It may not be far fetched to state that the most misunderstood and stereotyped issue about Muslims and Islam is the issue of women. The moment you hear “women” and “Islam,” what comes to mind? Oppression, genital mutilation, honor killings, full body dark veils, forced marriages, polygamy, male domination, and helpless victims in need of liberation. The image is carefully crafted and uniformly presented by media commentators who, become missionaries as soon they turn their attention to Islam.
The most common and widespread perceptions of Muslim women are that they are oppressed, uneducated, submissive, have no rights, are second-class citizens, hidden from the view by layers of veils, and good only for bearing children. The role and treatment of Muslims women is greatly misunderstood. The typical images of a veiled woman as a non-entity to graphic stories of oppression, the issue is loaded with negative perceptions.
We need to fairly examine the place of Muslim women focusing on the teachings of Islam on women rather than the practices of various Muslim cultures as they vary from country to country and are reflective of that particular culture rather than of Islam.
Basic injunctions and principles are laid in the Quran, the Muslim sacred text, as well as the hadith, the second source of guidance for Muslims. Taken together with the practice of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, they are the defining norm of Islamic behavior and the rights of Muslim women. That is the reason why we like to refer to the precedent of early Muslims.
The most common misconceptions about Muslims women related to polygamy, divorce, inheritance, honor killings, and other topics have also been addressed.
81% of polled Americans in a 2010 Gallup poll disagreed with the statement that most Muslims believe women and men should have equal rights.
Sources of Negative Stereotypes
The source of these stereotypes include the media, Hollywood, books, hate groups, and even some Muslim themselves. Islam guaranteed women rights 1400 years ago that are unfortunately not always upheld due to deeply rooted local cultural practices and other factors.
Since most Americans have not met a Muslim personally or known one, the media oftentimes is the source of information about Islam and Muslim women. The problem is that the media usually focuses on negative events about conflict, violence, and cultural practices because good news is not considered worthy of reporting. Media likes sensational news that feeds on people’s stereotypes and hype that attracts audiences. Everyday stories of ordinary Muslims at school or at work is generally not covered. Positive contributions of Muslims are rarely shown, in particular, stories about Muslim women. An example is the war in Afghanistan that was framed by the motivation to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from the Taliban, yet after the fall of the Taliban, media lost interest in stories of Afghan women and their advancement. A survey of all photographs of Muslims in US media discovered that 73% showed women passive positions compared to 15% of men.
The second source of false perceptions about Muslim women is how they are stereotypically represented in Hollywood movies. Hollywood has shown Muslim women as members of harems, oppressed wives of terrorists, or victims awaiting rescue by Western heroes from the earliest movies like The Sheikh. Prof. Jack Shaheen analyzed hundreds of movies depicting Arabs and found that ‘Arab women…are humiliated, demonized, and eroticized in more than 50 feature films.’ They were mostly represented in one of the five ways: scantily clad harem maidens, evil enchantresses, ‘beasts of burden’ carrying jugs, shapeless silent followers, and bombers!
One of the most well-known examples of movies that show ‘oppressed’ Muslim women is Not Without My Daughter. It is a story of an American woman married to an Iranian man who oppresses her when he returns home to his country and tries to stop his daughter from leaving with her mother. This 1991 film was often shown in middle school social studies classes to teach about Islam and Muslims. Comedies like Father of the Bride II show Muslim women as subservient and stupid.
Many fiction and non-fiction books also contribute to the spread of stereotypes about Muslim women by focusing on the negative aspects of their treatment or abuses committed in the name of Islam. It is done without acknowledging that other cultures or even religions share similarities or that many of these practices are misrepresentations or contradict Islamic teachings.
Titles such as The Nine Parts of Desire, The Caged Virgin, and similar ones perpetuate the idea that Muslim women are subjugated victims of a religion that treats them as second class citizens.
While Muslims have long been demonized, since 9/11 Islamophobia has become popular among individuals and certain media groups, politics, and elements of popular, mass culture. One aspect of this campaign, both in the US and Europe, is a focus on Muslim women to stoke fears of ‘creeping Shariah’ and the oppression of women.
Since Muslims are diverse people coming from different traditions and countries, they have a variety of cultural practices. Some of those practices in Muslim countries have nothing to do with Islam and may even contradict Islamic teachings. Some examples are honor killings, restricting girl’s education, and others. Muslim women are influences by religion and other factors like culture, family, education, profession, social status, as well as the political state of their country. All these factors influence their behavior.
Some feminists view all religions as inherently oppressive. Their assumptions are determined by Western notions of oppression and freedom as well as Western values relating to women’s role in the family and society. An example is modest clothing of the Muslim women which is assumed to be oppressive because generally in the West ‘body autonomy’ is an indisputable value. A Muslim woman choosing to dress modestly is automatically thought to be oppressed.
Equality Between Men And Women
Contrary to widespread perceptions, Islam liberated women from many shackles of its time. Men and women are same in nature, hope for reward, spirituality, and duty to God. While it might appear to be obvious in the modern world, but such attitudes were unimaginable in the 7th century.
Religious Perceptions in America With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Towards Muslims and Islam. Gallup World Survey in conjunction with Muslim West Facts and Coexist Foundation. 2009. 6.
Esposito, John and Dalia Mogahed. Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think Based on Gallup’s World Poll. New York: Gallup Press. 2008. 104
Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs. Northampton, Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press. 2009. 28-29.