The question of what Islamic women want is asked in the larger context of who speaks for Islam, which raises these questions: What do a billion Muslims really think? How does one answer such questions? Who would dare tackle such complicated and risky questions?
The “who would dare” question is the easiest one to answer. The answer is John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
Their new book titled Who Speaks for Islam? (2007) uses Gallup research between 2001 and 2007. Gallup “conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations.”
Esposito and Mogahed believe their book is about both the “silenced majority” and a way to democratize “the actual views of everyday Muslims.”
Their easily readable book moves through five chapters, exploring the definition of a Muslim, democracy and theocracy, the nature of radicals and the competing views of clash or coexistence.
One chapter really does ask: “What Do Women What?”
The quick Western answer is that Muslim women want to be liberated from the oppression in their countries. After all, that was one of the arguments for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Laura Bushed even linked the war on terrorism with the struggle for women’s rights.
But that’s not what Gallup surveys found.
“Gallup findings on women in countries that are predominantly Muslim or have sizable Muslim populations hardly show that they have been conditioned to accept second-class status,” write Esposito and Mogahed. “Majorities of women in virtually every country we surveyed say that women deserve the same legal rights as men.”
In Saudi Arabia, 61 percent of the women said women should be able to drive a car alone, something which the country does not allow.
Seventy-six percent of Saudi women said women should be able to work in jobs for which they were qualified, compared to 88 percent of Egyptian women, who live in a much less restrictive society.
According to Esposito and Mogahed, “a full third of professional and technical workers in Egypt are women, on par with Turkey and South Korea.”
To the dismay of Westerners, Islamic women express little interest in being Westernized, even though many Muslim women admire the West.
Islamic women “resent the West’s perceived promiscuity, pornography, and indecent dress ”perceptions that can be traced to Hollywood images exported daily to the Muslim world,” write Esposito and Mogahed. “While Westerners still often see the veil as a symbol of women’s inferior status in the Muslim world, to Muslims, Western women’s perceived lack of modesty signals their degraded cultural status in the West.”
In another section of this chapter, the authors explore the issue of the same legal rights between men and women.
“Some Muslim women believe that having the same legal rights does not always mean fair and just treatment of women, because men and women have different roles in a family,” note Esposito and Mogahed.
They quote an Egyptian woman who said, “Giving a farmer and a carpenter both a hammer as a tool to help their work is certainly treating them the same, but not fairly.”
The authors conclude their chapter about women with a warning of not approaching “women’s rights in the Muslim world as a struggle between Islam and Western egalitarian values. It leaves women and their supporters with no options, and it empowers those who oppose rights for women in the name of resistance to Western hegemony. Muslim women see no contradiction between the faith they cherish and the rights they deserve.”
Given woeful misunderstanding within American culture about Islam, the world’s second-largest faith group, and the chronic demonization of Muslims by Christian fundamentalism, goodwill Baptists and others really do need a practical and objective handbook on Islam. That’s exactly what Esposito and Mogahed have provided.
Who Speaks for Islam? should be expected reading for informed clergy and congregational leaders who are determined to challenge cultural prejudices and are committed to advancing truth telling.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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