FALMOUTH – After having lived in Maine for more than two decades, I have gained some appreciation for life’s simple pleasures; plunging into the cool water of the Atlantic Ocean in summer, picking wild blackberries and so on, and learning a few survival skills; driving in winter and finding fewer words to describe my faith, Islam, to strangers and friends alike.

Not an easy task, considering the level of misunderstanding about Muslims and the fact that for most, Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, is shrouded in mystery.

While the general inquiries beginning with the I-hope-you don’t-mind-me-asking are mostly positive, they insinuate the lack of basic knowledge about Islam. Then there are the inquiries, statements masked as questions, which startle me. “But doesn’t Islam oppress women?” Ouch.

Times like these and I wish the mainstream media would tell the stories of the countless Muslim women feminists, writers and activists such as Iran’s Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, Morocco’s Fatema Mernissi, Egypt’s Zaynab al-Ghazali, Amina Wadud, Aziza Al-Hibri, and Shaheen Sardar Ali, to name a few.

Historically, women in the Muslim world have played a major role in the national struggle for independence, constitutional and political rights, and continue to fight for equal rights for all. During past few decades Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh have had women as political leaders.

When faced with such inquiries, instinctively I look back to my childhood in Iran to see if my sisters, the four of them, and my mother, my aunts and the few young girls I had a crush on when growing up, were all oppressed.

What I recall are strong women who worked outside of their home, attended college and married men of their choice.

I go further back, this time to the early days of Islam and read and hear of the Prophet Mohammad marrying a woman who owned a business and advised him on worldly issues, or having his daughter accompanying him on journeys and battles. In contemporary Islam, with the rise of political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, the issue of women’s rights becomes complex. For most non-Muslims, the images of women covered and subjugated in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Iran under the Mullahs, and in today’s Wahabi-influenced Saudi Arabia, represent the plight of the half of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

Although, some women are treated badly in few societies in the Islamic world, holding such assumptions is erroneous as Muslim women face diverse experiences based on variables such as where they live.

As a feminist male Muslim raising a young daughter, I pay close attention to the issue of gender equity in Muslim societies. For example, the issue of veil, or the Islamic dress code itself, copied from the Jewish and Christian tradition in existence in pre-Islamic societies and still practiced in some non-Muslim communities as a sign of modesty, carries a different political tone than before.

Where for some young Muslims women wearing a hijab (veil) is to make a personal political statement, for others, the women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, it is a mandatory requirement because of state policy with roots in the narrow interpretations of Shia and Wahhabi teaching, respectively.

With a few exceptions, the issue of women’s rights in diverse Muslim societies is a function of culture, class and politics, among other factors, rather than Islamic belief.

Turkey and Iran offer such examples; while both nations share not only borders and cultures but Islam, in Iran, a woman would be banned from entering a government office, a university or a workplace, among others, unless covered in the “Islamic” way. In Turkey a veiled Muslim woman would be denied access to any of the same places.

Living in Maine, I wish there were more Muslim women voices. Of course, just because such voices at the local and national level are not being heard, it does not mean they are not there.

Fortunately for us all, in days to come, Portland will host Daisy Khan of the American Society for Muslim Advancement as part of the annual Douglas M. Schair Memorial Lecture on Genocide and Human Rights. Her lecture dealing with the women in Islam, will be held at the University of Southern Maine in Portland at 7 p.m., April 12. Khan’s own journey, starting in Kashmir, has brought her to New York where she and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, are engaged in interfaith education efforts globally and the development of an American expression of Islam locally.

Just as I thought of taking a break from talking about Islam, I get an e-mail from a friend wondering why Daisy Khan, pictured in the poster for the event, is not wearing a veil.

Sigh. Education continues.

 

– Special to the Press Herald