Dangers of claiming that Muslim women are not oppressed

The place is New York. The date is November 10, 2008. Thousands of women, and men, have come to attend the Glamour Women of the Year awards. There are tall women and slim women. There are powerful women and women in Gucci gowns. Amongst the 10 recipients are powerful names like Hillary Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Condoleezza Rice.

And then there is one recipient who wears plain clothes and doesn’t speak English. She is the 10-year old Yemeni, Nojoud Ali. At 10 years of age she has already been beaten and raped by her husband, and divorced.

Nojoud was eight years old when she was married off by her father to a man in his 30s. Now Nojoud’s father claims that the man “was a criminal, a criminal. He did hateful things to her. He didn’t keep his promise to me that he wouldn’t go near her until she was 20”.

Nujood got her divorce, but based on the principles of Islamic Sharia law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200. The human rights lawyer who represented her donated the money. (Source)

We all know Nojoud. A determined little spirit who went against her people’s century old custom of child marriages to older men and boldly told a judge that she wanted divorce from a man who beat her and raped her. In her own words the man “insulted [her]”.

Watching the news item on CNN two years ago the only word that stuck out to me and yelled louder than any word can possibly yell was “ He insulted me”.

I don’t believe in comparing Muslim women with non-Muslim women. I don’t want to talk about rights Islam has or has not given women. Women are abused and oppressed in every society, in every country. And that does not exclude the Muslim world. The problem is that only the voice of the Muslim women who are not oppressed is heard.

A woman lawyer and a humanist judge took notice and helped Nojoud get divorce from her husband but according to her cultural laws she had to pay a literal price to get divorce. Yet we still like to claim that Muslim societies are not oppressing women. Is it not oppression that a man with two wives and 16 children sells his daughter to a man three times her age because he can’t afford so many children? Is it not oppression that the man the child is married to rapes her and beats her? Is it not oppression that the child herself recognizes that she was insulted? Is it not oppression that the woman who gave birth to this battered but self-respecting child does not speak even once on CNN’s report? Is it not oppression that we see this mother only as a slit in a black shroud in one scene?

How can you be “married off” when Islam as the most modern religion gives women the complete right to accept or refuse a proposal? Yet, young girls are “married off” everyday, sometimes when they are not even old enough to know what is happening.

They are oppressed even in the fast-developing Arab countries because while their men can marry anyone they like from any country they like, these women can only marry men from their country. And if they defy the traditions, customs, and state laws and go on to marry a man from another country, they are stripped of all legal rights and of their nationality. They cannot inherit or own any land, business or property in their country. Is it not oppression?

There are many Nojouds who are bearing the heavy weight of their much older husbands. There are Nojouds who are beaten and raped. Despite being given the right by religion, there are Muslim women who are not allowed to marry whom they like. They are not allowed to wear what they want, work or study. There are Muslim women who are insulted everyday. And most don’t even know it because we refuse to acknowledge their oppression.

The danger is when we refuse to accept that Muslim women are oppressed because we fear that we will belittle Islam, although such oppression has nothing to do with Islamic doctrines. Thus, we only help to perpetuate oppression. We empower abusive men and women by claiming that all is perfectly fine in the lives of Muslim women. There would have been no need for Muslim Feminism if Muslim women were enjoying full rights given by Islam and were not subjugated by their society. This is where the job of the Muslim feminist starts. A Muslim feminist does not belittle Islam, s/he only tries to show what Islam promised and society denied.


26 thoughts on “Dangers of claiming that Muslim women are not oppressed

  1. I agree but its hard to know what to say when western feminists blame Islam

    • almostclever says:

      The truth, Riven! Speak the truth. Just because *some* western feminists blame Islam does not mean we cover the whole thing and deny all wrongs done “in the name of religion.” Honesty is an amazing thing, so is education of the ignorant. It might suck and we may resent it, but Muslims carry that burden of educating those who don’t “get it.”

  2. Siamese Twin says:

    Sigh, who will hear the timid lamb’s bleating, the wolves are hungry and howl louder.
    You are articulate and passionate. If even a quarter of the muslim population can feel like you do, there can a change for the better.

    • almostclever says:

      The timid lamb??? Ha! I don’t see girls/women representing that in any stories I have heard, especially this one! Nujoud is a lion roaring. The problem is she is a caged lion, or she was….That whole victim mentality bullshit will be the death of us. We are survivors, and we are fighting an uphill battle – are you in or are you out? There is no time for feeling like we are victims. This is what we need to be teaching our girls!

