Muslim Women and Hijab
The role of women in the Muslim community has received a good amount of attention. One such area of focused attention is in standards of dress. Islam stresses that women should be protected and must present themselves in a modest way while in public. The prophet Muhammad indicated that the female body should be covered with loose fitting clothing with the exception of the face, hands, and feet. Hijab refers to garments that allow women to adhere to the guidelines of modest dress. Hijab may include head or face covering as well as other garments worn to maintain modesty.
If and how women cover themselves varies from person to person, from country to country and among various religious sects. Some Muslim women simply do not practice hijab. Some wear hijabs that loosely cover their hair and neck. Other women may wear very full coverings that conceal almost their entire bodies. These coverings include niqab (the face veil), chador (a full-body covering that leaves the face exposed), and burqa (a loose-fitting garment which covers the woman from head to toe and covers her face with a mesh weave that enables her to see).
Some in western societies view hijab as a symbol of oppression, a means for making women fade into the background of society. However, many Muslim women view it as a symbol of their identity, their strength, their beliefs, their values, and their respect for their bodies. For many Muslim women, these are not oppressive garments, but rather liberating garments, that free them from being regarded as a sexual object. In fact, in the second half of the twentieth century, the practice of veiling increased among Muslim women in the Middle East as well as around the world (Ahmed, 2011). Hijab has not only become more common among Muslim women, but has emerged as an important symbolic representation of Islamic feminism.
Fate Mernissi (1940-2015) was a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, with her work focusing on a voice for the oppressed and marginalized women. Her legacy can be greatly attributed to her scholarly and literary contributions to the early feminist movement, as she tackles issues such as Eurocentrism, intersectionality, transnationalism, and global feminism.
Mernissi is known for her sociolopolitical approaches towards discussing gender and sexual identities, specifically those of which are focused within Morocco. She became known internationally mainly as an Islamic feminist. She authored Beyond the Veil in 1975. In her writings, she was largely concerned with Islam and women's roles in it, analyzing the historical development of Islamic thought and its modern manifestation. Through a detailed investigation of the nature of the succession to Muhammed, she cast doubt on the validity of some of the hadith (sayings and traditions attributed to him), and therefore the subordination of women that she sees in Islam, but not necessarily in the Quran.
A recurring topic for multiple of her writings is Scheherazde and the digital sphere, as she explores cases in which women take part in online media outlets. In these writings, she mentioned how technology is quickly spreading - via the Internet - and analyzes the roles and contributions of women in this movement.
She also wrote about life within harems, gender, and public and private spheres. In one of her articles, Size 6: The Western Women's Harem, she discusses the repression and pressures women face merely based on their physical appearance. Whether in Moroccan society or the West, she surmises that women must live up to stereotypical standards such as dress sizes (e.g. size 6) and that these practices isolate and mistreat women. Later, in her book, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Mernissi she looks at how fundamentalism controlled what a woman would be able to wear, so a democratic society that freed women to dress as they pleased could appear threatening to a hyper-masculine culture.
Additionally, she notes that Muslim women were not victims of their religious practices any more than Western women were victims of the patriarchy; both groups of women were oppressed by specific social intitutions within a religion or society created to profit off of the marginalization of others. She explains that Western women were veiled, just as Muslim women were, yet Western veils were much more discreet. To her, youth and beauty veiled Western women, and once a woman no longer had these, she was hardly recognized by society.
Mernissi's work highlighted how Western feminism could be detrimental to the empowerment of women around the globe if it lacked an intersectional approach to women's issues. In her book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, she uses an intersectional lens to understand the positions of women throughout early Islamic history through social and political identities that created modes of discrimination. Her aim was to bring to light the significant contributions that women had throughout early Islamic history and debunk the misconceptions about the absence of women as political and authoritative figures. She did this through exploring leadership roles that women were involved in throughout Islamic history, including accounts of 15 women and the active roles they played in pre-modern Islam politics.
In her book Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory, Mernissi analyzes the role of women in relation to the world of contemporary Islam and how the state ultimately supports inequality. She argues that the freedom from these controlling traditions and expectations of women is the only way for the Arab world to develop. In her book, Islam and Democracy, she suggests ways in which progressive Muslims, including feminists, who choose to advocate for democracy and resist fundamentalism should draw from the same sacred texts as those who seek to oppress them, in order to prove that Islam is not fundamentally against women.
Feminism is often thought of as incompatible and categorically opposed to the cultural and religious traditions of Islam. The truth, however, is that Muslim women have been active in feminist movements and ideals for many years. In fact, research has shown that one in four Arab Muslims supports feminism (Glas and Alexander, 2020). Just as feminism in the West has given women a voice and an opportunity to challenge gender inequality in society, so too has feminism among Muslim women. All social movements are unique to the social and cultural context in which they arise, and Islamic feminism is no exception. Muslim women have adapted their own strategies for countering gender oppression, while at the same time working within an Islamic framework. Thus balancing their feminist ideals with the religious beliefs they hold dear.
The Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam Policy Studies defines a Muslim feminist as "one who adopts a worldview in which Islam can be contextualized and reinterpreted in order to promote concepts of equity and equality between men and women; and for whom freedom of choice plays an important part in expression of faith." The term "Islamic feminism" distinguishes those women who work specifically within the Islamic faith, as opposed to “secularist feminism” which is weakly attached to religion or not at all.
A basic tenant of Islamic feminism is that at its core, it draws upon the Quranic concept of equality of all human beings, and insists on the application of this theology to both the public and private spheres. Muslim feminists argue that the oppressive practices - to which women in the Middle East are subjected - are caused by the prevalence of patriarchal interpretations of Islam, rather than Islam itself (Ahmed, 1992). Thus Muslim feminists strive to balance cultural and religious traditions, while articulating and fighting for their feminist concerns, defining and developing feminism and feminist practices on their own terms. Just as Muslim women do, Jewish women have also strived to balance feminism and faith.
Jewish feminism is a movement that seeks to make the religious, legal, and social status of Jewish women equal to that of Jewish men. Feminist movements, with varying approaches and successes, have opened up within all major branches of the Jewish religion.
In its modern form, the Jewish feminist movement can be traced to the early 1970s. Judith Plaskow, known for being the first Jewish feminist theologian, claims the main grievances of early Jewish feminists were women's exclusion from the minyan (all male prayer group), women's exemption from mitzvot (the 613 commandments given in the Torah at Mount Sinai and the seven rabbinic commandments instituted later, for a total of 620), and women's inability to function as witnesses and to initiate divorce in Jewish religious courts (Plaskow, 2003). The issue of divorce is expressed in the term agunah, which describes a woman whose husband refuses, or is unable, to grant her a divorce according to Jewish law.
Just as there are varying degrees to which Jews adhere to cultural and/or religious practices, so too are there various versions of feminist theologies that exist within the Jewish Community. For example, Orthodox Jewish feminism seeks to change the position of women from within Jewish law. Orthodox feminists work with rabbis and rabbinical institutions to create more inclusive practices within Orthodox communal life and leadership. Orthodox feminism tends to focus on issues such as fostering women's education, leadership, ritual participation, and making synagogue more women friendly. Some branches of Jewish feminism focus on the gender polarity that exists in the religious and cultural practices within the Jewish community. While Orthodox feminists strive for women's rights and opportunities, they do so within the framework of Jewish law.
Bella Savitzky Abzug (1920-1998), born to an Orthodox Russian Jewish family in New York City, was a social activist, U.S. Representative, and a leader in the women's movement in the United States. She worked alongside other feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan to found the National Women's Political Caucus. She attributed her inclination towards feminism to her time spent at synagogue. According to Azbug, "It was during these visits to the synagogue that I think I had my first thoughts as a feminist rebel. I didn't like the fact that women were consigned to the back rows of the balcony."
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens generally have limited or highly restrictive rights in most parts of the Middle East, and are open to hostility in others. Sex between men is illegal in 10 of the 18 countries that make up the region. It is punishable by death in 6 of these 18 countries. The rights and freedoms of LGBTQIA+ citizens are strongly influenced by the prevailing cultural traditions and religious mores of people living in the region – particularly Islam. Several Middle Eastern countries have received strong international criticism for persecuting homosexuality and transgender people by fines, imprisonment and death.
Male same sex activity is illegal and punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, and Syria. It is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. In Yemen or Palestine (Gaza Strip) the punishment might differ between death and imprisonment depending on the act committed. Even though laws against female same sex activity are less strict, few countries recognize legal rights and provisions.
In the United States, LGBTQIA+ Middle Eastern Americans face a unique challenge. On the one hand, there is the challenge of post 9/11 attitudes and discrimination toward Muslim Americans. As Muslim society is still, by and large, heteronormative, there is also the challenge of hostility, harassment or discrimination that may be experienced from the the Middle Eastern community at large.
Contributors and Attributions
- Rodriguez, Lisette. (Long Beach City College)
- Ramos, Carlos. (Long Beach City College)
- Bella Abzug (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Fatema Mernissi (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Jewish Feminism (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- LGBT Rights in the Middle East (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Ahmed, L. (2011). Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence from the Middle East to America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Glas, S. & Alexander, A. (2020). Explaining support for Muslim feminism in the Arab middle east and north Africa. Gender & Society, 34(3), 437–466.
- Plaskow, J. (2003). Jewish feminist thought. In D.H. Frank & O Leaman (Eds). History of Jewish Philosophy. London, UK: Routledge.
- Independent Lens. (2020). Shadya. Independent Television Service, Public Broadcast Network.