Why Muslim women can have it all

Samia Rahman
7 March 2008

Muslim women in Britain, are sluicing away restrictive cultural practices and reclaiming their fundamental Islamic rights, says Samia Rahman, part of our coverage of International Women's Day, 2008.

While watching television on a sweltering afternoon in Bhopal, India I was struck by a news report. A Headteacher was decrying the use of mobile phones among her pupils. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there. However, her point was that girls, young women, any female for that matter, should not be allowed mobile phones. A girl's entire moral wellbeing depended on it.

The Headteacher appealed to parents to safeguard the chastity of their daughters. Armed with a mobile phone any girl would be sucked into a web of illicit phone calls with unworthy scoundrels leading to stolen meetings and eventual ruin. It was inevitable. Bemused by this, I asked my 20 year old cousin her opinion. She concurred, explaining that if you give some girls too much freedom they take advantage. It all smacked of "Catholic girl syndrome" to me and reminded me of the time I was speaking at a University in Doha. The audience was segregated, with boys on one side and girls on the other. Eventually, a fellow speaker asked whether I had noticed the bluetooth flirting going on in the room. His mobile had clocked up 62 attempts to engage him in conversation as bluetooth-activated cupid's arrows were being flung from one side of the room to the other. It seems the harder you try to police a person's morality, the more creative methods of subterfuge they will employ.

Women have long been the collateral fodder in a patriarchal monopoly on Islam. Practices that drive women's rights activists to distraction are deeply misunderstood by Muslims themselves and often subject to historical context and qualification. The barbaric act of female circumcision has no basis in the Qur'an and is a cultural deviation no doubt concocted by misogynists who find the idea of a woman experiencing sexual pleasure anathema. Let's take polygamy as another example. To the claim it is sanctioned within Islam, I would point out a man may only take another wife on the condition that his treatment of each is strictly equal - financially, emotionally, sexually. As it is humanly impossible to successfully do this, I infer that polygamy was never meant to be practised and is therefore unIslamic. And I'm not the only one.

Muslim men, and specifically women in Britain, are sluicing away restrictive cultural practices and reclaiming their fundamental Islamic rights. Second generation British Muslims were and still are brought up on the values and traditions of their country of origin, wherever that may be. For women, Islam has been about the home, and not bringing it into disrepute. Esteem is attained through domestic prowess and being a good Muslim means sacrificing individuality to conform to community standards of dress, behaviour and marriagability.

But the times they are a-changing, and with a little enlightenment, Muslim women are discovering that Islam can afford them dignity and rights. The right to refuse forced marriage, to pursue a career, to enjoy an equal status in marriage. For many observers the physical manifestation of a woman's journey to Islam is the adopting of the hijab. My heart sinks every time I am asked why these women are forced to hide their beauty. Try telling that to the fashion-conscious, hilarious and intelligent girls about town I know who wear it.

This transition is ongoing, and is a far-off idyll for many who continue to struggle against patriarchy, ignorance, emotional blackmail and cultural Islam. I know many women who have the short end of the stick. Balancing a career, home, children, a husband imbued with the traditional gender roles he grew up with, and expectant in-laws. The question remains, can Muslim women have it all? Well, if we want to, why not?

Samia Rahman is a London-based freelance journalist and former Deputy Editor of emel magazine.

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