Knowing that my regular post day, Thursday, was quickly sneaking up on me, I frantically searched the internet for something to cover. I used the keywords “Muslim women”, “media,” “news,” and finally “Pakistani women” (trying to cover South Asia). And the majority of the stories I came across in news were very negative. Most of the coverage was on the absolute pitiful and frightful situations of Muslim women in Muslim countries. Whether it be acid burnings and being set on fire, being killed by militants, or being prohibited from voting, the abuse of Muslim women rang out loud and clear.
I ended up quite depressed but also extremely furious – furious at the societies that allow such horrific treatment and oppression of women. I tried to rationalize. I tried to find fault in the reports, hoping that maybe I could say that the coverage was somehow unfair, racist, or Islamophobic. Hoping that maybe I could say the reports were not taking issues of poverty and illiteracy into account (both of which do play a role). And some of the comments posted on the stories fit the bill, but I could not come to see the coverage itself as racist or hateful because all I could see was the pain of Muslim women and the entitlement of the men hurting them. And so today I decided to post as a devil’s advocate. I want to ask the questions that may be on the minds of those on the “outside” looking in. How can Muslim women answer these questions? What if we have these same questions?
First I ask, is it wrong for the media to report such occurrences? I remember when the Mukhtaran Mai case became internationally known many Pakistanis were upset that it had received as much international attention as it did. Many reminded us of how so many women in the West were raped as well; that this was not Pakistani phenomenon. Indeed rape is not a Pakistani, or Muslim, phenomenon. However, to have rape designated as legal punishment, even if it is tribal retribution, is not very common. And one of the main reasons the Pakistani authorities even did anything to punish her rapists was because of the intense international attention. No doubt human and women’s rights groups in Pakistan would have worked to help her regardless, but those in power only bent to international pressure, not domestic, or human for that matter.
Additionally, we on MMW often complain about the depiction of Saudi women that paint them as juvenile, helpless, and oppressed. Of course, if the media only focus on the negative then those unfamiliar will view women in that manner. And this is how stereotypes begin. However, the reality is that women in Saudi Arabia are treated like juveniles by their own government. Not allowed to drive or leave the home without male accompaniment is awfully close to being treated like underage individuals who cannot make decisions for themselves. Considering no other country in the world treats women in such a manner would this not seem odd and news worthy? Do the Saudis not deserve this attention so that they can somehow be made aware that the rest of the world thinks their legislated treatment of women is cruel and unusual?
Very often when Western media reports such incidences, the information has been retrieved from local sources – papers, television, internet. Therefore, much of their information has already made it to the media in some form. Local reporters and journalists have also found it news worthy. If not local media, then human rights organizations have pointed it out. In which case it has reached such a severe level that it has become a human rights violation. Can we then blame the media for pointing it out? Should the ill treatment of women not make the news? When a woman is murdered in Canada by her partner it does, after all, make the news. When a young girl is abducted, molested, and/or murdered it does make the news. So then why not when it happens to women in Muslim countries? Especially when the act appears to be mandated by someone in power.
And finally, so many of the men who commit these horrible acts justify it using Islam. Or rather abusing Islam. “Women can’t drive because it may lead to a breaking down of Islamic moral values.” “Men can kill their sisters, daughters, mothers because Islam says it’s acceptable to do so to protect the family’s honour.” “Hadith tell us that a woman’s intelligence is less than that of a man’s therefore women need to be controlled.” Never mind that none of these Islamic “teachings” appear in the Qur’an, and that the aforementioned hadith is considered weak. However, when Muslims themselves are telling “outsiders” that such behaviour is acceptable and encouraged in Islam, how can we expect non-Muslims to question them? To ask them if indeed such beliefs are a part of Islam. Especially when very often those justifying have sheikh or Imam attached to their name.
Now I do know the problems with generalizations of “other” cultures and people. I understand the huge problems associated with such ways of viewing the world. And I do not condone them. However, it may be important to think through these issues presented today. They make many uncomfortable and even angry. However, change needs to occur within the community and until we face our own demons how will we rid our people of them?