If there was one thing I could change in the world to make it a better place, it would be to empower women more.
I have always wondered why people and societies even in the most abject states of poverty always seem to find a way to step on women and push them just that one step further down the dirt. As I have hinted at before, I don’t believe this is a case of lack of knowledge or education, repression of women is a question of choice – a weighing of the issues of importance and the subsequent imposition of rules and structures. Over the centuries patterns of priorities manifest and reinforce themselves in cultures, religions, habits, fashions, language and so on. It is possible to change these things over time, but I personally think that rational discourse is too feeble a tool to trigger any kind of change on its own. That doesn’t mean that it useless, far from it, I’m just saying: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
In general I am of the opinion that women in Sub-Saharan Africa and Muslim nations are on average worse off than in richer parts of the world and the West in particular. I know for a fact that some people will disagree with me on that point and the claim is not intended to describe the living conditions of all women across the globe. It simply puts up two poles of reference.
This opinion of mine is formed by a multitude of sources from which I can give only a few examples here: the UN Gender Empowerment Index, WHO, The Coalition for Adolescent Girls, which has links to a large number of reports and raw data. See also reports such as this (PDF) from Swedish NGO Save the Children and the Independent’s series on violence against women here, here, here and here.
I also recently stumbled upon this initiative that I find excellent: The Girl Effect.
Seeing that I view Islam as little more than institutionalized discrimination against everyone who is not a male Muslim believer I am therefore encouraged to see an initiative such as MuslimahMediaWatch.org pop up on the internet. MuslimahMediaWatch is a collective of young female Muslims from both Western and Middle Eastern countries who blog on issues relating to Muslim women in media across the globe. I think that, simply by getting together and creating a voice for themselves about themselves, this collective of young intelligent Muslim women are taking a large step in a positive direction. Especially their frequent posts consisting only of links to news stories really allow them to flex their international network and bring forth stories that are interesting to more people than just their core audience.
When it comes to their main articles I think, however, that they are sadly unambitious.
The stated purpose of the site is to provide a forum where Muslim women, can critique how our images appear in the media and popular culture.
Simply being able to describe the world – especially from a feminist point of view – is a big step forward for a part of the world that is notorious for its poor state of academia and oppression of women. But, by limiting the focus to how female images appear in media they all too easily come to lack depth in their coverage. From reading their posts I am quite confident that, if they chose to, they could delve deeper into the real world dynamics that lie underneath the mere descriptions of Muslim women in media and popular culture. In fact, I think that they could provide unique and valuable insight to the subject. But because of this focus on appearance, MuslimahMediaWatch becomes more of a site for media studies than for gender studies.
When I read the site I also cannot help but think of the concept of ‘slander’ as it is oddly defined in Islam as revolving not around information being either true or false but around desirability:
The word Nameemah (Slander) usually refers to the act of carrying tales from one person to another. However, Nameemah is not limited only to that. It includes disclosing things that are disliked, whether by the person being told, the person being discussed, or a third party. This disclosure can be by speaking, writing, nodding, intimating (hinting) or signalling. The disclosed matters can be actions or speech, and may be a defect in the person being discussed or not. The reality of Nameemah is to disclose a secret and expose something about someone who doesn’t like having such thing exposed.
In other words, exposing something about another person that is true can, in Islam, also be slander if the other person does not want it exposed. In a Western understanding of ‘slander’ the statement has to be false in order to qualify as slander.
In my eyes, MuslimahMediaWatch tends to focus on and complain about appearance/desirability of how they are portrayed and rather ignore the more interesting questions of accuracy or perspective in the stories that they pick up.
There are, nonetheless, also interesting debates such as this one going on. Quotes:
Fatemeh responding to Dinah: “Not to get into a religious debate, but the Qur’an stresses personal accountability for one’s actions. The statement “And this is easy to prove if you take into account that in Islamic teachings the husband will be held responsible for his wife’s actions on Judgment Day, not the other way around.” doesn’t hold any water.”
Hodan: “Muslim societies, whether its South Asian, Arab, African, European, etc, etc…..are toxic to the interest and safety of Muslim women. We can all scream until we are blue in the fact how Islam does not condone this or that, but action speaks louder than any evidence our faith have blessed us with.“ (…)
Azra: “societies in general (regardless of religious beliefs) are toxic to the safety of all women (regardless of religious beliefs here also)? Let’s face it–being a woman is hard, regardless of religion or cultural background.”
Instead of asking “How do Muslim women appear in the media?” I think that a much more interesting question would be to ask “Under what conditions do (Muslim) women live and why is that so?”
Unlike what Ms. Azra above seems to think, women in different parts of the world actually do enjoy quite big differences in living conditions, quality of life, opportunities, oppression, health, education, etc. Not all societies are toxic to the safety of women.