The perception in the West of Muslim women is one of quiet subservience. Before coming to Morocco, a number of people (who have never traveled to a Muslim country) talked about the rampant oppression towards women, warning me to “bring all your headscarves.” On the national scale, ” Trump, in the dystopian reality TV show he called a campaign and now an administration, has repeatedly demeaned and attacked both women and Muslims. At the intersection of this vitriol stood Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother he criticized for remaining silent while her husband spoke at the Democratic National Convention, insinuating that she was not allowed to speak.
After two months of living in Morocco, I don’t pretend to be an expert on Muslim culture. However, I have had time to observe it, while reading on my own, and reality is never as clear-cut as it seems. Yes, there is street harassment in Morocco (there is also street harassment in Boston). Yes, most women dress conservatively, but other women wear short dresses.
Take, for example, the hijab. A very visible identifier of a Muslim woman, it is also frequently pointed to as an indicator of her “oppression.” When mandatory, as in Iran, it becomes oppression; however, it is typically a woman’s choice to wear it or not. In Morocco, the hijab actually grew in popularity as a feminist movement. Women were tired of being harassed by men on the street, so they began covering their hair. It gave them freedom – freedom to go out unaccompanied in the street, to work, to the market, wherever – without the threat of sexual harassment. Some may argue that this is giving in to sexism, working within its structure without addressing its roots. Of course the mentality that perpetuates street harassment needs to be addressed, but the advent of the hijab should really highlight the resourcefulness of women. Not all feminism looks the same; feminist movements reflect the cultures in which they arise. They must in order to work for and to support all women.
Compared to other countries in the MENA region, Morocco is fairly progressive. However, in its 2016 country report, Freedom House gave Morocco a less-than-glowing review, citing (among other things) the arrest and trial for indecency of two women for wearing short skirts. It is necessary here, however, to make the distinction between oppression inherent in a religion and oppression executed by people using a distorted version of a religion.
In her book Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading, Moroccan doctor, Islamic feminist, and author Asma Lamrabet (see featured photo) analyzes how the Qur’an speaks to and about women. She breaks down passages that are often used to justify the subjection of women in Muslim societies, showing that it is not the language of the Qur’an that oppresses women but rather the male leaders who interpret it to maintain a patriarchal system of power. For example, she takes this verse:
AND [as for] the believers, both men and women they are close unto one another (ba’duhum awliya’u ba’d): they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong [...].
She goes on to point out the “intensity” of this “assertion of equality between the two sexes”. This verse, she says, is a call to all Muslims, regardless of gender, to “struggle against oppression, [and] do their best to ensure social justice”.
Lamrabet’s book makes it clear that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women; in fact it uplifts and liberates them. She writes, “It is this female profile, with a strong personality, blossoming, sincere and of a great bravery that the Qur’an evokes, and not that of an inevitably oppressed, retiring woman and an eternal victim”. The oppression perceived by the West is a result of a distorted Islam mixing with politics in order to create and preserve hierarchies of power (as seen in Iran, post-1979). Islam does not oppress women, people do.
feature photo credit: maec_maroc Conférence sous le thème « Femmes et hommes en Islam : L’égalité est-elle possible ? » via photopin (license)