Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Rahim
My experience as a Muslim woman
By Nafisah Romero
“Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.”
From the last sermon of Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of Allah be upon him)
Lately there has been an insurmountable focus in the media concerning the issue of Muslim women and human rights. During this process, one has seen the constant portrayal of Muslim women swathed in black veils or blue burqas, this being the media’s attempt to constantly remind us that there is inequality of the sexes in the Muslim world and by extension Islamic teachings, as well as to affirm that Muslim women are in fact oppressed and mistreated. In addition, considerable attention has been given to several practices, which can be considered more cultural than religious in Muslim countries or countries governed by the Shari’ah such as female genital mutilation, honor killings, forced marriages, denial of the right to education and so on. However, firstly, it is important to point out the fact that while the occurrence of these practices regarding women is very much real, it is not limited to only the Muslim sector of the population but is likewise practised by all members belonging to these societies regardless of religion. Hence, for any person willing to understand Islam objectively, one must first make the distinction between religion and the cultural norms of a society. Secondly, one has to take into consideration the bias nature of the media and its tendency to emphasize on what convenes them, as well as their role as the main proponents of generalizations and stereotypes regarding one’s race, cultural practices, religion, social status, etc. Finally and interestingly enough, in some cases, it is the Muslims themselves who reproduce the concept that women are oppressed in Islam, particularly those who consider themselves “liberal, reformist, secular” Muslims who believe that the Shari’ah oppresses women, equate the hijab with oppression and model their governments and political thoughts after non-Islamic sources and ideologies such as capitalism, socialism and feminism. Therefore, naturally, it is to these Muslims that the media turns when it wants a “Muslim” perspective on “Muslim” issues. In addition, there have been misinterpretations and lack of comprehension of Islamic concepts and principles in Muslim communities, as well as their blatant refusal to adopt the culture that Islam has already outlined for them due to Islam not being merely a religion, but a way of life. Furthermore, the silence of those who profess adherence to the “Qur’an and Sunnah” when asked about situations where Muslim women are oppressed contribute to the general ideology that Islam oppresses women.
In my experience as a Muslim woman, I admit that there have been challenges, but I can still wholeheartedly proclaim that I have never been oppressed or mistreated in any form or fashion by the men in my family or the men in the Muslim community. I am from the Caribbean twin islands known as Trinidad and Tobago, which is essentially a non-Muslim society but contains a considerable percentage of Muslims and where members of each religion are allowed to practise their beliefs freely and in tranquility. In the family setting, I am always encouraged to strive to be the best person that I can be spiritually, morally, intellectually, physically, socially, etc. From an early age, my father has always pushed me where education (both secular and Islamic) is concerned and has supported me in all my projects and endeavours. There has never been a case in my household where solely the male members receive education and the female members are denied this right. This is largely because in Islam, after faith, which ensures the spiritual and moral development of man, knowledge is the most important as it brings about his/her intellectual development. Among the first instructions given to the Prophet, Muhammad (s.a.w) was “Read” and evidently, the main means of seeking knowledge is through reading. In addition, there is no evidence in Islam to support the prohibition with respect to the woman seeking knowledge as even in the time of the Prophet (s.a.w), he arranged for the education of women. Moreover, the many verses in the Qur’an that speak about the importance of knowledge do not address only the men but all of humanity. Hence, neither my sisters nor I are discouraged from attaining education as our family strives to adhere to this principle.
In addition, I believe that my father, despite him being the leader and sole breadwinner of the household, he holds us women in high regard, respects and values greatly our opinions, sentiments and inputs with respect to various issues especially those relating to the family. Every month, we have a family meeting in which we discuss our concerns, our goals and generally, what we would like to achieve as a Muslim family. He also involves us when he has to make important decisions concerning his business establishment. Hence, it is not a setting where the man simply dictates and the women submit and live in fear of expressing their views. Chores in and around the house are shared between male and female members of the household, therefore, it is not only the women who endure the most of this burden. In addition, in my household, preserving one’s chastity is not solely a woman’s issue, but the men are also encouraged to live a moral life in accordance with Islam. Hence, it is not uniquely the woman’s responsibility to upkeep the family’s honor.
I also play a very active role in my father’s business establishment as I help with the planning and paperwork as well as I attend to the clientele when I am present in the store. My father has always encouraged me to participate as much as possible in the business and sees me as a great asset to the business.
In the past, my father or other male relatives have never forced me into accepting marriage proposals or marrying against my will and now, at the age of 22, I am still not being forced. Instead, my father urges me to take my time and be careful in making any decisions relating to marriage. With respect to the wearing of the hijab, there is a common misconception that young women are forced to wear it by their parents or male family members. On the contrary, I understood it as a command directed to the woman by the Creator and a blessing to help women efficiently guard their modesty. In addition, I believe that when a woman is covered, men cannot judge her merely by her appearance but are urged to evaluate her by her personality, character and morals. Furthermore, as a Muslim woman wearing hijab, I receive a lot of respect from men, so much so that there was a time when I was walking down the street, these two men were having a conversation and then one of them started cursing. As I passed by, I overheard the other man telling the person who was cursing to stop and to have respect for the Muslim woman.
The challenges that I have faced as a Muslim woman are not due to me being oppressed or mistreated but discriminated by words or by the actions of some non-Muslim individuals. There was an incident where I got in a St. James taxi to go to the Oval to purchase tickets for a cricket match. There was a passenger in the front seat and I was the only passenger seated in the back. On the way to the Oval, the driver stopped to take up another passenger, a non-Muslim woman. She opened the door, got in the car and as she saw me, she came back out and said that she does not like to sit next to Muslim people and then she closed the door. I was astonished but I believe that the driver and the passenger in the front seat were more in a state of shock than I was!
In conclusion, I would like to stress that Islam does not oppress women; it is simply a case of individuals with the wrong understanding and concept of Islam and who give preference to their culture or the desire to maintain appearances. Islam has in fact elevated the status of women and has contributed towards the restoration of woman’s dignity and rights. Among these rights afforded to women through Islam are the rights to inheritance, to access knowledge and, to divorce. In addition, the Qur’an addresses all of humanity and for the most part does not differentiate between male and female as it says that the man and woman “were created from a single soul” (4:1) and are moral equals in the sight of Allah. Men and women are under the same obligations and rules of conduct with a few exceptions such as those relating to dress and those that are specific to women like menstruation and pregnancy. In Islam, the men are encouraged to treat women with kindness and respect as the Prophet (s.a.w) says, “The best of you is he who is the best to his family” and the Qur’an states, “…But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good.” (Qur’an 4: l9). I am testimony to the fact that the generalization made about all Muslim women being oppressed is entirely false. However, it is imperative that we Muslims make a more concerted effort towards clearing up misconceptions about women in Islam starting with those who brutalize and oppress women while fallaciously claiming their adherence to the Qur’an and the Sunnah.