Does Islam Really Subjugate Women?
Max Miller on October 26, 2010, 12:00 AM
There is popular narrative in the West that Islam is sexist. Brutal accounts of honor killings and public stonings of women accused of adultery have permeated the Western media. But these heinous acts affect a small minority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, particularly those in fundamentalist countries like Iran and Somalia. What of the hundreds of millions of other female Muslims around the globe, from Indonesia to Egypt, from China to Germany? Does moderate Islam deny them freedoms in their daily lives, or is this a convenient narrative to justify anti-Islamic sentiment?
The Koran cautions women “to draw their outergarments close around themselves” so that they will not inspire sexual desire in men other than their husbands. Many in the West decry the various headcoverings as sexist, but their implementation differs widely in the Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia women typically wear a niqab, a full-body garment with a veil that obscures the face. While in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, headcoverings are completely optional and actually used often as a fashion statement. In Turkey and France, burqas, full-body garments with or without a veil, are banned in public. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has called the burqa “not a sign of religion [but] a sign of subservience.”
Afghan filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole doesn’t wear a headscarf herself, but she believes that women should be able to wear whatever makes them feel safe and beautiful. If that happens to be a burqa, France has “no right” to ban it, she says. Cole grew up Muslim in Afghanistan but fled to the United States shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Ever since she has campaigned for women’s and children’s rights from abroad, serving on the board of the Afghanistan Relief Committee and establishing
the Afghanistan World Foundation.
But when she returned to Afghanistan in 2009 to spearhead aid efforts and to make her first feature film “The Black Tulip,” what she found was nothing like the Afghanistan of her childhood. Under the Taliban, “the country went like 500 years backward,” she tells Big Think. “There are pictures I have seen of my mom and her friends wearing high boots, miniskirts, dancing, going to work with beautiful suits, above the knee skirts, high heels,” she recalls.
As Nassery Cole paints it, Afghanistan used to be a bastion of equality for women. “Afghan women had their rights before European and American women even knew what rights were,” she says. “My mother was a very powerful woman and she [stood] shoulder to shoulder with my father; she worked with him all the time, even when he was a diplomat.” She says her grandmother was indisputably the boss of the house. Cole admits that the Koran can be interpreted to promote misogyny, as it is by the Taliban, “but the essence of Islam is the highest respect for women,” she says. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran are the enemy, not the Koran itself.
But author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali sees Islam as antithetical to liberalism and women’s rights. A former Muslim herself, she has been one of Islam’s most vocal critics. As she discusses in her Big Think interview, her Islamic upbringing was nothing like Cole’s: “When I was a Muslim woman, we were brought up to believe in our own submission – submission to the will of God, submission to the will of your parents, submission to the will of your husband.