This paper will be an attempt to examine what progress feminism and the feminist impulse has made within Islamic societies, and its hope for the future. First, it will be necessary to define the traditional role of women within Islam, as reflected in the Shari’a (religious law). Then I shall explore how those traditional roles have been challenged and changed by Muslim women and men in the recent past, through political and social activism. Then contemporary reactions to such actions must be evaluated in order to assemble an opinion as to what the future may hold for women living within Muslim societies.
After reading through several books and talking to my mother, herself a bit of a "libbie" in her day, I have discovered that, like all social concepts, there is no hard and fast definition for feminism - it means different things to different people. Defining feminism is like trying to define democracy, it can be done to one person’s satisfaction but not to another’s. For the purpose of this paper, I shall use the definition of feminism that I have carried for my own personal use throughout my life:
Feminism is the belief that all women have the right to absolute equality to the male half of the human race. Every woman deserves legal, social, political, physical and emotional equality to any and all men, and that de facto and de jure discrimination against any woman because of her gender, in any arena, is oppressive and unjust.
Feminism also encompasses the actual political and social struggle of all women fighting to obtain this equality for themselves and women globally. A person who calls herself a feminist not only believes in these principles, but works towards them in any way she can.
This is not meant to belittle those women who advocate equality, but do not act politically. I understand that many women cannot fight for equal rights, as it might mean risking their lives. It is incumbent upon those of us who can fight to remember them, for they are the ones that we more fortunate women are working for, as well as ourselves.
One of the more recent, yet world spanning theologies, Islam exists not only within Persia and Africa, but in Europe, America, Asia and even Indonesia and the Phillippines. Islam has nearly a billion followers worldwide, and is second only to Christianity in sheer numbers .
"The word Islam in Arabic Language means submission and peace. A Muslim is a person who submits to the will of Allah and finds therein peace. Islam is derived from the Arabic word "salaam" meaning peace." . Islam is a belief system designed to bring spiritual peace to its adherents.
There five pillars to the Muslim faith; First is the Shahada, or faith. Even couch potato Americans have heard the phrase "Allah Ukbar" (loosely, God is great), even if they aren’t too clear upon it’s meaning to a Muslim, that there is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. This is essential to Islam, as it differs from Judaism and Christianity on the matter of exactly who was or will be the true son of God. In Judaism, the messiah has yet to arrive. In Christianity, it was Jesus, and for Islam, Mohammed is the son of God.
The second pillar is Salat, or prayer. A Muslim male is expected to pray several times a day, within or without a mosque. Women are be excused from regular prayer when they are menstruating and for forty days following childbirth. Prayer in any religion serves the same purpose. It strengthens one’s ties to one’s God, and, in the case of Islam, can bring a population together and give it a cathartic sense of spiritual unity. One man may be richer than another, but we all follow Allah and are equal before him.
The third pillar is Zakat, the giving of alms to the poor. "Woe to those who pray but are heedless in their prayer; who make a show of piety but give no alms to the destitute." The fourth article is the Sawm or Siyam, fasting on holy days such as the days prior to Ramadan.
Finally, the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the center of the Muslim world. A pilgrimage can be the single most important spiritual event in a Muslim’s life. Men and women are permitted to go on pilgrimage and may add the honorific hajji/hajjra to their names upon their return. If a person cannot travel to Mecca, due to physical infirmity or financial lack, Islam, like Christianity, is ripe with other sacred sites that may be visited by a pilgrim, for similar devotions.
Islam is a personal religion which places emphasis on each individual’s responsibility to uphold the faith. There is no established church in the manner of the Roman Catholic church, although there are the jurists who interpret the Koran and pronounce the shari’a, and Imam, those whose religiously enlightened wisdom is sought and heeded. Iran, as an Islamic theocracy, is the exception, rather than the rule.
Stereotypical view of Muslim women.
