Are Muslim Women Oppressed?

An exploration of the place of women in Islam


Britain has been in turmoil over veils in recent days, after a school in Yorkshire suspended a Muslim teacher's assistant for wearing "niqab"—a form of the traditional veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes. Further stoking the flames, House of Commons leader Jack Straw revealed that in meetings with constituents, he had asked niqab-wearing women to remove their veils for better face-to-face interaction.

The niqab controversy has focused on thorny questions of cultural integration and religious tolerance in Europe. However, it is also a debate about women and Islam.

For Westerners, the veil has long been a symbol of the oppression of women in the Islamic world. Today, quite a few Muslims regard it as a symbol of cultural and religious self-assertion and reject the idea that Muslim women are downtrodden. In our multicultural age, many liberals are reluctant to criticize the subjugation of women in Muslim countries and Muslim immigrant communities, fearful of promoting the notion of Western superiority. At the other extreme, some critics have used the plight of Muslim women to suggest that Islam is inherently evil and even to bash Muslims.

Recently, these tensions turned into a nasty academic controversy in the United States, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported. In June, Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-born professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, published an article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram attacking Azar Nafisi, Iranian émigré and author of the 2003 best seller "Reading Lolita In Tehran." Nafisi's memoir is a harsh portrait of life in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, focusing in particular on the mistreatment of women, who were stripped of their former rights and harshly punished for violating strict religious codes of dress and behavior.

Complaining that Nafisi's writings demonize Iran, Dabashi branded her a "native informer and colonial agent for American imperialism." In a subsequent interview, he compared her to Lynndie England, the US soldier convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

While Dabashi's rhetoric is extreme, it is not unique. Even in academic feminist groups on the Internet, criticisms of the patriarchal oppression of women in Muslim countries are often met with hostility unless accompanied by disclaimers that American women too are oppressed.

A more thoughtful examination of Islam and women's rights was offered earlier this month at a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The keynote speaker, Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan, an outspoken critic of Islam, described an "honor killing" of a young Middle Eastern woman that occurred with the help of her mother. In a later exchange, another participant, Libyan journalist Sawsan Hanish, argued that it was unfair to single out Muslim societies, since women suffer violence and sexual abuse in every society including the United States. Sultan pointed out a major difference: In many Muslim cultures, such violence and abuse are accepted and legalized.

Yet the symposium's moderator, scholar Michael Ledeen, rejected Sultan's assertion that Islam is irredeemably anti-woman. He noted that the idea that some religions cannot be reformed runs counter to the history of religions. Several panelists spoke of Muslim feminists' efforts to reform Islam and separate its spiritual message from the human patriarchal baggage. Some of these reformers look for a lost female-friendly legacy in early Islam; others argue that everything in the Koran that runs counter to the modern understanding of human rights and equality should be revised or rejected. These feminists have an uphill battle to fight, and they deserve all the support they can get.

Meanwhile, using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive practices is a grotesque perversion of liberalism. The veiling debate is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless. Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a sexual provocation to men. What's more, their choice helps legitimize a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who have no choice.

Perhaps, as some say, women are the key to Islam's modernization. The West cannot impose its own solutions from the outside—but, at the very least, it can honestly confront the problem.

Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor and the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood. This column appeared in the Boston Globe.