Challenges and Opportunities Facing American Muslim Women
Part Two: Samer Hathout: Challenges Facing American Women
Part Two: Samer Hathout: Challenges Facing American Women
Thank you. As Asifa mentioned, I am going to discuss the challenges facing American Muslim women. As a minority in the United States, Muslims face many challenges. First and foremost is ignorance about Islam. This ignorance leads to stereotyping, fear, and distrust. The acts of a few Muslim extremists are attributed to all Muslims. Muslim American citizens loyalty to the United States is questioned. We are dehumanized and thus easy prey for prejudice. For instance, last April, the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed. It is probably the most devastating terrorist act to occur on U.S. soil. A few hundred people were killed, several hundred were injured. It was particularly brutal because there was a day care center on one of the bottom floors of this building. As soon as the report of the bombing came out, the first suspects were Muslims. As soon as the building was bombed, news reports said: "Arab looking people were seen leaving the area." Basically, for the next twenty-four hours, we faced harassment, we were threatened, and our lives were very much put in danger. Muslim schools had to be closed, and individual Muslims were detained and harassed, even physically assaulted. It wasnt until the next day, when it turned out to be a fringe minority white group of people who had done it, could we sort of breathe a sigh of relief that our lives were not in danger, and finally we were able to mourn the victims of that bombing. Another danger resulting from American ignorance about Islam is the omnibus anti-terrorism legislation that President Clinton has proposed, which unfairly targets Muslims as widespread purveyors of terrorism.
Despite several generations in this country--as Asifa mentioned, Muslims have quite a history in the U.S.--we are still perceived as foreigners; we are still perceived as people out to destroy the United States, and when we attempt to define ourselves, our voices are silenced. When mainstream Muslims are given the rare opportunity to explain Islam, we are told that we, as moderate Muslims, are the minority, and that most Muslims are actually violent extremists. This image of Muslims as violent extremists is perpetuated by the media which chooses to report primarily negative images of Islam and Muslims. This image is further intensified by the profound ignorance of the average American about Muslims and Islam. This ignorance, unfortunately starts at a very early age--in schools, the textbooks are biased, and have a lot of erroneous information. And, as all minorities must do, American Muslims must struggle to ensure that our civil liberties are not trampled upon. Our accomplishments in being counted as part of the American pluralism, while maintaining our identity as Muslims, are often rebuffed and misunderstood. We are told, by some Muslims and non-Muslims, that we must choose between being Muslims and being Americans. Among Muslims--who range from every culture on earth, as weve seen in this conference--American culture is unfairly perceived as inherently anti-Islamic, and little attempt is made to understand and accept Muslims of the American culture alongside Muslims of Arab, Asian, African, or any other ethnicity. Among non-Muslims, because the U.S. was founded on the basis of the separation of church and state, the presence of any religious group in the political arena is viewed with suspicion. As Muslims, we carry that burden, but we also carry the additional burden of ignorance about Islam. Our continuing striving to define ourselves as American Muslims is in fact a very challenging jihad.
Muslim Women in America
As women in the United States, we often face gender-based discrimination. While this discrimination may not be as overt as in other parts of the world, or may take different forms, it does exist in America nevertheless. Women often cannot achieve their highest potential in career or education and the media continually depicts women as sex objects and nothing more. American womens salaries are still, dollar-for-dollar, less than the corresponding salaries for their male counterparts. Women who do work to earn a living still have primary responsibility for taking care of the home and family with little domestic support from their husbands. Women in positions of influence in the United States are few and far between. Recently we have had setbacks in affirmative action, and that will only make our struggles for equality more important.
American Muslim women face many unique additional hurdles. We are discriminated against by both non-Muslims and Muslims in America. For instance, a woman who wears hijab, which is the traditional head-covering, is often taunted at work and on the street, and the careers of a lot of these women are actually jeopardized--they are discriminated against at work and they are not given jobs. And, women who wear hijab in the United States are obvious targets--they are obviously Muslims, and because of this they bear the brunt of the ignorance about Islam; they face sexual harassment, and often their actual physical safety is jeopardized.
As Asifa mentioned, Muslims come from different backgrounds. In America, we have immigrant Muslims, who face a whole host of problems such as xenophobia. In the U.S. in recent times, there has been a growing hostility toward immigrants, and they are often erroneously blamed for all of the socio-economic problems that we face in the U.S., and are harassed because of that. And we have a large African-American Muslim population, and they face additional hurdles, because being part of a racial minority in the United States, they have had to deal with the problems of racism, discrimination, segregation and the vestiges of slavery. To that, add religious discrimination and gender discrimination, and these are some of the challenges that are generally faced.
