Thursday, June 2, 2011

Islam grants women the right to be political leaders

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.  

“Isn’t she one of those feminists?” The word rolled off his tongue tentatively – as if saying it was like swearing or backbiting. As if it was a bad thing. In light of the situation, calling my sister-in-Islam a feminist was part of a smear campaign geared toward suppressing our opposition to the barrier, which had just been installed in our local university prayer room.

This was a young man – impressionable, uninformed and obviously using the word as he heard it used by others. He just wanted the inside scoop on our barrier protest. Being one of a handful of hijabis on campus, meant that some people just naturally assumed I was more religious, pro-barrier and rejected certain social movements.

I brushed him aside saying that the moment the Prophet championed women’s rights and emphasized equality – he became Islam’s most influential feminist.

My sister in question didn't wear the hijab and was a vocal organizer against the barrier – so she took the brunt of the slander. Any authority and power she could have wielded was suspended because her dedication to the religion was made questionable. Now, no one called her a woman of loose morals. No one accused her of being an enemy of Islam. No one said that her western education threatened the very fabric of Islamic tradition. They just needed to call her a feminist, and innuendo took care of the rest.

I've noticed that when Muslim women and their allies try to challenge the status quo, there's at least one perspective attempting to place the blame on "foreign" political or social ideologies. Despite the fact that feminism(s) exist in Muslim traditions and cultures, saying that word to the wrong person can bring to mind images of bra and burka burning westernized women – who either assume to know what's best for the "oppressed" Muslim woman, or who have tainted their delicate and innocent minds with thoughts of revolution and forced equality.

Some fear that the agenda of the western feminist includes banning the hijab, encouraging women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, mocking motherhood, promoting promiscuity and lesbianism (*gasp*) and challenging traditional, divinely guided gender roles. Of course anything that threatens "our traditional way of life" is fair game. So sometimes feminism is let off the hook in place of democracy, television, the fashion industry, music, Pepsi or Thanksgiving. Really, anything that aids in creating "us" versus "them."

This perspective tends to define the rights that Islam affords to women in opposition to perceived (and usually misunderstood) goals of the feminist movement. There's no need to promote equality for all – Islam already grants equality between the sexes. There's no need to settle for lower paying wages for an equal position to a man or choose between your career and your family – Islam defines your duties as a woman and as a mother. There's no need to use your body and sell yourself to others – modesty in Islam guarantees that people engage with your mind instead of seeing you as a sex object. There is no need to struggle for your rights – Islam came at a time when women were horribly oppressed and grants women specific rights. And under a truly Islamic society, these rights will be guaranteed.

But such a society doesn't exist – especially when politics, culture and patriarchy often conflate and (mis)interpret religion to support oppression of any kind. And limiting the definition of women's rights in opposition to anything also invariably becomes a veiled attempt to define women along specific lines. The Qur'an and prophetic traditions may say that the key to heaven lies at the feet of the mother, but that doesn't mean a woman's worth or salvation is only gained through motherhood.

So despite the fact that women have rights under Islam, Islamic Feminism, Muslim Feminism, and people fighting for the rights of Muslim women in thousands of different ways and contexts, exist in order to address the social injustices often made in the name of religion.

On may 21st, Manal al-Sherif was arrested in Saudi Arabia for driving her car and inciting other women to join her in a peaceful demonstration. She posted a YouTube video of her driving as part of an organized campaign with other Saudi activists to oppose the law forbidding women to drive. On June 17, women with legal international licenses, are being asked to drive themselves to work, the gym, the hospital, the grocery store, the gas station, the park, and anywhere else they need to go for their livelihood and for emergencies.

For participating in the campaign, Manal spent nearly two weeks in police detention, was threatened with losing the custody of her son, losing her job and is enduring a horrible smear campaign aimed at discrediting her actions.

