When I was a first year undergraduate student, my psychology lecturer told me that Muslim women were complicit in their own repression and did not know what it was like to be liberated. As a student of humanities and social sciences I gauged that his views were conspicuously grounded in the litany of anecdotal sources cited by the media.
A torrent of embellished clichés caricature Muslim women as closeted, covered and silenced. The rhetoric that Muslim women are in need of emancipation was one of the arguments used to support the invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Laura Bush, wife of the former US president George W. Bush said in a radio address delivered in November 2001:
"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."
Western discourse from the colonial era portrays Islam as misogynistic and subjugating women. Native elites nurtured the colonial views and became convinced that Islam was inherently oppressive towards women and denounced certain practices of Islam as backwards and detrimental to society.
In my opinion there are a number of reasons that underpin the mainstream view that Muslim women are oppressed. Firstly, these views are devoid of Islamic knowledge. Secondly, the egalitarian message of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) has been distorted over time; primarily due to conflated cultural practices. Thirdly, in some parts of the world, misogynist interpretations of Islam have deprived women of their rights.
It would be unhistorical and myopic to have a discourse on Muslim women in the 21st century without going back to the original sources of Islam. The teachings of Islam are lucid: men and women are equal but different. The Quran states that the male is not like the female, and the female is not like the male. Men and women are biologically and physiologically different. Being different does not mean inequality. There may be some apparent disparities in the rules that are applicable to men and women; this is to do with roles and responsibilities designated to each of them and do not imply that women are inferior. God created men and women to complement one another.
From a spiritual perspective men and women are equals before God. The Quran says:
"Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you."
The Quran encourages men and women to have belief in God along with righteous actions and for this He promises His reward; there is no distinction between males or females.
During his last sermon Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) said: "O people, you have rights over your wives as they have rights over you". He also said: "The best of you are those who are good to their wives."
At the time of the reign of the Caliph 'Umar, a woman argued with him in the mosque and 'Umar publicly declared: "This woman is right and 'Umar is wrong".
Women in most societies including the West were subjugated in the past. It is only the last few decades that the rising tide of feminism challenged the attitudes harboured towards women, and, in most cases argued for a unisex society. For example, Betty Friedman's Feminist Mystique challenged the traditional roles ascribed to women men as wives and mothers because these roles were seen as debilitating and disempowering women. Conversely, motherhood in Islam is a great honour; a mother is the one who empowers and nurtures the future generations of a society. However, this does not mean that a Muslim woman cannot fulfill her potential beyond the realm of motherhood. Muslim history has a plethora of examples where women participated in, and positively contributed to the public and politic affairs of their societies.
Those who argue that Muslim women are in denial of their own oppression inadvertently take away the very same freedom of the many women who willingly make a conscious decision to adhere to the teachings of Islam or those women who choose to convert to Islam. This is inherently in dissonance with the core values of a liberal society, premised on John Stuart Mill's idea that the individual should be free to do as he or she wishes unless, in doing so, he or she harms others.
Unfortunately, there is a chasm between how Muslim women see themselves and how the wider population sees them. It is not that we should have homogeneous social and moral mores, but we can at least respect and tolerate choices that are different.
I am not saying gender-based discrimination does not exist; it has its roots in some parts of the world, and it does need to be challenged.
The change in Islamic nations must come from within; Muslims need to find their own solutions by resorting to the teachings of Islam and dissipate from their societies the practices that are non-Islamic.
This article was first published in Gulf News Published: 20:00 January 3, 2013