I remember my Egyptian elementary school teacher asking our third-grade class, “Why did God send Islam to the tribes in Arabia?”
In response, I shot a proud fist into the air. “It’s because Arabs are the best.”
My teacher, a woman in her twenties, smiled and shook her head indicating I was wrong. The answer, she explained, was quite the opposite. Before Islam, Arabs were morally corrupt and spiritually empty. She talked about how they worshiped false idols and engaged in endless tribal feuds.
But, what drove the point home for the class was her description of how Arabs treated women. She spoke of young girls abandoned, murdered or buried alive. She left quite an impression.
Then, she spoke of how Islam came to change all of that. Islamic law established that women:
• Cannot be deprived of education.
• Can vote and hold civil office.
• Cannot be forced into marriage.
• Can own property and businesses.
• Can enter into contracts, file suits and provide sole testimony in court.
• Can initiate divorce.
Women also had defined rights to inheritance and alimony. And, the list goes on. These rights were predicated on the Islamic principle that men and women are equal in all respects. In the seventh century, such thinking was quite revolutionary.
So, if this is what the religion stands for, how do we explain the plight of women in the Muslim world?
To begin with, ill treatment of women is forbidden in Islam. But, it is systemic in broken and defeated cultures in the Middle East and elsewhere. Show me a place where it is tolerated, and I’ll show you a society plagued with oppression, poverty and ignorance. I’ll show you a place where the rule of law has been marginalized. Unfortunately, such places do exist, and they have colored our perception of the broader Islamic world.
The truth is the status of women varies throughout the Muslim world. Walking through a university campus in a Middle Eastern country, we see vast numbers of educated women. Touring a professional building in a major city, we find female engineers, lawyers, doctors and business executives. But, in less progressive places, gender equality eludes us.
But, there is hope. With the ousting of oppressive regimes in the Middle East, liberty and social justice may be within grasp. Then, in time, women can fully realize their God-given rights.
Meanwhile, we in the West have a role to play in advancing Muslim women’s social standing. It begins with embracing them as part of our own culture. Unfortunately, many Americans are not quite there yet.
For them, the hijab is a symbol not of faithful devotion, but of oppression. When they see a woman wearing this scarf on her head, some Americans are less likely to offer a casual smile or a friendly greeting. They look past her.
Hey. At least, we’re not France. The French passed a law forbidding women from wearing burkas in public. They claimed they were liberating women; giving them dignity. So now, a French Muslim woman dressed according to her religious beliefs can’t go outdoors. France liberated women by confining them to their homes.
Look. I’m not a big fan of the burka. I know it’s not mandated by Islam. But, I also know my opinion doesn’t matter. A Muslim woman should wear whatever she wants.
Americans, I believe, will get there. With time, we will accept Muslim women as part of our culture. We will respect their choices and honor their beliefs.
We will embrace their diversity. Ask me why I know this. With my proud fist in the air, I will tell you. It’s because we’re the best.
Dean Hosni, an underwriting professional in the insurance industry, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.