veil itself is a political weapon,' Cherif said, pointing out the distinction
between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a modern political movement that
uses religion as the means to a conservative political end.) The Islamists,
she said, 'have media, laws, bombs and the veil' with which to manipulate
This fall Samford hosted visiting scholar Dr. Salwa Cherif, a professor of American and English literature at the University of Tunis in Tunisia. Cherif is the first female Tunisian scholar to visit the United States through the Fulbright Scholar Program’s Direct Access to the Muslim World initiative, which is designed to build bridges of understanding between the United States and Muslim countries. Samford was the first university in Alabama to receive a visiting scholar through this unique program, and made the most of Cherif’s visit, inviting her to speak about Muslim culture in several campus venues in addition to her presentations to other Birmingham area schools, churches and civic groups.
At a public lecture in Reid Chapel in October, Cherif discussed women
in the Muslim world, a subject of much western curiosity in recent years.
In that troubled time, Sharia laws--ostensibly linked to the sacred texts of Islam--codified gender roles and the status of women. “Among all the Sharia laws that now exist, the ones which have been maintained over the past 14 centuries are the ones which concern the women,” Cherif said. The tradition is so long that some Muslims now consider the Sharia laws themselves to be sacred. In fact, Cherif said, even the traditional stories of the life of Mohammed have been reinterpreted to uphold the Sharia laws and their harsh treatment of women.
Ultimately, Cherif said, the treatment of women in the modern Muslim world reflects the traditional Muslim conception of female sexuality. “Unlike the western world, where female sexuality is believed to be passive,” she said, "in the Muslim world, from the beginning, from the time of the revelation of Islam, female sexuality has always been believed to be active, which means there is no difference in sexual behavior between the man and the woman.” That view was beneficial to women in the more equitable culture of early Islam, Cherif said. However, it worked against women later, as their power increasingly was viewed as negative and even destructive.
Cherif said the widespread practice of polygamy also has helped displace Muslim women from their honored early social position. Although Muslims debate whether the Koran permits or forbids polygamy, she said, polygamy’s social effect is clear. Because polygamy makes wives inferior to husbands and is based on the husband’s preference for the younger wife over the older, “it has always been meant to be a humiliating experience for the woman.” Moreover, Cherif said, the humiliating messages of polygamy have been impressed upon the psychology of Muslim men and women.
A Political Weapon
Cherif pointed out that the modern use of the veil is derived from a misreading of a verse of the Koran. The word used in that verse is “hijeb,” which actually refers to a curtain that separates not man from woman but a man’s public life from his private life. Cherif noted that although the head veil did exist in early Muslim culture, it also was worn in Greek and Christian cultures and, as in those cultures, was a mark of social distinction. In fact, she said, originally only the wives of Mohammed wore veils. The same process that codified gender segregation and promoted a view of women as destructive created the present form and function of the veil, which Cherif said “has absolutely no founding in the Koran itself.”
"The veil itself is a political weapon,” Cherif said, pointing out the distinction between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a modern political movement that uses religion as the means to a conservative political end.) The Islamists, she said, “have media, laws, bombs and the veil” with which to manipulate Muslim culture.
Cherif said many Muslim women are not aware of the manipulation that
has undermined their status over the centuries. Cherif and others who
are aware are working to reclaim the true narrative of Muslim women’s
history. And so, Cherif concluded her presentation with what may prove
to be the best strategy to restore gender equality in the Muslim world.
Quoting American author Toni Morrison, she said, “I know we cannot
change the future, but we can always change the past.”
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