By Haleema Zia*
Women’s independence and rights is one of the most debated topics in the contemporary world. Women hold a significant position in the society but there is a continuous clash between Islamic and western ideology of women rights and freedom. In Islam, the issue of women’s rights has been a belligerent area of debate both in Muslim world and western society. There are many misconceptions regarding women rights which have left Muslim women in a dilemma.
Many Muslim countries have imposed social and legal restrictions on women rights and freedom by misconstruing Islamic text. Because of this bigoted philosophy, Muslim women have to struggle to be a good Muslim, participate in nation building and at the same time respond to Western attacks on Islam. According to these women, Islam honors and protects women rights and grants them full freedom. Conversely, there are other women in a state of bafflement and have masked themselves under the safe umbrella of “Feminism” and “Aurat March”, because they don’t have particular knowledge of the right Islamic context and privileges are given to women in Islam. These movements are actually affecting the unique status of women in the world, especially in the West.
Aurat March, Islamophobia and the West
When we talk about the West, we see that all non-Muslim countries practice their own religious and cultural values. For instance, there is specific dress code for working women in the West. These Western hypocrites do not allow women to wear the hijab or a full covering in their work setting. There are a large number of cases reported by many Muslim women living in the Western countries that they were attacked, victimized and stigmatized just because they were wearing what they want to wear i.e. hijab. How could we call these Western cultures as perfect cultures in support of feminism when Muslim women living there cannot even practice their religious rights?
There is a famous slogan of Aurat March which says “Mera Jism Meri Marzi”. If we implement this in the true spirit then Muslim women living in the West must be allowed to wear hijab, abayah or whatever they want to wear without being criticized or stigmatized. These prejudiced movements and campaigns just claim to be the protectors of women rights but they never speak up for the issues women are facing in the West. Women are being objectified in the West and even non-Muslim women cannot choose to cover themselves if they want to.
So is this the culture we want in Pakistan? If the West is allowed to practice their cultural values within their own country then why not Pakistan? If Muslim women practice their own religion they are tagged as oppressed. This is the result of Islamophobia, as the West is afraid of the spread of Islam therefore, they keep on tagging Muslims as oppressed or terrorists or extremists. Relying on Islamophobic stereotypes, and with no concern for the rights to freedom of practicing religion and freedom of expression many policies and laws are introduced in several European countries banningthe hijab and/ or niqab. The most flagrant example of how entrenched Islamophobia has become is that European states have begun legislating Muslim women’s bodies clearly dictating for them which clothes they can and cannot wear.
In reality, Islam is the only religion that gives maximum rights to women, as the Quran clearly instates principles of equality among humans. The Quran regards all men and women as equals and only ranks humans based on their piety and moral choices. Allah (SWT) has created women and men from the same soul and made them guardians of each other in a relationship of domination and cooperation.
That said, there are verses from the Holy Quran that are misinterpreted in order to show dominance of men over women. For instance, Ayah No. 34 of Surah-e-Nisa from the Holy Quran says; “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because they are superior to them and because they support them from their means”.
This ayah is widely quoted by the West in order to support their views against Islam. However, the true interpretation of this ayah can be completely different once the patriarchal assumptions are eliminated. According to Al-Hibri’s “Islam, Law, and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights” (1997) the interpretation of this Ayah is that through this Quran was unfolding a specific situation which was observed at that time where a man takes an advisory role only when these two conditions are met i.e. 1) if a man has an ability that a woman lacks, and 2) when a man is maintaining that particular woman. Even when both conditions are met a woman is free to reject the advice.
The mainstream interpretations of Quranic verses considering men superior to women are not objective but subjective human interpretations, which are heavily swayed by historic and geopolitical conditions. Additionally, many Quranic verses were revealed in specific circumstances; therefore, they need to be understood in contextual terms. In Islam, we have great examples of Umm-ul-Momineen Hazrat Khadija (R.A) who was a successful business woman who controlled one of the most important caravan trade routes in the region. Another important example is of Hazrat Aysha Siddiqua (R.A) who is considered scholarly and inquisitive. She is known for her wisdom and served the Muslim community for several years. Her intellect and knowledge on various subjects including Hadiths, inheritance, pilgrimage, eschatology, and medicine are highly praised and acknowledged.
