Muslim women are at the crossroads – between freedom and oppression

Women’s rights is one of the key aspects in the fight back against Islamism – but are they being empowered enough?

Raheel Raza
Thursday 02 June 2011 12:36:00

A UN Arab Human Development Report called ‘Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World’ points out that “an Arab renaissance cannot and will not be accomplished unless the obstacles preventing women from enjoying their human rights and contributing more fully to development are eliminated and replaced with greater access to the “tools” of development.”

Today, six years down the road an appalling lack of human rights and development are manifest in many stories related to Muslim women, not just in the Arab world but across the globe.

Most current is the saga of Manal al Sharif in Saudi Arabia, arrested (later released) for driving in a country where this is considered the domain of men. Strong patriarchal and tribal practitioners also try to use psychological coercion. So when a Muslim woman like al Sharif speaks out she is called ‘militant’.

In Egypt where much of the revolution known as the “Arab Spring” has been spearheaded by young techno-savvy women, dangerous tactics were used to silence them. A senior Egyptian general said that women detained on 9 March at Cairo’s Tahrir Square had been forced to undergo ‘virginity tests’, which the government had previously denied. When army officers violently cleared Tahrir Square the day after International Women’s Day, 18 women were detained, beaten, given electric shocks, of which 17 were then subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to ‘virginity tests’ and threatened with prostitution charges.

Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani victim of a village council-sanctioned gang rape because her 12 year brother was supposed to have defiled the honour of a tribe, became a symbol of the country’s oppressed women. Mai’s case has been in and out of courts since 2002 and today she finds her life is in danger after the Supreme Court acquitted 13 men accused of the crime last month. The ruling leaves just one of the initial 14 suspects in prison which means that according to tribal custom, the other 13 will find ways to take revenge for their honour. The irony should not escape anyone working for women’s rights.

Meanwhile at this end of the so-called civilized world and next door to us in New York, Dominique Strauss-Kahn , the former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been charged with trying to rape a hotel maid at the Sofitel hotel. As it turns out her family miles away in a remote Guinea village describe the victim as a quiet pious girl, the daughter of a Muslim cleric, who allegedly was asked by DSK “don’t you know who I am?” There are rumours that DSK will buy his way out of this mess although his reputation is not as pious as his victims.

What does this tell us about women’s rights? If women are treated as second class citizens, perhaps it time for them to wake up and demand equal rights because no one else can do it for them? I believe it’s only when women will be allowed to take leadership roles, that change will be seen on the ground.

In my long and challenging struggle for women’s rights, I clarify that we are not re-creating our rights but re-claiming what was already given to us. Muslim women were given the rights to ask for marriage and divorce, keep their earned wages and maiden name long before western women got their rights. However distinctively misogynous, Islamic fundamentalism has adversely affected women’s political and social plight the world over. This means, among other things, that the sources on which the Islamic tradition is based, have been interpreted only by Muslim men who have arrogated to themselves the task of defining the status of Muslim women.

The good news is that today, many female Muslim scholars and grass roots women’s organizations have initiated reform and are bringing about change from within. In Morocco and Malaysia women have brought about landmark changes in divorce laws that were anti-women; in India, Muslim women in a small village got so fed up with the mosque being a male bastion that they threw out the men and established their own mosque; in Pakistan women have set up a pro-democracy movement and in North America there is a sense of “no more will we allow our rights to be usurped’.

Given educational and economic freedom, Muslim women the world over will be engaged and empowered which is our God-given right. Just let us do it!

Raheel Raza is a Canadian author and public speaker –