Three months ago, ISIS, the violent organisation claiming to spread Islamic rule in the Middle East was reported by various world news channels as having beheaded 150 women, many of them pregnant, in accordance with its own, unscholarly and rigid interpretation of certain parts of the Islamic penal code.
One month ago, the BBC publicly reported that Iraq’s women prisoners were typically “raped or threatened with sexual assault by security forces during their interrogation", while quoting a women’s prison employee as having said that "We expect that they've been raped by police on the way to the prison."
Just last Friday (March 20th, 2015), an angry mob in Kabul, Afghanistan, was witnessed as having stoned and beaten a woman before hurling her onto a riverbed and setting her body alight after she had “allegedly” burnt a copy of the Quran.
Should there have been solid evidence that the woman had indeed done this, Islamic ruling does not state that any violent punishment should be meted out, while actions such as burning the living body of any creature are explicitly forbidden. Indeed, according to Sharia law, nobody should pass legal judgements at all unless they are qualified with years of education in the legal field. Add to this the double irony that this incident occurred on a Friday, the Islamic day of prayer and contemplation, and, it seems, the Muslim world has lost its way.
While Western foreign policy, with its determination to mandate the carpet bombing of Muslim countries on its own whims, can be cited as the leading factor in much of the so-called “Terrorist” retaliation that is often reported by the media, Muslims need to ask what, exactly, they are doing to help themselves.The three incidents cited above are a far cry from the simple yet fundamental Islamic teaching that “Men and women are protectors of one another”, (Quran, 9:17).
Is Islam’s basic injunction that men and women should support and take care of, not resist or fight against one another, such a bitter pill for the Muslim world itself to swallow in this day and age? The sad answer is that yes, vast numbers of modern Muslims, followers of a religion that issues commands telling people to avoid harming even members of the plant world unnecessarily, have reached such a state of ignorance that they are unable to avoid harming their fellow human beings.
Enter actress Emma Watson, chosen on July 8th 2014 to become a UN Goodwill Ambassador and leader of the global HeForShe campaign for gender equality. March is International Women’s Month, and naturally, Watson made her contribution, with an extremely popular interview that was broadcast live on social media.
Watson’s London interview was predominantly focused on the inequality and unfairness that both men and women face in the West due to gender differences, despite the fact of the nation's progressive reputation. A range of topics relevant to the majority British audience were covered, from women being paid less in the workplace to the actual need to even recognise and acknowledge violence against men and boys.
However, HeForShe is a universal cause, and Watson reminded her audience of this by making a statement that was breathtakingly close to the Quranic injunction on male-female interaction: “It’s an equality club. It’s men coming in support of women and women coming in support of men.”
Watson, whom we must remember is attempting to promote her cause in the framework of a UN women’s rights faction, has come under criticism, with commenters saying both that she should stay in the kitchen and that, in reality, the campaign fails to address the oppression of men. Ironically, these criticisms bring us back to the cold fact that while men suffer in many respects, we have not yet moved beyond overall patriarchy and, globally, it is women who experience the harshest consequences of gender inequality. Rape and other forms of violence against women are by no means exclusive to the Muslim world, but the sad fact is that Islam provides a framework to protect against this, and it is simply not being adhered to by those who claim that they are imposing it.
In her official speech at the UN in 2014, Watson, in publicising HeForShe, reminded the world that the expectations that were put upon men were a contributory factor to the global situation for women. She stated that “Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.” While Islam does not address gender stereotyping in this direct manner, there are numerous pieces of historical evidence detailing the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) performing household chores such as taking out the garbage, making beds and sweeping floors, while women frequently took on leadership roles militarily, in the field of business (indeed, Muhammad’s (PBUH) first wife was one of Arabia’s most successful businesspeople), and in other professions requiring high levels of skill and scholarliness.
The Prophet, who Muslims believe is a role model to themselves, also focused on men treating women as equals, saying things such as "Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favour his son over her, Allah will enter him into Paradise" (Hadith – Ahmad). The burial of unwanted daughters in pre-Islamic Arabia can be equated to the modern practice of aborting girls prior to their birth, but the overall injunction is that girls and women must be valued and treated with kindness, respect and equality to their male counterparts. And right now, this is not being adhered to in the Islamic world.
It is both unfortunate and lucky that the HeForShe campaign is a global campaign addressing such issues as this modern day violence towards women. It is shocking that the once enlightened Muslim world is in need of such help with basic human relationships. However, we may be thankful that, unlike general women’s rights movements, HeForShe does not carry with it the resentment or the typical feminist stereotyping of Muslim women as being oppressed for their choice of dress, while conveniently ignoring the actual violence that is meted out to many of them.
Within the women’s rights framework that has been provided, Watson desires to create a space where men are not constrained in expressing themselves and gaining knowledge. In her International Women’s Day speech, she stated that “I really wanted to communicate that gender equality, historically, has been, predominantly a women’s movement for women, but I think the impact of gender inequality and how it’s actually been affecting men hasn’t really been addressed.” She followed this up by stating that she wished for open dialogue and understanding to be fostered as a way of changing mind-sets and, consequently, actions. HeForShe also wishes to acknowledge male problems while ensuring we realise that women are suffering so much more, and the campaign, which is publicly garnering support from men in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as the West will undoubtedly be a game-changer in the Islamic world.
Islam itself goes even further in promoting women’s rights, and history is peppered with examples. Economic equality is, for example, frequently addressed by Watson even though Islam provides women with economic supremacy, commanding not only that women receive fair incomes but that, unlike men, they should not be asked to share out or spend the money on anyone other than themselves. (If a woman spends money on others even out of necessity, it is considered an act of charity.) Education, also promoted by the HeForhe campaign, which assists in women’s entry to universities in countries where this is not a simple matter, is an Islamic injunction on both men and women and is not considered optional, and the violence against women that is a social and publicly accepted and engaged in norm in many Muslim countries is in fact outlawed.
The modern Muslim world at large appears to have forgotten its own Islamic concept of gender equality while also being faced with insults rather than assistance from mainstream, high profile feminists, and HeForShe steps neatly into the vacuum. Although it is secular, it upholds and promotes the wholly uncomplicated Islamic principle of civil, respectful and kind interaction between all human beings. Ever the idealist, Watson said, “My specific mandate is to advocate for women and girls” but that ALL inequality, from gender issues to xenophobia was “mutually enforcing” and that her true, personal desire was to somehow put a stop to all of these. History shows us again and again that once change is implemented, it works fast, but the long term challenge is in changing people’s mind-sets.
Watson has bravely taken on this role and changes, though small, are already being witnessed around the world. For example, a recent surge in male supporters in India, where the problems of violent rape have recently been publicised, has been reported this month via social media channels. As more men and women have this movement embedded in their consciousness, values, attitudes and behaviours will continue to change. Couple this with the drive for educational rights in the Muslim world and we’re onto a winner. Education opens us up to resources and knowledge that is Eastern and Western, traditional and unconventional, religious and secular.
As HeForShe increases its influence, particularly in the field of education, those in the Muslim world will be unable to view either women’s rights or the challenging of stereotypically aggressive male mannerisms as part of the alien West. Increased literacy, coupled with ease of access to information in the modern age, will eventually force these individuals to draw parallels between this valid, mass-scale gender equality movement and the teachings of Islam.
Watson reminds us that we should promote gender equality not due to external beliefs but “because it’s right,” although traditionally, many individuals have done the right thing for the love of God. In an environment where people are too often doing neither HeForShe is providing currently small but positive solutions and, for Muslims, the hope of a return to a peaceful, loving and progressive mainstream Islam as it had once been, and as it should be.