The March 2009 issue of Time magazine carried an extensive article about Islam, called “A Quiet Revolution grows in the Muslim world” by Robin Wright. While the article speaks broadly about Islam, I will focus on those passages and statements which deal with Muslim women. This is how Time describes the “soft revolution”:
Today’s revolution is more vibrantly Islamic than ever. Yet it is also decidedly antijihadist and ambivalent about Islamist political parties. Culturally, it is deeply conservative, but its goal is to adapt to the 21st century. Politically, it rejects secularism and Westernization but craves changes compatible with modern global trends. The soft revolution is more about groping for identity and direction than expressing piety. The new revolutionaries are synthesizing Koranic values with the ways of life spawned by the Internet, satellite television and Facebook. For them, Islam, you might say, is the path to change rather than the goal itself.
So, according to Time, it is a new and growing movement within Islam, constituted of young Muslim men and women who have a modern outlook on life, combined with a deep faith in the religion. These Muslims are competent with platforms like blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are involved in all walks of life, from film to gender equality activism. The soft revolution disassociates itself from “extremist” Islam, and is showing a kinder, gentler, more profound face of the faith.
The title suggests that this article represents the “Muslim world”, which is a trifle exaggerated, as it deals mainly with Egyptian society, with a few quotes and references interspersed here and there about the U.S.A, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. There is no problem with this, as the workings of these Muslim societies are indeed very interesting and complex. However, they should not be understood as comprising the entire Muslim world, especially given that the largest Muslim majority country is a South East Asian one. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued.
I found the very opening statement of the article to be particularly misleading and irrelevant.
Three decades after Iran’s upheaval established Islamic clerical rule for the first time in 14 centuries, a quieter and more profound revolution is transforming the Muslim world. Dalia Ziada is a part of it.
At first glance, I thought, “Oh, okay, Dalia, an Iranian, is part of a new and profound revolution. Great!” It turns out, that Dalia is in fact Egyptian, and has nothing to do with Iran, whose dynamics are totally different from that of Egypt. Why bring up Iran’s Islamic revolution in an article which does not even quote one Iranian or discuss the current Iranian situation regarding the topic under scrutiny? I wondered if it was to bring to mind dark and gloomy pictures of unsmiling Iranians, (who are anything but!) clad in black chadors, or clerical garb, in contrast with this new “soft revolution”, which represents young, fashionable, modern Muslims, as if the two are dialectically opposed? This is a rather simplistic view of Islam, where there are no clear cut boundaries between labels like “conservative”, “progressive”, and “liberal”. Could it have also been to conjure images of a violent revolution, which was not “profound”, or to divide Muslims along sectarian lines, with Iran as the “other”, at a time when Iran is a major backache for the West?
Back to Dalia, who is actually a very interesting Egyptian woman. Here is what Time has to say about her.
When Ziada was 8, her mother told her to don a white party dress for a surprise celebration. It turned out to be a painful circumcision. But Ziada decided to fight back. The young Egyptian spent years arguing with her father and uncles against the genital mutilation of her sister and cousins, a campaign she eventually developed into a wider movement. She now champions everything from freedom of speech to women’s rights and political prisoners. To promote civil disobedience, Ziada last year translated into Arabic a comic-book history about Martin Luther King Jr. and distributed 2,000 copies from Morocco to Yemen.
Now 26, Ziada organized Cairo’s first human-rights film festival in November. The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada door stopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theatre was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night–waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.
Ziada shies away from little, including the grisly intimate details of her life. But she also wears a veil, a sign that her religious faith remains undimmed. “My ultimate interest,” she wrote in her first blog entry, “is to please Allah with all I am doing in my own life.”
I was impressed with the profile Time painted, reflecting a courageous Muslim woman, opposed to the usual stereotypical pictures of oppression and submissiveness. However, the “but” in “But she also wears a veil” seemed to be a disclaimer, expressing that while Dalia might be very outspoken and accomplished, she is still “behind” in Western standards. I would have liked to read, “Indeed, she also wears a veil.”
Another passage with implications for Muslim women is
Later this year, the Turkish scholars are expected to publish six volumes that reject thousands of Islam’s most controversial practices, from stoning adulterers to honour killings. Some hadith, the scholars contend, are unsubstantiated; others were just invented to manipulate society. “There is one tradition which says ladies are religiously and rationally not complete and of lesser mind,” says Ismail Hakki Unal of Ankara University’s divinity school, a member of the commission. “We think this does not conform to the soul of the Koran. And when we look at the Prophet’s behaviour toward ladies, we don’t think those insulting messages belong to him.” Another hadith insists that women be obedient to their husbands if they are to enter paradise. “Again, this is incompatible with the Prophet,” Unal says. “We think these are sentences put forth by men who were trying to impose their power over the ladies.”
