Women and Islam: culture and religious contradictions

The Islamic woman’s veil permeated Thursday night’s paneldiscussion “Women and Islam,” held in the Smith Memorial StudentUnion.

From the experience of Islamic women in the United States tocontradictions between the teachings of the Koran and modern Muslimculture regarding gender equality, the veil was a motif of Islamicwomen’s experience.

Thursday night’s panelist contrasted stereotypes of Islamicwomen with realities.

Jan Abushakrah, a professor of sociology at PSU, gave examplesof many experiences of Muslim women in the United States. “Workingclass Muslim women and immigrants are confronted with exploitationin the workforce,” Abushakrah said. Mocking a common sentiment, sheadded, “because they’re Muslim, it gives a green light to furtherexploit.”

Abushakrah researched the concerns of Muslim when she conducteda Google search on “Muslim Women in the West.” Finding Web sites”that were put there by Muslim women for Muslim women,” Abushakrahsaid she noticed that “there has been no survey of Muslim women inwestern society that is asking them what their concerns are …someone else is speaking for these women.”

Finding it reviling to look at Web sites “where women aretalking for themselves” Abushakrah said she found multiple issuesthat are concerning Muslim women in western society. “Being a partof two cultures but not entirely comfortable in either one of them… Muslim women are trying to negotiate their identity.” Otherconcerns were the alienation from both cultures Muslim women’schildren may experience, domestic violence, marital tension, anddivorce.

“The issue of support, where Muslim women may not go to adomestic violence shelter,” Abushakrah said, feeling they mayisolate themselves from their family.

Western media’s representation of “a passive, silent woman in aveil serves two purposes,” said Abushakrah. “It reinforces femaledomesticity and is a way to justify western imperialism in Islamiccountries.” Abushakrah postulated that the veil “for the west is alightning rod for how they are dealing with the Middle East.”Saying there has been a growing imperialism and colonialismattacking Islam and Muslim countries, Abushakrah said that “wearingthe veil is an anti-imperialist statement … a way to assert anddefine what your identity is.”

Laila Hajoo, the president of an Islamic social servicesorganization in Portland spoke at length on the question of “Whatis Islam’s position on women, her duties and rights and her roleand responsibility detailed in the Koran?” In short, Hajoo made itclear that Islamic women have the same rights as an Islamic man,according to the teachings of the Koran. Hajoo particularlyemphasized equality in access to education and under the law.

“There is a misconception that women should not be educated,this is heard in western media … this is wrong, all Muslimsshould learn how to read, as it is stated in the Koran,” Hajooexplained. According to the Koran, there can never be a restrictionof knowledge based on sex.

Equality under the law has been a part of Islamic society forcenturies, where, according to Hajoo, Muslim women have been ableto own property for the last 1,400 years. “This is a contrast towestern women who previously couldn’t hold property without maleapproval,” Hajoo said.

The Muslim mother is highly respected in the Muslim community.”The family structure is in support of the mother … the family,even without the presence of a husband, will support the mother,”Hajoo said. Concluding that Islamic women have rights, privileges,and responsibilities, Hajoo said “you hear the Muslim women areinferior to men, the Koran doesn’t teach this … there is anemphasis on the equality between men and women.”

An audience member from Turkey commented that “in some societiesit is not a woman’s choice to cover her head, patriarchy stillexists … Muslim women from Turkey are being suppressed, theTurkish government is suppressing those who want to practice theirIslamic rights.”

Hajoo pointed out in her speech that there “is a distinctionbetween cultural beliefs and the Koran’s teachings.”

Abushakrah commented that government’s self interests are partof government suppression of religious rights.

Panelist Laila Huneidi, a PhD candidate at PSU, commented that”when studying Islamic nations, people are always seeing thenegatives, the lack of freedom, women’s freedom, and a lack ofaccess to knowledge.” Huneidi made two main points, one being that”Islam as a religion is a religion of emancipation … a religionof freedom.”

Her other main point was Islamic countries have experienced”years of occupation and colonization have weakened Islamicsocieties, both spiritually and materially.”

“The dominant culture gets to set the norms,” Huneidi. “WesternModernity is putting massive amounts of pressure on Islamicsocieties to reform.”

Abushakrah also addressed the point that many people believeIslam promotes terrorism.

“It has nothing to do with the religion; it has to do with thepower situation,” she said.

Speaking further on the political situation in Islamiccountries, Huneidi commented that “authoritative regimes servetheir own interests to stay in power.” An audience member added toHuneidi’s statement, saying that “we have our rotten apples and wehave to recognize that, but so do all other countries.”

Highlighting the reality of conflicts between religiousscriptures and people’s actions, an audience member said “theproblem of Christianity is that it’s not practiced by allChristians … I’m beginning to think that’s true of the Islamicworld too.”