But in addition, Muslim women often face discrimination from their own Muslim community. Discrimination by Muslims primarily results from ignorance about Islam and the importation of cultural attitudes that demean women. Islam is often interpreted in ways that are sexist and not true to the true teachings of equality in the Quran and the model provided by Prophet Muhammad, may Gods peace and blessings be upon him. Quran and hadith (the teachings of Prophet Muhammad) are taken out of context and used to justify certain behavior.
Because Muslims are a minority in the United States attempting to portray a positive image of Islam, the true image of the teachings of Islam, Muslims in America are often reluctant to address the problems faced by Muslim women for fear that the enemies of Islam will use this information against us. But the ironic part is, that everyone knows the problems we face, and everyone knows that we are the only people not addressing them. And unfortunately the media is quick to inform us and others of the more serious forms of abuse or discrimination that Muslim women encounter. And what we hope to achieve in this presentation is to recognize some of the problems that we as American Muslim women face, and give voice to our sisters who have suffered wrongly in the name of Islam. Asifa later will explore opportunities that we as Americans have to attempt to address these issues.
Some of the most serious problems that we American Muslim women face include: domestic violence, abuse of divorce and child custody laws, abuse of the polygamy system, and isolation and exclusion from various aspects of Muslim life. We are going to provide a few anecdotal cases simply to illustrate the depth of the problems. We have given the women in the stories names to make it more personable, but their identities have been changed and their confidentiality is protected. The stories are shared simply to illustrate and give life to the specific suffering of American Muslim women today. These are true stories, these are real women who have suffered. These stories were compiled by speaking with Muslim community leaders, social workers, psychologists, lawyers, doctors, mostly in southern California, but throughout the United States. We also obtained information from a thing called Sistersnet, which is an E-mail network of Muslim women throughout the United States and other countries. But unfortunately, there is no database, there is no accurate information that exists as to the frequency of any of these abuses that occur. Further research of these issues is desperately needed so that we can adequately address these problems. And, while these cases may not be experienced by a majority of American Muslim women, they are nevertheless serious issues that must be addressed.
Now, the story of Mariam is as follows.
Mariam got married to a man named Ali. They were married for several years. Throughout this marriage, Ali abused Mariam. His abuse was verbal and physical. Mariam was often beaten by her husband. When Mariam did attempt to speak with her local Muslim community leader, she was made to feel that the abuse was her fault: if she was a better wife, Ali would not have to beat her. She was also told not to discuss her marital problems with other people, and that it was important for her to stay married at all costs to preserve the family. And, Ali would quote the Quran and hadith to justify his abuse. And so Mariam being told by her local Muslim leader that the abuse was justified, she had Quran and hadith quoted in her face to justify it, she thought it was justified. She was abused for years. And finally, she couldnt stand it any more. She feared for her life, she left. She left her home, she left her husband, and sought refuge in a local (non-Muslim) battered womens shelter, and there she received the assistance that she needed to put her life back together. Ali was convicted in U.S. court for spousal battery. When Mariam, appeared at Muslim functions, she was shunned; the Muslim community wanted nothing to do with her. She was viewed as a woman who had left her husband for no reason. Ali, on the other hand, when he went to Muslim functions, was viewed as the victim of a broken marriage, as a victim of the U.S. criminal justice system. He was greeted by the Muslim community with open arms. Mariam found no support from the Muslim community. She continued to go to non-Muslim agencies for support, and she finally stopped attending Muslim functions.
Mariams story, unfortunately, is not an uncommon one in the United States. Victims of domestic violence have little support from the Muslim community, and the support they do receive, while well-intentioned, is often unorganized and ineffectual. The lives of domestic violence victims are often in danger, and their only recourse is to turn to non-Muslim organizations who are prepared to deal with this issue--which is also a pressing issue in the larger American society as well. So we face issues of domestic violence. The story of Khadija and Fatima shows the abuse of the polygamy system in Islam.
Khadija and Fatima
Khadija married Omar under the laws of the United States and the state in which he lived, and under Islamic law. Omar later took a second wife, Fatima. But, Omar and Fatima could not get married under U.S. law because he was already married to Khadija, and polygamy is illegal in the United States. So, Omar married Fatima under a--supposed--Islamic tradition which includes simply a marriage proposal and an acceptance of that proposal in front of witnesses. Fatima, the second wife, who was a convert to Islam, learned Islam mostly from Omar and he convinced her that they did not need to be married under U.S. law--Islam would sufficiently protect her rights. And while this is true in the theoretical sense, in the United States, we have no framework to enforce that.
Omar had children through both of his wives--his first wife Khadija and his second wife Fatima. Both marriages failed. Khadija and Omar--the first marriage--divorced. Omar refused to pay any support to Khadija or their children through that marriage. But Khadija could take Omar to U.S. court and get child support and alimony. Now, Omar was obligated under Islamic law to do these things, but he refused, and as a religious minority in the U.S., not living in an Islamic state, Khadija had no recourse other than the laws of the U.S. But, thankfully, Khadija was married to Omar under U.S. law and could take him to court.
