The Fourteenth General Conference : The Truth about Islam in a Changing World
MUSLIM MINORITIES IN THE WEST AND THE PROBLEM OF THE MUSLIM WOMAN'S IMAGE
MUSLIM MINORITIES IN THE WEST AND THE PROBLEM OF THE MUSLIM WOMAN'S IMAGE
BY: IRIS SAFWAT M.A. Member of the International Islamic Committee for Woman And Child (II CWC) of the International Islamic Council for Da'wa and Relief (IICDR), Cairo, ARE.
The current discussion in the Western media as well in political, cultural and academic circles which has been intensified by the tragic events of 11 September 2001, concentrates on the question of the future of the relations between the Islamic and the Western civilizations. However, even before these events, took place that are said "to have changed history", the participants in Islamic-Christian or Islamic-Western dialogue had been confronted by the problem of different value systems immanent in diverse cultures.
Representatives of the West have accused Islam falsely of being intolerant of the adherents of other religions, without taking into consideration that the Glorious Qur'ān preaches tolerance: "Let there be no compulsion in Religion" (2/256), and the Islamic law grants non-Muslims all their vital rights in addition to their special protection. Another Western assumption is that human rights are not recognized by Islam. In reality, however, the Islamic concept of human rights, derived from the primary sources, the Glorious Qur'ān and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), has been guaranteed and integrated in Shari'āh Law, as for example, the right to life, justice, freedom of religion and conscience, and all other basic human rights.
In this context, too, the West has maintained the erroneous notion that Islām is a religion which degrades and oppresses women.
The stereotyping of the negative image of Muslim women has been repeated and spread by most of the Western media in countless television programmes and newspaper articles. Even in Western literature like fiction and supposed reports of first- hand accounts, the alleged plight of women living under Islāmic law is depicted vividly.
In this paper it is attempted to throw some light on the Muslim woman's image in the West, its history and development, as well as the role of Western media, literature and the cinema in perpetuating its repugnant features. It cannot be denied that this image exerts a negative influence on the relations between Islamic minorities in Europe, as well as North America and the non- Muslim societies surrounding them.
There can be no doubt that it constitutes one of the causes for the problems for many Muslim women living in the West.
Summing up, the question is raised how a more positive image of the Muslim could be established in Western countries.
1.The Muslim Woman's Image in the West: From Orientalism to Islamophobia
In the course of the history of Islāmic- Western relations, the Occidental image of Muslim women has undergone remarkable changes influenced by political and cultural developments.
Among the few sources of questionable pieces of information Europeans found about Muslim women in the East, was the famous collection of Oriental tales "The One Thousand and One Nights", also called "The Arabian Nights" which after Indo- Persian origins, was compiled in Iraq and Egypt during the Middle Ages and reached Europe in the early l8th century where it was first translated into French. The famous tales had great influence on European writers, painters and composers who invented images of fascinating Oriental women in the seclusion of their hareems, when this kind of Orientalism (1) became fashion in the l9th century. At the same time, Western travelers wrote about their experiences in Muslim countries while mixing reality with fiction.
Accordingly, Muslim women of the Middle East and North Africa were seen as mere objects of men's sexual desire. Western imagination was incited because the veil made Eastern women more interesting (2). In the Western racist perspective of "the exotic other", the Muslim woman was a mysterious, sensual and child- like creature without intellect.
During the 20th century, however, the Muslim woman's image was transformed due to political and social change. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which had been known in the West as the stronghold of "hareems" filed with exotic women, the Europeans' romantic dreams of the Orient were dispersed. Muslim populations were colonized by Western powers, and after they had won their struggle for independence, the newly emerged Islāmic nations had to strive for their economic and social development. In many countries, Muslim women were participating in these efforts, contributing to education, science, work and public life. There can be no doubt that Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani and other women have been playing important roles in their nations' development. They were able to reach the highest positions possible, as Prime ministers, ministers, ambassadors, directors and professors, whereas until now, no woman has reached the position of the president of France, Russia or the United States of America.
But despite all these achievements, the Muslim woman's image in the West went from bad to worse. Thus, it has to be asked why this negative development took place. In answering this question, first of all, it should not be overlooked that for many centuries, the Occidental image of Muslim men has been rather negative, too. They have been depicted as cruel, insidious, sensual, ignorant and uncivilized. It is indeed a thoroughly hostile imaging due to long historical periods of conflict between the Christian Occident and the Islāmic Orient as manifested for example in the Crusades and the Ottoman conquests in Europe. This image reduced Muslims to enemies of Western values and civilization, and therefore it cannot be surprising that in the Western imagination, Muslim women, have similar reprehensive features: they are frequently depicted as helpless creatures, confined to the family, uneducated and backward. (3)
Thus the romantic 18th century image of the fascinating Oriental woman living behind the high walls of a "hareem" was substituted by an ugly one: namely that of a dull, suppressed woman, completely dependent on her husband and male relatives whose only aim in life is to have children and to do the house- work. In this context, it is worth mentioning that in Western European countries, the roles of mothers and housewives have rapidly lost their high reputation after the 1968 social revolution. Instead, a new female role model was offered: the emancipated, independent, highly educated, empowered career woman who competes with men for all positions.
