The Islamization of gender inequalities?

Islamophobia is defined as fear of Muslims and Islam. Yet, only few distinguish between the two terms: Islam and Muslims, and often view Muslims as a homogenous group. Generalizing and fearing a person only due to their religious background is not acceptable, and cannot be justified in any case. Muslimophobia is thus a dangerous phenomenon that we must combat by building bridges between people through our universal values, and principles of humanity, diversity and peace. The expression Muslimophobia leads us to our next question: what is Islam and what is Islamophobia?

Islam is a socio-political ideology. Islamic laws comprise Sharia and Fiqh. Sharia laws are irreversible. They are based on Quran and Sunnah. Sunnah contains the instructions based on the life of the prophet Mohammad, and Quran is the miracle of Islam, it is the word of God. Fiqh on the other hand is reversible, and Islamic scholars study and legislate it based on the current issues of their time. Therefore, looking at Islam as a religious and socio-political ideology, are we allowed to discuss and criticize it? This article does not aim to answer this question, it is rather a recount of my experience with Islamic studies, which me and my peers were taught as an obligatory course for 12 years. I will discuss how the Islamic teachings we were taught from 1992 to 2004 are linked to the normalization of gender inequalities that I have experienced in my daily life as a woman.

One Man Equals Two Women

Islamic studies were taught almost daily at the primary, elementary and secondary school, and passing exams was a condition for completing our education. We were taught that in Islam evidence from two women equals that of one man. One might argue that this is only in the book. However, this is not the case. The principle is also applied in the Code of Personal Status and family law.

In 2014, I was in a Jordan court to get the permit to marry my future husband, who is a foreigner who converted to Islam. Jordan does not recognize civil marriages, so we had to legally prove that he had converted before we got married. I was there with my father and my future husband, and the judge asked for two witnesses to testify that my husband was indeed a Muslim. My father asked the judge whether that could be me and him, and the judge declined. He explained to my father that he can be a witness, however, I cannot, as I am woman. He gave my father two options: 1. To bring another woman, as two women equal one man as a witness, in which case he can be the first witness, while me and another woman can be the second witness; 2. To bring another man. Such an irony, a stranger is more capable of testifying that my future husband is a Muslim than me just because he is a man.

My father is very proud of all of his daughters. He has invested everything and he gave all that he could to give me and my sisters the best possible formal and informal education.  He sponsored my early travels to explore the world, where I developed my interpersonal skills. I can say he positively discriminated his daughters. I think that knowing that the world would discriminate us enough for being girls and women, he and my mother made sure to invest all that they had to prepare us for that. It worked, as me and my sisters are successful, independent and strong women, who are ready to deal with the discrimination instead of letting it define us.

Women are jewels, therefore they cannot travel or live alone without a man to protect them!

We were taught throughout our schooling that women are upraised in Islam. They are jewels that should be treated well and protected. This is used as an explanation of why women should not travel alone, but must be accompanied by a Mahram, a man in front of whom the woman can uncover without this being Haram, which means a taboo. Mahram can be the husband, the father, a brother, a son, a son-in-law or another man, in front of whom the woman is not required to be covered, for example a man who was breastfed by the same woman. Even though this aspect is not included in the laws of the country, it affects the social norms.

It would be naive to neglect the following question: If a woman is a jewel, who travels with a Mahram, what does that make a woman who fails to abide by this rule?

The presenter of Deutsche Welle’s Shabab Talk, Jaafar, conducted interviews in downtown Amman, asking young men what they would do, if their sisters had to travel and live alone for work or study. Many were disappointed by the majority of the answers, which varied from “I will kill her,” “This would not happen,” “She cannot,” “Of course not!” to “This is against what Quran and prophet Mohammad said,” “This is against our traditions,”. Of course, these views do not reflect the status of women in Jordan, neither do they present youth in a country of around 9.5 million people. Yet these views exist, and crimes of honor are real. However, instead of dehumanizing these young men, can we tackle the main problem, which stems from the Islamic studies we have been taught as kids? Or will we keep pretending that these are just bad young men in a masculine society?

Kaseyat Areyat!” Dressed but Naked!

On a winter day in 2005, I was walking through my university campus with my hair down, wearing a jacket and jeans. Two students in black burqas passed me, and, turning in my direction, one of them whispered “Kasyat Areyat” loud enough for me to hear. I wanted to turn to her and say something, but as soon as I remembered where and when I had first heard this expression, I decided to just smile and move on.

I first heard this phrase from my elementary school teacher, who told us the story of Isra and Miraj about the night when the archangel Gabriel took the prophet through the seven skies.  On their way up, the prophet Mohammad saw naked women hanging from their hair. When he asked about them, the angel explained that these were women who were dressed, but looked naked in life, so the God punished them. This is called Kasyat Areyat. This takes me back to one time I was on a public beach, sitting there in my jeans and a top, while looking at happy men and boys running around and enjoying a refreshing swim in their shorts. To be accurate, knee-long shorts. We were also taught that men shall not show the area between their navel and their knee. Yet, I was thinking how privileged they were, as they could enjoy the sun on their bellies and backs. They looked much freer than me.

We were taught at school that the Prophet Mohammad told his youngest wife Aisha that once the girl had her period, she should not show any part of her body apart from for her hands and face. This might explain why I have been catcalled and insulted when wearing my T-shirt and jeans. If the God that we believe in had hanged women, who dressed in tight or revealing clothes, naked from their hair, then how can I ask for respect from the followers of this God, who is unfriendly towards women who do not consider their bodies a taboo?

Conclusion

To conclude my short reflection, it is unfair to judge people’s actions without understanding the educational and other background that lead them to these actions. Reflecting on my own experience, I advise parents, schools and scholars to at least criticize and help develop the Fiqh part of Islamic studies, so we can modernize our socio-political ideology to meet the needs of development and self-fulfillment. They should also consider the option of making religious education critical in the first place? Why not discuss rather than memorize? Why not promote secularism, while reserving religions as a personal spiritual matter?

I am an Arab Muslim woman. I am not and do not want to be your jewel. I want to be as free and equal as any human being, without being stripped of my essence and my own identity. There is proverb that says: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation).” However, being a woman does not automatically make me responsible for raising up (our nation). Raising up new generations is a joint parental responsibility. So “Educate a girl, and you educate a human being”. Be yourself and let me be myself. We will be free when we have enough female leaders, when we pronounce God as a proud she, he, it or we. Maybe we would be free, if only God had sent female prophets?

***

Samar Zughool is a researcher on feminist movements and public policy making in democratization. She holds a Master’s degree with excellency from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in French language and literature from the University of Jordan. She is an intercultural learning and communication trainer and project coordinator.

If you wish to discuss this article or have any comments, email me to: samar.mediator@gmail.com.