Fatima, on the other hand--when Fatima and Omar divorced--couldnt do that, because she was not legally married in the eyes of the U.S. courts. So, Omar shirked his responsibilities under Islamic law--didnt give her anything, didnt give their children anything, even though he had assured her, before the marriage, that he would. And Fatima couldnt do anything under U.S. laws because they werent legally married. Fatima was able to get no financial support from Omar because there was no legal institution compelling Omar to comply with Islamic law.
And next is the story of Iman. While the situation is not as physically or financially serious, it still is extremely emotionally harmful, and its very common.
Iman is a university student. She is very active in her student government on campus. She has formed coalitions with other student groups and they do relief work for Bosnia, Palestine, Chechnya, and other causes. She is on the student senate at her university, after being elected to it. She wants to organize similar relief efforts in her mosque, in her local Muslim community and in other mosques in the area so that she can reach the larger Muslim population. She wants to post flyers and information on the walls in her mosque. But she cant get to the mens section. She can only distribute the information to women, many of whom dont come to this mosque, because the facilities are less than adequate or desirable. Iman does not have a brother, father, or husband to access the mens side for her when she needs to get information to the Muslims. On occasion, she has approached men to ask them to help her. Many of them ignore her and leave, but on occasion, she has had men help her to post flyers and such information on the walls. But, its difficult, because the next time she goes, she cant find the same man, and she has to go through the same thing again and again, and she gets really frustrated.
She cant make any announcements at the mosque about the work that shes doing. She wants to make an announcement after the Friday prayer, but she is told she cant because she is a woman. She is getting fed up and she wants to make a change. Elections at this mosque come up, and she wants to run for the board because its a great way to get involved and to make changes. But she is told she cannot run for the board because she is a woman. But she is told she can join the womens committee and organize Eid carnivals for the children and prepare iftar (break-fast) during Ramadan. Iman, of course, is extremely frustrated. She is an activist. She has work that she is doing. So she stops going to the mosque because she knows that she can do more through the non-Muslim human rights groups at her university.
As shown by Imans story, Muslim American women are regularly excluded from leadership positions in our mosques and in our Islamic centers. We are allowed to participate only in certain areas -- preparing lunches, organizing Eid festivities, and events of that sort. Women are absent from educational or spiritual roles, unless they are teaching other women or children. Women with Islamic knowledge and expertise are not allowed to explain the Quran to the congregation nor give lessons in Shariah. Gender segregation is imposed in most American mosques and results in unfair and unequal access to space and facilities. Women are often put in areas with poor sound systems, or none at all, or noisy make-shift child care areas. They are stuck in back rooms next to the bathrooms, and wherever they are put--even if its a great facility--they still cant interact with the speaker and ask questions and have their voices heard. American Muslim women are not just excluded from leadership positions in our communities, but also even excluded from mosques completely. This exclusion can be overt where we are told "you cannot go to the mosque, this is a mens mosque," or it can be subtle, where the facilities provided are so inadequate and the treatment we receive is so horrendous that no reasonable woman is going to go back. All of this exclusion has no basis in the teachings of Islam. It results from culture and tradition.
And Muslim women also deal with other problems, many of which are culturally or ethnically-based and not unique to Islam. There has been so much cultural baggage that has come to the U.S. with the various waves of Muslims. And some of these other problems are not unique to Muslims, such as: the general devaluation of women--we are just seen as "not as good" as men, a preference for sons over daughters, women as a source of honor--and therefore shame--in the family, so we carry this horrendous burden of family honor, early marriage which often results in early pregnancy and usually an end to a womans educational opportunities, double standards which often result in unequal access to education--higher education especially, because women are not allowed to leave their homes or to travel very far to go to universities.
These abuses that I have mentioned are simply a few of those suffered by Muslim women in America. The abuses vary in degree and form. Again, we raise these issues not because we hate Islam, not because we hate Muslims, but because we--as Muslims--need to deal with the problems. It is not enough to say that Islam is a great religion. We need to prove it with our actions. It is increasingly common to see Muslims in the United States--women and men--leave Islam in growing numbers because of the treatment of women. They see Muslims as offering no solutions to these problems and they see Muslims denying that these problems exist, and after awhile it simply becomes unbearable. As Muslims it our duty to fight against every form of oppression, whatever form it takes, by whatever means we can, and we cannot fight oppression if we do not acknowledge that it exists.
At this point, I am going to give it back to Asifa, and she is going to talk about some of the opportunities that we feel as Americans we have, to address some of these issues.