Being born Female is a Risk Factor

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Gender designates the social processes through which differences and hierarchies are produced between men and women, masculine and feminine. Therefore, gender oppression relates to any individual or collective acts of violence or abuse, patterns of power and control, or any other systems of violence that are perpetrated against a person due to their gender. In most cases, gender oppression is directed towards girls and women, particularly if they are vulnerable or possess lesser power because of their socio-economic status, race, education, sexual orientation, immigrant status, disability, or dependence on the perpetrator. Gender in this case, does not necessarily refer to the biological differences that exist between men, women, and intersex individuals. Rather, it is about the roles and characteristics that are socially construed to belong to either men or women accordingly. Nevertheless, the system of patriarchy, which characterizes the Islamic societies, is said to be the root of gender oppression. For example, gender-based violence against women is more rampant in societies where men are brought up to believe that they must beat their wives to discipline them. This paper focuses on the practices and customs that have made challenge the human existence especially if one is a female living in an Islamic society. Change is a constant aspect of the human evolution. Change in different spheres; economic, social, educational, and technological, has gradually or rapidly been occurring across all societies. The primary aim of change is to make the relevant society better and more advanced. This paper also discusses the changes that have been taking place to Muslim women over the decades in terms of respect of their basic human rights, education, work, and political and social participation.

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Western Views of Women and Islam

Western views on women in Islamist states are predominantly guided by stereotypes. The Western mainstream media and other commentators depict women as living under oppressive patriarchal societies, which are characterized by numerous monolithic religious and cultural codes of conduct. Rampant in western media are portrayal of women as ignorant, oppressed, submissive, uneducated, and in need of rescuing from their violent families. Specifically, the media has played a critical role in shaping the discourse around the topics of Islam oppression of women and in influencing the spread of the stereotypical beliefs about women as a minority group. Derogatory and inaccurate depictions and as well as sensationalized headlines about a particular minority group inherently result in increased prejudices towards that group, further leading to more confusion and isolation of that minority group (Saltman and Smith 2015, p. 10). The rise of Islamism since the 1970s is credited with the erosion of the sociopolitical mileages that women had previously achieved from constant exposure to the West. 

There are beliefs that Islamist societies use religion as an excuse to carry out discriminatory practices and laws against women. This is the similar view that has been adopted by Muslim women living in the western countries. Organizations such as Sisters in Islam, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Muslim Women’s League, and Challenging Fundamentalism project the incompatibility of Islamism, and sometimes Islam, with progressive rights of women. To these critics, the most effective way of eliminating the inherent discrimination against Muslim women is adopting the Western liberal paradigm where more significance is attached to the individual rights and personal freedoms of women. On their part, proponents of an Islamic society argue that the West’s view of liberal freedoms are the origin of the problems facing women. For example, it is argued that Islamic rules, such as the strict dress codes, segregation of the sexes, and the extreme punishments meted for sexual acts are all designed to protect the woman from sexual exploitation (Dyer 2016, p. 8). The subsequent confusion created by the blurred gender roles, they argue, threatens social order, where both sexes are unable to effectively fulfill their roles. 

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International Legal Standards on Women’s Rights

The field of international human rights has significantly developed to address the challenges that women face due to their gender. Consequently, many international legal instruments that deal with human rights have included provisions for the protection of women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most comprehensive human rights international instruments, provides under Article 1 that every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Article 2 is the non-discrimination clause stating that every person has the right and entitlement to enjoy all the rights and freedoms set forth in the UDHR, without distinction based on among others, sex. Further, Art 5 prohibits cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment of any person. Read together with Art 2, Art 5 protects women from any treatment that may threaten their life, liberty, or serenity. Other international instruments with similar provisions include the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). For example, Art 26 of the ICCPR provides for the equal protection of the law for all individuals as well as a prohibition of any form of discrimination. To this end, it guarantees equal and effective protection against discrimination based on among other things, the individual’s sex. The ICESCR under Art 3 provides for equal right to enjoy the rights contained in the Covenant for both men and women. By implication, women are entitled to enjoy all the rights in the aforementioned instruments, including the right to life, inherent dignity, liberty and servility, political participation, and having favorable working conditions. 

There are also legal instruments that exclusively deal with the protection of women’s rights. The most extensive one to this end is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Convention is regarded as the international bill of rights for women due to its comprehensive list of the existing discriminatory practices against women and the actionable remedies. 

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is credited as the most significant achievement in building the women’s empowerment. Adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the Platform for Action contains a series of strategic objectives for eliminating discrimination against women and achieving equality between men and women. It seeks commitments from States within a human rights framework for political and legal strategies. Subsequent reviews on the Platform for Action have revealed that discriminatory legislations and harmful traditional and customary practices that negatively stereotype men and women still exist (UN 2014, p. 14). Worse still, for those countries that had developed legal reforms, enforcement mechanisms were highly ineffective. 