Finally, a mainstream publication writes about cultural practices which discriminate against women, that do not belong to Islam, and better yet, admitted by Turkish scholars. On a more critical note, I am not sure how I feel about a man admitting these things, it seems at once necessary and Time makes it sound like Muslims have only realized now, 1429 years too late, that these practices are not a part of Islam, even though Muslim men and women have been fighting these demons for centuries. condescending. Necessary because men have been largely responsible for attributing these cultural phenomena to Islam as well as perpetrating these atrocities in the name of Islam. Condescending, because it feeds the usual stereotype of Muslim men controlling every aspect of the lives of Muslim women, including speaking for them. I suppose I would have felt better if a woman’s input was included here.
Regarding women’s involvement in the “soft revolution”, Wright writes,
Crucially, this latest wave of Islamic thought is not led only by men. Eman el-Marsafy is challenging one of the strictest male domains in the Muslim world–the mosque. For 14 centuries, women have largely been relegated to small side rooms for prayer and excluded from leadership. But el-Marsafy is one of hundreds of professional women who are memorizing the Koran and is even teaching at Cairo’s al-Sadiq Mosque. “We’re taking Islam to the new world,” el-Marsafy says. “We can do everything everyone else does. We want to move forward too.”
Again, great to see this kind of representation in so mainstream a publication, but the facts are a bit skewed. First, women have been very much involved in Islamic thought from the very inception of Islam, not only since this “latest wave of thought”. Second, the mosque has only been male dominated for approximately the last 13 centuries, not 14. In the early period of Islam, no such thing as segregation, or “small side rooms for prayer” existed. The overall message is however, a positive one.
Regarding hijab, which of course, must make it stage appearance, Wright notes
The young are in the vanguard. A graduate in business administration and a former banker, el-Marsafy donned the hijab when she was 26, despite fierce objections from her parents. (Her father was an Egyptian diplomat, her mother a society figure.) But last year, el-Marsafy’s mother, now in her 60s, began wearing the veil too. That is a common story. Forty years ago, Islamic dress was rare in Egypt. Today, more than 80% of women are estimated to wear the hijab, and many put it on only after their daughters did.
Piety alone is not the explanation for the change in dress. “The veil is the mask of Egyptian woman in a power struggle against the dictatorship of men,” says Nabil Abdel Fattah of Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and author of The Politics of Religion. “The veil gives women more power in a man’s world.” Ziada, the human-rights activist, says the hijab–her headscarves are in pinks, pastels, floral prints and plaids, not drab black–provides protective cover and legitimacy for her campaigns.
A rather refreshing stance on hijab, in a world where the very word “veil”, which by the way, does not translate literally to “hijab”, holds connotations of either repression on the one extreme, or eroticism on the other. So, Time admits to the world that women don’t just wear that thing for their husbands or because their fathers force them to, they also wear it for piety, politics and even power. Who would have thought that the headscarf could gain a woman power in Egypt? Because the headscarf has been made to be all about oppression, it is interesting to see this take on it, which voices the relevance of choice to veiling.
However, I am not comfortable with the statement, “The veil gives women more power in a man’s world.”, as this belittles Muslim women as aiming for nothing more than to be equal to men, when in reality, the goals and ambitions of Muslim women, who are a mass sector of the global population, vary from simply fighting to work outside the home, to running for president and prime minister.
The issue of hijab is introduced as a symbol of the “soft revolution”. Time speaks of the trend of many young Muslim women in Egypt who opt to don the hijab, which their mothers did not. Indeed, many Muslim women the world over are turning to hijab; however, those who don’t also constitute an important part of contemporary Islam. By relegating the hijab as a symbol of this revolution, and therefore a requirement to belong to this “revolution”, Time alienates a number of Muslim women who are deeply committed to the religion.
After discussing everything from Obama to text messaging the Qur’an, the article concludes
The soft revolution’s combination of conservative symbols, like Islamic dress, with contemporary practices, like blogging, may confuse outsiders. But there are few social movements in the world today that are more important to understand.
She feels that Islamic dress is a conservative symbol, overlooking Muslim women who wear the headscarf and are by no means conservative (again, no clear definition of such a term), but fails to mention that not all Muslims aiming for the goal of balancing modernity with religion wear the “Islamic dress”, but are still very much, if not more, part of the evolving face of Islam.
All in all, I am glad that the author thinks Islam, in relation to modern-but-committed Muslims (of which I consider myself one) is a very crucial movement to comprehend. As an outsider, she managed to grapple with the complex strata of some Muslim societies, give or take the condescending tone and a few misrepresentations.