This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Facing myths about Muslim women

Panel on status of Muslim women part of International Education Week activities

Published: December 5, 2002

Reporter Assistant Editor

Dispelling myths and misperceptions about the status of Muslim women was the goal of a panel discussion led by several Islamic women on Nov. 22 as part of International Education Week activities at UB.

The discussion that delineated many of the differences between cultural and religious practices in relation to Islamic women took on a renewed urgency in light of the FBI's recent release of its annual hate crimes report that showed a 1,600 percent increase in the number of hate crimes directed against Muslims in the U.S.

The panelists were as diverse as the face of Islam—three were Americans (two of the Americans were of Asian or Middle Eastern origin), two were Middle Eastern and one was a convert to Islam.

All of the panelists sought to correct what they view as misunderstandings regarding such practices as wearing the hijab, or headscarf, and women's rights within the religious context of their faith.

"There are a couple of ways that Islam has been abused—in the view that it's oppressive to women and in its constant link to terrorism," said Sawsan Tabbaa of Syria, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Oral Biology in the School of Dental Medicine and winner of the 1999-2000 Graduate Student Excellence in Teaching Award.

All of the women agreed that Islam isn't just a religion for them—it's a way of life. And, they pointed out, there is nothing in the Koran that claims men are better than women.

In fact, said Esra E. Aleisa, a graduate student in industrial engineering from Kuwait, the Koran empowers women to own property, run their own businesses and keep their earnings. All of this, she added, was true long before women in the U.S. had the right to vote or own property. "There is nothing in the Holy Koran that states men are better than women," she said.

Added Tabbaa: "Wherever Islamic women are being oppressed, it is more of a function of local or regional cultural practice.The roles of men and women are complementary and collaborative, not competitive."

Several women said wearing the hijab was consciously chosen as an act of worship, with several panelists agreeing that it also allowed them to cultivate an intellectual identity and self-esteem apart from the Western pressures women face to conform to an ideal of beauty that often forces them to "uncover" or dress for the primary purpose of attracting men.

"Women who choose to cover are painted as rejecting modernity, rejecting human rights, rejecting democracy, rejecting freedom, when that's often the farthest from the truth," said Sameera Fazili, a Kashmiri American, Harvard graduate and second-year UB medical student who said she started wearing the hijab while attending high school in Buffalo. "While it is important that I wear a scarf, it does not define me; actually, I define it," said Fazili, whose family has been in the U.S. since the 1970s.

The media, noted Minara Uddin, an English/communication major, "tend to focus on the same themes—showing Muslim women as oppressed baby-making machines forced to cover their bodies. No wonder everyone assumes that I am like this because if you are always seeing these television segments, you start to believe it."

Uddin, an Indian-American who chose to wear the hijab, said she believes that as a woman, she has been liberated through Islam.

"If someone was truly oppressing me, I wouldn't be here," she said. People often approach her "like a barrage of heat missiles," asking questions, although she says she doesn't mind. "I appreciate the questions—I assume they are open."

Uddin said that embracing an American ideal—a strictly American perspective—often lends itself to the notion that if someone else embraces a different set of ideals, they are perceived as being wrong. "The whole point of being educated is to look at other perspectives," she said.

Fazili noted that not everything Muslims do is based on religious practice and Muslim principles, and that the same can be said for Christians.

"There's a lot of pressure to prove yourself not to be the stereotype," she said of prevailing views about Muslims among Americans. "None of us," she said of the panelists, "are quite that demure or passive; we're not subservient to males."

Morever, "I don't think any of us can claim we represent all Muslim women everywhere," said Fazili, who received a women's leadership award while attending Harvard.

Fazili pointed out that while there has yet to be a female presidential candidate in the U.S., there have been several Muslim women heads of state—Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Khaleda Zia and Sheik Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh.

On the issue of violence, Fazili said she believes there is a problem within Muslim communities in different parts of the world. "I don't think it's because of Islam," she said, but rather is due to a "breakdown in the social order, social structure and a vacuum in social leadership."

She was quick to add that many Muslims worldwide are calling for peace and that many Muslim feminist groups are using the religious teachings of Islam to advocate for greater women's rights in the Muslim world.

Uddin said it's important to remember that while Muslims grew up saying, "I do this in the name of Allah," regarding a variety of daily activities, terrorists are not promoting Islam when they invoke those words.

"These people may seem like they're religious terrorists, but they are really cultural terrorists—they are promoting a culture—they are not promoting a religion," she said.

LaVonne Ansari, interim vice president of lifelong learning at Niagara Community College, said that the way in which Islam is practiced in the U.S. is determined in large measure by how Muslims are "oriented into Islam." While cultural practices of Islam differ around the world by region, in the U.S., Ansari noted that African-American Muslims, as converts, had to figure out what was appropriate and acceptable to Islam, and what wasn't.

The intellectual evolution of Malcom X and his close study of Islamic teachings brought many Muslim African-Americans more in line with traditional Islamic thought and practice, moving away from the Nation of Islam's belief that the "black man was God," said Ansari.

"Islam for many of us African-Americans has come and given us our identity back," she said.

The struggle to destroy stereotypes, while maintaining a sense of identity, may be wearisome to Uddin, who said that although she has a good reputation, she constantly has to prove herself.

"Some people," she noted, "will always have the suspicion that I'm (part of) a sleeper cell."