Samford University The BelltowerNovember 2004

Visiting Scholar Helps Reclaim History for Muslim Women

"...'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..."

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.
According to Cherif, “in the earliest version of Islam there was no gender segregation such as we see now in the modern, conservative, fundamentalist societies.” On the contrary, she said, in the seventh century even women in the immediate family of Mohammed, Islam’s founding prophet, “were highly active in the public life of the society.” She said modern Muslim feminists revere those women because they were highly cultured, were political leaders and even led their people into battle. “There was much gender equality,” Cherif said.

Cherif contrasted the relatively equitable, early world of Islam with the popular modern image of the religion as hostile toward women. She said this dramatic change is rooted in the internal conflicts that divided the Muslim world after the death of Mohammed. Violence was common in that age, legitimacy of rule was in question, and Islam broke into factions espousing varying degrees of conservatism.

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 said conservative Islam now sees two enemies--the infidel outside of the Muslim world and the Muslim woman inside it. She said it is fear of female influence that inspires conservative Muslim men to seek the removal of women from society, either bodily or visually, by requiring women to wear a veil and concealing clothes. “To veil a woman means to remove her from the public space and therefore to protect the public space and the man from her perverse, destructive nature,” Cherif said. She also noted that some Muslim women and men have suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that if women are so destructive and perverse it might be more appropriate to require Muslim men to wear veils.

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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