Ask an American what they envision a Muslim woman to be like and you’ll hear the same words over and over again. "Oppressed...veiled...dominated...submissive...slaves". To most people in Western society, a Muslim woman is a woman who is dominated by an oppressive patriarchal society. She is a woman who must wear a chador or veil, and her only duty is to marry and bear sons for her husband. She cannot work, has no legal rights and is treated by her husband with little more respect than a hallway rug. Where has this popular image come from? What is responsible for its persistence?
Not Without My Daughter, released in 1991, is a film that portrays Muslim men as heartless, misogynistic, monsters and women as powerless. Naturally, Sally Fields as the all American housewife/hero triumphs and regains custody of her daughter and her life. This is the kind of thing that perpetuates stereotypes.
Critics who review these movies allow the perpetuation of these stereotypes while refusing to condemn them. Within a review, Roger Ebert admits "Not Without My Daughter does not play fair with its Muslim characters....It is no excuse that some Muslims are our enemies...and movies fueled by hate are not part of the solution [to racism]" but then he still gives the film three out of four stars and encourages his readers to view the film, albeit with a watchful eye.
The press also caters to public prejudices rather than bother to explore beyond the superficial. The entire press hysteria during the Gulf War is an example of the American media choosing to be a slave to racism, rather than question the party (at that time, President Bush’s) line. It was and still is easier for the media to encourage entrenched opinions rather than to change them.
Traditional women’s roles in Islam.
Islam, like all religions, is a lifestyle as well as a belief system, and like other religions, it may be occur in different degrees in different geographical and economic areas. Consider, for example, a lower-income Italian Catholic, and that person’s concept of religious duty, to that of an upper-middle class American. The same diversity occurs in Islam, but the traditional role should be discussed.
The core of Islam tradition is The Koran and its interpretation into religious law, the shari’a. The Koran and shari’a detail the duty and rights of both men and women. That previous sentence tends to stop most Americans short. Women have rights guaranteed to them by Allah, as well as duties expected of them. Marriage is expected of Muslims, it is a holy duty through which they continue Allah’s purpose. However, marriage is also a civil contract in which both parties should be willing and the woman receives a two part dowry, or mahr from her husband. The first part of the mahr, or muquaddum, is paid when the marriage contract is written, and the second part, the mu’akhar, is held in reserve in case the husband should die before the wife, or if the husband should divorce his wife. The mahr belongs only to the wife and may be used as she sees fit. It is traditionally used to furnish her house, or to buy clothes.
A woman also has the right to divorce her husband, although she must go through the courts and present desertion, neglect, or the extended imprisonment (and thus, absence) of her husband as a reason for divorce. A husband may divorce his wife by announcing such "I divorce you" thrice and then waiting three menstrual cycles to pass to ensure that his wife is not pregnant.
A woman may inherit and own property, although she may receive a smaller portion than male heirs (Utas, 17), she cannot receive less than a one sixth, and may appeal to a court if she has been cheated. If a woman brings property into a marriage, she may retain control of it.
However, duties are expected of both men and women, in addition to the five pillars of the faith. Marriage, like in Judaism and Christianity, is an article of the faith. Paraphrased, it is mentioned in the Koran that Allah created two sexes for a reason, and that marriage was a natural state and holy obligation. But the purpose of marriage within Islam is not solely the creation of little Muslims to continue the faith - although that is significant - but also so that both men and women can have emotional and physical company and security during their earthly lives.
A husband is obligated to support his wife, or wives, and his family by work or whatever means are necessary to feed and shelter the family. Taking more than one wife is not required, but it is permitted as a concession to polygamous converts to Islam. He must treat his wife, or wives with respect, and if he does marry more than once, each wife must be treated equally. If one wife is put aside in favor of another wife, and that other wife receives more attention, financially, emotionally or physically, then the slighted wife may go to court and ask for a divorce.
