Shattering Illusions: Western Conceptions of Muslim Women

by Saimah Ashraf (e-mail: is a 1997-98 Stanford Boothe Prize for Excellence in Writing winner

"Rose Hamid is as American as they come. She drives a Ford station wagon, leads a local Girl Scout troop, shops at the Gap and just attended her 20-year high school reunion" writes Laurie Goodstein in a recent New York Times article (A1).

From this brief description of Rose, readers may have formed a particular picture of her in their minds. If they were told, however, that "Rose Hamid wears a head scarf in keeping with her Muslim faith,'" that picture might take a drastic turn (Goodstein A1).

She's Muslim? Images of suppressed, meek, black-enshrouded women submitting to the demands of their dominating husbands race through some readers' minds. But why is this the case? Would we see Rose any differently if she were Christian or Jewish? The answer is probably no, but since she is a Muslim woman, it is difficult not to have some preconceptions of her.

I don't understand why, in the West, Muslim women are clumped into one large group and viewed as homogenous clones of one another, while their Christian and Jewish counterparts are rarely ever stereotyped in this way. Many people don't realize, due largely to biased media interpretations, that there are a large variety of Muslim women around the world, from areas such as the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia, Yugoslavia, Northern Africa, and the Southern parts of the former USSR, just as there are Christian and Jewish women in various countries.

For instance, one probably wouldn't classify a Mexican woman with a French woman, though both may be Roman Catholics and hold the same beliefs. In the same way, American Muslim women are different from Pakistani Muslims, who are different from Saudi Muslims. In these three countries, women are accorded different rights and privileges because of the government and customs in the area. For example, many American Muslim women are discriminated against because they cover their heads; Pakistani women have political rights but are often exploited by men; Saudi women have no public role, yet they are "protected" by Saudi men.

The negative stereotypes of Muslim women probably arise from this varying treatment of women. The Western media, for some reason, latch on to a few examples of unjust behavior in the Islamic world, brand Islam as a backwards and "fundamentalist" religion, especially in its treatment of women, and ignore that it was the first religion to accord women equal rights. While Christian and Jewish women were still considered inferior, the originators of sin, and the property of their husbands, Muslim women were being given shares in inheritance, were allowed to choose or refuse prospective husbands, and were considered equal to men in the eyes of God. However, through time, slowly changing customs, and the rise of male-dominated, patriarchal nation-states, Muslim governments began placing restrictions on women which had no grounds in the Quran, the Islamic holy book; or the hadith, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, Christian and Jewish women in the West have slowly been awarded rights not called for in the biblical tradition.

Traditionally, Judeo-Christian women were thought to be inferior to men and were given a low status in society. These negative attitudes toward women arose because Judaism and Christianity placed such a heavy emphasis on Eve's role in the expulsion from Paradise. Because Eve, rather than Adam, was the first to be seduced by Satan and eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, she supposedly caused the fall of mankind. Therefore all women, as the descendants of Eve, were thought to be evil and morally weaker than men (Sherif 2). In the Bible, there are several references to women in this uncomplimentary light: "I found more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare" (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28). "No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman. . . .Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" (Ecclesiastes 25:19,24). Early church fathers such as St. Tertullian reiterated these negative concepts of women by making statements such as, "Do you know that you are each an Eve?. . . . You are the Devil's gateway. . . .You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die." In Christianity, women carried the extra burden of causing the death of Christ, as Tertullian points out (Sherif 2). Because Adam and Eve passed on their sin to all future generations, Jesus had to purge humankind from this "original sin" by sacrificing his life (Sherif 2). Thus, by causing the fall of man, Eve also caused the death of Christ. In the Jewish tradition, women receive no less harsh treatment. Because of Eve, all women have to face punishment on Earth including pregnancy, pain in childbirth, menstruation, and subjugation to men (Sherif 3). Orthodox Jewish males still recite in their daily prayers: "Blessed be God King of the Universe that Thou has not made me a woman . . . . Praised be God that he has not created me woman" (Menahot 43b)

