A webinar titled “Challenges of Muslim Women and Families in the West” was held here in Tehran with the participation of three scholars who discussed the topic from different points of view. The webinar was co-organized by the International Quran News Agency (IQNA), ICRO’s General Office of Cultural Cooperation and Expatriate Iranians Affairs, and the ACECR branch of Al-Zahra University.
In this webinar Dr. Hakimah Saghaye Biria, Assistant Professor of Tehran University, faculty of Islamic culture and thought, discussed the main challenges Muslim women living in Western countries face. Here is the full text of her comments:
IQNA: What are the problems that Muslim women mainly face in Western countries?
Saghaye Biria: I want to talk about two different challenges. One is particular to Muslim women and the other is what all women living in Western countries face. The first challenge is Islamophobia and the other is objectification of women.
Muslim women face “Gendered Islamophobia”. I mean the ways in which the figure of the Muslim woman has been constructed throughout the Western encounter with Muslim societies especially since colonialism.
This is the idea that when colonial powers entered the Muslim countries, they saw that it was not possible for them to control the Muslim body. The very Muslim identity seemed threatening to them. In different parts of Muslim world be it Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, etc. we have gendered Islamophobia from the beginning of colonialism. There was an attack on Muslim women identity that the Hijab is framed as a backward part of society that needs to be removed but in reality, what is happening is that the Muslim women’s identity is a source of empowerment for her in terms of resisting colonialism and that was a danger to colonial powers so they tried to overcome this obstacle.
IQNA: What did the colonial powers do to propagate this policy?
Saghaye Biria: What they did was raising the question of Muslim women as oppressed and imperiled victims in need of saving and that was a part of justifying imperial projects throughout history.
We are seeing the same thing today happening when the US for example invaded Afghanistan, they talked of saving of women. In fact, practicing Muslim women represented as a threat to the liberal order. They claimed that the liberalization of women equated with their empowerment. Sometimes they carried out this policy forcefully, other times through cultural imperialism.
So, the abandonment of hijab promoted as a sign of that empowerment. But the reality is that Islam's approach to hijab is holistic. It is with this holistic system of hijab and chastity that Islam keeps society safe from sexual objectification of women.
A minimalist approach to hijab does not conform with Islamic teachings. A Muslim woman practicing minimalist hijab could well become a victim of beauty sickness albeit to a lesser degree and be hurt by all the consequences. The Muslim women should not fall for the trap of a minimalist approach to hijab.
For Muslim women living in the west there is another fear and anxiety about being visibly in public but more and more Muslims are trying to resist that atmosphere and trying to overcome that challenge. Of course because of this growth in the practice of hijab we are seeing some changes even in the marketing industry and you see a variety of Muslim brands which is a positive sign.
IQNA: You talked about the challenge of Objectification. What does it mean?
Saghaye Biria: There is another challenge which is Objectification of women that we see in general in Western societies and this is a challenge that is not particular to Muslim women but they are not exempt from it so they have to be aware of the challenge. This is partly about the issue of education, the very culture our families are living in what sort of culture are we talking about that it seems to be threatening to our Islamic identity.
So, the first question is: what is Objectification? what are we talking about”? I refer to an article written by Fredrickson and Roberts named “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women's Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risk” in which they actually put forward a theory in this regard. They said objectification is a Process by which something that is not a thing is regarded as one. So, you are facing a process that is called dehumanization that you are looking at the woman as an object not as a human being. What does that mean? It means that you are looking at a woman as something not someone. Something that is devoid of independent judgments and actions. So that their Vision, character and behavior are controlled by external factors. this is being talked about women living in Western culture in general.
IQNA: This is what women are facing in Western societies. what is the process of that?
Saghaye Biria:There is a book by Dr. Renee Engeln, an American psychology professor at Northwestern University in the US which is called “Beauty Sick”. She talks about the same problem and she talks about the cultural obsession with woman's appearance. An obsession that focuses on women’s appearance over anything else they might do or say or be so in this culture of objectification you see that how women look, becomes the most important aspect of their life, not who they are, not what they do, not what they say, not what sort of achievements they have in life.
In this atmosphere, women are required to compete in a lifetime marathon, so when a woman looks at herself in such a way the first thing that happens is socialization. It happens through the norms and expectations and cultural values that are passed on to girls in various ways including through the media and of course education.
Beauty sickness matters in part because it hurts. But even more important, it matters because it's hard to change the world when you're so busy trying to change your body, your skin, your hair, and your clothes.
Now, in this culture, we have the practicing Muslim women who despite this enormous pressure keep their hijab. And of course, because of this practice, they become subject to all kinds of discrimination: especially work-related discrimination. Many job opportunities are out of reach for practicing Muslim women. So, in such a culture, Muslim women are pressured to either abandon the hijab or to practice a minimalist form of hijab: that is to reduce the hijab to the headscarf and comply with other aspects of beauty sickness such as the use of make-up, tight clothing, and plastic surgery and the like.
IQNA: So, what Muslim women should do to confront these challenges?
Saghaye Biria: I propose the following suggestions:
1. Understand the interconnectedness of the two challenges.
2. Do not fall for the trap of a minimalist approach to hijab.
3. Understand the holistic approach of Islam to women’s identity: Humanity first, gender second.
4. Understand what Islam has to offer for overcoming the social problem of objectification of women.
5. Create a social support network so you can resist the effects of the two challenges.
6. Talk about Islam’s message to others especially about the meaning of hijab as it relates to a healthy life style free of objectification.
7. In short, act proactively, not reactively.
Program host: Mohammad Ali Haqshenas