A wife is obligated to raise her children as best as she can. Like any other society, there are cultural norms and standards that all parents strive to instil in their children, and assure that they are the best human beings they can be. A wife is expected to run the home, to keep it in order within her husband’s expectations. Islam has a very clear sexual division of labor. Domesticity is women’s work, and it’s the man’s job to bring the money in to put food on the table.
Truth beyond Tradition.
Women are permitted to leave the home, the tradition of habs - obedience - is on the wane. Habs, otherwise known as bait el-ta’a in its most extreme form meant a woman would have to have her husband’s permission to leave his house to visit her family or friends. She may only visit her family once a year without her husband’s permission, and may never visit her friends if her husband disapproves. In bait el-ta’a, when a woman is permitted out on a social visit, she must be accompanied by a male member of the family.
Women are permitted to leave the home because they are permitted to work. Nearly one third of the work force in Egypt is female. Work places are usually segregated, but women are entitled to the same pay as men if they are performing the same duties. However, being entitled to something and actually receiving it are two different things. I could not find statistics comparing male and female wages for similar duties, but, if the "liberated" United States, where a woman earns sixty cents for every dollar a man earns, is any kind of example, I must assume that wage disparity within Egypt is equally atrocious.
Women may own property and may inherit it. Should she bring it to a marriage, it remains hers throughout the marriage, although the husband may administer it. Should they be divorced, she retains her property.
Then there is the issue of the public face of Muslim women. In the majority of Western media, if Muslim women are shown on the news, not only are they veiled, but wearing the all covering chador, also. Veiling is an issue which pushes Westerner’s buttons. The veil and chador are portrayed and perceived as symbols of the oppression of Muslim women. However, veiling is not proscribed in the Koran.
Veiling and all-concealing clothing is a convention that has been adopted by traditionalist Muslims to be in keeping with the rule of modesty. Some may, and have, argued that the requirement for modesty is a contrivance of male oppressors, but both women and men are expected to follow rules about public appearance - that some parts of the body must always be protected from harm - and that some aspects of the physical body should only be seen by a person’s spouse. This is true for men as well as women.
Many upper and middle class women, especially those in urban areas, choose to go without a veil, but still dress "modestly". Modesty demands that the arms be covered, that long hair should be contained, and that an unseemly amount of leg should not be exposed. However, like any cultural standard that spans a great physical distance, what is unseemly in Egypt may be quite normal in Nigeria. I have seen a documentary footage of Muslim women in the Sudan walking outside wearing skirts that reached just to the knee, whereas in Egypt, such a short garment would result in a public uproar. Veiling is a central issue of debate within and without Muslim societies.
Iran is considered the most hard line of Muslim societies, and so I will examine the status of women within it to give the reader an idea of an extreme situation. Women were utilized in the revolution against the Shah, but were promptly forgotten at the end of the war. Khomeni attracted female supporters for the revolution through statements like:
"A woman is a man’s equal; she and he are both free to choose their lives and
occupations. But the shah’s regime is trying to prevent women from becoming
free by plunging them into immortality. It is against this that Islam rears up. This
regime has destroyed the freedom of women as well as men". This statement is lovely to read, but promises nothing, like all of Khomeni’s statements concerning women.
Like Algeria, Iran before the revolution against the shahs was a country torn between modernity and traditionalism. The shahs adopted and encouraged Western mannerisms to a degree, to lure European and American investment, but only to a point. The shahs did not wish to overly anger traditional Muslim elements.
The Shahs had made a token effort towards equality, but this movement declined in the early 50's. Women were dismayed, after they were indeed significant in the revolution through their political action. They marched in support of Khomeni, and spread his message across Iran. Even those that doubted the validity of Khomeni’s views on women supported him because he was the only valid alternative to the shah.
However, after the revolt, there was an extreme backlash against Western influence and a decree to return to traditional values. Once again, traditional meant oppression of women. Iran depends on censorship of media to ensure that Western ideas of personal freedom do not reach the population and on the domination of uneducated and illiterate women by religious authorities to continue it’s oppression of women. Women are told that liberation is a Western concept - and therefore undesirable, and are not told that emancipation issues are such basic ones as access to adequate health care, education or protection from domestic abuse.