These early prejudiced attitudes gave rise to discriminatory treatment of women. Because the Judeo-Christian tradition spans such a vast amount of time, it is difficult to deal with the condition of women in any specific period. Therefore I will deal with women mostly as they are referred to in the Bible and by influential church fathers and rabbis. Often, the discrimination against females began immediately upon birth since baby girls were thought to be shameful, a view found several times in the Bible: "The birth of a daughter is a loss" (Ecclesiasticus 22:3). Jewish rabbis also expressed displeasure at the birth of a female, saying that boys brought peace into the world, whereas girls brought absolutely nothing (Sherif 4). This unhappiness at a female's birth arose partly because of the large dowry that had to be given to a Jewish or Christian girl's husband upon marriage, a tradition adhered to until recently (Sherif 8). Hence, a girl was often thought to be a "liability and no asset" (Sherif 8).

Additionally, as Kevin Harris, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, puts it, "women are portrayed in the bible quite consistently as appendages of men; as possessions of men; as goods which may be sold, disposed of, given away, traded, or just ordered about by men" (30). One section in the Bible which is a testament to this view is Exodus 21.7, which expressly condones a man selling his daughter into slavery or concubinage: "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do." A man also controlled the sexuality of his daughter, as can be seen in the case of Lot (among many others), who offered his virgin daughters to the homosexual men of Sodom in Genesis 19.8: "I have two daughters who have not known a man. . . . do to them as you please." When a woman was married, in which she usually had little or no say, she became the property of her husband rather than her father, and he then had the right of "purchasing and selling" her (Schmidt 127). He owned not only her person, but also all of her property. "The household articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table [were] his. Should she invite a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing from her husband" (San. 71a, Git. 62a). A woman could regain her property only upon divorce or her husband's death, but she was never allowed to inherit any of his property (Sherif 8). In fact, Western women had no property rights at all until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Because of the inferior status of women in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there often existed a double standard between men and women, especially in areas of sexuality. For example, if a woman was not a virgin at marriage, she could be taken to her father's house by her husband and stoned to death (Schmidt 112). The man, on the other hand, was never subjected to this punishment or indeed to any codes of conduct governing his sexuality (Schmidt 112). In fact, even if he raped or deflowered a virgin, he was not put to death but was instead forced to marry her and give money to her father, which seems more of a punishment for his female victim than him! (Harris 57). After marriage, a Hebrew male could arbitrarily accuse his wife of adultery, even with the slightest suspicion, and make her take the humiliating "bitter-water" test to determine her innocence or guilt (Schmidt 121). If she was found guilty of having slept with another man, regardless of his marital status, she would be stoned to death (Sherif 6). A Hebrew man, whether married or not, on the other hand, was only said to have committed adultery if he slept with a married woman (Schmidt 118). As Vern Bullough, author of Subordinate Sex, explains, "Adultery was not a sin against morality, but a trespass against the husband's property" (Schmidt 118). Since the wife was the husband's property, she could not be violated without his permission. This view of adultery changed with the advent of Christianity, when Jesus introduced the idea that adultery could be committed against a woman also, but later many of the church's theologians "reverted to the patriarchal understanding of adultery" (Schmidt 122). In present-day Israel, however, the old law still pertains. A married man can have an affair with an unmarried women and have children that are considered legitimate (Sherif 6). If a married woman, on the other hand, has an extramarital affair, her children "are considered bastards and are forbidden to marry any other Jews except converts and other bastards" for ten consecutive generations (Sherif 6).

Judeo-Christian practices also often ignored women's rights in cases of divorce. In original Christianity, divorce was expressly forbidden, and Jesus supposedly said that "anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:32). This harsh view failed to take into account the possible incompatibility of a man and woman and condemned unhappy couples to stay together against their wills. This situation was especially difficult for women because society did not allow them extramarital relations but condoned the relations of married men with prostitutes and other single women (Schmidt 50). In Judaism, divorce was allowed and even encouraged at times. Early Jewish scholars disagreed over the reasons a man could divorce his wife, and their views can be found in the Talmud: "The school of Shammai held that a man should not divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct, while the school of Hillel say [sic] he may divorce her even if she has merely spoiled a dish for him. Rabbi Akiba says he may divorce her even if he simply finds another woman more beautiful than she" (Gittin 90a-b). The Hillelite law predominated among the Jews and now Jewish men can divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever. The Talmud even obligates divorcing a woman if she "ate in the street drank greedily in the street suckled in the street" or if she does not bear a child within ten years of the marriage (Sherif 9). A Jewish woman, however, could not and cannot divorce her husband. He must give her a bill of divorce voluntarily and even the courts have no power to make him do this (Sherif 9). A man may desert his wife, marry another woman or simply live with one, and have legitimate children, while his first wife is trapped because she cannot have extramarital relations (Sherif 9). This sort of woman is known as an agunah (chained woman); there are approximately 1000 to 1500 Jewish agunah women in the United States today and around 16,000 in Israel (Sherif 9).

