Journal/Islam: Islam and Gender

One of the central themes in US reporting on Islam relates to the conditions, treatment and rights of women in the Muslim world. The media often presents stories of Islam being used to justify the oppression of women in various ways.  For example, accounts of forced veiling, genital mutilation, denial of marriage/divorce rights, judicial violence, limited educational rights, confinement to the domestic space, and constraints on social mobility appear frequently in the US news coverage of Muslim communities around the world and in the US.  These stories are often linked to modern Muslim women attempting to assert their rights in the face of an ostensibly backward Islamic doctrine.  What results is a generalized portrait of Islam and Muslim cultural practices as exceedingly patriarchal and misogynist, actively engaged in the repression of women’s freedoms.  Typically Islamic law (Shari’a) tends to be portrayed as the main legitimating religious source for these injustices against women.  A classic example of this type of reporting is Jeffery Gettlemen’s  New York Times article (September 9, 2009) “Sudan Court to Define Indecent Dress for Women.”

Daniel's_tomb_dressing_code_wallpaintingWith few exceptions, US news reporting has in the past portrayed Muslim women as powerless figures subject to the tyranny of male family members or male religious authorities.  While they are often photographed and occasionally quoted, rarely do Muslim women author accounts on their conditions.  Generally non-Muslim women and men have reported on their behalf, critiquing Islamic patriarchy.  Non-Muslim commentators on gender and Islam suggest that the religion as a whole—rather than a particular interpretation or context—is inherently discriminatory towards women in ways that other religions are not.  For instance, Phyllis Chesler, a psychology professor at CUNY, has focused on honor killing, perhaps the most disturbing practice identified with Islamic gender politics.

This tendency has more recently been taken up by some Muslim women who are outspoken critics of Islam, such as369px-Islamic_Feminism_Symbol.svg Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji.  These women are receiving much attention in the US press.  On the emergence of these women, see the interesting discussion in The Nation (June 1, 2006) article by Laila Lalami, which concludes that “Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women’s lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire.”  In contrast with Hirsi Ali and Manji, there is a Muslim feminist approach that sees in the basic Islamic principles the liberation of Muslim women, as opposed to the justification for their oppression. This Muslim feminist perspective is quite rarely reported in the news.  (See for example the 2001 article in Counterpunch by Fawzia Afzal Khan on Muslim Feminists, the program of the Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism held in Barcelona in 2008 and the October 2008 BBC report on the International Congress on Islamic Feminism.)

One underlying theme found in articles on Islam and gender is the connection made between foreign policy decisions and the status of Muslim women in various parts of the Middle East. A 2009 New York Times Op-Ed piece titled “Three Cheers for Afghan Women” ( discusses recent protests by Afghan women against a new religiously-rooted law that was discriminatory against them.  This topic is covered in the New York Times because it relates directly US foreign policy in Afghanistan.  US media and political establishment were not especially concerned about the situation of women in Afghanistan until after the 2001 US invasion.

Despite an overall trend in which mainstream media sources primarily report on Muslim women as victims, some feature stories counter this trend by portraying Muslim women with a sense of agency. For example, the New York Times (June 5, 2009) published “Challenging Sex Taboos, with Help from the Koran” by Robert Worth, which presents the ways that one Muslim woman family counselor in the United Arab Emirates uses religious justifications to promote sexual education. This type of reporting is also present in the Newsweek article “Islamists’ Rise Could Benefit Women’s Rights”, which notes that people most often associate political Islamist groups with discrimination against women, and that this may certainly be true with more radical strands of political Islam, but more moderate groups that advocate for a greater presence of religion throughout society could actually help improve the status of Muslim women.

What emerges in the US press coverage of the conditions of Muslim women is a range of positions.  At one end of the spectrum is a rather degraded view of Islam as a violently misogynistic religion that is linked to a culture of terror and authoritarianism; at the other end is a rather idealized view of Islam as an emancipatory faith that can be harmonized with feminism and democratic rights more generally.  Effective reporting on the experiences of Muslim women must navigate between these extremes and seek to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between religious practice, gender politics and foreign policy.

Salah D. Hassan and Nada Zohdy (November 2009)

Related Reporting

Nicholas Kristof Islam, Virgins and Grapes” (NYT April 22, 2009)

“Infidel” Author on Gender Inequality in Islam April 23, 2009 (Video)

“An Afghan Feminism,” Washington Post (July 10, 2009)

“The Missionary Position,” (response to Hirsi Ali) The Nation (June 1, 2006)

“Burqas, Bikinis, and Debasing Women,” Washington Post

“Domestic Abuse is Never God’s Will,” Washington Post