The fame of Muslim women in early society is opposite to the image that is created in Europe and the United States. The Islamic history does not present women as nonentities. In contrast, it describes strong female characters. In particular, the Prophet Muhammad’s wives were partners and supporters of their husband in the formation of the new society as they had eminency after his death. Ernst (2003) gives an example of ‘A’isha, who transmitted “more than 2,000 hadith reports from the Prophet” (p. 142) and was considered the principal leader of the revolt against ‘Ali.
Today, the modern culture provides new standard image of the Muslim women, who are shown as “oppressed by men, restricted to home, and veiled in public” (Ernst, 2003, p. 142). The Taliban behavior in Afghanistan contributed to the formation of such negative stereotypes. Women were denied to receive education and did not possess basic rights. This “encouraged the impression that Islam is dedicated to the oppression of women” (Ernst, 2003, p.143).
Nevertheless, in theory, Islamic law provides particular resources for the female population (for example, property rights). Such rights were not available to European women until recent times. In practice, the complex nature of Islamic law was fulfilled with customs and traditions. This contributed to the fact that ethical principles of gender equality were sacrificed for the benefits of men’s privileges.
Ernst (2003) believed that patriarchal authority over females is not unique to Islamic society. Thus, Aristotle perceived women as natural slaves. Although the New Testament stated on gender equality, women were excluded from power positions in churches. Misogyny and male authority are characteristics of Chinese and Indian history. Modern culture tries to disentangle the roles of ethics of gender.
Ernst (2003) argued that European colonialism had a huge effect on the discussion of women’s position in Islamic culture. By the late 19th century, a number of arguments had been developed in order to show cultural inferiority of Muslim nations. The language of feminism became a new weapon in the colonialists’ ideology. The Victorian officials criticized Asian men for bad treatment of women, despite the fact that some colonial administrators were opponents of the suffragette movement. They justified their rule over Asian countries through maintaining that Islam culture oppressed women and by linking Muslims to veiling practice. They argued that Muslims could become civilized if they refused veiling, which they considered essential practice of Islam. The same rhetoric about Muslim women’s veiling exists today, despite gender equality in the United States and Europe.
In addition, Ernst (2003) presented an analysis of the Qur’an to understand that it provided gender equality in religious life, specifically, the God regards men’s and women’s acts as of equal worth. Nevertheless, Qur’an contains certain injunctions about men’s and women’s modesty as well as observations that are targeted at Prophet’s wives. Initially, the concept of veiling was applied to the Prophet’s wives by a demand to communicate with them behind a curtain, which meant hijab (Ernst, 2003). Generally, there were no instructions that were dictated by Qur’an. It just stated that women should be modest and cover breasts.
However, major changes in Muslim society took place “after the imperial conquests of the next generation” (Ernst, 2003, p. 146). Especially, it dealt with seizure of the eastern Roman Empire and Persia by Arab armies. Muslim culture appeared to be opened to sophisticated civilizations that developed traditions of women’s isolation and harems. These customs were different from Arabian society in the time of the Prophet. After all, Muhammad had a single concubine and was used to repair own clothes. Due to wide spreading of caliphate, male Arabs received a possibility to possess a number of female slaves. Increasingly, the norms of religious behavior for women were shaped under the influence of Persian, Jewish, Roman and Greek customs, according to which women were supposed to wear veils. Thus, “religious behavior imitated social status” (Ernst, 2003, p. 146). As a result, the veil, which initially was an attribute of the Prophet’s wives, gradually became an identification of every respectable woman.
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Practically, the concept of the veil cannot be identified in one single manner. In countries with big number of Muslim population, Muslim women wear various kinds of clothing. Social and economical class, education, traditions and customs, as well as rural and urban location, resulted in a variety of clothing that is or is not lined to religious beliefs. The Iranian women can replace chador by raincoat and headscarf (manteau). In Iran, women are obliged to wear it in public. In addition, they cannot do facial makeup. The chador cannot be considered synonymous to abaya that is worn by Arabian women. There are a number of “tribal variations on nomadic Arabia dress” (Ernst, 2003, p. 147). Muslim female fashion in West Africa includes colorful wraps and bare midriff. In contrast, in Southeast Asia, women wear “white headscarves and long dresses”” (Ernst, 2003, p.147). In Turkey, Muslim clothing varies from European fashion style (Istanbul) to conservative tribal clothing in certain rural provinces. Moreover, there is a restriction on wearing headscarves in government offices and universities. In Afghanistan, women follow tribal code that predisposes wearing burqas. Local men brag that their wives are in such total isolation. However, these customs are not perceived as a norm for Muslim women in the whole world.
When officials attempted to define Islamic clothing for women, this resulted in strange incompatibilities. Particularly, the Pakistan ruler Zia ul-Haqq tried to enforce Islamization program that denied wearing Indian sari in government offices. It forced women to wear shalwar kamis and dupatta scarf. However, this type of clothing has nothing common with religious beliefs.
Recently, the interpretation of veiling has been significantly changed. A new ideological emphasis on wearing the veil appeared in Egypt and Turkey. In 1980s, Muslim women began to wear it in order to demonstrate anti-Western nationalism. Veiling became a mean of showing their resistance to “the immoral use of women’s bodies in advertising by multinational companies” (Ernst, 2003, p. 148).
In the 20th century, Muslim feminists stressed the importance of female population in rising of the next generations. In many countries, Muslim female representatives of the upper class developed a tradition of establishing schools that were devoted to girls’ education. By 1920s, Muslim feminists created organizations, headed public demonstrations, and wrote books, which criticized patriarchal perceptions of Islam traditions. Islamic feminists’ strategy has common features with Christian and Jewish women’s movements. Nevertheless, they prefer avoiding the label of ‘feminism’ as it is associated with European traditions, colonialism and anti-Islamic beliefs.
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These changes in women’s role in the society do not mean that there are no challenges in contemporary implementation of the family law. There is controversy over homosexuality among Muslims. The debates include “practice of multiple wives, divorce procedures, abortion, and laws governing rape and adultery” (Ernst, 2003, p. 150). There are also issues of ‘honor killing’ that are targeted at women, who shamed their families by improper behavior and clitoridectomy.
Ernst (2003) argues that despite particular problems in Muslim societies, it is necessary to avoid considering Islam a prison, from which women seek for liberation. Such attitude toward Muslim women ignores gender challenges that exist in American and European societies.
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