Suffering such blatant discrimination, it seems amazing that most Judeo-Christian women have overcome the odds and achieved equal rights with males. However, this has been a fairly recent development, largely occurring in this century. Within the past hundred years, women began to be considered citizens of states, were given voting rights, property rights, and easier access to divorce. Now many Muslim women hold the former position of Judeo-Christian women, but generally all they receive from the latter is scorn, derision, misunderstanding, or pity. It is ironic that the religion which significantly improved the status of women as compared to both Judaism and Christianity, and indeed was the first religion to grant women equal rights in all areas of life, including religion, sexuality, inheritance, and law, is now regarded as one that oppresses women.

One of the basic principles of Islam is justice for all humans and equality in the eyes of God. Women are considered no less than men in aspects of religion and are not denigrated anywhere in the Quran. First of all, in the Quranic Creation story, Eve is not mentioned as being seduced by the Serpent and taking the first bite of forbidden fruit. Rather, it says: (my italics) "by deceit he [Satan] brought them to their fall: when they tasted the tree their shame became manifest to them (7:19:23). Both Eve and Adam were held equally responsible. Hence, women in Islam do not bear the stigma as the daughters of a sinful Eve nor are they to be blamed for corrupting innocence (Sherif 3). Nor were women created as inferior to men, or solely for pleasure and procreational purposes as the Judeo-Christian scriptures sometimes imply "the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (Corinthians 11:3-9). In contrast, the chapter in the Quran entitled "Women" begins with the passage saying, "O humanity, be reverent to your Lord who created you from one soul and created its mate from it, and from these two disseminated many men and women." Here, in very blatant terms, it is stated that women and men are made from the same soul, and therefore, how could one gender possibly be inferior? In fact, neither gender is inferior, as the Quran states: "And their Lord answered them: Truly I will never cause to be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members of one another" (3:195).

This concept of gender equality in Islam begins immediately upon birth. When baby girls were born in Pre-Islamic Arabia, they were often buried alive to prevent shaming the tribe or family. In response to this infanticide, the Quran forbade treating a female child as disgraceful and states that both baby boys and girls are equally a blessing from God: "To Allah belongs the domination of the heavens and the earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and bestows male children to whomever He wills" (42:49). Prophet Muhammad even guaranteed Paradise to those fathers who bring up their daughters with "benevolent treatment" and also encouraged both males and females to pursue knowledge and education (Bukhari, Muslim).

Furthermore, in Islam girls are not considered the property of their fathers and have complete control over their sexuality, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition (Sherif 8). A free woman can never be sold it would be abhorrent for a father to sell his daughter as a concubine nor can she be married against her wishes, or the marriage can be annulled. After the marriage, a woman does not become the possession of her husband and is supposed to retain her own name and identity. "An American judge once commented on the rights of Muslim women saying: A Muslim girl may marry ten times, but her individuality is not absorbed by that of her various husbands. She is a solar planet with a name and legal personality of her own'" (Sherif 8). Additionally, Islam does not imply that a woman is made entirely for the pleasure of her husband but refers to spouses as equal partners: "They are your garments and you are their garments," the function of garments being to protect, cover, and adorn (Quran 2:187). Today, Western media often convey the idea that Muslim women are completely submissive to their husbands, but in fact, even the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (the most important and noble man in Islam) used to fight with him if they didn't get their way; they were far from the submissive, meek stereotypes of Muslim women today.

