Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What is it about Islam that oppresses women?


Assalaamu'alaykum readers!

I know, I know it's been a while and I promised to blog more regularly! Sorry! Busy times and a busy little family peeps!

Alhamdulillah may Allah SWT give us barakah in our time and allow us to use it wisely and for goodness ameen!

So, as a reward for your patience, here's a LOVELY piece which was written by a remarkable woman whom I had the pleasure of meeting about seven months ago. She had expressed an interest in Islam and wanted to meet with a Muslim woman to discuss her thoughts and learning. Although it was the only time I got to meet her (and her cute 5 year old son) and we only spent a few hours chatting over a hot drink and her deliciously hand-made home-made pastries, I was truly touched by the beauty of her personality and her sweet sincerity in wanting to learn about Islam, become a better person and help others in the community (particularly the migrant community).
She recently emailed me a reply when I sent out a flyer for a Convert Sisters Discussion Panel event and she shared that she had since moved to another part of Australia and had converted Alhamdulillah. May Allah continue to guide both her and us. Ameen.

So anyhow, here are some of her thoughts and reflections about the way Muslims are perceived and a little insight into a situation that she faced and how she felt about it and dealt with it. Very insightful!

So, what is it about Islam that oppresses women?

By Sister Josie

“So, what is it about Islam that oppresses women?“ Casually in a car driving to a work function, a university graduate, a woman, who shares my taste in CUE and Jacqui E corporate attire, a colleague of mine asked me this question. I felt she was on the attack. I was taken aback by her overtly negative attitude towards the faith of over one billion people across the world so for over an hour I tried to explain the differences between Islam, the faith of Muslims, and the behaviour of a few Muslim people we see in the papers. Her views were limited to a somewhat childish understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the movie ‘Not Without My Daughter’, and 9/11 and the subsequent Taliban and Al Qaeda media frenzy.

I told her that pure Islam, is what all Muslims are supposed to do, not what some Muslims do. I talked about the rights that Islam gave women 1400 years ago, to have possession of her small children in the event of divorce, to maintain her maiden name should she choose, to vote, to request divorce, to receive child support and be treated equally to men in the eyes of God and the community. I talked about the freedom that a relationship with Allah can make a person feel. I spoke about Khadija, the first Muslim woman – who was also her husband’s boss and a successful business woman. I spoke about the power of choice – to choose to be a Muslim, to submit to Allah and Allah’s teachings. My colleague spoke about hijab and stated dramatically ‘No one would ever choose to wear that. They might think they are choosing but they are being brain washed.’

I tried to make a case in defence of Islam, in defence of the one billion brothers and sisters around the world who were not in the car to defend themselves and their faith. I was arguing in defence of a woman I have never met in person, but who I know and love. She lives in Syria. She is sick, living in the middle of a war zone, and still finds the time five times a day to pray for my son and I. I did not win this argument. It hurt badly. I felt powerless, that good people were tarnished with a brush dipped in nothing more than bad media and ignorant hatred.

In the community sector, where I have been building my career, my job has been to protect the vulnerable and speak for the voiceless, it frustrated me that I could not do so in this case. I had summoned all the diplomacy, knowledge and commonsense I possessed, fighting hard to contain the urge to yell: “For crying out loud, can you not just shut up and listen to me?” at the woman in my car. Keeping my temper has never been a strong point of mine – blame my Irish heritage if you will – but the moment I feel boxed in or oppressed, my blood boils and I want to yell. When I talk about Islam, I try to speak calmly lest I confirm some media misrepresentation that all Muslim’s are hot heads. After three hours (ok three months) of stewing over this discussion, and many others like it, I realised that I would be wiser to choose my battles. 

My job as a Muslim is not to bang my head against the wall, fighting fights I cannot win, rather it is to use the skills that Allah gave me to submit to the will of Allah and follow the Prophets example to do Allah’s will on Earth. There is a poem I read in 2001 ‘Bomb them with Butter’ which talked about urging our governments to provide education and opportunities for the populations oppressed under military/religious dictatorships, rather than just bombing foreign governments, which rarely results in anything positive being achieved. I see an unwinnable argument as a bomb strike on a government, which may hurt innocent people. IF however, I am kind and compassionate towards people who want to argue with me, I am ‘bombing them with butter,’ providing them with the opportunity to see the beauty of Islam and Allah. I am not saying I am always able to do this, or even that I always succeed in attempting to do this.... but I do try.

