Speakers Refute Stereotypes of Women and Islam

Article excerpt

Speakers Refute Stereotypes of Women and Islam

Seven experts on Arab women's issues, all but one Arab women themselves, and all but one contributors to a newly published book on the subject, spoke at a Middle East Institute conference on Nov. 7 in Washington, DC.

The general thrust of their presentations was an assertion that in Arab/Islamic society, women's liberation comes through better understanding of shariah, Islamic law, not wholesale rejection of it in favor of imported Western/European values.

Dr. Suha Sabbagh, professor of women's studies at Birzeit University and editor of the aforementioned book, Arab Women: Between Defiance and Restraint (1996, Olive Branch Press), noted that in the Arab world the family is the basic social unit that makes up society, whereas in the U.S. it is the individual. Stating that "very few [Arab] women feel the impact of the state in their lives," she maintained that the Arab family is the "modern day corporation" in countries where state-run social security is often inadequate. She concluded that for Arab women, "the family both supports and suppresses women."

Dr. Fadwa El Guindi, professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, asserted that the current "Islamic movement is feminist" and has put gender at center stage. She noted that the origin of the women's movement in Egypt around the turn of the century was similarly embedded in the nationalist movement itself. Contesting the Western stereotype that women are oppressed by Islam, El Guindi recalled that "women, in fact, initiated the Islamic movement in Egypt" in the early 1970s, when women university students suddenly started to wear the veil. "Please, please, remove the veil, ya binti, until you're married," she parodied the baffled mothers of these young women, "You look like a tent!" This powerful Islamic movement, she observed, was not a passing fad, but grew in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to grow in strength all over the Arab/Islamic world.

Continuing Sabbagh's theme, El Guindi said, "You cannot have an individual-based system and a group-based system together," so the Western feminist concept of equal rights for individual women cannot be slapped onto Arab/Islamic society. She referred to American feminists as "very provincial" because their values are "culture-bound" to American society's individualism at the expense of the family.

She said that while there is no conscious movement to liberate women within the Islamic movement, there is liberation when women acquire critical knowledge of Islam. …