Because we knew it all. After having read a few pamphlets, and heard a few inspiring (and carefully vague) talks on “the status of woman in Islam” (as such talks were often entitled back in the early ’80’s).
Let me back up a bit here. Several weeks ago, I received a comment that weirded me out because it could have been written by me years ago.
It was a rather unnerving experience, but also an instructive one.
“I am a convert, who recently moved from Western Europe to Egypt. I hear all the time that women are oppressed here and controled by men. I however don’t see this in my daily life here. Women work, they are doctors, lawyers, scientists, pharmacists etc.
I also dont know any hadeeth that are demeaning to women, actually i know many that show that men should treat women well.
As always, one must differentiate between tradition and religion. The traditions are stuck to cultures, the religion is what the religious books (bible, quran) say. traditions can change as the people change, religion, like God is constant.
I am sure that every man who abuses a woman, inside himself he knows that what he is doing is wrong, he is just too selfish to stop. All persons (with a few exceptions) are born with the knowledge or intuition of what is right and wrong.
What are the parts of quran or the trusted hadeeth that are demeaning to women according to you all???”
Yes, well. That does pretty much summarize my initial response to the situation faced by Muslim women in the various Muslim countries that I ended up in years ago: Like, wow! They’re not all locked up at home! They have access to higher education! They work at professional jobs! Take that, western media! And man—the feminists from those countries are sell-outs. I mean, here they are complaining about all the problems that women have, but it clearly isn’t all that bad.
Because my initial impressions, as a newcomer, were of course far more accurate than those of feminist activists who had been born and raised there.
And this comment also summarizes my initial response to any suggestion that any hadiths are degrading to women. Of course the authentic hadith couldn’t possibly be degrading. If a hadith was degrading, then it must not be authentic. (What a circular argument—but I didn’t notice that at the time.)
And of course, any oppressive practice must be due to “culture” and not “religion.” As if anyone anywhere is ever culture-free, much less able to interpret the Qur’an, the Hadith or fiqh while standing beyond culture.
Thing is, I never thought to ask questions that went beyond surface appearances. Questions such as: What is oppression, exactly? What is male control? What circumstances and conditions enable girls and women to resist oppression? To gain autonomy? Is it possible for someone to be highly privileged in one or more aspects of their life, and at the same time be significantly limited in other ways, to the extent that they could be said to be oppressed?? Does the law here compel parents to send their daughters as well as their sons to school? If so, for how many years? Is the law enforced? Do girls receive an equal education, or do they often have to make do with substandard facilities and teachers? What sorts of choices can girls and women make about their lives, their bodies, their futures?
We thought we knew it all because we had been educated to think so. Growing up in white, small-town ’70’s North America, our education simply assumed that “our ways” were the best and most self-evidently rational ways. Period.
Converting to Islam didn’t magically erase our ethnocentrism. Our certainty that white, North American middle-class ways were self-evidently the best had been turned upside down, but our reflexive and unexamined impulse to pass judgment on everything, even when we knew next to nothing about it was still quite intact. Reinforced by the apologetic Islamist pamphlets that we read and talks that we heard.
And we were young and idealistic. We didn’t have that much patience for nuance, for complexity, or for human frailty. We wanted straightforward answers.
And so, we didn’t see the intrinsically patriarchal nature of a statement such as “I know many [hadith] that say treat women well.” It did not occur to us to think that the men who were equating hadiths calling upon men to be kind to their wives or daughters, or to honor their mothers with some sort of liberation for women or protection of their rights were in fact based on the assumption that males have power, while females are in the end dependent. “Good” women could hope to be put on pedestals at the discretion of the males in their lives.
We had been told—and we were eager to believe—that Islam (as interpreted by conservatives) could build a god-fearing society, in which everyone had their just rights. Presumably, the reason why women didn’t have their rights in our own conservative Muslim communities in North America was because we were a geographically dispersed minority. We seized on the few role-models of career women or politicians or political activists in hijab in Muslim countries that we had access to in those pre-internet days.
It was all about us, really… which is another post.