According to the Saudi blogger Saudiwoman: after Manal's arrest the campaign's Facebook page and her personal Twitter account was shut down. But Facebook pages promoting the beating of women who decide to drive on June 17 were allowed to remain. Some in support of the ban called Manal's actions part of a Zionist, Western, Liberal, Secularist, Iranian, or Shia "conspiracy to corrupt the morals and honour of Saudi women" or to destabilize the Kingdom and take over the Saudi oil fields. Manal's background and religious affiliation was put into question because, "any woman that speaks out for lifting the ban is not a pure Saudi." One sheikh released a statement calling for Manal to be publicly flogged at a women's only shopping mall – and others accused her of being, "a sinful, conspiring and malicious hypocrite and that those who support her are evil, infidels, licentious, conspiring, and immoral people who only follow their desires and whims" (statements that were then partially redacted). Later, official sources released falsified statements from Manal saying that she had been misguided by Saudi women in America.

This ban against women driving has been in place since 1990, and while some women in the rural areas do drive when necessary, social customs and religious pressure make it nearly impossible for many women to drive without harassment, social stigma and now, the threat of arrest. Public transit isn't an option and women can't get local licenses. The ban results in women being reliant upon their male relatives, hired taxis, or live-in drivers for transportation. Opponents of the ban argue that it further discriminates against families who cannot afford taxis or drivers as well as single, divorced and widowed women who may have no choice but to drive themselves.

The reasons given for the ban range from: women driving will break down the walls of gender segregation, giving them the freedom to go out and interact with unrelated men, to male youths will have fewer opportunities to drive if female drivers overcrowd the streets. Those who oppose it say that the ban has no basis in religion and is based purely on sexism, oppression and gender control.

Head for the hills people. Women behind the wheel leads to promiscuity and harlotry. But forcing women to be alone in the back seat while a complete stranger drives is totally fine.

I often rant against people who argue that women are the maintainers of chastity. That in order to protect the moral and traditional values of society, the onus is upon women to cover their bodies and hide themselves away. And while some women are in support of the ban and others feel that opposing it detracts from other important rights like fighting for the full political participation of women or challenging the male guardianship laws – there are plenty who want the freedom to choose and decide for themselves what's best for their family.

Islam grants women the right to be political leaders, ride camels and horses into war, succeed at a career, own motherhood, own property, divorce her husband, and more, but the application of these rights are dependent upon interpretation. When women are positioned as the bulwark of societal virtue, and their movements are hampered in the name of misogyny masquerading as religion, of course the authority will attack with licentious rumours. A "real" and "pure" and "proper" woman who maintains society's standards would never act any other way. Those who act out of line will have their power and authority sacrificed and be labelled a sinful, hypocritical, evil, infidel whore supporting a conspiracy to disrupt society.

While this type of propaganda is a known tactic used around the world, I cannot imagine just how difficult it is to achieve social reform when women are discredited and so harshly intimidated based upon religious and sociopolitical affiliation. Which is precisely why slander is used – to squash and quell opposition by trying to scare the majority into submission by demonizing the "other" and sacrificing a few dissenters. Imagine what kind of damage that does to a person's life. Imagine the strength needed to speak out in the first place.

Manal has jeopardized her employment, added infamy to her name, and was separated from her son because of a traffic violation.

Luckily Manal and other activists have allies in their corner. Journalists, sheikhs and members of the Saudi royal family gave opinions in support of lifting the ban. Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags (#women2drive, #freeManal, #leadstosex) are used to lend support to her cause – and several petitions for her release were created worldwide.

Unfortunately, since writing this post, it's being reported that in order to be released, Manal had to sign a pledge giving up the campaign and promising not to drive a car or participate in the protest this month. However immediately following her arrest more and more women started reporting driving in the main cities, or posting videos of themselves driving online.

Despite the propaganda and her exit from the campaign, activists are using this as an opportunity for action and are pulling together behind a "we are all Manal" rallying cry. People the world over are lending their support in the hopes that changing the ban will be the first of many societal reforms to benefit women.

As Manal so perfectly puts it in one of her quotes, "the rain starts with a single drop."