The most common myths regarding Muslim women are;
1) Muslim women are oppressed and submissive
2) Muslim women are conservative
3) Muslim women are forced to wear a headscarf or hijab
4) Muslim women are uneducated and dependent
5) Muslim women employees wearing the headscarf cannot be neutral
6) Muslim women are subject to domestic violence
Firstly, Muslim women just as any other women can be oppressed by patriarchy. Not only in Muslim countries but in west, Muslim women have to face the patriarchy both within and outside their community – so why the focus is only on being a Muslim? There are a large number of Muslim women who are empowered enough and are leading active lives. If we talk about Pakistan, Muslim women are playing leading roles in politics, development sector, commando forces, intelligence agencies, engineering and all other fields of life. They are given enough freedom to choose their profession. We can see the real kind of Aurat March on Pakistan Day parade when women actually marching with men, showing their real power and courage with a sense of responsibility towards nation building.
Secondly, Muslim women are not conservative but are as diverse as women in general. They can be highly educated or illiterate, from middle or upper class, have a variety of life experiences, be liberal, conservative or socialist etc. Ultimately, they will be having different values, ideologies and interpretations just like non-Muslim women.
Thirdly, there are several women who are forced to wear headscarves just like many non-Muslim women who are forced to wear short skirts or western-wear within the work settings. There is an increasing pressure in the West on Muslim women to unveil themselves in order to free themselves. One cannot systematically dismiss free choice just because they have particular assumptions regarding that. Forcing women to wear headscarves is just as violent as extremist as forcing them to remove it. In both cases, it ignores a woman’s right to self-determination and freedom. Whatever one may think about the headscarf or hijab, in no circumstances should it validate discrimination, exclusion and hate crime against a woman who is wearing hijab or a headscarf. Let the choice of wearing any kind of dress while remaining within the cultural values (that one must respect), be with the women.
Fourthly, Muslim women enjoy rights to education and employment just like any other women. In the United Kingdom, more Muslim women have gained professional degrees at British universities than Muslim men even though they have been under-represented for decades. The uglier truth is that even after getting higher education, in the job market many Muslim women in the West face intersectional discrimination which ultimately prevents them from accessing jobs that are in line with their actual skills and potential.
While debunking the fifth myth it is noticed that wearing a headscarf or any other religious or specific garment has no effect on the ability of a woman to perform her tasks in a neutral way. Neutrality is observed for the tasks one has to perform, not for the clothes one is wearing. Removing unwanted visible differences in certain areas of society cannot be claimed as being neutral but as racial discrimination. A rule which bans religious clothing can’t be termed as neutral but should be clearly described as a biased and extremist view forcing someone to act against their own will.
Lastly, a large number of women in Europe are experiencing domestic violence, so it is not about Islam. The bitter reality is that Muslim women are targets of Islamophobic Crimes, especially if they wear a headscarf or hijab. This hypocrisy against Islam and Muslim women must end.
The Aurat March and other such movements that claim to support women’s rights could only be appreciated if they actually start talking about women’s rights. The Aurat March in Pakistan is mostly funded by Western organizations in order to radicalize women and to create a dilemma among women regarding their own rights.
Most of the slogans being raised in the Aurat March are not showing the true representation of women in Pakistan. The most highlighted slogans from Aurat March include “Mera Jism Meri Marzi”, “Lo beth gai sahi sey”, “Tumhary baap ki sarak nahi hai”, “Apna Khana khud garam Kro”, “Mai awara mai badchalan”, “Meri shirt nahi tumhari bas soch choti hai”, and many more. The bitter reality is that these slogans do not even follow the cultural notions of Pakistan or any other country. These do not even represent women’s problems or issues. The real issues the women are facing are regarding the true implementation of Islamic laws that actually allow Muslim women to have freedom, because the misinterpretation of these laws have led to dominance of men in the society.
The real issues of women in Pakistan are not how to sit or walk in the streets or be vulgar and badchalan (characterless). Every society is made up of good and bad people, so if one wants to be badchalan they can become one without beating the drum in the streets. Pakistani women who actually have some real knowledge of teachings of Islam, know their rights and therefore, playing their lead role in policy making, think tanks, development and social sector, armed forces and academia. Aurat March participants and organizers need to focus on real issues including acid attacks, rape, discrimination against women in job market and discrimination against Muslim women in the West.
*About Author: Miss Haleema Zia has done MS in Management Sciences from Riphah International University. She has 8 years of working experience with development sector and has also made significant efforts in countering terrorism. She is working as an Independent Researcher in the fields of Management Sciences and Counter Terrorism to shape significant connotation between the two fields. She can be accessed through [email protected].