      Giving girls their power back starts with us. Musfem your example is exactly the role I see for Muslim feminists. It is about social justice for women. Changes in tribal country where nujoud is from have to be grassroots, it has to come from within. In walks Muslim feminism.

      • Metis says:

        “Giving girls their power back starts with us.” Where is the Like button? 🙂

      • Siamese Twin says:

        With all due respect ‘almost clever’, your reply ‘almost’ borders on being rude and offensive. I have an affinity for poetic expression. If you cannot get it, at least read the rest of my comment before hurling insults at me. I have specifically commended Metis for being ‘articulate’ and ‘passionate’. Adjectives I would not have used if I didn’t agree with her. The very title of the article suggests that women are oppressed, henceforth ‘victims’ of oppression!! Quite frankly, there is nothing abhorrent about the word victim, most of the humans in this world are victims of some kind of oppression. Only thing abhorrent here is how one responds to it! I personally think you are equating self pity with being a victim. Now that is a sentiment I find abhorrent too. It is the Self piteous ‘mentality bullshit which will be the death of us’. And what is so wrong with use of the word ‘Timid’ since most young girls are naturally so? Now before you run away with this statement and roar indignantly in fury again, hear this, I WAS ONE OF THEM!!! Now go on and shame me for being such a girl herself and who almost got raped when she was 8 because of her natural timidness. Something which is used and abused all over the world. Hence my reference to howling wolves who drown us out! Nujoud’s courage is so so amazing and I have the utmost admiration for her, but even you know she is an exception. I was saved because my mother was that ‘lion roaring’, not me. At least not then 😛
        And what is up with this whole ‘are you in or are you out’ thingy? I mean seriously, you sound like President Bush for crying out loud! You think every story has only two sides to it and you can just flip a coin and make a decision? Geez!
        You know, the saddest bit in all of this is, I actually agree with you. If only you were a tad bit less condescending! Sigh…

    • Metis says:

      Siamese Twin, welcome to Metis and thank you for your comment!

      “You are articulate and passionate. If even a quarter of the muslim population can feel like you do, there can a change for the better.” – I was very passionate at one time and have lost that spark somehow. My greatest dissatisfaction was because of other women who thought I was doing a disservice to Islam by speaking up against oppression.

      • almostclever says:

        Siamese Twin,

        “Now before you run away with this statement and roar indignantly in fury again, ”

        I like how you paint it 🙂

        I am a Wolf, I howl at the world, you’ll have to excuse me….

        • Siamese Twin says:

          You are 🙂 And please excuse me if I crossed the line too. I am a bit of a hot head. I’ve been to your blog (no I was not stalking!) and you are pretty cool. If it is ok, can I comment sometime there as well. I promise I will not mention lambs! (looking up with pleading puppy eyes =P)

          • almostclever says:

            LOL, Siamese Twin I am horrible, I am just now seeing your comment – and I would LOVE if you came and paid me a visit 🙂 🙂

      • Siamese Twin says:

        Its my pleasure to be here.
        Are you trying to tell me that this is you when watered down? I’d love to see that raging fire storm that you were! I think you still have a good spark =) just don’t let others get to you.

  3. stephanie says:

    Next time a non muslim woman who fought similarly against injustices done to her, and a muslim woman of hillary clinton’s status, should be awarded. this is to give a message that women are not ONLY oppressed in muslim societies but the world over. there are nojouds all over the world. remove the religion tag and please try to spread farther than what is very contirite i.e ‘trying to spread awareness about opressed muslim women’. giving it a garb of religion is to cage a monster. a monster that is not limited by religion itself but is made out to be doing so because we want it to be doing so. non muslim oppressed women who have fought on valiantly deserve these awards too, wouldnt you think?

    • Metis says:

      Thanks for your comment Stephanie. I understand what you are saying and I feel that anyone with good intentions for women would say that. I think secular feminists are doing a lot for women globally. And why should we forget or neglect the oppression of women who are not Muslim?! However, I feel that the case with Muslim women is slightly different.

