This International Women’s Day, separate Islam and culture when it comes to rights

Published March 8th, 2015 - 10:05 GMT

Why is the Middle East plagued with crimes against women? Is Islam the main cause or is it perhaps a deeply rooted misogynistic culture that is to blame?

As the world marks International Women’s Day, there is a big focus on the Arab world and in particular, how the mistreatment of Muslim women is aligned with Islam.

Whether it’s the harrowing accounts of Yazidi sex slaves being taken by Daesh, or the long list of atrocities committed against women by the extremist group, one thing is for sure; linking Islam to the ill-treatment of women across the region appears to be the common factor. 

Since the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim sentiment has been increasing with Islamophobia on the rise in the West. Far-right pundits such as American blogger Pamela Gellar use manipulative tactics to distort Islam as a violent faith, often likening Muslim women as “oppressed” by a sexist religion through misinformation.

Every day the media reports on atrocious crimes against women and violations of women’s rights across the Middle East. Whether it be rumours of Hamas in the Gaza Strip forcing women to wear the hijab or the late Saudi King Abudullah’s daughters speaking out about their 13-year imprisonment, Islam is at the forefront of these headlines.

What the media often forgets is that it is crucial to differentiate between religion and culture. This is difficult for many because the two are so closely intertwined. However, more often than not culture contradicts religion, especially in the way women are perceived and treated in the Middle East.

Early Islam upheld women’s rights during a time when none existed. Prophet Muhammed abolished the customary act of burying female newborns alive when Islam came into force. Women had the right to inherit property and education for girls became a duty.

Centuries later, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned women from attending school, while in Iran, a rape victim can be stoned to death for “adultery”.

How did Middle Eastern culture stray so far from its Islamic roots to deny women their right to education and intellectual empowerment? Sabria Jawhar, a Saudi Arabian journalist and columnist, believes that “if all women were given the rights the Quran guarantees us, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced”.

Perhaps Arab culture has deviated from its Islamic roots due to friction caused by modernization. Through globalization, Western culture has been exported to every corner of the world, influencing every facet of culture, business, and entertainment. Is the only way for conservative Muslims to counteract these changes through aggressive resistance?

Radical Muslim feminist Mona Eltahawy is a good example. The Egyptian journalist was sexually assaulted and injured by riot police while covering the 2011 uprisings, highlighting the country’s poor record when it comes to the protection of women.

Eltahawy was both empowering and inspiring when she famously called for a sexual revolution in the Middle East, shortly after her ordeal.

“For some people religion becomes their only form of expression and opposition and it can take a very violent turn,” she told The Independent during a recent interview. “This is not a majority of people who identify as Muslim. We are showing you can still belong to this religion; you can still be a Muslim and find other ways of expressing your divisions that do not involve this horrific level of violence.”

International Women’s Day is the chance to reflect upon the direction in which our society is evolving, female first. The Middle East has every right to resist foreign influences on local culture; but rather than becoming increasingly aggressive and oppressive towards women, ladies and gentlemen of the Arab majority region should draw on the roots of Islam to ensure a more peaceful and fair society, possibly with an emerging female vanguard.

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