As in all spheres of contemporary life, the West evaluates the progress of nations and societies according to the standards it has set itself: "West is best". Consequently, Muslim women are seen as backward, un-emancipated and unintelligent. One of the reasons for this alleged state is found in certain cultural practices of Muslim peoples, that are wrongly conceived by many Westerners as authentic Islāmic. Thus, religion is falsely blamed for the backwardness and ignorance of some of its adherents. Unfortunately in the West, still a widespread ignorance of Islām is prevailing in combination with old prejudices relating to Muslims.
Moreover, some of these prejudices have been corroborated when large numbers of Muslim immigrants arrived in Western European countries during the fifties and sixties of the last century. In Great Britain, Pakistani and Indian communities from the Commonwealth have spread, whereas in France, Muslim immigrants originate mostly from North Africa. Former West Germany however, had called Turkish workers, the "Gastarbeiter" during the sixties. Nowadays, the numbers of Muslim migrants to Europe is 15 millions approximately, with more than two millions living in Great Britain, six millions in France and three millions in Germany, the countries with the largest Muslim minorities.
Many of these Muslim immigrants originate from poverty- stricken rural regions or from the urban working classes of their North African, Middle Eastern or South Asian native countries. The problem is that their lifestyles and customs are often regarded by Europeans as authentic Islāmic ways, although many of these patterns of behavior have nothing attributed to Islām.
At the same time, the increasing trend to reject foreigners and especially Muslims, a trend found in Western European countries even before the tragic events of 11 September, can be seen in various forms of "Islam phobia", and the fear of militant Muslims. Unfortunately, in the Western media, much more attention is paid to extremist voices than to the peaceful majority of Muslims who are not conspicuous.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, for example, a new and even more reprehensive image of the Muslim woman has appeared in the West, namely that of the militant, extremist, so- called "fundamentalist". Masses of demonstrating women, clad in black chadors and denouncing the West as "the great Satan" have occupied Occidental television screens, while after 11 September 2001, it is the picture of Afghan women in their thick burqas which seem to prove the allegation that Muslim women are totally subdued. Nowadays there exists moreover the image of the Muslim terrorist's wife who believes strongly in her husband's ideas and defends him fervently but does not have any knowledge of his criminal activities. (4)
2. The Role of Western Media Literature and the Cinema in Perpetuating the Negative Image of Muslim Women:
Although the negative shift in the Muslim Woman's image has been intensified after the events of 11 September, various studies have shown that the stereotyping of Muslim women in the Western media, literature and the cinema had already started a long time before.
In his researcher entitled: "Islām, Muslims and Arabs in America. The other of the other of the other....", Michael W. Suleiman writes as early as in 1999: "There have been many scholarly studies of the American press and its coverage of the Middle East. Almost unanimously, these studies alive shown that there is press bias against Arabs/Muslims and Arabs are routinely portrayed in a negative light on television and in movies. Often, they are presented as unreasonable, if not stupid, primitive, sex crazed, aggressive and violent. The women are seen as uneducated, oppressed and docile." (5)
When the most famous political magazine in Germany, "Der Spieger" presented a special issue on Islām in January 1998, the cover- page showed a part of the face of a veiled woman with an eyebrow in the shape of a scimitar, a symbol of the assumed "Islamic threat" which is familiar to Western readers. The accompanying headlines read as follows:
"Global power behind the veil: The enigma of Islamic Politics: Advance of extremists. Immigrants: German beneath the headscarf?"
In the preface to the same edition, Jochen B?lsche wrote:
"In the Federal Republic (of Germany) the attitude towards Islam ranges from bare horror at the right, which too often, is fed on ignorance and xenophobia, to romantic, revolutionary feelings of solidarity by leftists who, for the sake of multi- cultural harmony, tend to overlook tendencies towards brutal hostility to women, as well as anti- Semitic and anti- democratic attitudes."
