The roles and rights of women in the Middle East is a topic that is always in the public eye being discussed. In the Western World, it is highly believed that all countries of the Middle East are the same- they all oppress and restrict their women. And this is because Islam (the dominant religion in the area) teaches to oppress women. However, that is not the case because Islam gives many rights to women and teaches to respect them. So, the questions are what are the true (real) teachings of Islam and how is it different from what is actually happening in the Middle East?
Everyone is the world has opinions that they hold true and believe are correct. Having thoughts and opinions is not the problem- the problem arises when these opinions are not based off of factual information and then they are made public. This gives more people false information to believe. The media plays a huge role in this circle of spreading a wrong message, whether it is just because they are unaware of what the truth is or because they are really xenephobic.
The media, and now-a-days social media, control most of what people think because that is how they get their information and if Islam is being represented in a negative way, then that is what people will accept it to be. It is not likely that people will go and find a correct source of information, what they see is what they will know. News stories do not cover the whole story, they just pick one piece and exaggerate that so people get a bad picture. It is rare that one sees a positive thing said about Islam or the Middle East.
In the Western part of the world, the Middle East is portrayed to be oppressive and violent towards women. Women are forced to cover themselves, forced into marriages, denied education, and just overall to be the inferior, weak gender. So many stories and videos are out there that people in the West actually believe women are oppressed. For instance, I was explaining the topic of this project to a (an American) friend and before I said anything, I asked her what she thought about Muslim women. She replied with something along the lines of “I don’t know.. They seem quiet and told what to do.
They always cover themselves. ” I was a bit surprised at first that she really said such a stereotypical thing, but I explained that what is happening in reality is not what should be happening. She was surprised and we ended up talking for a while about what Islam teaches. These images of women being denied basic rights displayed by the media helps to verify that idea (of women being oppressed) within the Western mindset and often times associate it with Islam. People do not realize that Islam (the religion) is not blame, but instead it is the individual countries (the cultures).
The big problem in the picture is that the line between religion and culture is often blurred. So, there is never any differentiation between the two; if something happens in one country in the Middle East, it is automatically associated with Islam and with the other countries of the Middle East. It is true that sometimes an aspect of a culture is based off of the religion in the area for example, the covering of the head (from the religion) is implemented into the traditional, cultural clothing of the country but that is not true for everything.
Many practices viewed as oppressive come from local cultural traditions or from personal interpretations rather than religion. For instance, ideas of sexism are global, not solely in the Middle East. In America, there is still the debate for equality between genders for things like equal pay at work. Thus, the main problem is not Islam because Islam is not the main religion in the United States. There is a quote by Laleh Bakhtiar that perfectly states this point, “The oppression does not come from Islam, but from laws made, in many cases, by Muslim men. In order to understand the full picture, first the teachings of Islam on women rights should be known. When Islam was introduced, it uplifted the poor and underprivileged in society. It gave women rights that Western women did not receive until the 19th century.
The Quran, the holy book for Muslims that has everything Islam is about, preaches equality of the sexes in worship and stature. An ayat in the Quran reads “Men and women are protectors of one another. They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers.. (9:71). The Quran states that women should have the right to education, to own and inherit property, and marital rights. Working women are free to contribute to the household or to keep their money for themselves while men have to support the household. So, in Islam women are given all basic rights that the West believes they are kept from because of their religion. As for the covering, nowhere does it read that women must cover themselves; modesty (in dressing and in general) is mentioned and the scarf is recommended.
It does not say that women are to be forced into it; choosing to cover oneself should be a free willing choice that a woman makes when she is ready. There is another ayah in the Quran that is used to determine all of Islam’s beliefs towards women because it is often misunderstood. “Men are Qawwamun over women, because God has given one more (strength) than the other, and because of the sustenance they provide from their own means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard what God would have them guard … (Qur’an 4:34-35).
This is a strong and meaningful ayat that has to be taken apart phrase by phrase to really understand. Some of the meaning gets lost between the translation but the jist of it is there. It starts by saying that men are indeed superior to- that men are to look over- women because they are given more strength. This is true just scientifically, men are more than women and it is a known fact worldwide. And so, because of this men are to provide for the family.
It does not say that women cannot work or anything of that sorts, as stated earlier women can work to either keep their money to contribute to the household. Because of its tricky wording, people can easily mistake it to mean something else and get the wrong idea. Bakhtiar was right in that Muslim men oppress women not Islam. They can interpret this to mean, that yes men are superior to women in all things and that a woman should stay at home while the man goes out to work. This is the next problem, people only act on some things while completely disregarding others.
The lawmakers of the Middle East claim to be following the Islamic rules when making laws but that is often untrue. Like most things, the leaders only look at some aspects of Islam and implement them, sometimes with more force than necessary, and some parts are just left out. This is not correct because that is what is to be done, one must look at all of the teachings and try to live by all of them, not just force some that will be of benefit to you. This is exactly what is happening in the Middle East and is impacting what people perceive of Islam.
Each country is doing things differently because of what they feel is right and what goes along with its traditional culture. Saudi Arabia is often considered to be one of the most restrictive countries for women. Women are not allowed to drive, wear clothes or makeup that “show off their beauty,” and regardless of their age, they are required to have a male guardian. Most activities that can be done alone in the Western World) need a male guardian’s approval. This is not in the Islamic belief, it does not say that women must cover and need to be watched while doing basic things.
Despite all this, Saudi Arabia is progressing. Now, about 60% of post secondary students are women, 91% of Saudi women are literate, they are able to run in municipal elections, and more. Egypt, in 2013, was ranked as the worst country with regards to women’s rights in the Middle East. There is segregation just about everywhere, discrimination in laws, and in some areas when girls reach puberty they are withdrawn from school to “minimize their interaction with males. ” Sexual harassment and forced marriages are a norm.
Again, this is nothing that Islam teaches. There is some progress being madewomen are allowed to hold political office (though they have little success getting elected), a law was approved that would criminalize sexual harassment for the first time in modern Egyptian history and women’s rights groups continue to fight for more rights. Most of the other countries are about the same, there are many injustices to women but there are also some advances. In somes areas of Iraq and Syria, women are forced to completely cover themselves.
But also, in both of these countries, women hold political positions- the vice president of Syria is a female. In conclusion, Islam gives women many rights and freedoms but they are held from them because of some leaders who choose to ignore these rights and freedoms. Islam is all about equity because it understands that men are given more strength so it goes along with that. When people choose not to follow everything the Quran says, problems arise, there is injustice and people are left unhappy. What the Quran says, is what is says.
Muslims know that it can never be changed and so changing the meaning around is not appropriate. For example, the massive controversy that all Muslim women must cover themselves is not legitimate. Also, the media portraying the Middle East to be only restrictive and oppressive creates negative views in the minds of people in the Western part of the world. There is progress being made but the little that is being made is often diluted by the extreme circumstances in the region. This creates stereotypes of Middle Eastern women and they follow the women all around the world.
Within the Middle East, the status of women varies from country to country so it is not appropriate to project the norms of one restrictive country on the whole region or even the whole Muslim world. It is always important to remember that there is a difference between the Islamic teaching and personal, traditional (cultural) beliefs. With that being said, everyone should educate themselves with the truth, even though it can be difficult to differentiate it from the norm, so our opinions are based off of correct information and we are not blaming the wrong part of the situation.