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«Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space: How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and Interact in the Workplace? by Siham Ouazzif Master of ...»

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Roald states that although this is not a strong hadith it can also be argued that its content contradicts the Islamic message that humans should only bow to Allah. Nevertheless, her experience in her fieldwork was that many Muslim women she had spoken to insisted that a wife’s obedience to her husband is essential (ibid; 173). Further it is in the hadith literature that one finds support for the belief that women’s primary role is connected to the domestic sphere. The Koran also states specifically that men are the providers economically for women and children. Accordingly many conservative jurists and scholars conclude that women’s lives should be limited to the domestic role entirely.

On the other hand, Amina Wadud has observed that in the Koran the social role of women is not specially stated and therefore one cannot conclude that the domestic role is primarily reserved for women simply because men have the obligation to be providers (ibid;179).

Siddique has argued that there is evidence in the hadith that women worked in the public sphere during the Prophet`s time and helped to maintain the economy with their husbands.

The Prophet himself supported a woman’s work as she could do good deeds from her economic activities (Siddique 1988; 81). Roald says that gender roles among Muslims stems from prevalent ideals in Islamic sources and that these again are closely connected to the time and situation of their composition. She says that when “circumstances change, attitudes are modified to fit the existing situation” (Roald 2001; 184). Muslims in this regard understand the texts from within a culture and are inevitably formed by it. It is interesting to note that although Muslim women through education participate in the work force in many Muslim and Western societies their strong position in the public sector is perceived by many conservative Muslim men as a threat, as they see this as un-Islamic.

2.4 Religious Texts and Misinterpretation Many Muslim feminists and writers have trained themselves to engage in the theological field and examine religious texts that have been used by conservative male scholars and the ruling elite in Muslim societies to legitimize women’s lower status with a scared stamp. The attempt to reassess what Islam says about women has never been as pressing or as prevalent amongst Muslim scholars, writers and academics as they are today. The accusation from both Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam is incompatible with women’s rights and that the Koran condones male superiority has forced a great focusing on this question. Additionally in the Western context Muslim women’s position has become a broadly debated issue, which has also contributed to a reassessment of what is Islamic and what is cultural. Muslim women are in a broad sense more engaged in assessing this challenge than ever before.

One prominent Muslim academic Asma Barlas investigates the role of women in Islam. In her book “Believing Women in Islam” Barlas examines the domain of religious texts, focusing on the hermeneutics and epistemology that has been applied by Muslims to understand the holy book, the Koran. She sets out by asking essential questions, and tries to solve the mystery of the assumed correlation between patriarchy and Islam. Her initial question is simple: “does Islam’s scripture, the Koran, teach or condone sexual inequality or oppression?” (Barlas 2001:1). This question refers to the image of God, whether God is represented as a male figure and whether women are perceived as the other that is weak and sinful. As a contrasting question she asks “Does the Koran permit and encourage liberation for women?” (ibid; 1).

Barlas argue that it is Muslims who are responsible for the misreading of the Koran and who have oppressed women on false religious grounds. Laila Ahmed also describes women’s situation to be a result of “fundamentally different Islam’s” that originate from different readings. Barlas shares this view and believes that there is a possibility to retrieve what Ahmed calls the “stubbornly egalitarian” voices of Islam and to utilize this approach as a legitimate defence against its authoritarian voices (Barlas 2002;2). Both Barlas and other Muslim writers urge women to engage in interpretation and re-examination of the texts that deal with women (Barlas 2002;3, Mernissi 1991;24). Several scholars within the discourse on Islam and women have concluded that inequality and discrimination stem as well from secondary religious texts, the tafsir (koranic exegesis), and the accumulated legal rulings rather than the Koran. (Barlas 2002; 3).

Further Barlas criticizes male readings of the script and hold them responsible for the misogynistic attitudes that dominate the sharia, where the legalization of sexual inequality is stated. She argues against this idea and says that “the description of Islam as a religious patriarchy that allegedly has “God on its side, confuses the Koran with a specific reading of it” (Barlas 2002; 4). In her view since the Koran is polysemic like any other text it can be understood in numerous ways. Too often the Koran has been “ripped from its historical, linguistic, literary and psychological context and then been continually reconstructed in various cultures and according to the ideological needs of various actors” (Barlas 2002;5).

Not only do we have to investigate who has read it but how they have defined the “epistemology and methodology of meaning” (ibid; 5).

The production of meaning of the Koran (for Muslims) is in the main reserved for Muslim interpretative communities. Barlas admits that her claim that the Koran is egalitarian and antipatriarchal is a difficult standpoint to prove. In the first instance the Koran prescribes different roles for men and women in “marriage, divorce which is perceived as a source of inequality evidence “(Barlas 2002; 5). On the other hand, Barlas also argues that prescribing different treatment to men and women does not necessarily translate as treating them unequally. On the other hand, it is clear enough that certain inequalities like polygyny and “wife beating” and the position ascribed to men as the “locus of power and authority” (Barlas 2002.6) are derived from the Koran. Barlas explains away these aspects by reference to the pre-Islamic traditions that inevitably have left their traces. Yet recognizing the “existence of a patriarchy is not the same as advocating it” (ibid; 6). This background has lead to a selective and uncritical reading of the Koran that has been historically reserved for men.