The Vienna Declaration and Program adopted in 1993 during the World Conference on Human Rights affirms the integral, unalienable, and indivisible aspect of women rights on human rights. Mobilization from the women’s rights activists in the Conference ensured that women’s human rights were fully included in the human rights agenda under the rallying cry of ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights.’ In particular, they sought to address violence against women in areas that were previously unaddressed since they were considered to fall under the private sphere, taboo, or an acceptable and inevitable part of women’s lives. It provides for the elimination for all forms of gender-based sexual harassment and violence especially those arising from cultural prejudices and international trafficking. Traditional practices, religious extremism, and cultural prejudices should not be a basis of perpetrating any form of violence against women. According to the Declaration, these acts are not compatible with the human worth and dignity. Countries that have ratified these instruments are bound by international standards to afford women equal treatment, protect them from all forms of violence and discrimination, and basically ensure that their human inherent dignity is upheld. 

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Islamic dressing

One of the most hotly contested symbol of the Muslim culture is the veil/hijab. The evaluation of whether the veil is an oppressive practice or not is one of the most complex subjects. It is a difficult topic to evaluate particularly due to the various reasons as to why different Islamic women wear it. Some wear it as a political defiance against oppressive regimes or the west, assertion of identity, or simply by imposition by men. This also translates to different interpretations from the women, the community, and observers. For example, one of the founders of WLUML, Marieme Helie-Lucas opines that imposing the veil on a minor is violating her and using her body in a way that defines her as a sexual object for men (Abdellatif and Ottoway 2007, p. 8). Westerners portray the veil as an object of oppression and subjugation of women as well as an object of men’s fundamentalism and control. This depicts women as being desperate for help from the West. However, selectively using the veil as a concern of for liberating the Muslim women rights is in itself hypocritical. To the contrary, it has been used for centuries by Muslim women as a sign of morality and signifying modesty and respectability for women in addition to showing their belonging to a certain community. Thus, trying to impose on them a different form of dressing is equivalent to disregarding socially shared standards of behavior, religious beliefs, and moral ideals. Most significantly, referring all women in relation to a single item of clothing disregards the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of women across the globe.

Inheritance and Personal Status Laws

Little is known about the societal practices that oppressed women before the advent of Islam in the 6th century. For example, women did not have the right to inherit their fathers or husbands. People with inheritance rights were only those who could carry the sword and protect the head, meaning men as women were not allowing to engage in combat. The first male kin of the deceased husband/father would take up all the inheritance. The deceased’s wives and daughters were also considered to be inheritance and were thus transferred to the male kin. Women were regarded as commodities. The status of widows was even worse. After getting widowed, she was supposed to spend a whole year of celibacy where she was disallowed from bathing or even combing her hair (Aquil 2011, p. 24). She could only stay at the worst place of her house. In mockery, it was said that a dog passing near her would die if she sighed on its face due to her bad breath. There were no family values or laws on marriage. A man could marry and divorce as many times as he wanted, incest was allowed as a son could inherit his stepmother, and the sexual practices were unregulated. Consequently, it was nearly impossible to determine lineage. In fact, women were left with the decision of determining who the father of their child was.  

Sadly, even the right to live was not guaranteed for a woman. Infanticide of the girl child was rampant as bringing up a girl was considered to be unpleasant and unacceptable among the Arab societies. The Quran, in condemning infanticide, captures the feelings of shame that was associated with giving birth to a girl in the period of ignorance preceding Islam under Quran 16: 58-61. A man after being informed of the birth of a female child, was filled with gloom and agitation and even hid his face from people due to the shame and disgrace. The girls were barbarically buried alive or thrown alive into wells in the desert and left to die. 

The introduction of Islam resulted in the eradication of most of the misogynistic practices that previously existed. Central to the development of the women’s rights was the Quran, which contained various provisions to this effect. Women were awarded inheritance rights, a limit on the number of wives that a man can take was introduced, and infanticide and other degrading customs, such as treating women as commodities and the unclean conditions of a mourning widow were outlawed. Islam also laid the foundation for the creation of a healthy family and the empowerment of women. Women became actively engaged in influencing change in their communities. In particular, Aisha Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad’s wife was well known as an intellect and educator who advocated for the education of women. 

Women in Terrorist Organizations

Although mistakenly believed to be passive agents, women have played significant roles in various contemporary terrorist organizations. This phenomenon has been sharply brought into focus by the recent and unprecedented influx of women recruits into the Islamic State (ISIS). Social organization and sexual divisions have led to the stereotypical beliefs that women engaging in violent acts have a disorder or an abnormality. These symbols, particularly under Islamism, have restricted women to being peacemakers and not warriors. Thus, women’s involvement in radicalized violence becomes a contradiction to the perceived sexual division of violence that is traditionally a preserve of men (22). Nevertheless, women engagement in suicide bombings and other forms of political violence is large and diverse. 

