Implications of the Interpretations of Islam:
Comparative Gender Studies in
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel
and Davar Ardalan’s My Name Is Iran.
Nurul Kamilah Mat Kamil
Mr. S. Wise
May 5, 2011
The status of Islam‘s relevance and compatibility to modern context such as individual women’s rights is a debatable issue. Presently, in Muslim communities, discrepancies in gender equality still occur despite the claim that Islam has already given women their rights. Muslim women are being discriminated against in education, are deemed unfit to lead in some countries and they don’t have rights to their own bodies and opinions. These discrepancies, examined in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Davar Ardalan’s My Name Is Iran are caused by the different interpretations of Islam.
A woman’s education opportunities are stripped as they get married because the society demands women to be homemakers and faithful wives to their husbands. Some of them don’t even get the chance to finish their education as they are married off to their family’s man of choice, “even though most of the girls were reluctant and some were petrified” (Ali 78). Due to stringent perspectives of how a “marriage should be” (Ardalan 211), education no longer becomes the priority of married Muslim women. Although Ardalan was not completely restricted from pursuing education compared to Ali, her husband was still not being supportive of her financially and morally, “I realized that I wanted him to support me to better myself and my children’s lives through my own education” (Ardalan 210). The circumstances that both Ali and Ardalan faced are both contradictory of Imam Bukhari’s encouragement of the husband as the wife’s guardian to ensure that she improves her education (Sahih Bukhari, 3:46:723). Strict adherence to society-conceived gender roles causes this unfair implication onto Muslim women as men are regarded more deserving for an education as they can contribute more to a country in leadership. When in Saudi Arabia, Ali commented that “It wasn’t fair that we weren’t allowed to go out with him and do all the things Mahad could” (Ali 50). Gender segregation in schools also led to the differences in syllabus between girls and boys because some fields are considered inappropriate for a woman’s nature (Hamdan). However, Ardalan had a somewhat secular upbringing which allowed her more freedom in education. To her family, “gaining knowledge … was life itself” (Ardalan 71) and every family member should pursue knowledge regardless of gender. The Muslim community are also taught to oppose Western teachings, and this caused much discontent to Ali, “As much as I wanted to become a devout Muslim, I always found it uncomfortable to oppose the West” (Ali 109). In contrast, Ardalan’s childhood experiences had direct exposure to the West as she went to an American high school as her grandparents agreed “that it was best to raise the children in America” (Ardalan 49), while Ali only had her Western exposure in her childhood through harlequin novels. Islam does not completely oppose Western teachings and does encourage pursuing it, as it is complementary in acquiring knowledge (Gbadamosi). Therefore, it is evident that different communal interpretations of a woman’s rights to education in Islamic teachings are a cause of gender inequality in Muslim societies.
Man rules over woman; even Muslim communities are not spared from this traditional norm that is detrimental to women’s rights. In many patriarchal Muslim societies, men are perceived as the leaders and breadwinners of the family and women were attributed the role of the homemaker. The women then end up confined to their homes and are not allowed to work as the “money earned by a woman has never made anyone rich” (Ali 121) and a “pious woman should not work outside the home” (Ali 67). The fact that the society puts more value “on male experiences and perspectives [makes man more deserving of] the privileges given to them, and resulting [in the] devaluation of women’s status, no matter what contributions they make” (Wadud 100). The confinement of women in a patriarchal society is psychological as one would feel conflicted with the majority if one does not conform to the mainstream (Leung). However, it is stated in the Quran, men and women can both have a share of what they earn, meaning that both men and women can work (Quran 4:32). Another issue is women’s position in religious rituals. Why is it that for most rituals which involve men and women, the men is appointed to lead prayers and such, and not the women? “Why does Allah will it? He made me too, but he always prefers Mahad” (Ali 44). Wadud shares the same view with Ali and adds, “Gender separation in the mosque also reflects gender disparity through space and the opportunities that limit women’s access to or participation in the mosque activities and especially in decision-making” (Wadud 175). With only the exception of religious practices, women have equal opportunities to men because the ruling concerning acts of worship is that anything not prescribed in Shari`ah in explicit texts is prohibited, so that people may not innovate matters in religion not ordained by Allah (“Yusuf”). There is no denial that women are created different from man, therefore, both genders play different roles in religious rituals, but their piety is equally valued. The different roles that they play do not necessarily mean that one is better than the other. In Iran, women were forbidden from political involvement and “decisions were made at the highest level within the patriarchal clerical establishment” (Ardalan 250). Wadud expounds the argument, “If women only demonstrate and exemplify their ability to be “like men”, or to be victims of patriarchy, then nothing is learned from them over and above men in the pulpits, at the head of the line, as well as in the parliament” (Wadud 182). Since the only difference of gender roles for women is only in religious matters, it does not limit women’s opportunities in other aspects of life, or their opportunities to be better Muslims because a woman's role on earth is not limited only to childbirth. As a Muslim, she is required to do as many good deeds as any other man is required to do (Azeem). So, it is permissible for a woman to make contributions in politics, especially if it is for the betterment of the nation. Even Aisyah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, led an army in the Battle of the Camel and became a source of reference for many people at that time (Geissinger). In short, contributions from both genders are essential in the development of nations, especially in leadership. Although some practices in Islam veered to be patriarchal due to social norms, it should not limit women’s opportunities to contribute to leadership in other aspects outside religious rituals. It is only due to the different interpretations of Islam that Muslim women face limitations in leadership positions.