The situation in France is similar: when in Autumn 1989, three Muslim girls were excluded from school because of their headscarves, a bitter debate on all levels was initiated. In the newspaper coverage, facts were distorted:
Almost always hijāb was portrayed as oppressive. Furthermore, although initial article described the girls as wearing a scarf tied under their chin, and pictures showed them dressed in French styles with the scarf added, the newspapers often referred to them wearing chadors or veils, and cartoons showed fat women swathed in black from head to toe, faces covered. This kind of misleading is subtle, and fuels fears of "the other" and incompatibility with French identity that is so prevalent in France." (6)
Biased attitudes towards Muslim men and women are also often displayed in television talk shows and reports as well as in radio programmes where so- called experts on Islām are frequently invited to explain events and phenomena to the public. Among these experts, journalists, scientists, writers and other intellectuals can be found. Some of them are of Muslim and Middle Eastern or North African origins. It is, however, remarkable that most of these "Muslim experts" are Western- orientated secular intellectuals who are unable or unwilling to represent authentic Islamic views. (7) Nevertheless, Western audiences tend to believe everything such experts allege.
Another factor influencing the Muslim woman's image in the West is the kind of literature (real life stories, novels, autobiographies, reports, etc.) which deals with the lives of women in Islamic countries, both nationals and foreigners. Frequently the covers of these books show pictures of veiled women in order to sell better because Western readers are still fond of stories from the "Exotic Orient". The increasing number of such books on veiled and supposedly Muslim women has led to the appearance of a new genre of literature which is called "Schleierliterature" in the German language. (8)
One of the most famous and worst expressive of this genre is Betty Mahmoody's "Not without My Daughter" (1987), the real life story of an American woman married to an Iranian who forces her and their daughter to stay on in Teheran at the end of their visit. After eighteen months of ill- treatment by her husband and negative experiences with exponents of the Islāmic Revolution, the American wife is able to escape together with her daughter. Until 1992, this book had been sold in 12 million copies and translated into nineteen languages (9). A film made after it in 1990 had similar success.
Both book and film throw an extremely negative light on Muslims and Iranians and depict bicultural marriages as doomed to failure. Western, especially American culture is portrayed as superior to the Islāmic one which cruelly oppresses women. Throughout the book, the author's racist prejudices can be traced. On a higher intellectual level but similarly biased is the book of British- born journalist Jan Goodwin: "Price of Honor. Muslim Women lift the Veil of Silence on the Islāmic World." (10). The author who spent four years in the Middle East, interviewed Muslim women of various social and cultural backgrounds in ten countries. Unfortunately, this book too, reflects the West's fear of Islām and Islāmists and corroborates its bad image of Muslim men and women.
Following the great interest of Western readers, literature of this kind has accumulated in European and American bookshops. Naturally, in the aftermath of 11 September, numerous books dealing with the plight of women in Afghanistan have been published. (11)
The restrictions to which Muslim women were submitted during the Talibān regime, when they were deprived of education, work and health care, have confirmed the West's allegations that Muslim women are prevented from education and employment because of their excessive veiling, and that Islām does not grant them their human rights.
What concerns the Western film industry, after having indulged in films of exotic Orientalism in the past, Hollywood, too, shifted into Islamophobia when it produced movies like "The Siege", released in November 1998. This film depicts Arabs and Muslims as monsters and terrorists who are said that "they are out to destroy our (the West's) way of life." (12)
3. The Problems of Muslim Minority women in Europe and North America
When male Muslim immigrants to the highly developed industrial countries of Western Europe became indispensable for the economies of their host countries, they were allowed to settle and bring their families. Thus, the myth of the immigrants' return to their countries of origin had dissipated and they found themselves living in multicultural and religiously diverse societies, a reality that caused various problems for them.
Often mainstream societies did not accept Muslim immigrants and refused to let them settle. Moreover, the immigrants' religious identity seemed to be endangered, and Muslim parents started to fear that their children might be drawn away from religion. Although this was often the case with the second generation of Muslim immigrants, nowadays, young people of the third generation have recovered their identity in the Islāmic religion. The reason for this phenomenon can be found in the growing racism and rejection many Muslim immigrants in Western countries have to face, and that mitigates against their sense of being or becoming French, British, or German.
Regarding Muslim minority women, they moreover are confronted with special problems, which are, in many cases, related to their outer appearance. It cannot be denied that those who wear hijāb are often discriminated against in schools, the working place, and in public. As mentioned above, in France, Muslim schoolgirls were excluded from their classes in 1989 for this reason.