Despite the theocracy’s desperate holding position, there has been an increase of secularism within Iran. Pro-female equality people see a more secular government as one way to grant rights to women. The fundamentalist Islam government certainly isn’t about. The history of women has been hidden the same way it was in Algeria.
Until Iranian women are able to discern the true meaning of emancipation by one method or another - be it through outside media or realization from within - the future of Iranian women is exceedingly bleak.
Algeria was occupied by France for over one hundred years, and the colonizers had a typical Western reaction to Islam, with intriguing results. The French campaigned against veiling, habs and what they perceived to be the more oppressive elements of Islam for two reasons. The first was borne of the French belief that what they were doing would be "better" for Algeria, because that’s what colonizers do; bring civilization. The other, more political reason, was that the French authorities believed that Algerian women would be grateful to them for their liberation, and would thus be more sympathetic to the French. Winning over half of a subject population would help entrench France’s authority.
However, Algerians reacted to the French attempts at liberation by adhering even more tightly to Muslim beliefs. The veil, and all the associations with it, became a symbol of national identity, and, conversely, if a woman chose not to wear a veil, or was permitted freedom outside of her home, this was seen as sympathizing with the French - a censorious act.
As in Iran, women were utilized and politicized by the revolt against France. Some women were even Moudjahidates, soldiers in the war. Others were medical staff, or even spies, who used their unveiled state (and the accompanying French and Algerian preconceptions) to move freely in European quarters. One Moudjahidate even went so far as to repudiate her womanhood and the subservient association that accompanied it. On a mass scale, such a declaration would be counter-productive for women cannot become equal to men by losing their womanhood.
When the French were ousted in 1962, the victorious FLN party emphasized the rights of women - that they should have the same duties, rights and legal resources. However, these declarations have not become reality. There was a post-revolutionary yearning for the past and traditional values, not unlike the yearning we’re currently seeing in the political arena of the United States, and women found themselves being pushed back into their traditional roles as a reaction against modernist (and therefore French) influence. Muslim women have been reduced to a symbol of Algeria in the "good ol’ days" before the French came - this results in a justification of the continuing oppression of women.
Algerian women do not want to become Western women. Some have perceived notions of emancipation being imposed from outside, from a Western society, and would rather embrace a notion of equality that grows from within Algerian society. But, whatever the source of it, Algerian advocates of sexual equality wish to see a balance between male and female, politically and socially.
Algerian women were empowered by their experiences in the revolt against France and were understandably bitter when they were essentially told "Thanks a lot, get back in the house." The Moudjahidates especially feel angry at what has become, or failed to become, of their sisters after the revolution. In the post revolutionary period, Algerian women suffered from a traditionalist Islamic backlash. Girls were exhorted to be wives and mothers and to leave the political action to the men. A small minority of Algerian parliamentary seats are held by women, but, like Egypt, their collective voice is too small to be heard within the political process.
Women are organizing in informal social and political groups, looking to their past roles in the revolution for inspiration. But they are not receiving any support from traditionalist men and women, and their government is far more concerned with technological and economic progress, rather than social progress. The FLN formed the UNFA, The National Union of Algerian Women, but this group was a token maneuver, intended to satisfy Algerian women’s demands for political representation without actually giving it. The UNFA was condemned by the Moudjahidates and their contemporaries as an organization that was co-opted even as it was formed. UNFA has failed to legislate any changes in the struggle for women’s rights.
Like Egypt, women are being permitted into the urban workforce, but usually only in the circumstance that their income is neccesary for their family’s survival, and they are neither welcome nor encouraged by male counterparts. They are seen as a threat to jobs held by men and an dangerously unusual novelty.