Historically, women have been engaged in revolutionary movements that resorted to political violence. For example, during the French Revolution, women were actively engaged in political deliberations and fighting in the army until the 1793 decree that relegated them to other roles, such as laundresses and canteen workers. The ban reaffirmed the sexual division of military roles between men and women subsequently making it harder for women to engage in trades that required coercion. In the 20th and 21st century, there has been an overhaul in the number of women engaging in violent activities. For example, in Asia, tired of the sexual abuse they suffered in the hands of Sri Lankan and Indian men, Tamil women became actively engaged in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers. Although initially restricted to administrative and support roles, the increased numbers of deaths and imprisonments of male fighters led to women engaging in warfare, many of whom volunteered for suicide missions. A third of all the suicide missions were carried out by women and they also represented 15-20% of the fighting strength Tamil Tigers (Dumais 2016, 26). The past decades have seen radical and sometimes violent women involvement across the western world, especially among the left wing groups.

Among the Islamist groups, there has been considerable evolvement of women’s roles, which is characterized by increased women’s presence. Although not considered to be equal to men, they are tactically used by the movements due to the reduced likelihood of arousing suspicion. Thus, conscious steps are undertaken not to legitimately offer women positions at the center stage. Even in national Islamist movements, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have significant numbers of women, they still occupy supportive roles unless or until there is a strategic need. However, the justifications for women involvement are rapidly shifting to theological and ideological Islamist aspirations. The institutionalized inequality between the men and women in Islamism, the women’s are inferior positions to avoid putting the male combatants in positions of shame and competition. This is particularly true in Palestine and Chechnya Islamist groups that strictly uphold a certain cultural and religious framework. 

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Of great importance is the public portrayal of women who become members of radicalized Islamist groups. Women who have previously decided to go to Syria are quickly labelled as jihadist brides or sexual jihadists. These expressions, repeatedly used by western mainstream media, regard women who in most cases voluntarily choose to join the groups, as sexual objects or as naïve young women displaying a form of Orientalism (Navest, De Koning and Moors, 2016, p. 22).  This denies any agency to women. Needless to say, women and men have nearly similar motivations when joining radicalized organizations. Primary differences occur between women in war-torn zones and those in peaceful areas and the situational influence on personal decisions. For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global pan Islamic political organizational, almost ideologically similar to ISIS but different in the means employed to advance their agenda. Both organizations are based on the belief that the world is primarily divided into two camps; the land of Islam and the land of the disbelief and the need of uniting the majority Islam countries under one region (the Caliphate). They also belief in the governance of the Sharia law. However, their methodologies differ to a great extent. The Hizb ut-Tahrir believes in grassroots activism and infiltration of significant sectors, such as the military and businesses, to gain support for the Caliphate. On the other hand, ISIS has repeatedly state that violence and armed struggle are its preferred means of imposing the Sharia law. Blood-red swords rather than democracy or negotiation are the means of establishing the Caliphate. 

The portrayal of the body of a Muslim woman as mutilated and sometimes even murdered by culture reinforces the threat that the Muslim man is perceived to pose against the West. This perception also justifies the violence meted against him and surveillance. The stereotypes may be advanced by infamous incidents, such as the public execution of an Afghan woman who was accused of adultery, young girls being banned from going to school by the Taliban, or the ‘Submission’ movie by AyaanHirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh. However, before advancing these stereotypical beliefs, it is paramount that one dispels the unfamiliarity with the different Muslim cultures, representations, and symbols, which hold deep meaning for the Muslims.  For example, propagating the belief that a veiled Muslim woman is a representation of the oppressive religion of Islam continues the Orientalist history. The diverse practices of veiling have specific meanings for the surrounding community (identification) as well as to how the woman chooses to dress (identity). Interestingly, Muslim men too have a certain dress code but it is the women’s veiling that is often debated upon. Being read as a symbol of oppression, the veiled woman is used as a justification for the West’s war on terror as one that liberates women. On the Orient lens, it is an interpretation of the barbaric and primitive nature of the East while the West is civilized and rational. In this era of globalization, total isolation is becoming more and more unthinkable and discourses on human rights, particularly those emanating from the women’s movements are increasingly defying all geographical boundaries. Consequently, hanging on to communitarian values that are incompatible with the provisions of International law is becoming less tenable. Undoubtedly, the advent of Islam enhanced the status of women in the Arab communities by outlawing some oppressive practices and granting some mundane rights. While the East may not necessarily satisfy the modern standards set by the West, it is important to celebrate diversity and appreciate the unique path traveled by the former in conforming to the fundamental guidelines on human rights.

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  1. Abdellatif, O., and Ottoway, M., 2007. Women in Islamist Movements: Toward an Islamist Model of Women’s Activism. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 
  2. Aquil, R., 2011. Change and Muslim Women. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 1, no. 21.  
  3. Dumais, H., 2016. Women and Violent Radicalization. Conseil du Statut de la Femme Research Report. 
  4. Dyer, E., 2016. Women’s Rights and Restrictions in Islamist Ideology and Practice. Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism Policy Paper No. 7. 
  5. Navest, A., Koning, M., and Moors, A., 2016. Chatting About Marriage with Female Migrants to Syria. Anthropology Today, vol. 32, issue 2, pp. 22-25.
  6. Saltman, E. M., and Smith, M., 2015. ‘Till Martyrdom Do Us Part’ Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon. Institute for Strategic Dialogue. 
  7. United Nations Human Rights, 2014. Women’s Rights are Human Rights. UN. 
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