In February 2002, the Spanish minister of education declared that she was willing to prohibit any kind of clothing that could lead to racial discrimination in public. According to her, the immigrants' children should adapt to the customs and traditions of Spanish society. Soon after, the opposition Socialist Party declared its support of the minister's opinion. (13)
As regards Germany, female Muslim students at public schools are allowed to wear headscarves, but female Muslim teachers are facing difficulties with the Federal ministries of education. After having finished school, most of hijāh wearing girls cannot find jobs since they are discriminated against in the labour market. However foreign women with headscarves have always been found in the lowest positions such as unskilled workers or cleaners.
From a Western perspective, headscarves and veils are seen as symbols of the alleged suppression of women in Islām, and it's extremely difficult to believe that women could cover themselves voluntarily in order to fulfill religious prescriptions.
Similar experiences of discrimination have been reported by Muslim women in North America:
"Featured throughout an entire issue of Islāmic International" (Vol. 2, No. 7) (January 1994) was the topic, "Many of the women described the discrimination that occurred in the workplace when interviewing for jobs. Some had difficulty dealing with the jeers and name-calling experienced in various public places. One stated that she feels that non- Muslim women are more offended by the head- cover than the non- Muslim men." (14)
Another serious problem for Muslim minority women is the type of schooling their children receive in Western secular and co- educative public school systems. Following their traditions, many Muslim parents do not allow their daughters to participate in mixed sports and swimming classes or in school excursions if they have to stay overnight. As for the Federal Republic of Germany for example, the Federal Administrative Court ruled in 1993 that Muslim girls may not be forced to attend co-educational sports lessons. (15)
On the other hand, however, in many European countries, Muslim private schools have been established, and the same is the case in North America. In the USA, the possibility of home schooling is another alternative for Muslim children.
There can be no doubt that in many cases, the Muslim minority women have to face a double isolation: they no longer receive the traditional support of her extended family,: neighbors and other Women which she and her mother were enjoying in their country of origin. At the same time, a Muslim woman is isolated in her new home as a housewife and in public as a veiled women who is rejected by mainstream society. Moreover, often a lack of knowledge of the host country's language constitutes another reason for her isolation. Living in one of the "new ghettos" where foreign immigrants are concentrating, the Muslim minority woman often does not have any occasion to meet women of mainstream society. It addition, some ethnic traditions which immigrants have brought with them, may confine women to their house, denying them their rights granted by Islām.
4. Towards the Improvement of the Muslim Woman's Image
It is important to note that the Muslim woman's negative image in the West cannot be improved without enhancing the image of all Muslims, men and women. But in so doing, there remain a few questions:
Is it possible to create a more positive image of the Muslims and to reverse the negative shift it has undergone since 11 September?
What sort of image should be projected and how could this be realized?
Even if the hope of presenting a more positive image is limited, no efforts should be spared to break down the biased stereotypes of Muslims that have been spread all over the West. Especially the alleged connection between Islām and terrorism, which has been established by Western media, is to be disrupted.
In this context it should be stressed that: "Extremism and intolerance are not stipulated by religion but, on the contrary, they result from an erroneous or incomplete conceptualization of Islām. The Prophet (PBUH) has noted that the extremist may become irreligious as a result of the incorrect interpretations and readings of his religion As for the allegation of terrorism, which has become attached to Muslims, is drawn on the basis of the actions of very few individuals or groups which hide behind the mask of religion... Suffice is here to remember what the Qur'ān says about this: "Whoever killed a human being, except as a punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind: and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as though he had saved all mankind." (5:32)
Islām is a religion of tolerance and peace. It urges its followers to practice peaceful coexistence and dialogue with other religions and cultures. Since the general Western public has remained ignorant of Islām, it is crucial to convey the message about how this religion educates Muslims to be the opposite of what their negative image alleges: the seemingly uncivilized behavior of some Muslims and the allegations that they all are violent, ignorant and unreasonable, are strongly rejected by Islām which enjoins on its followers to be peaceful, to search for knowledge and to use their reason.
Moreover, it is too little known in the West that Islām grants women all their human rights: the right to life, to freedom, security, education, inheritance and economic independence. Whenever it is repeated by Western media that the reality of Muslim women's lives is totally different from these ideals, it should be stated that unfortunately, in some Muslim communities, ancient ethnic traditions are taken for Islāmic prescriptions thus, depriving women of their Divine rights. For example, "a husband is not allowed to deprive a woman of her legitimate rights in life; .... If a few Muslims who stick to old customs or wrong habits do not abide by these Islāmic attitudes to women, that is certainly considered an ignorance of Islāmic ordinances and a misunderstanding of Islām's clear teachings." (17)
For this reason, it is equally important that Muslims exercise a reasonable kind of self- criticism and revise some of their thoughts and habits.
