my favorite proverbs is a Sudanese proverb “Our wasted days are the days when we never laugh” – I love that! So many of these assumptions can only be challenged through friendship and those of us who have seen another side speaking out.

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  4. I just went to the home of two women from Bangladesh. One was quiet, traditionally dressed, poorly educated and didn’t bother to pray much because she was too busy with her small children. Her sister-in-law, who was visiting America, wore make-up, western clothes, was a lawyer in her country and frequently went to the mosque to pray. Both Muslims. Completely different. It is much harder to stereotype Muslims once one has the pleasure of befriending many of them.

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    1. Your last sentence says it all Anne. Friendship changes us. Your experience on this is so valuable. Keep commenting and talking. Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been blog free this week and posted everything ahead of time.

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