The future for Algerian women lies in not accepting a return to traditionalism, and insisting that they be heard. Already, they are being stifled by the government that was happy to use them for their own ends when it was convenient. As one Moudjahidate said in an interview "I hate colonialism and the Algerian women are colonized. I am ready to re-start the struggle to bring an end to this situation." and that may be what acheiving equality might demand.
The position of women in Egypt is a case of female will versus popular won’t. When Anwar Sadat came into power in the 1950's women were given the right to vote. This was not neccesarily out of the goodness of his heart but a political move to solidify his position and even then, female suffrage in Egypt would not have occurred without the work of Huda Sha’rawi and her contempories.
Female suffrage was and still is opposed not only by traditionalist males, but also by the secularly intellectual elite and the uneducated majority who perceived female suffrage as a threat. How can an educated elite be threatened by a female population with a literacy rate of 36%? Thirty seats in the Egyptian parliament were set aside specifically for women. (Mattihiasson, pg. 45) However, that is still a tiny minority of the legislature and smacks of tokenism.
The conflict between traditional and modern roles of women in Egypt is most apparent within the family. Egypt’s economy is severly depressed with a per capita income of $2,400 and an unemployment rate of 30 percent. However, women are 30 percent of the workforce in Egypt and they supply much needed economic aid to their families. How can a traditionalist Egyptian male reconcile that with the Koranic exhortation "[Women] Remain in your homes and do not exhibit yourself in public the way women in the time of ignorance did."? This is the verse cited by the Fatawa in Egypt to justify oppression of women.
Apparently the core of the male Egyptian reaction to woking women is in that the marvel lies not in how well the bear waltzes, but that it waltzes at all. Egyptian men do not consider working females a threat, and cultivate a condescending attitude of curiousity to see how a woman can cope in the workplace.Working women are a curiousity, like that waltzing bear, and the amusement is not how well she works (or the potential of her becoming some man’s boss) but in that she works at all.
Despite reluctance on the part of male lawmakers, women and men are speaking out and organizing their cause. Qasim Amin condemned veiling, advocated secular law as opposed to religious. Huda Sha’rawi, fought veiling and legaslative inequality. Women’s group have organized with goals of increasing opportunities for formal education of women, political reform and allow women to hold political office, and severe legal reform regarding personal status and family law, but their voice is still ignored.
"Legal reform may change the formal aspect of the inequality. But only changes in the attitude of Egyptian society will ensure the actual equality of men and women" This attitude was and still is fundamentally conservative. Female equality is still being treated as something of a novelty by Egyptian society. Women are able to vote and work in Egypt a vast improvement over their sisters in Iran, but there is a long way to go before true equality is acheived.
Algeria - a return to political mobilization.
Algeria is suffering from insecurity and hesitantcy, a natural part of going from traditionalism to modernism "Certain ideas seem to be generally accepted, such as the superiority of man over woman". But what of the women reported by Moghadom, the moudjahidates, and their daughters?
They have declared that education key to emancipation, as well as refusing to be stifled. As of 1983. There were almost as many boys as girls enrolled in elementary and secondary school (1,712,508 boys and 1,181,576 girls) which is encouraging if it has continued - there are no recent statistics available. As of 1994, the literacy rate stands at 70% for males and 46% for females, an improvement since the revolution.
Algeria, Egypt and Iran all have a female population that was mobilized by a revolutionary government in order to facilitate the removal of an oppressive authority. In all three countries, women were assured that they were fighting for a better tommorow not just for their countries as a whole, but also for women. But in reality, little was done for them once the revolution was over.
In all three countries, universal suffrage was granted, but it cannot be used to its fullest potential by a female population that is, at best, semi-literate, and women were encouraged to let men be the political thinkers. As far as revolutionary men were concerned, women of a political bent were a brief novelty used to gain momentum and support for their cause, and is now best forgotten.
