With the increasing focus on the religion of Islam, in the news media, Muslim women have become a symbol of a religion that is little understood in the Western world. The Muslim woman, often seen in the traditional covering of her religion is often considered as oppressed and subjugated by her husband or father, and by the religion as a whole. And, although the five pillars and key concepts of Islam are the foundations of the Islamic faith, the manner in which they are interpreted and carried out is diverse across the world and is influenced by the manner of government under which Muslims live as well as the level of modernization of the country or region. The differences are more greatly pronounced, however, for Muslim women.
In countries with secular governments such as Turkey, and the United States Muslim women have the right to practice their religion, the right to vote and the right to hold public office (Cherry, 2002).They also have access to free education and their choice of careers (Cherry, 2002), however the experience of Muslim women between these two countries are vastly different. For example, Muslim women who live in the U.S. are free to wear the hijab, the traditional clothing worn by Muslim women according to their religious beliefs. However, especially in post 9/11 America, there is an assumption that women who wear the hijab are coerced to do so against their will and need to be rescued from that type of oppression (Hu, et al, 2009). Further the hijab definitively identifies the religious affiliation of the wearer which exposes them to discrimination, anger and aggression from other Americans (Hu, et al, 2009). The women in the study also reported some incidence of aggression toward their children from schoolmates (Hu, et al, 2009).
The primary struggle reported by Muslim women was finding a balance between the “appeal of the host culture in the West” (Hu, et al, 2009) and their Islamic religion and culture. According to Hu, et al (2009), further struggles reported included the perception of Muslim women by the U.S. media as “submissive, abused, poorly educated, backward and subservient (Hu, et al, 2009). The Muslim women in Hu, et al (2009) “strongly defended” (p. 55) their religious practices especially the practice of wearing the hijab, which they insisted was a personal choice. In fact only 22% of the women interviewed wore the traditional coverings in public at all times and 41% of the women did not wear the hijab at all (Hu, et al, 2009). One British Muslim woman reported that her father discouraged her from wearing the hijab in order to “avoid the hassle” (Afshar, 2008, p. 421). Muslim women reported that wearing the hijab allowed them to be accepted for their intelligence, rather than their physical attributes which in turn made them feel more equal to men (Hu, et al, 2009). Further the women expressed beliefs that it is their husbands’ responsibility to support their families financially and that child-rearing and household responsibilities should be shared by both men and women (Hu, et al, 2009). Fifty-nine percent of the women in Hu, et al, (2009) supported arranged marriage.
The socio-political freedoms of Muslim women in Turkey are similar to those of Muslim women in the U.S.; however, the one stark difference is the ban on the practice of veiling in public buildings in Turkey, including schools, for the sake of modernization as well as to encourage gender equality in education (Rankin & Aytac, 2008). In a culture where Islamic patriarchal beliefs and practices influence gender roles, nearly 61% of women wear a head cover and Muslim girls of fathers who require their daughters to wear a head covering are 50% less likely to complete primary school (Rankin & Aytac, 2008). The ban on head scarves could be partially to blame for these numbers however another factor may be the belief that the central role of a woman is to be a wife and mother which is requires only a basic education (Rankin & Aytac, 2008). Further some conservative interpretations of Islam discourage women from working (Rankin & Aytac, 2008) therefore deeming education not necessary.
Pakistan is a Muslim country in which the constitution is secular and Sharia law, a law based on Islamic principles, governs personal matters. Women in Pakistan have the right to vote, primary education is compulsory and the government has ratified a women’s rights document which officially sets the Pakistani government against discrimination against women in employment, education and politics (Critell, 2010). Pakistan is the only Muslim country to have had a female prime minister (Critell, 2010). Muslim women in Pakistan are not required by law to wear a veil however many women do so in order to practice their faith or to establish their identity (Critell, 2010).
The gender roles of women in Pakistan are guided primarily by the interpretation of Islamic law and can be extremely conservative and restrictive for women in rural areas (Critell, 2010). Muslim women in rural regions of Pakistan may be traded to settle disputes or be bought for the purpose of marriage although these practices are against Pakistani law (Critell, 2010). However, Muslim women from middle and upper class families have access to education, jobs and have more independence in their daily lives (Critell, 2010). Still, the literacy rate for women in Pakistan is the lowest in the region at 36% (Critell, 2010). Further discrimination against women still occurs regarding employment and income as well as social programs and the poverty which has spread across Pakistan has increased oppression of Muslim women in the country (Critell, 2010).
Cherry, M. (2002) When a Muslim nation embraces secularism. Humanist, 61(3), 21-23.
Critell, F. M. (2010) Beyond the veil in Pakistan. Journal of Women and Social Work, 25(3),
Rankin, B. H. & Aytac, I. A. (2008) Religiosity, the headscarf, and education in Turkey: An
analysis of 1988 data and current implications. British Journal of Sociology of Education.
Hu, C., Pazaki, H., Al-Qubbai, K. & Cutler, M. (2009) Gender identity and religious practices of
first-generation Muslim women immigrants in the U.S. Making Connections:
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