Does Islam have a woman problem? Bringing up this much-debated question is likely to spark a heated discussion invoking images of body veils, forced marriage and lack of women’s rights, all based on obscure theological arguments. Political turmoil in the Middle East proves a constant source for the perception that Islam generates misogyny. The University’s Islamic Society invites everybody to challenge these assumptions. During the ‘Discover Islam Week’, the 15th-19th February, a series of events aimed at tackling basic misconceptions about their religion, students have invited interesting speakers from across the UK. The topics ranged from misogyny and jihad to religious conversions, with critical questions encouraged.
Kicking off the week with a highly controversial topic, Dr Sariya Cheruvallil from the University of Derby and LSE Middle Eastern research fellow Dr Aitemad Muhanna both respond to the question whether Islam has a woman problem with a clear ‘no’. Albeit from different angles, both women agree that misogyny is not an ideological problem inherent to Islam, but a global phenomenon that is arbitrarily being portrayed as an exclusively Muslim problem.
Dr Cheruvallil talked about her research experience with Muslim students in Britain and their attitude towards wearing a headscarf (hijab). She found that young women very often do not regard their hijab as a political statement, but wear it as a personal expression of their belief and identity. Amongst other things, she also referred to passages in the Qu’ran highlighting the role of women as crucial for the advancement of Islam. Instead of regarding female emancipation as opposed to religion, she emphasised the sense of empowerment women can gain through identifying with their faith whilst simultaneously pursuing higher education and cultural independence.
Dr Muhanna, having recently published a comprehensive study on gender perceptions in Gaza, further broadened this perspective by opposing the single-story feminism that she observes predominating in the West. Passionately recounting stories of female political agency in Gaza during the 1980s, something in which she herself played a role, Dr Muhanna referred to her interviews with Palestinian women about their role within and outside of the family. She pointed out that Western media coverage often fails to distinguish between different socio-cultural contexts. Women perceive themselves and their impact differently depending on the cultural context they grow up in, and it is important to pay close attention to individual approaches to emancipation.
During her research, Dr. Muhanna encountered numerous women whose values and wishes were centered on family stability and political support of their husbands. Many found it humiliating to leave their children and vulnerable husbands at home and go to work during times of crisis. Instead of mimicking the patriarchy we supposedly resent by imposing a one-fits-all Western type of feminism, Dr Muhamma suggests focussing on women’s own perceptions: different experiences shape different forms of female agency, which should not be superficially dismissed as inferior or repressed.
Both speakers raised challenging questions about Western chauvinism and hypocrisy when it comes to addressing misogyny. Dr Muhamma rejected Saudi Arabia’s violent patriarchy and pointed out that the country is a U.S. ally: it is not Islam that has a ‘woman problem’, but male-dominated power politics.
The talk was chaired by PPE student Saher Ahmed and was a great opportunity for examining religion in an academic context. Feminism might not be the first thing that springs to mind in a society preoccupied (maybe a bit strong?) with what seems to be the dark side of Islam, but instead of getting trapped in patronising discussions about the role of Muslim women, it is time to let them speak for themselves.
The ‘Discover Islam Week’ is not exclusive to the University of York. Muslim students at universities across the country, from London to Leeds, are running similar events during February and March to offer insight into one of the most disputed religions and challenge possible prejudices. Promoting an open-minded religious dialogue, it can only benefit academic life.