In order to exert influence on Western media and to correct the bad image of Muslims, it is necessary to adopt a new media strategy, which presents positive alternative images. Therefore, it would be of great advantage to establish an Arab satellite television channel which targets the West and broadcasts valuable programmes in European languages presented by native speakers.
Besides, in European and North American countries, Muslim lobbies are to be established that alert and answer back to whatever is written and said about Muslims. Lobbyists should try hard to get their points across, and Muslim women's organizations could have a leading part in this. Conferences, seminars, workshops and exhibitions on Islāmic topics as well as Muslim- Christian dialogue events should be conducted everywhere in the West which could lead to a positive coverage in the media. For this reason it is also necessary to train Muslim students in journalism and information technology.
While, the number of Western experts and Orientalists holding unbiased views on Islam is increasing, these people should be encouraged to make themselves heard in the media.
In addition, it is necessary to improve Western schoolbooks teaching wrong things about Islām or neglecting the importance of Islamic civilization and its influence on Europe.
Since Muslim minorities living in Europe and North America have to face increasing rejection by non- Muslim societies after 11 September 2001, the predicament of Muslim minority women is even more difficult, because Muslim women are "the minority's minority" (18), suffering from the consequences of the Muslims' negative image in general, and from the biased stereotypes of Muslim women in particular, as well as from their marginalization as foreign women.
As the responsibility of Western mass media for partly forming and spreading these stereotypes cannot be denied, it is necessary to attempt to propagate a more positive image through the same media, showing the essence of the Islamic religion.
However, the difficult question remains: how to achieve this goal. The task of individually and collectively enhancing the image of Muslim women and men in the West, and by so doing, to improve their living conditions, is of vital importance to the future relations between the Muslim and the Western civilizations which are bound to coexist in peace.
1- The special definition of the term "Orientalism" coined by Edward Said in 1978, cannot be discussed in the limited frame of this paper. For the Muslim woman's image in European Mediaeval, Renaissance and romantic texts see: Kahf, Mohja, Western Representation of the Muslim Woman. From Termagant to Odalisque. Univ. of Texas Press, Austin 1999.
2- Akashe- B?hme, Farideh, Die islamische Frau ist anders. Vorurteile und Realit?ten. Gütersloh 1997, p.15.
3- Pinn, Irmgard / Wehner, Marlis, EuroPhantasien. Die islamische Frau aus westlicher Sicht. Duisburger Institut fur Spreach- und Sozialforschung, Duisburg 1995, p.6.
4- Mutazawija min al- Qa'ida. Newsweek, Arabic Edition, 15 Jan. 2002.
5- Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (JMMA), Vol.19, No 1, April 1999, p.35 and notes 17-18.
6- Taylor, Pamela, vive la Hijab? Islamic Horizons, Marchi April 1990, p.25.
7- E.g. Bassam Tibi (Syria / Germany), Fatema Mernissi (Morocco), Nawal El-Saadawi (Egypt) and Taslima Nasrin (Bangladesh).
8- Pinn, Irmgard, Iranerinnen und der fran in der "Schleierliteratur". Speaktrum fran, Vol. 3/4, 1996, p.33 and note 1.
9- Ibid., note 3. A similar story but of an Iranian woman who escapes with her son) is" Azadi, Sousan, Out of Iran. Tornoto 1987.
10- Boston, New York, Toronto, London 1994.
11- E.g. Shakib, Siba, Nach Afghanistan kommt Gott nur noch zum Weinen. Die Geschichte der Shirin- Gol. Munich 2001.
Ellis, Deborah, Die Sonne im Gesicht. Vienna 2001. Latifa, My Stolen Face. A young Woman's Account of Life under the Taliban Regime, 2002.
12- Atia, Tarek, Bruce Willis versus Bin Laden. Al-Ahram Weekly, 5-11 Nov.1998.
13- Al-Ahram Newspaper, 17 February 2002.
14- Anway, Carol L., Daughters of Another Path. Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam. Yawna Publications, Lee's Summit, MO, USA, 1996 , p.76.
15- Bednarz, Dieter, Allah- Mania. Spiegel Special (R?tsel Islam), No 1, 1998, p. 112.
See also: Spuler-Stegemann, Ursula, Muslime in Deutschland, Nebeneinander oder Miteinander. Freiburg 1998, p.202 and note 226.
For more details see: Rohe, Mathias, Der Islam- Alltagskonflikte und L?sungen. Rechtliche Perspektiven. February 2001, pp.152-153.
16- Shalabi, Ahmed et al., Islam between Truth and False Allegations. A Response to the False Allegations Against Islam. Publications of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ISESCO. Rabat 1420 H 1999, pp.84-85
17- Ibid. p.56.
18- Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol.16, No 1, Jan.1996, p. 129.