Women are permitted to work, but it is only socially acceptable if the welfare of a woman’s husband a family is at stake. A woman who chooses not to marry or who would rather work to support herself is a rare thing, and her existence is discouraged in the strongest possible terms by traditionalistic men. Even when a woman is able to make it as far as employment she is discriminated against and treated either patronizingly or with outright hostility.
In both Algeria and Egypt, the post-revolutionary governments created groups supposedly to represent women’s needs within the new society. In Egypt, a Fatawa - a law making commission - was created, specifically focusing on women’s issues. While the Fatawa did advocate female suffrage, that was the only feminist act it engendered. Otherwise, the Fatawa urged women to remember their traditional roles and to live by them - despite the fact that the Koranic verses they cited as a justification were addressed specifically Mohammed’s wives, not to women in general.
In Algeria, the FLN created the Union Nationale des Femmes Algeriennes (UNFA) was created. UNFA was an insignificant group that mainly existed to support FLN decisions and teach sewing classes. Hardly the kind of thing that a newly empowered woman, heady with her own potential was expecting from the party she had risked her life for. Many women declared that UNFA was a co-opted organization and refused to allow themselves to be represented by it, but there was and still aren’t any organized alternatives.
Things have progressed from bad to worse within Algeria. In 1984, the Family Code was enacted,which legally established women in a position of inferiority to men. The Family Code states that men have priority and dominance in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.
Muslim women who have been politicized by a revolution are in a particular bind. They are aware of their own potential empowerment and wish to pursue it, but must also fight against the inevitable Muslim backlash that occurs whenever the filthy colonialists are thrown out. Female emancipation is perceived and condemned as a Western concept. Women must then face the question, to which are they more loyal - the cultural traditions that have been oppressed for decades or centuries, or to their newly found emancipation. If a woman takes a position on either side, she is not permitted middle ground. It’s a case of "If you’re not for us, you’re against us" and she will find herself condemned by the tradition that gave birth to her and her history, or by her political contempories that empowered her; the politic that brought her to the position where she had the ability to ask such questions.
Women’s Lib - ‘East’ vs ‘West’
Some Muslim women don’t think that Western women have much to crow about. Sister Noor, a convert to Islam at the University of Essex, England, says she feels more empowered by wearing a veil than she did before and that she has chosen to don that garb, out of modesty, and respect for Allah and herself. However, it must be noted that an English woman has been socialized within an emancipated society and is sufficiently empowered and secure enough to be able to make her conversion and wearing a veil a choice.
I wrote earlier of the American conception of Muslim women. Muslim women have a conception of Western women as women who are slaves to beauty standards imposed by a billion dollar industry, who are unsafe and without protection in their cities, who have only recently obtained such things that Muslim women have had for 1400 years - the right to divorce a man, traditional free choice in marriage - "A girl came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and informed him that her father had married her to her cousin against her wishes, whereupon the Prophet allowed her to exercise her choice. She then said, 'I am reconciled to what my father did but I wanted to make it known to women that fathers have no say in this matter'". - Hadith narrated by Ibn" although that tradition has been violated and a garanteed position within her family even after her husband’s death for Mohammaed proclaimed that women are the mother’s of Islam and must be respected as such.
What changes would still have to occur to "liberate" Muslim women?
I must admit that I am approaching this with my Western prejudices, but so be it, I must be honest. The key to all power is knowledge. Female literacy within Muslim socities has increased greatly since 1900. Compare the 1902 female literacy rate of one percent in Egypt with it’s contemporary 36 percent. It’s an improvement, but it’s not enough. The dominant attitude in Muslim society about educating women is that school is a place to send daughters so that they may find a husband. As soon as that is acheived, then it’s time for them to leave, get married and concern herself with the family.
This attitude must change! Academia is more than a marriage farm. A woman who attends school, even if "only" to the secondary level, is a woman who is literate. A woman who is literate can understand newspapers, political pamphlets, a bank statement, and explain what these things are and the neccisity of them to others. Women who are educated, in turn, become teachers. They understand the value of what they have learned, and send their own daughters to school, if they can. Literate women can make their views known (although this is not meant to belittle the truly awesome abilities of word-of-mouth and oratory) and learn to understand and utilize political structure.
