Sunday, September 2, 2012
A few days ago, a friend posted the following video about the efforts of the Deputy Mufti of Turkey to improve the women’s prayer areas in Turkish Mosques:
My friend lauded the efforts as a positive development and at first glance it does seem like a commendable initiative. However, after thinking about it, I must disagree.
I won’t critique the overt Western bias in the newscast. Media in the West has an established agenda when it comes to covering the Muslim world – namely, the attempt to project Western liberal values onto a ‘backwards’ society. So when the news team who produced this short piece presents the female Deputy Mufti as a purveyor of some enlightened way and every other schmuck who questions her as an ignoramus, I’m not surprised.
And without sitting down and talking with the Deputy Mufti herself, I cannot possibly understand her motivations and rationales for leading this drive, so I’m not interested in criticizing her.
My reproach is for all of us Muslims in the West, who may see such a project and, based on our Western values and beliefs, immediately judge it as being a positive development for our misguided brethren in the Muslim world. We feel at ease in imposing our ‘civilized’ interpretations of Islam upon the backwards Muslim societies, like some twisted manifestation of the White Man’s burden - let us call it the Western Muslim's Burden.
Afghanistan and the issue of female education is another example of the Western Muslim's Burden . We all started salivating when the West rang the bell calling for educating the young girls of Afghanistan. I recall hearing khutbas and reading articles about the role of education and knowledge in Islam and how the Taliban's efforts against female education were antithetical to Islamic teachings.
And so without realizing that fundamental societal issues needed to be addressed first, great initiatives were undertook to quickly open girl’s schools. All this effort was misdirected and misspent with increased tension and strife between the US-backed government and the more conservative elements of Afghan society.
Let us not repeat such dog-and-pony shows across the Muslim world.
Look, I’m all for efforts to make North American and European Masjids more women-friendly. For too long, sisters have been huddled into basements, behind barriers, and up on balconies – the same sisters who are actively participating in their work environments, universities, and all other areas of greater society. The dichotomy between these two worlds is so great and contradictory that it is has become unsustainable.
Originally, during the first generation of immigrant Muslims in the West (from the late sixties to the early nineties), Muslim women were coming from societies in which female participation in Masjid affairs, and to an extent in greater society, was very limited. And so, Masjids were built and organized to simply maintain that social structure.
As the first generation of indigenous Muslims grew up and this crop of Western-Muslims began to see the contradiction between the segregated role of women in the Masjid and the more egalitarian role of women in Western society, something had to change. And thus was born the movement to make the Masjids more women-friendly.
This recent movement hasn’t arisen in a vacuum. The social context has defined it. Muslim men and women have become acclimated to a more liberal stance on women’s role in society, thus allowing them to embrace the concept of a Masjid more amenable to women’s participation.
But can the same be said for Turkey?
One needs to simply peruse the headlines to see that honor-killings and apostasy issues are still taking place in Turkey. Female literacy rates as well as employment rates are low especially when compared to their Western counterparts. Governmental positions held by women, salary gap between men and women, number of women shelters and other key indicators are similarly tilted against women. As much as the Turkish government may try to convince the world that Turkey is ready to join the EU, its people are still grounded in a more Eastern, traditional worldview.
Has the Turkish population internalized Western values, such as women’s rights, before initiating this project for women-friendly Masjids?
Now you may counter that removing the barrier or increasing women’s involvement in Masjid affairs are not exclusively Western values - that they are Prophetic values, as can be readily found in the Seerah of our Beloved Prophet (saw). Fair enough, but the social context of the Prophet’s time allowed for such practices (It could be argued that women in Muslim Arabia 1400 years ago were treated better than in most modern Muslims countries). It must be noted that in cases where the Prophet introduced concepts and ideas counter to prevailing social customs, such as abolishing slavery or prohibiting alcohol, it was done in a gradual manner so as not to upset the delicate balance of society.
So, if our objective is to (re)introduce the Muslim world to liberal values that are native to our tradition, then we must seek to do so in a holistic, foundational manner, avoiding the headline-grabbing, West-appeasing initiatives that will do nothing to change society and may even result in alienating the masses.