This article is a transcript of part of a talk given by Dr. Tariq Ramadan during the Conference on “Muslim Youth and Women in the West: Source of Concern or Source of Hope?”
The Conference was held in the framework of Dialogues: Islamic World, US & The West, organized by the Salzburg Global Seminar & New York University, May 2007.
Dr. Ramadan’s talk was titled “Realizing the Rights of Muslim Women: Islamic Feminism and Women’s Leadership.”
Among the trends in Islamic communities in the West, and also in the countries of origin, is a perception that women should not be allowed to work.
And there are some rules that are discriminatory in the way that we are dealing with women, because of the literalist reading of the Islamic scripts and sources. So we had this trend and this has an impact on the situation of Muslim women in the West.
Islam and Women
At the same time, we have the cultural dimension, and the cultural dimension is really how the Islamic principles are understood in the countries of origin where we have very macho cultures, patriarchal cultures, in Asia, the Arab world and Africa.
So this also has an impact on the way they are going to first settle in Europe or in the West, and then being integrated in the whole process, because you still have people from the first generation thinking that it’s not so important to educate women because this is not what they should do in the future, they will be at home serving the family.
Young Girls are Doing Much Better
|in schools, young girls are doing much better in fact than the young boys|
So we have this religious cause, the cultural cause, then what happened when the first generation arrived here which was as all the immigrant communities the first step is to protect yourself from the new environment, and the first to be protected are perceived as the women. This is what we have to do first and then we had women not going to school, being isolated from the society, and self-segregated sometimes.
What we can see now is the second, third and onward generation is something which is much better.
First in schools, young girls are doing much better in fact than the young boys, and this is something which is really paradoxical but understandable. The first attitude that was to protect them pushed them to just focus on schools and study, and they did it very well.
So you had young boys going out and being much more free than the young girls, and the girls focusing on school because this was the way to occupy their time, and at the same time to find a way to be free, and they did it very well.
So what we have now in all the European countries as well as in the States is a very high standard of educated Muslim women, understanding better the distinction between culture and religion, and the fact that very often what was perceived as the true Islamic teachings was in fact influenced by the cultures of origin and literalist readings, and now having this understanding.
We are in a transitory period and we have to understand that it is going to be a very long process, but these women with other men, with scholars, understanding better the distinction that I was mentioning will help a process of a better access to the legitimate rights for women.
There is a wrong understanding of what it means just to be modest and to try to protect yourself, for both in fact man and woman. The perception for woman means not to be seen in public or not to be with men or not to be in the public sphere for example and to stay at home, which is completely the opposite of what even the Prophet of Islam did, which is to accept women in mosques, in social sphere, and economic sphere. His own wife was a trader and she was connected to the society.
So we have to come to a very deep understanding that for example if men and women are asked to be modest, it’s because they are going to be in the same place. You are not modest for your own family, you are modest towards the surrounding society. So for example even the headscarf. The headscarf is not to remain at home. The headscarf is in fact to push you to be present in the social sphere and also to go to school.
So we have to change this understanding which is once again influenced by literalist reading and cultural understanding in the countries of origin to come to a better understanding that you can at the same time respect the religious requirements as to the dress, as to modesty, as to your understanding of what it means to be a practicing Muslim woman, but you should go to school because it’s an obligation.
In fact it’s a religious obligation. We have a saying of the Prophet saying that seeking knowledge is an obligation for Muslim men and women, not only men. So school, and working if you are just able to work and not only this, but to work and ask for the same salary, for the same competence, all this is really important.
Pushing for Islamic Feminism
|I want to remain a Muslim woman but I want to decide for myself|
And this is why on my side I’m pushing something I call Islamic feminism understood as: Go back to the Islamic sources, understand the Islamic principles, and act with these principles against any kind of discrimination done in the name of very narrow minded reading of the sources or the cultural understanding.
So I think that all this perception that for example you don’t have to be in the same room with men all this is exaggeration and very superficial understanding of the deep meaning of what it means to be a Muslim woman.
Not only is this happening in Europe or in the United States, it’s also happening in Morocco, Indonesia and Islamic-majority countries with something which is a very assertive presence based on two things: I want to remain a Muslim woman but I want to decide for myself. So this is what we have to push for.
Now, yes we have literature coming from the classical Islamic tradition still obsessed with you as a woman. You have to think about your role as a mother and wife. This is what I’m always saying; we are obsessed in Islamic tradition with speaking about women and the role and the functions in fact within the society which is completely wrong. We really have to come with a better understanding as discourse on woman as woman, and women as women within the society which is also something that is really important. It’s coming, and more and more women are now starting to speak for themselves.
With regard to mixing, we have to be very cautious. There are levels of mixing. So if we are speaking about being in the society and working and having a role as a citizen, as a woman electing and being elected, all this has to be tackled.
Now, you may have practicing women saying “Look, this is my freedom to be in the society but I don’t want for example to go in the swimming pool because of the way my body is going to be shown is not the way I think it’s to be a good Muslim.” Here we should be very careful not to create a problem of integration on these decisions.
If freedom is what you want, if freedom of choice is what you are proclaiming, just be consistent. A woman who decides for herself to wear the headscarf, you cannot say that she is alienated or self-alienated. Let her decide. And if she doesn’t want to wear the headscarf, let her decide.
To come to something which at the end is leadership, because I’m working with so many Muslim women. They are more effective, more efficient, and they are working very well.
And I think the future is at least to share the leadership, if not a stronger Muslim presence for the women as to driving the communities towards something which is a better presence and a more rooted understanding in the West.
Watch Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s Talk
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