Campus News

Muslim Women: Looking Out From Behind a Veil

Story posted May 05, 2000

Muslim women in Afghanistan are prohibited from going to school. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars. Muslim women must cover their hair and skin in public.

These images of women's lives under Islam may be common in Western media, but they may not square with the life experiences of three female Bowdoin students. One is from Iran, the daughter of an American father and an Iranian mother. Another is from the educated urban classes of Pakistan. The third is a Christian from Armenia who has traveled widely in the Middle East.

The three students shared their experiences of Islamic life and answered questions from members of the college community at an informal dinner discussion May 3.

Despite the different cultures the students were raised in, they agreed on two basic points: Islam is not an inherently sexist religion; and American observers have to be sensitive to cultural differences before imposing Western sensibilities on Muslim women.

Lila Noury '02 was raised as a Muslim in Iran. She stressed that the Taliban in Afghanistan represent just one interpretation of the Koran. Sexism that existed in pre-Muslim societies was often integrated into Islamic practices after the religion's introduction, and it is such "fundamentalist" beliefs that the Taliban practice.

Natasha Khokhar '02 agreed. The Koran does not prohibit a woman from getting an education. "No man has the right to stop her," she said. Khokhar was raised a Muslim in Pakistan, which she admits is a very patriarchal society. But, she added, Islam is not necessarily a patriarchal religion.

In the translation of the Koran Khokhar has read, women are not required to cover themselves from head-to-toe. But the Koran does tell women to dress modestly.

"This is what most women wear," she said of her shalwar kameez, a long shirt and trousers outfit. More modest attire than her bare-armed version may be in order in some situations. Khokhar draped her shawl over her shoulders and arms to demonstrate how she might dress when going to the market.

Pakistan is becoming more liberal in part because men need women to enter the work force, Khokhar discovered on a trip home last summer. "Many fathers were encouraging their daughters to go to work, to go to school," she said.

Muslim women are not uniformly subjugated, according to the students. In Iran, Noury said, "Women are very assertive." Women work outside the home, go to war and work for the government. In some marriages, the spouses treat each other as equal partners in the relationship.

Still, she said, coming to America was "a revolution" for her. When she returned to Iran after her first visit, she found herself arguing with people on the street about the treatment of women.

Isabella Sarkisyan '01 was raised in predominantly Christian Armenia. She traveled in Palestine, Israel and Egypt last semester as part as her study abroad. "There are so many misconceptions about Muslim women and Muslim society," she found.

Sarkisyan described how troubled she was by the behavior of the American women on the trip. Some refused to cover their heads when entering a mosque or a place of learning, as custom dictates. To the Americans, those practices were symbols of oppression and sexism. But their refusals also showed an insensitivity to and ignorance of cultural differences.

To look at Palestinian women only as a subjugated class, with no "agency" or control over their lives, is inaccurate and unfair. Women were very active in the Intifada. "Some Muslim women have developed a very strong critique of Western feminism," Sarkisyan said.

According to Noury, the Western media exaggerates the plight of Muslim women without putting it into a cultural context.

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