In several cities and even towns, girls who had exposure to modern schools to pursue careers ranging from journalism to teaching have chosen in the past few years to wear the hijab (a scarf wrapped tightly around their heads to conceal every wisp of hair). Most strikingly, however, these women fluently and cogently articulate how they believe Islam has liberated and empowered them. The Islam they describe is a million miles away from that of the Taliban, let alone the Islam practiced in many Muslim countries from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Still, they insist – and back up their points with Quranic references – that the Islam they first discovered when they were teenagers is faithful to the Prophet’s teachings. They don’t need Western feminism, which, they argue, developed as a reaction against the particular expression of Western patriarchy.
Within the Quanic tradition and the life of the Prophet lies the rights and inspiration Muslim societies have a misconception that the struggle for women’s rights is confined, historically and geographically, to European and North American locations. This ‘myth’ enjoys such great credibility that women’s rights in Muslim societies have almost become an alien idea, and whoever works for them is believed to be promoting some ‘foreign’ agenda. The misconception is confined to Muslim societies, and some people in non-Muslim cultures see Muslim women as passive and silent victims. This misconception is so prevalent that any example of brave Muslim women resisting patriarchal values, whether in the past or present, is brushed aside as an exception. This ‘myth’ has been repeated so often that everyone now considers it a reality in public and private lives.
New status for women
The Quran enshrined a new status for women and gave them rights that they could have only dreamed of before in Arabia, so why the seeming disparity between what once was and what now appears to be?
Historically, Islam was incredibly advanced in providing revolutionary rights for women and uplifting women’s status in the seventh century. Many of the revelations in the Quran were by nature reform-oriented, transforming critical aspects of pre-Islamic customary laws and practices in progressive ways to eliminate injustice and suffering. Still, it is not enough to merely flaunt these values. We must act on them.
The reforms that took place in the early years of Islam were progressive, changing with the needs of society; however, the more detailed rules that the classical jurists laid out only allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue. These rules reflected their society’s needs, traditions, and expectations, not the progressive reforms that started during Muhammad’s time. Hence, the trajectory of reform that began during Muhammad’s time was halted in the medieval period through further elaborating fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which was then selectively codified in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Muslims need to look at themselves realistically instead of their imagined selves. The Prophet was centuries ahead of the men of his time in his attitudes toward women, and not surprisingly, right after he died, men started rolling back his reforms. The Prophet may have been too advanced for the mindset of seventh-century men, but his compassion for women is precisely the model that Muslims in the 21st century need to emulate today.
Twenty-four women appear in the Quran in various forms and for multiple purposes; 18 appear as minors, the primary five being Mary, mother of Jesus. Bilquis, the queen of Sheba, Mary’s mother, Hannah, Hawa (Eve), and Umm Musa, the mother of Moses. All of them are potent examples of the tremendous potential of women.
The women scholars
Islam is arguably the most discussed religion in the West today, in both media and society, and after terrorism; the plight of Muslim women is probably the most controversial topic of debate. , there is only a small amount of published work available on Muslim women fighting sexism within Muslim communities and much of that focuses on women who see Islam as inherently part of the problem if not the whole problem that Muslim women face. The assumption is that Muslim women must be disengaged from the religion entirely before anything close to liberation or equality can be achieved.
In the 21st century, the combined spread of literacy, the availability, and promotion of public education for both girls and boys, and the expansion of job opportunities for women have added to Muslim women’s desire for greater empowerment in practicing and interpreting their faith. We have hundreds of examples of women who defied culturally defined gender norms to assert their right to be different and to be agents of change in their society.
Modern Muslim women in the arts
Like the other forms of art, cinema is a reflection of reality. However, the truth on the screen is not natural, which means the seventh art presents a fact reproduced by human hands to its audience. While cinema, as a critical artistic language, has witnessed life and reflected society-structured reality since its beginning, it has represented women in many different ways for over 100 years.
This representation of women on the big screen started to be scrutinized and criticized over time. The primary criticism was that women were reflected in a distorted way and in line with the interests of patriarchal culture. As productions diversified, various complaints were added to these primary problems. Among these ensuing criticisms was diversity.
Today, Muslim women are active in Quranic study circles, mosque-based activities, community services sponsored by religious organizations, and Islamic education as students and teachers. There are a rising number of female Quran reciters, Islamic lawyers, and professors of Islamic studies worldwide.
While many Muslims worldwide learn about such exceptional Muslim women in school, their relevance to the contemporary context is frequently overlooked. Most critical aspects of their personalities are glossed over. Through learning and celebrating their examples, men and women can better understand and build upon notions of the role of Muslim women in a culturally authentic paradigm.
A woman needs to achieve their full potential – the challenge ahead is to educate Muslim girls and women, so they have that knowledge. They justify wearing the hijab, either as a public statement of their spiritual quest or of their political identity in a world where Islam perceives itself as under threat, or both.
In a traditional Muslim home, the emphasis was on cultural conservatism rather than piety. At first, parents would remain firm about wearing conservative garments; parents were shocked”. But these girls found liberation in Islam. It gave them the confidence to insist on a good education and reject arranged marriage. Islam made sense to them, and they could understand it, unlike a generation back.
They argue and reiterate an affirmation of themselves as women: “The Qur’an says that men and women are equal in the eyes of God and that we are like a garment for each other to protect one another.”
Again and again, these women emphasize these two themes, evoked in richly poetic Quranic metaphor: first, the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God (the most meaningful equality of all, they argue), and second, the complementarily of the sexes. The Qur’an says, “I created you from one soul, and from that soul, I created its mate so that you may live in harmony and love.”
The stereotype of a Muslim woman as a passive victim is a dangerous myth. It is promoted by the opponents of gender equality within and outside Muslim societies. It has to be challenged, debunked, and laid to rest. Without completely shattering it, Muslim women will keep fearing to speak out for their rights, afraid of being treated as the ‘other,’ as someone who has imported these ‘problematic’ and ‘negative’ ideas from foreign cultures.