The Washington Post ran an op-ed on Sunday by Mohja Kahf, author of The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Entitled “Spare Me the Sermon on Muslim Women” Kahf responds to those who insist that the Muslim woman is oppressed, repressed, monolithic, brainwashed, and worthy of pity. Using brilliant language, which creates colourful pictures in the readers’ minds, Kahf explains the role of scarves in her life as a source of happiness. She then continues to explain how the various religious rituals in which she engages as blessings and sources of security, comfort and tranquility in her life.
Throughout the piece, Kahf juxtaposes the Muslim woman with the Western (non-Muslim) woman as a means of contextualizing the position of women in Islam rarely depicted in Western media. She explains that Islam has in fact provided women with many freedoms including sexual, rights and value equal to men, and protection. In comparison she points out the ways in which the West, and even Christianity, expresses its misogyny.
Kahf was able to deliver a punch with this piece. Her point, which I read as “Muslim women are empowered and strong thank you – now stop telling us different,” came across loud and clear. Personally, I enjoyed how she depicted her scarves, her prayer mat, and her clothes in such a soothing manner. I also appreciated her message that the scarf is not central to a Muslim woman’s life and that in fact many Muslim women do not even wear it. Though I must admit I found it odd considering it appeared after her extensive focus on her own headscarves. Although I do know that Kahf does not wear the headscarf strictly. She has been known to wear it casually herself.
When Kahf spoke of marriage, I found myself getting a little uncomfortable. Kahf paints a very unidimensional picture of the married Muslim woman. Undoubtedly Kahf tells of a young and willing bride, pointing out the consent issue so as to refute the all to common and unfortunate belief that Muslim women (or for that matter all “non-Western” women) are forced into marriage. So at least the reader would know this is not the case, usually. However, what made me uncomfortable was that from this piece it would seem that all Muslim women get married before the age of 20. She does not even mention that there are Muslim women who don’t get married in their teens. Additionally, Kahf scoffs at the idea of dating. Surely Kahf must know that there are many Muslim women who do date. Why is she not depicting a more diverse image of Muslim women? She showed our diversity in regards to the headscarf, so why not marriage?
I also found myself squirming when she mentioned the mahr – an obligatory gift from the groom to the bride. She states that “a mahr has to have significant value – a year’s salary, say.” My point of mentioning this is not to get into a debate about the value of mahr, but my understanding has been that the mahr can be any amount, even intangible, not necessarily significant. My worry here is that this may present the Muslim woman as materialistic, not concerned with love and caring, but rather how much money she can get. But this may go back to my own discomfort with whole idea of a prenuptial.
I did have to smile a little when Kahf mentioned Islam’s comfort with sex. Islam does encourage healthy and pleasurable sexual activities between husband and wife. And yes, as Kahf mentions, this is in fact quite different than Christianity, which has strongly discouraged any pleasure be taken from sex within marriage or not. Additionally, her mentioning of how masturbation and abortion (with certain conditions) are permissible in Islam also educated the reader of an oft neglected guilt-free and individualistic picture of a Muslim woman.
As I was reading I began to think, “Yes, Mohja, but many of these wonderful privileges for Muslim women are not enjoyed by the women.” And I am sure many of her readers would be thinking the same. Therefore, I was glad to see that Kahf did mention deficiency in many interpretations of the rights and privileges of Muslim women. So she does acknowledge that although she may enjoy many of these rights and privileges, not all Muslim women do.
Kahf then gives through her argument the final punch when she informs the reader of some of the great Muslim women leaders in previous and contemporary times, reminding them that not even the U.S. has had an elected woman leader.
The overall feel of the piece was definitely one of vindication. She wanted to defend Muslim women against all the pity. And she did. Along the way she was also able to depict Muslim men as decent fellows, the few times she did allude to them. With a few exceptions such as marriage where she made us monolithic, a mistake on her part, she was able to paint a rather independent and even sassy image of the Muslim woman.
Editor’s Note: You can read another take on this same article by a guest contributor tomorrow.