treatment of Western women to treatment of Middle Eastern women
This paper will compare the treatment of women in the West with the treatment of women from the Middle East. It should be borne in mind that the term 'Middle East' is a term constructed by people of the West to describe an area in which the West has a military interest; there is no such geographic area as the 'Middle East'. Further, the peoples of the Middle East are very heterogeneous, including people from Turkey, Iran, the Kurds, Armenians, Israelis, Palestinians, and others from a wide variety of Arab countries. Bearing these considerations in mind, therefore, in order to give some generalization to this paper, I will use a religious axis upon which to base my study of the treatment of women in the Middle East: the treatment of Middle Eastern women following Islam, and those following Judaism, will be compared with the women of the West (i.e., those following the Judaeo-Christian tradition).
In the West, Islam is interpreted, particularly nowadays, following September 11th, as a system of female subordination. Yet, on a thorough examination of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there seems to be little difference between the fundamental 'laws' as laid down with regard to women (with regard to the laws as laid out in the ancient texts, not as these laws are followed today). Indeed, in the ancient texts, the Quran, from the beginning, at the Story of Creation, puts equal blame on Adam and Eve for the transgression. The Quran does not mention that Eve tempted Adam to eat the apple from the tree, and there is no evidence that Eve ate anything before Adam. This is because, in the Quran, God does not punish anyone else for another's faults. It is this very moment in the Bible, the temptation of Adam by Eve, that led to the idea of women as temptresses in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which has had a negative impact on women throughout this tradition. So, from the beginning, Islam has a less negative view of women than that as laid out in the texts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (indeed, in Judaism, Orthodox Jewish men recite the following in their daily morning prayer "Blessed be the king of God, that Thou has not made me a woman").
In the Islam tradition, the view of women is no different to the view held of men; they are both here on Earth, as God's wishes, and their goal is to worship their God, do righteous works, and to avoid evil. If they follow these guidelines, as laid out in the Quran, they will both be judged equally and accordingly in the eyes of God.
Indeed, special treatment is given to people who give birth to daughters, as the Quran says "He who is involved in bringing up daughters, and accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be protection for him against Hell-fire." This, and other quotes like this from the Quran, show just how open Islam is to the idea of the preciousness and importance of women's place in society. Islam, therefore, gives women equal rights as men, something that is not given in other religious traditions. The rights that Muslim women enjoy, and have enjoyed for centuries, women in the West, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, have had to struggle for centuries to achieve, and often have not yet been achieved (the sons of Jewish mothers, for instance, are not recognized as Jews; only sons with Jewish fathers). Suffrage, war-work, all of these struggles were what eventually achieved a more equal treatment for women in Western societies.
Where does this popular myth that the women of the 'Middle East', of the Islamic tradition, are suppressed come from? Media images of the Taliban (an extremist Islamic group, condemned equally vigorously by the majority of muslims worldwide) helped to fuel the recent condemnation of Islam's treatment of women; the misuse of the laws with regards to women as laid out in the Quran in certain Arab countries of the 'Middle East' have also helped to lower Western opinions of the treatment of muslim women. But what are the truths, as laid out in the Quran, with regards to how a woman should behave as an individual, in her family, and in society? According to the Quran, women have the right to: obtain an education, own their own independent property, take a job if they need or want money, be rewarded equally for equal work, express their opinion and be heard, ask for provisions from the husband if she needs them, negotiate marriage on the terms of her choice, obtain divorce from her husband (even on the basis that she just doesn't like him anymore), to keep her own money separate, to get sexual satisfaction from her husband, to win custody of the children after a divorce, and to refuse any marriage she does not wish to enter into (Islamic.org).
According to the above list, there are some rights there that are not a given for women in the West, of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, for instance, many women in the West are not given equal reward as men for work carried out. In a recent study of the pay of female managers and academics in the UK, it was found that women of equal position to men earn, on average, 11.5% less than men. Also, no law exists in the West to say that women should receive sexual satisfaction from their husband, nor that women can divorce their husband on the grounds that they don't like them anymore. Islam also does not require women to change their name at marriage; this may be the case in the West now, but this has only come into being recently, as a few decades ago, at least in the UK, it was laid down in law that a woman had to take her husband's name once married.
Now on to the symbol of muslim women that many people in the West see as oppressive, the covering of the head and body (or hijaab). Islam asserts morality in behavior, thinking and appearance. Islam does not accept fashions and patterns of social behavior that reduce women to sex objects, hence the use of the hijaab. In Islam, a woman's assets are for the husband, and are not put on show for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to feast their eyes upon. This could be argued to be restrictive for the woman wearing the hijaab, but Islam specifies its use thus: "...tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or among men) that they should draw their veils over their bosoms, and not display their beauty except to their husbands. This is better in order that they be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed...." Well, the second part of the quote is not very apt nowadays, post-September 11th, as in the eyes of many in the West, following the demonization of muslims, to be a muslim is to be equated with evil. But the first part of the quote shows that use of the hijaab is requested in the Quran, that other men may not feast their eyes upon another man's woman, and so that a woman may not use her assets to gain unfair advantage over another woman, or over a man.
This rule could perhaps be seen as oppressive, in that women are not free to wear what they choose (although they do pick their robes, and the color, pattern and style of their headscarves), but on the other hand it could be seen as highly enlightened. Women wearing the hijaab are devoid of sexuality, and hence only their personalities, their kindness, their intelligence, can shine through and be recognized by potential husbands, by friends, by interviewers. This is a much more honest way of doing business, which gets down to the facts that really matter in a relationship, be that relationship a marriage or a professional relationship. With the hijaad, there can be none of those claims from male bosses 'Oh, I hired her because she had great legs', which are so damaging to women's liberation in so many ways, firstly because women follow this path of using their sexuality to obtain positions, and from there, because men then follow the lead from such women, and think all women are opportunities for pleasure, nothing more than objects to please men. The hijaab, in this sense, can be seen as incredibly liberating for women, in that they truly have to be listened to, without bodily distractions. Isn't this what Western feminists have been asking for, for decades? The hijaab, therefore, as not only a dress that covers the body, is a mode of behavior, speech and appearance in public, a protection for women, perhaps a mode of behavior that could be recommended to some women in the West (I think of the British teenagers who go…