Holly is a 3rd year student at ANU majoring in Anthropology, she is passionate about cultural diversity and inclusion and raising awareness about mental health and well-being. In the future she hopes to research Australian attitudes towards minority groups and promote a greater understanding and tolerance for ethnic or religious minorities.
As a white Australian convert to Islam, I have been told many times by other women that they are sad or heartbroken for me, and that by becoming Muslim, I have given up my rights as a woman and my belief in feminism. Unfortunately, a strong misconception about Muslim women exists in the mind of many, causing millions of Muslim women all over the world to be perceived as oppressed, lacking autonomy, or forced into dressing or acting a certain way.
Many people who subscribe to Western feminism assume that women who practice womanhood in a different way to them are oppressed or need liberating. Although in theory ‘liberating’ ‘others’ can seem like a positive, uplifting or empowering project, we may not realise that in doing so we are actually upholding an ethno-centric and racist ideology – where the acceptable expression of womanhood is exclusive to one cultural understanding of what it means to be woman.
We need to realise that there is no one correct or acceptable way of existing as a woman, and that there is no superior cultural understanding of what a woman is.
Contrary to what is often perceived or conveyed through the media, in Islam, women are highly respected and valued, and maintain a respected and important status within society. In fact, Islamic feminism actually began over a thousand years before Western feminism was even conceptualised. Islamic feminism is a very large and complex topic but InshaAllah (God willing) I will be able to present some basic aspects of women’s rights in Islam.
It was narrated in a Sahih Hadith – an Authentic Saying of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him – by Abu Huraira:
A man came to Allah’s Apostle and said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Who is more entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man said. ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man further said, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked for the fourth time, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your father.’
Before the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the society in which he lived, women were looked down upon as secondary to men, and female babies were often buried alive in the desert because the families were shamed that they had not produced a son. On the contrary, daughters are looked upon as a blessing in Islam and there are many Hadith which describe daughters as parents’ pathways to Heaven and shields from the Hellfire. In the Holy Quran in Surah An-Nahl (Chapter of The Bees), verses 58 and 59 deal directly with and forbid the sexism and infanticide which was occurring in pre-Islamic society.
Furthermore, there are many places in the Holy Quran where men and women are decreed equals in the sight of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (God who is the most glorified the most high). Although in Islam, men and women are conceived as essentially or biologically different and as having different needs and responsibilities, everyone – no matter their sex, gender, race or ethnicity – is regarded as an equal in the sight of God, and the only thing that differentiates people in status, is their righteousness or deeds.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah (God) is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah (God) is Knowing and Acquainted. The Holy Quran [49: 13]
Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do. The Holy Quran [16:97]
Within Islamic feminism there are very clear rules and restrictions set out to ensure women’s rights and safety in all aspects of life. Islam was one of the first movements to give women inheritance rights and legal rights within marriage. It is not permitted for women to change their names after marriage, in order to symbolise that they are not commodities that can be sold or traded in transactions from father to husband. A marriage cannot take place unless both individuals consent to it – in Islam no person, whether male or female, is allowed to be forced into marriage. Divorce is also permissible, to ensure that if either partner is unhappy or being mistreated that they have the freedom to leave and be protected from any abusive behaviour or relationships.
The use of the hijab and other body-covering remains a controversial point for many in the West, however, for Muslim women it is actually a form of empowerment and protection of their rights as women. The hijab sends a very clear message that a woman’s worth is not defined by her body and that a woman should not feel pressured to look attractive, beautiful or pretty, or require a certain type of body.
In Islam, a woman’s worth is based upon her morality, her good deeds, her behaviour, her speech and her intellect. The hijab privatises a woman’s sexuality and sends a clear message that a woman has complete control and ownership over her own body. It indicates that she is not an object which others can criticise or comment on. In other words, it is the beauty on the inside and not the outside, that defines a person. This standard also applies equally to men.
The hijab, therefore, is not an oppression forced upon women, but rather a tool of empowerment which gives women back the ownership over their bodies. For me, as a Muslim woman, wearing the hijab or covering my body is actually a very powerful form of feminism.
As a convert to Islam myself I empathise with how it can be hard to understand a way of life which can seem so different to ours. The most important point for me, however, is that feminism does not have one exclusive form and that there are many ways in which women can feel empowered. The more we can challenge and break down the misconceptions which can be perpetuated by Western feminism, the more we can acknowledge, respect and empower all women regardless of their race, colour, ethnicity or cultural background.