Distorting Image of Muslim Women
Modern Europeans and Americans assume that Muslim women are invariable oppressed, it is by no means clear that Muslim women have always suffered from disadvantages in comparison with Christians or others. This is an instance in which very recent advances in Europe and America are somehow assumed to be an essential part of the West.
English women did not have full property rights until the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, yet under Islamic law, Muslim women have been guaranteed inheritance and property rights since the seventh century. English women were still chattels of their husband or father when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Constantinople in 1716 with her husband, the British ambassador. She was amazed to meet there Ottoman women of the nobility who owned large estates and managed their own property without male interference. Lady Mary even found the veil to be a liberating device that freed women from the prying eyes of men.
Certainly misogyny and unequal rights for women are features that can be found in abundance in the societies of North Africa, the Near East, and much of Asia, but can we honestly say that America and Europe are free of these problems? It is easy and hypocritical to accuse other societies of abuses and inequities when injustices still exist in our own culture. The image of the oppressed Muslim woman can all too often serve as another self-righteous reason for Europeans to congratulate themselves on their superiority.
In all the images of Islam that are commonly circulated in European and American culture, little can be found that is positive. Is it possible for an entire civilization to have such negative features, enduring more then 1,000 years across half the world?
Although I am not a psychologist, I cannot help but feel that there is a mechanism of projection operating here, along the lines spoken of by Jungians, in which one's own negative characteristics are projected onto others. There is certainly plenty of evidence of fantasy throughout the history of anti-Islamic stereotypes. Muslims are considered to be violent, yet we do not hear any similar accusations about intrinsic violence in Christianity or European culture; what was it about Christianity that motivated the world conquests of the nineteenth century or more recent atrocities such as the 1995 massacre of more than 6,000 Muslim men and boys carried out in a single day by Eastern Orthodox Serbs in Srebrenica?
Muslims are considered to have dysfunctional roles for women, yet that emblem of Western technological superiority, the Internet, is saturated with pornographic images, and the sexualization of women is omnipresent in television, newspapers, and advertising.
Is the West so confidant of its relations between the sexes? Everyone needs to become educated as a media critic nowadays, because the recycling of sensational images is what the communications media love the most, especially when conflict is present.
Islam is a subject that most Americans and Europeans have experienced only through theses negative images and stereotypes. Clearly the time has come to go beyond those images and encounter real human beings.
Excerpted from 'Following Muhammad' by Professor Carl W. Ernst, W.R. Kenan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books on Islam.
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