A key issue of women’s rights is the fight against the objectification of women and to prove that women have rights to their own bodies and opinions. In Ali’s clan, the women could not object to the groom the clan has chosen for them, otherwise they were considered a disgrace to the clan. “Love marriages were a stupid mistake…You sank into a hideous destiny of impurity, godlessness and disease” (Ali 79). Ali even married a man named Mahmud just to have sex (Ali 140), because a Muslim could not engage in pre-marital sex. Marriage is not just for the pleasures of sex, but it is also an institution that a man and a woman find companionship and a refuge from the trials and tribulations of life (Patel 37, Quran 30:21). A woman is not a plaything in the hand of man but a spiritual and moral being who is entrusted to him as a sacred pledge to which Allah is made a witness. The wife is, therefore, not meant to provide sensuous pleasure only to the male, but to fully co-operate with him in making the life of the family and ultimately of the whole humanity significantly meaningful (Sahih Muslim). In certain cultures, arranged marriages are common, but Islam actually gives the liberty to choose one’s partner based on certain guidelines (Sahih Muslim 8:35:3457). A woman has a right to deny her father’s choice if she does not will the marriage because a woman who has been previously married is more entitled to her person than her guardian, and a virgin must be asked for her consent for herself (Muwatta’ 28:2:4). Although some Muslim communities make it a practice for arranged marriages, forced marriages have proven to be more detrimental than beneficial. Islam emphasizes compatibility in a marriage, and considers mutual affection in choosing a spouse. A woman’s sexuality is also suppressed with the justification that “a man’s erotic thoughts were always the fault of the women who incited them” (Ali 110). “Girls in Somali were excised and the practice is always justified in the name of Islam…Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure” (Ali 31). This tradition is pervasive because of the insistence of imposing righteousness on the society by certain groups of people and justifying their violent acts by “endlessly quoting the famous verse from the Qur’an” (Sardar). This practice of controlling women is not a teaching of Islam, rather, it has its roots in foreign customs, like the Byzantine and Persian cultures of female seclusion and the female circumcision from North African traditions, and is practiced today only among the Muslims of that region, along with many non-Muslims (Aykol). Islam does not view sexuality as a taboo subject, rather it is regarded sacred, and promotes marriage as an institution that will maintain societal order and as a channel for sexual pleasure among the spouses. Lastly, the patriarchal society also deems women fickle and unable to make decisions for themselves, so the decisions are made by the men. “Certain decisions, he informed me, were better made by the men of the family” (Ali 127). Ardalan and the Iranian women at the time of the Revolution had the awareness to “assume the right they had to rule over themselves instead of imitating the West or the East” (Ardalan 136) after reading Ali Shariati’s work. In Islam, the concept of shura, literally meaning counsel in Arabic, encourages participation from all members of the discussion regardless of gender. Therefore, women can and should offer their opinions to make their own decisions as well as decisions for an organization as a positive change is only balanced if it is made and agreed by all the individuals involved (Farooq). Conclusively, the suppression of women’s rights to her opinions and her body due to different interpretations of Islam causes gender inequality in Muslim communities.
In summary, Islam is interpreted differently due to differences in cultural context as well as other political reasons. Some may be stricter than the other and even detrimental to both women and society in aspects of education, leadership and the woman’s individual rights itself. Therefore, it is best to consider the interpretations that best comply with the modern understanding of human rights which also stays true to Islam’s vision of an egalitarian society.
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