Another area in which Muslim women had greater rights than those of Judeo-Christian women is property. In an Islamic marriage, rather than paying the husband a dowry, the wife receives a substantial gift from him which then remains under her control, not his or her family's, even if she is later divorced. "In some Muslim societies today," Dr. Mohammed Sherif, author of the published essay entitled "Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and The Reality" says, "A marriage gift of a hundred thousand dollars in diamonds is not unusual" (8). Any other property a woman may happen to own at the time of the marriage is also exclusively hers and the husband has no right to use it. Even if she earns her own income, it is the husband's responsibility to maintain her and the children, and she has no obligation whatsoever to provide for the family. Furthermore, a woman in Islam can inherit money or property from any one of her relations, including her husband.

In the early years of Islam, a woman's rights were also protected concerning sexuality and divorce; a double standard did not exist between males and females. According to Islam, both genders are supposed to remain chaste until marriage, not just the women, and adultery consists of any married person engaging in sexual intercourse with someone other than a spouse. The punishment for both men and women who commit adultery, if the actual act is witnessed by four other people, is death by stoning. If a husband arbitrarily accuses his wife of being unfaithful, they both take an oath upon God, and if the wife swears that she is innocent and the husband swears that she is not, the marriage is irrevocably over and the woman is not considered an adulteress. However, throwing loose accusations around about any woman is highly discouraged in Islam. A woman's dignity should not be toyed with and one should not, under any circumstances, speculate about her sexual conduct without very secure evidence (Quraishi 299). The Quran sets forth a very harsh punishment for those people who do: "Those who defame chaste women and do not bring four witnesses should be punished with eighty lashes, and their testimony should not be accepted afterwards, for they are profligates (24:4). Asifa Quraishi, author of "Critique of the Rape Laws of Pakistan," writes that, "In the face of any hint of a woman's sexual impropriety, the Quranic response is: walk away. Leave her alone. Leave her dignity intact. The honor of a woman is not a tool, it is her fundamental right" (299).

A similarly just attitude prevails in cases of divorce. First of all, divorce is not at all encouraged in Islam but allowed under compelling circumstances, and both men and women are allowed to obtain one. The Prophet said that "among all the permitted acts, divorce is the most hateful to God" (Abu Dawood). Couples are told in the Quran to live with one another in kindness: "Live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah has placed a great deal of good" (4:19). In the hadith, this view is reiterated: "The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character and the best of you are those who are best to their wives (Tirmidthi). However, in some cases, divorce is inescapable, and Islam attempts to make it as amicable as possible.

The last way I will mention that Islam uses to protect women is the hijab, or the veil. This is ironic because Western media often portray the Muslim veil as a suppressive force in a woman's life. Every Muslim woman is required to wear a scarf or some sort of head-covering and loose-fitting, modest attire. This is not a means of controlling a woman's sexuality or suppressing her but rather, is used to protect her. It is hoped that by dressing this way she will not be seen as a mere sex symbol but will be appreciated for her mind. Furthermore, it will not subject her to unwanted sexual advances or harassment. It is interesting to note that the head-covering for women is not an Islamic innovation but was practiced by Judeo-Christian women centuries earlier, and yet is scoffed at by the West today (Sherif 15). Dr. Sherif says: "It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of holiness' when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women" (16).

Hence, Islam in its original state gave women privileges and imposed no harsh restrictions or double standards upon them. However, with the progression of time, the rights of Muslim women began deteriorating, and today, very few Muslim countries adhere to the Islamic ideal in their treatment of women. This deviance from Islam can be seen when evaluating the rights that women possess in different countries. The three main countries I will deal with are the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia simply because I am familiar with them, having either lived or visited each extensively.