When I first started to learn about Islam, there were two things I fell in love with the first was a piece of advice a Muslimah friend of mine gave me ‘A person’s relationship with Allah is a personal thing.’ The idea that there was a personal connection that I can make with Allah – not by praying in a church, or attending particular services, or receiving specific sacraments, but just by praying myself to Allah. No middle man, no fuss, nothing. Just Allah and I. This I found to be truly empowering. Do I always feel more empowered as a Muslim than I did as a non-Muslim? I don’t think I can honestly say yes to this, nor can I say no. Since becoming a Muslim my life has encountered a number of hurdles throwing me into an absolute turmoil.
Perhaps Allah is testing me, or perhaps not, I have no idea of what Allah’s plan is for me. What I do know is that nothing that has happened in my life since my conversion has been even remotely comparable to events that occurred in my life before, so it is difficult to judge how my reactions to and perceptions of these problems has differed (if at all) from the non-Muslim version of me. When facing problems today, I ask myself what Allah wants me to do, where as before, I would have asked a friend what they thought I should do. Allah gives me strength, which I am grateful for. Allah has given me special friends and family members from whom I can also draw strength. I feel also however that Allah asks from me something, I have a duty to Allah.... I feel this, I just have no idea what it is yet. Inshallah, he will allow me to contribute to his work and make a difference – when I see my son, I pray that I can play a part in creating a world for him that is just and compassionate filled with opportunities for him, and all other kids, regardless of their backgrounds. Inshallah.

The second thing I loved was something Buhkari taught us:
“All of you are shepherds and each one is responsible for his flock. A leader of a people is a shepherd and responsible for them...So all of you are guardians and are responsible for your charges."
This differs somewhat from the Catholic teaching I grew up with:
“The Lord is my shepherd, so I shall follow wherever he leads me, wherever he goes....”
Buhkari reminds us as Muslims that we are responsible for our own actions, and furthermore, we have responsibilities which go beyond our selves. “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your charges.”

To me this sends a message not dissimilar to the message Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned three hundred or so later in his famous Social Contract (1754). Rousseau wrote, in simplest of terms, that in order for a society to function peacefully then everyone in that society must enter into a Social Contract with the other members of their society. Entering such a contract requires individuals to voluntarily surrender certain rights or freedoms in order to gain the same amount of freedoms. Simply put, we forfeit our right to steal, and gain the right not to have anyone steal from us. We look after each other, and others will look after us. We each take responsibility for ourselves, and our charges, and then in accordance to the social contract, everyone else will do the same, and society will function well.

How does this relate to me, and other women in Australia in 2013 you ask? I read a hadith in passage of one of my favourite books which explains this and remains close to my heart. I read that when the Prophet was asked about the role of women in society – should we be ‘typical’ wives in the house or  should we go outside to work? What was the best way for us to live?

“When the first Muslims were faced with many enemies and trials he [the Prophet, peace be upon him] answered “When chaos enters the world, stick to the walls of your house like a saddle to a horses back.’ This means, take care of your family and your neighbours and raise your children to be good. If everyone takes care of his own house, all troubles will end.”[1]  (please note I am not sure as to the authenticity of this quote!) C.B.

It seems to me that what the Prophet (peace be upon him) was trying to teach us 1400 years ago, and what Rousseau repeated 1100 years later, was that women, and men, each have to contribute what they can to society, in order to ensure its smooth operations. We have an obligation to follow the laws set out by a society that we actively participate in, we are obliged to take care of our families, our neighbours we are obligated to contribute our skills to the greater good of society, and from this, peace will flourish and problems will dissipate.

Am I oppressed as a Mulsim? Well, I live in Australia so theoretically nothing oppresses me – that said however my experience as a woman in the workforce, trying to work, study, support my family and work on my deen is incredibly taxing. I have faced discrimination at a number of levels as a woman, and as a mother, but never as a Muslim. Perhaps this is because I do not wear hijab, and being fair skinned and blue eyed, people tend to look at me as a ‘typical Aussie.’ Perhaps it is because where I live people don’t judge on religion – I don’t know.

Am I a typical Muslim? Or, am I a typical media stereotype? Well, perhaps someone on the outside can judge my compatibility with any given stereotype. I am a political scientist, a community worker, a writer, a mother and a student. I cook, make jam from scratch, sew and think about chocolate and coffee more than any human being should. I don’t wear hijab¸ but nor do I wear a miniskirt. I value compassion, kindness, generosity, intelligence and hard work. I am Australian. I was once a Catholic. I think Allah and God are one and the same. I don’t believe in the trinity, however, I understand how others came to this interpretation of faith so many, many years ago. I believe that Allah, God, Yahweh, however we say his name, in whichever language, I think our duty to him has been made abundantly clear:

·         Worship Allah, and Allah alone.
·         Follow the examples he has given us through the Prophet and use our minds – look for the good in the world, the good people, the good ideas the good examples, and do what we can to replicate this good.
·         Be compassionate, be welcoming, be kind.
These ideas are (well I think they should be if they are not) universal. We serve Allah in the way he asked us to.

Back to what my colleague asked me “What is it about Islam that Oppresses women?”

Nothing. Pure Islam does not oppress us. Allah does not oppress us. Many women are oppressed, many women and children throughout the world are put upon, treated unjustly and robbed of the rights Allah has given all of us....

But as I wrote earlier: ‘Islam is what Muslims are supposed to do. Not what some Muslims do do.”

Our job as Muslims, as mothers, as women is to do what we are supposed to do – to teach our children what they are supposed to do. To fight the oppression and the stereotypes. To declare a jihad of love and opportunity for our sisters and brothers and sons and daughters who can’t fight for themselves .... but this my sisters, is another story for another day.

Today, this was about me.

[1] G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque, Atlantic Books, London, 2010. p. 272  


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