Another step towards emancipation would be the aboltion of polygamy and the establishment of equal access to divorce. Currently, a husband can keep a wife cowed with threats of divorce, which is easier for him to attain, or with threats of a new wife. Legally, a husband cannot favor one wife over another, but too often, an older wife will find herself suffering at the presence of a younger woman. Certainly, the older wife has greater rank within the family, but if her husband chooses to lavish emotional attention upon one over another, then she who is being neglected will rapidly become miserable, and have extremely little actual evidence with which to obtain a divorce. The concept of "mental cruelty" is recognized by Muslim courts, but is a somewhat more nebulous state.
The final culmination of this would be legislation and enforcement within Muslim societies of female equality similar to the ideals behind ERA. A declaration that women are equal to men, that gender discrimination is immoral and (by such legislation) illegal. But the trick lies within enforcing such a law. Iran has declared formally in it’s constituation that women are equal to men, but I haven’t encountered any enforcement of it.
A move away from shari’a to secular law is essential. The two court systems are firmly entrenched and the shari’a would be difficult to displace - fundamentalists and traditionalists, both male and female, would fight any lessening of their authority, and it is always hardest to convince those who are used to authority to relinquish it. Egypt and Algeria have made statements declaring their intent to move towards secular law, especially regarding female emancipation, but have done nothing beyond speechmaking.
However, we must be wary of imposing our cultural standards on others. That would be an unforgivable arrogance. The need for emancipation must come from within, and not be imposed like colonialism. But is it wrong for us to inform and advise, if such information is requested? I think not.
A balance between modernism and traditionalism must be struck if all is not to fall into chaos. This is true of all Muslim societies with an equality craving female population. However, such balance cannot be acheived without the consent of the male population, which is generally "traditional" in it’s point of view. Herein lies the center of the struggle of all feminist impulses within male dominated societies. How can change be engendered when the powers-that-are refuse to allow it? At this point, the words of the Algerian Moudjahidate come back to us. The struggle must continue and not allow itself to be silenced.
"Woman should be free. She must not imitate men stupidly. She’s equal to men and should not lower herself depending on the attitude of her husband. She must be independent" This was written by a young girl to a popular Algerian magazine. There is hope in such statements as these, for it indicates that the urge for empowerment and equality have not been stifled.
In the seventh century, Mohammed’s teachings were fairly advanced; he exhorted his followers to treat women better than cattle. But society has progressed beyond that point and women must not only be treated better than cattle, but as "good" as men.
Women wishing to empower themselves within Muslim society is the beginning, but, alas, sometimes not enough - see Egypt. There must be a majority support, or failing popular support, legal support within the courts.
Feminism is just beginning in Muslim societies, barely twenty years old, on average. Empowerment is important, but emancipation is the first step. Emancipation is the primary goal within Muslim societies, and empowerment will follow.
But it may be a long struggle: an Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed in 1920, and didn’t even come close to success until 1976. The rights held by Muslim women right now, they have held the majority of them for 1400 years. 1400 years ago, European women ranked right up there with livestock as property and negotiable currency, and a woman would have sooner been made Pope than been granted a divorce from The Church as it then was.
Even now, feminism has not truly succeeded, we have only managed to define the battlefield and begin the fight. Before we pity our poor Muslim counterparts, we should ensure that our own house is in order, lest we appear hypocritical.
And we are on the outside looking in - I know I cannot begin to understand the Muslim cultural perspective, I’m just fumbling. What would be intolerable oppression for me would be dizzying and probably even frightening for a Muslim woman. Just as I’d be suffocated by a long gown reaching to the ground, surely she might feel naked in a pair of Levis. But it would be lovely to see the situation where she had the choice, and that is the core of feminism, the right and ability to make choices without fearing the consequences.