Anne Sofie Roald, a Norwegian writer who has converted to Islam, has conducted much research on women in Islam with a particular focus on the Western context. In her book “Women in Islam” she investigates the conflicting interpretations regarding women’s roles and status in Islam of various Islamist movements. Coming from a Norwegian background Roald is interested in how Muslims in the western context integrate and understand Islam. She argues that the encounter between Muslims and the West has forced Muslims to rethink certain attitudes towards women and re-examine the position of women in the Koran. On the other hand, it cannot simply be that the encounter between Islam and the West that should be held accountable for changing interpretations. Christianity too is conflicted about the role and status of women: for example there has been a bitter debate on female priests in Lutheran Christianity, with their barring from ordination perceived by many as discrimination against women. Similarly the Pauline order that declares women should keep quiet in congregations (1 Corinth. 14:34-5) has in Scandinavian countries been used as a supportive argument that no woman can be a spiritual leader of a Christian congregation (Roald 2001; 118). Despite this interpretation the rise of Christian feminist theology and hermeneutic approaches has meant that there is now a female priesthood in these countries. This is an example of how religious scripts are subject to interpretation and change by people. Roald argue that in Islam the tendency is similar: In some Muslim countries women are not allowed to work as judges because many scholars has confirmed that this job is not suitable for a woman’s nature. They legitimize this referring to the Koran’s teaching that women are only worth half a man on the witness stand (Minai 1981, 69).

Another andocentric interpretation within the Islamic context is how shura (consultation) has been interpreted as a solely political concept. However in the Koran the concept of shura is advised to be used in family matters as well. In the issue of whether the mother should breastfeed or not, the parent of the child are advised to take council (shura) in each other.

Roald argues that certain verses that indicate a power differential between men and women have been taken up and used more than other verses that talk about the marital relationship in mutual love and tenderness (Roald 2001;119). In brief it is important to note which verses are emphasized, what status they receive, and who agrees and points to their importance. These are the important questions one needs to address when asserting the position of women in Islam.

2.5 Feminism and Islam Muslim women, activists, writers and poets like women everywhere have advocated in different ways for women’s rights before the colonial West made it its duty to free them from patriarchal culture and above all from Islam. The first Muslim women who started advocating women’s rights and reinvestigating the foundations of Islam in order to achieve social change for Muslim women did so from many different political positions. What they had in common was the placing of women’s issues on the agenda.

This plurality continues in the present day. Today some Muslim feminists believe in social change for women and that that change can only be achieved through an Islamic framework.

Others reject this compatibility and argue that Islam has core aspects that are oppressive towards women. Different Muslim women have also approached this struggle for change with different objectives in mind. Some have strictly followed the traditional ideal of Muslim women’s role, where women’s place is firstly connected to the home. Others on the other hand argue through Islam that Muslim women ought to have the same opportunities as men and point to women’s emancipation during the Prophets time.

Although Muslim women’s writing had been mainly absent in the history books about Islam, since the end of the nineteen’s century Ottaman and Qajar women have contributed to this field, even if their voices did not receive the same publicity as other male reformers. However in recent times and somewhat ironically many Muslim Arab women’s writings have changed from a secular to a more religious discourse. As oriental women took up the fight for equality it was impossible for Muslim women to ignore what Western feminism had achieved for women’s social change. In her book “Women Claim Islam” Meriam Cooke analyzes different positions from which Arab women came to work from in their quest for change. She investigates how some Muslim women sought a voice through the appropriation of Islam, and how others manoeuvred the holy script to break the tradition that women were made only to serve God and her family. She identifies how many of the writers developed a unique ability to dissect the theological sources to support women’s emancipation in all domains. Some of these women reject the term “feminist”, while others act as feminists without labelling themselves thus. Finally others see the term as compatibility with their work through their production of a more liberal Islam.

Cooke argues that feminism embodies more than a culturally specific term (Cooke 2001; 3).

“Feminism is much more than an ideology driving organized political movement, it is an epistemology” (Cooke; preface). Feminism is about depicting injustice in the name of gender, a universal feminism that rejects any kind of patriarchal subjugation. Within the feminist debate regarding Muslim women it is the position and status of the woman that has been the main focus.

2.6 Conclusion Interpreting Islamic texts and making recommendations about human practice on the basic of them is a complex field that contains many minefields one cannot escape. In this field many crossroads present themselves as possible roads for understanding Islam’s prescribed ideals for women. However the identity and the role of women in Islam cannot be attributed to one category. Other factors such as culture and socio-economic background are influential in determining Muslim women’s position. In investigating the sacred sources it becomes clear that conflicting views in regard to women depend on what interpretation one applies. As Muslim women become more active in the scrutiny of texts, it seems that their struggle for equality can progress. It can be said that Muslim feminists are utilizing the oppressor’s tools as means to their goals, which is both diplomatic and politically strategic.

3. Working with the Hijab “Tell the believing women to Lower their gaze and be modest, And to display of their adornment Only that which is apparent, and to draw their Veils over their bosoms” The Koran, Chapter of the Light (Brooks, 1995:130) Women wearing the hijab have become a common enough sight in Australian cities today, and are understood as a widespread symbol of Islam in public space. In the multicultural city of Sydney, ‘hijabi’ women are becoming more visible at schools, universities, hospitals, and other workplaces within the public sector. As Australian non-Muslim and Muslims interact in various arenas in the public realm, challenges, misunderstandings but also bridge building strategies are created. The wearing of the hijab by many young Australian Muslim women in the public realm has evoked reactions both from supporters and opponents. Therefore it is crucial to scrutinize the dynamics involved in the intersections between the identity of Muslim women, the hijab and the broader public domain.

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