      I may be wrong in my observation, but what I have observed is that there are people who don’t believe in Islamic Feminism. Furthermore, such people don’t want Muslim or secular feminists to point out the abuse that Muslim women go through. My study is based on the importance of the work of Muslim feminists so obviously I am more interested in publicising MFs and their work rather than the efforts of secular feminists, for example. I have been told more than once that Islam and Muslims don’t need Islamic feminism or Muslim feminists. Yet, whenever women are oppressed in Muslim societies and anyone speaks out against that oppression, Islamic doctrines are twisted to show that it is not oppression at all. That is “contrite.” Well, yes “there are Nojouds all over the world” but my study is based on what Muslim feminists are doing for the *Muslim* Nojouds. When Yemen (Nojoud’s country) temporarily banned child marriage, it was women – Muslim women – who protested against the ban calling the ban unIslamic. When you abuse women in the name of religion there will be co-religionists who will stand up and correct you. Muslim feminists put things into their correct perspective – they show that oppression is unIslamic not the correction of that oppression.

      Sad that Nojoud was given an award by a foreign society while in her own culture she was asked to pay $200 to get rid of her rapist husband. I would definitely like to see “non muslim oppressed women who have fought on valiantly” being given awards too – preferably by a Muslim society.

  4. Lat says:

    Great article,Metis!
    “The problem is that only the voice of the Muslim women who are not oppressed is heard.”

    Do you think part of the problem lies with these (some) Muslim women who fear losing their status,comfort zone or even their faith in pointing out the oppressions done to other Muslim women? If it is,just like how the famous phrase says,women are enemies of another,how can we try to convince them about these oppressions if they don’t even think that it is? I don’t think they are ready to hear what MF want to say or even a scholar’s view like Khalid.It’s really depressing to sometimes hear them say,’we have to be careful about such views…blah blah blah…That’s why I’ve stopped talking to them about religion 😦

    • Metis says:

      Lat, I agree with you, it is depressing!

      “Do you think part of the problem lies with these (some) Muslim women who fear losing their status,comfort zone or even their faith in pointing out the oppressions done to other Muslim women?”

      I think many people equate Muslims with Islam and so when some Muslims act wrongly others think it will show Islam in a bad light so it would be better not to talk about such things and brush them under the carpet. Every time anyone talks about abuse of a Muslim women someone will stand up and say oh it happens everywhere so why mention it. That is not how problems are resolved. That is hypocrisy and cowardice. It is much harder to stand up against oppression and say no you are misusing my religion. I see MFs doing the latter which is why I respect them.

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  6. Standing ovation. As always, I bow to you.

  7. hana riaz says:

    fact of the matter is these women aren’t just muslims… they are also a cultural other and this cultural other (that forms their intersectional position of culture, class, race, gender, sexuality, ability etc) is what shapes or defines their gendered inequality. where it is statistically said 4/5 women face gendered violence it is pakistani, patriarchal culture that defines or determines this – NOT Islam.

    as a muslim woman who is many other things, nothing sickens me more than members of our ‘community’ or ‘ummah’ who are so busy trying to save face in attempts to not fall prey to western Orientalism of muslim ‘stereotypes’ that they are willing to be complicit.

    tips for those who are weary about speaking out against gendered violence in the muslim community, bring in the intersectional nature of one’s ‘identity’. these women are women, muslims, with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, shaped by their class and economic statuses as well as a multitude of many factors – patriarchy, sexism and gender violence that effects 1 in 3 women’s lives globally cannot be deduced to one causal factor (other than of course patriarchy as a global, ruling system that serves the interests of a male elite and a set of power relations locally and globally). so yes, it does effect muslim women the way it effects ALL women.

    great post – i’m so glad to see someone bring out the subtleties and complexities behind dealing with or acting against gendered violence, particularly for those Muslims living in the West who are often preoccupied with protecting our identities than fighting for justice on multiple, non-muslim levels.

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  9. Sya says:

    Another group that is also invisible in this debate are Muslim women who are oppressed, quite directly, through the workings of capitalism. Am talking about migrant domestic workers (:

    I did my thesis on Indonesian migrant domestic workers and while researching I found many examples of Muslim employers who oppress their workers in varying ways and degrees. This is also the oppression of Muslim women, but not necessarily only by men! It’s layers of power relations — gender and class.

    How do we start thinking about this in the framework of MF?

    Love your blog, Metis (:

    • Metis says:

      Sya, thanks so much for your comment and welcome to my humble blog.

      Oh I so understand what you mean by the migrant domestic workers. I think I did one post on them – let me check. OK, yes here it is (https://musfem.wordpress.com/2010/11/20/slaves-concubines-and-housemaids/). I live in the Middle East and I have personally witnessed the abuse of migrant workers. It is horrible.

      How do we start thinking about them? That’s a good question. Let me post it on my Facebook Page and I’ll get back to you.

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m grateful 🙂

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