War on Women and Islam: Are Women Really Oppressed in Muslim Countries

To start with, the question is itself biased against Islam and Muslim societies. But even if one were to entertain that question for a minute, it doesn’t take too long to dispel the myth that Islam is misogynistic.

At the outset, one must make a distinction between Muslim societies and what Islam says about women. This can be quite at odds, as we will see. This goes to the root of Islam as a global religion, with interpretations and cultural norms defining how women (and men) are treated in each society. This has nothing to do per se, with the religion itself.  

While patriarchy and access to education remain contentious issues in the Muslim majority countries, it is not all black and white. There are millions of strong, independent women who are making a difference in their societies and contributing positively. It is not the simplistic bleak picture of women being oppressed. As an example, many Muslim majority countries have had heads of state that are women, in recent history: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Senegal.  

As Dr. John Esposito points out, "when it comes to popular Muslim attitudes about women's rights, the facts aren't always what one might expect. As the 2007 Gallup World Poll reveals, majorities of Muslims, some in the most conservative Muslim societies, support women's equal rights.”

The seminal work done by Gallup and headed by Dr. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, which resulted in a book, Who Speaks for Islam, has some insights, which are relevant to our discussion.

He further adds, "Saudi women own 70% of the savings in Saudi banks and own 61% of private firms in the Kingdom; they own much of the real estate in Riyadh and Jeddah, and can own and manage their own businesses, but they are sexually segregated, restricted to "appropriate" professions and cannot drive a car. In nearby Kuwait, women freely function in society and hold responsible positions in many areas, but until only a few years ago they could not vote.”

In the United Arab Emirates, where I lived for nearly two years, there are several female CEOs of multi-billion dollar firms. Women outnumber men in universities and this is true in most Arab countries.

The survey goes on to say, "both the causes of women's lack of empowerment and inequality and the winds of change can be seen in women's basic literacy and education. In Yemen women's literacy is only 28% vs. 70% for men; in Pakistan, it is 28% vs. 53% for men. Percentages of women pursuing post-secondary educations dip as low as 8% and 13% in Morocco and Pakistan respectively (comparable to 3.7% in Brazil, or 11% in the Czech Republic). In sharp contrast, women's literacy rates in Iran and Saudi Arabia are 70% and as high as 85% in Jordan and Malaysia. In education, significant percentages of women in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%) have post-secondary educations.”

Going to the history and roots of Shariah, it becomes clear that Islam championed women’s rights, even when there was no such notion. Let’s not forget that divorce is still a taboo in many societies, while Islam made it easy for a woman to divorce, in case her husband mistreated her – 1400 years ago, along with giving her property. Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija was a businesswoman, and is seen as a “model” of a woman. 

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Sabith Khan

Sabith Khan is a social entrepreneur, researcher and founder of MENASA, a think-tank and policy shop engaged in issues related to MENA and South Asia. Sabith has worked for several years in the field of strategic communications, public affairs and nonprofit management, trying to understand and communicate issues pertaining to civil society, development and youth in the US and MENA region. Sabith has worked with several large global public affairs firms, on award-winning campaigns in healthcare, entertainment and government relations. During his stint at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, he ideated and executed a global award-winning campaign for Apollo Hospitals (Abby and Clio Awards). He has also worked in the Middle East managing accounts as diverse as Dubai Film Festival, Mohammed bin Rashid Foundation, Dubai International Film Festival, Dubai School of Government. Most recently, he served as the Executive Director of Muslim Public Service Network in Washington D.C, an NGO that engages and inspires young American Muslims to do public service. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Planning Governance and Globalization at Virginia Tech. He has been involved as a team member and leader in several international development projects including consulting for the Near East Foundation, in helping set up their Monitoring and Evaluation system for their offices across the MENA region. Sabith has a Master of Public administration and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. In Summer 2013, he conducted research on American Muslim philanthropy at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, Indianapolis, in an attempt to map giving behavior among Muslims over the last ten years i.e., 2002- 2012. Sabith’s research interests include Religion and Philanthropy, Youth issues in USA, Middle East North Africa and South Asia, Governance and Civil Society. Sabith is also the co-editor of Millennials Speak: Essays on the 21st century, a snapshot of the ideas and opinions of the global Millennial Generation. Twenty writers from five continents, a diverse mix of young academics, policy professionals, and future thought and creative leaders, cover topics from the legacy of the Arab Spring, the global food system, the U.S. student loan crisis, youth unemployment, to popular culture. Currently working: Founder and Executive Director, MENASA Publications: 1. Humanitarian Aid and Faith-Based Giving: The Potential of Muslim Charity - Unrest Magazine, George Mason University. May 2013. Accessible at http://www.unrestmag.com/about-unrest/past-issues/#sthash.GEqNfv0U.dpuf 2. Arab American Diaspora and American Muslim Philanthropy: impact of crisis situations on mobilization and formation of a “community.” American University in Cairo Press. Cairo. (NP). Expected Fall 2013. 3. Middle-East Peace Talks 2010: Investigating the Role of Lobbying and Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C. as Spoilers. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Spring 2011. Accessible at : http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/parcc/Research/intrastate/Spoilers_of_Peace_Project/ Blog: www.sabithkhan.wordpress.com

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