Islamophobia is a huge problem in the West in this day and age. An argument often cited against Islam is that it calls for the oppression of women, but this is simply untrue. The patriarchal system we see today was set forth culturally, under the guise of religion, to the point that even a vast number of women believe their subordinance is a religious truth. Empowering Muslim women is essential to combatting sexism within Islamic countries.
On Oct. 26, Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, visited the University of Michigan and spoke about the role of gender and culture in Islam. She explained that since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, women have been discriminated against worse than ever before. For example, in Iranian court, the testimony of two women is equivalent to the testimony of one man. In the treatment of homosexuality, women are punished far less severely than men because “(they) do not really have a dignity and reputation to lose.”
Of course, levels of discrimination between Islamic countries vary, but Iran is not alone in propogating such practices. In 2006, Ratna Sarumpaet, a renowned playwright in Indonesia, very succinctly addressed the underlying problem here when speaking out against a controversial anti-pornography bill. She stated, “Religion these days has become trapped into being a tool for power.”
So, how exactly is religion being used to justify oppression? Ebadi delves into this question during her discussion. She breaks down many of the parts of the Quran that today are considered sexist, but had a place in their time. For example, the Quran states that a woman is only entitled to half the amount of wealth of a man. This made sense because, at the time, men were the people who created all wealth. But this is no longer the case: Women, too, do their part in the workforce, and because the social conditions have changed, so too should the laws of Islamic countries. Ebadi also cites slavery as an example: Though slavery is conditionally permitted in the Quran, all Islamic countries have since prohibited it. If slavery has become unacceptable with time due to social progress, why aren’t the laws against women being changed?
How then will the situation of women ever improve in places like Iran? Just like work that must be done in feminist movements in the west, women in Islamic countries need to first recognize that they are being treated unjustly and then stand up and fight for the rights they deserve. Of course, this does not excuse men of responsibility. They, too, should stand in solidarity for the rights of the women in their societies. But I specifically suggest that women not be passive when it comes to their own fates. They should play the leading role in pushing for change and enhancing their lives. After all, it was less than 100 years ago that women gained the right to vote in the United States. We as a country have come a long way because women have fought for progress.
This is not to say that similar processes have not already begun in the Islamic world. A group called Musawah, launched in 2009, works to promote gender equality without compromising Islamic tradition. Many Islamic countries are participants. To combat sexism, this group creates educational materials that reveal that Islam and equality are not incompatible. A prominent member of the group, Zainah Anwar, states that many Muslim women spend their entire lives believing that their oppression is justified by Islamic teachings and that “when they are exposed to this new knowledge, they feel duped.” Musawah represents a route for change. And though we are on the other side of the globe, we as Americans can do our part, too. We can both work to raise awareness of the existing inequalities in these countries and also to support groups like Musawah, which are fighting for change within these Islamic countries. As history has shown, progress will occur as more and more women become enlightened and impassioned to their disposition in society, and the international community should certainly support these women in the process.
It is often said that history repeats itself, or perhaps, comes in waves. The wave of feminism hit the west first, and now, perhaps, it is time for a new wave. Olympe de Gouges, a French feminist of the 18th century, may have been alive long ago, but her words written in 1791 in the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman” still have great relevance to the women suffering discrimination in Islamic countries today: “Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights.”
Ariana Sulejman is an LSA junior.