Though the United States is not a Muslim country, it is supposed to be the "land of freedom," and it is interesting to see how Muslim women are treated here. A Muslim woman is allowed to practice Islam without restrictions placed upon her by the government. As an American citizen, she has the rights of any woman to vote, to voice her opinions, and to move around as she pleases. Rose Hamid, the woman mentioned earlier, is one such American Muslim. This is not to say, however, that American Muslim women do not face prejudice, and Hamid is a good example of this. When she began wearing a headscarf recently, she was promptly fired by her company of ten years. Anjum Smith, another American Muslim, faced this same problem as did Shabana who was fired from her job at The Gap because, with her headscarf, she was an "undesirable" saleslady. There have been reports that women with covered hair have been "spit on, denied service, and [had] their scarves pulled off" (Goodstein A1). Goodstein reports that "Recently, on a highway near Orlando, Fla., one driver in a head scarf was stopped and berated by a state trooper who later formally apologized" (A1). This discrimination, even if unintentional, is rampant in the US; people just don't treat you the same once you start covering your hair: "They try and cheat me out of change. They think I'm a foreigner, and I've been here a long time. I wear American clothes, but I wear a scarf. The scarf changes everything," says Tayyibah Taylor, editorial director of Sisters! A Magazine of Dialogue Among Muslim Women (Goodstein A14).

In contrast, Saudi women are compelled by law not only to cover their hair, but also their faces and hands, and they are instructed to wear a black cloak known as the abaya to cover their bodies. Saudi Arabia is one of the most "fundamentalist" Islamic nations in the world, and it supposedly implements Islamic law to ensure peace and justice. Yet, many of their laws, especially those geared at women, are unjust and stem from patriarchal customs. For example, the covering of a woman's face is not a requirement in Islam, yet many times women are harassed by the mutawa, or "purity police," for not doing this. Furthermore, women are not allowed to sit in the front seat of a car or walk alongside a man if he is not her husband or close relative; nor are women allowed to drive. Havva Kurter, author of the essay "An Outline History of the Oppression of Women," exclaims, "The Saudis think that women will go make sin if they drive a car! Now some non-Muslims may think of this as part of Islam" (116). But to give the Saudis some credit, women there are given certain privileges not awarded to Muslim women of other countries. First of all, Saudi women are almost never harassed (it is usually the foreigners who encounter this) and are extremely protected by their families and government. Additionally, in accordance to Islamic law, they are offered dowries, often very high ones, and are entitled to keep their own wealth.

This is hardly ever the case in Pakistan. Most women have virtually no control over their own property and are usually accorded minimal dowries unless they are of the upper classes. What is usually the case is that the bride's family has to provide all sorts of gifts to the husband and his family. These gifts, which range from money to cars to houses, are often what determines the choice of a bride. This obviously is not an Islamic practice but one that stems from the Hindu culture of nearby India. Moreover, women in Pakistan are often exploited by the law, sexually harassed, or raped, many times by police officers and other influential government officials (Quraishi 291). It is ironic, then, that Pakistan has surpassed even the United States in gender equality in that it has had a female head of State: the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. In fact, there are quite a few influential female politicians in Pakistan. Among other rights Pakistani women retain is their freedom of dress; most Pakistani women don't cover their hair and no type of dress code is enforced upon them, but this is not to say they won't be harassed if wearing revealing clothing in public. Additionally, women are allowed to drive, vote, attend co-educational universities, and hold paying jobs. However, this blend of restriction and privilege still does not make Pakistan's treatment of women very Islamic.

In fact, I can't think of any country that really treats Muslim women the way they are supposed to be treated as stipulated in the Quran and hadith. Most Muslim countries' approach to women falls between the two extremes of complete oppression and encouragement to behave like Western Judeo-Christian women, which is certainly not what Islam intended. I have dealt, to some extent, with the former case and believe that most people who read this paper will sympathize with the plight of these Muslim women. Their solutions might involve the "modernization" or "Westernization" of these women, but this is not at all what I am advocating. It's true that Western Judeo-Christian women have achieved freedom and independence for themselves, but has this necessarily been beneficial for them or society? One look at the ever-rising statistics for rape, sexual harassment, divorce, broken homes, latch-key kids, teenage pregnancies, and AIDS cases in the West indicates that something is definitely not right in society. Is it just coincidental that many of these issues became actual problems only after the Sixties' Sexual Revolution and feminist movement arose? Are these social problems just part of a growing trend in modern society or do they have some direct correlation to "women's liberation?" These are some questions we need to ask ourselves before we prescribe the "Western remedy" to any other society. The last thing Muslim women need to add to their problems at this point is more problems. Rather, the solution for achieving true freedom, independence, and happiness must come from within from the teachings of the Prophet, from the depths of the Quran, and from the wealth of rich Islamic tradition.


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