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The Monstrous Other: Uneducated/ing Women in Islam

Putting the taboo of uneducated women on trial. Is Islam guilty of deterring women from being educated? The answer is more complex than you think...

The Monstrous Other.

Firstly, we must understand what is an "other." An other is a taboo or a grossly under talked about subject that affects a particular group of people. Others are usually sensitive in their subject matter, require detailed analysis of many factors that influence it, and finally, is rooted in the fabric of many people's lives. 

Cultural taboos mistaken for religious taboos are all too common in the religion of Islam and other religions as well. In a world where 80% of the global population follow some powerful being according to the Pew Research Center (2015), and where over 20% follow the religion of Islam, these cultural taboos can prove to be widespread and believed by the global population; which has been the case for the cultural taboo of educating women in Islam. Better called a "monstrous other," this cultural taboo of forcing women to not get an education or restricting them from gaining access to one is by Islamic law not allowed. What makes this other monstrous are the multitude of generational, cultural stereotypes stating that women belong only to serve men, cook, clean, take care of the kids, etc. but this is untrue in Islam or surely in any religion.

First Defense: The Holy Qur'an

The Holy Qur'an - Source: IslamCity

Forcing women to or restricting them from receiving an education is a cultural taboo that has festered into an ugly stereotype that is used by critics of Islam since the taboo was conceived. To debunk this cultural taboo, the source of Islam that all Muslims are obligated to know of is the Qur’an and is the first defense (if only one defense were enough) tackling this taboo. The Holy Qur’an is a guide for all Muslims sent down by God to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during the early seventh century (Islamic belief). The first command in the Qur’an (600-700 A.D.), which is again a guide, is translated into English as, “Read in the name of your Lord who created!” (Chapter 96 verse 1). The word “read” doesn’t specify any gender; therefore, men and women who believe in the religion of Islam are required to read, i.e. gain knowledge by reading. If it's stated in the Qur’an, all Muslims must follow it, no exceptions (discounting any contextual verses). Claiming that Muslim women are not allowed to get an education due to Islam is not only false but a blatant lie. Women in Islam have always been known as courageous, brave, and even scholarly. Khadijah (peace be upon her) was not only Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) first wife, she was a scholar, businesswoman, and held many other positions of power before she became Muslim and still sought and gathered knowledge. Many other women in Islam have also held very high places as scholars other than Khadijah (peace be upon her). Those who bring the Qur’an as a defense this cultural taboo, are only playing themselves in a game they cannot win.

The Conception of the Monstrous Other

This monstrous other had developed until it became a norm until fewer and fewer women sought for knowledge. It was constructed by the following groups: the media, terrorist groups (Al-Qaeda, ISIS, The Taliban, etc.), ignorant people, and false sources. The main terrorist group that seeks for women to stay at home and not seek knowledge are the Taliban located in Afghanistan. Some say they don’t know any better than to create these cultural taboos because most of their leaders are illiterate, ignorant, and refuse to believe anything other than what they think they know. The Taliban when punishing women for actually trying to get an education make their own false interpretations as stated by Osama Hamid in his website dedicated debunking cultural taboos, misconceptions, and stereotypes. Some women, Hamid states, blindly follow them because they either they have no choice or are given no voice (2014).

Although ignorance is widespread in every religion regardless of the subject or topic matter, ignorance plays a big part in the construction of this particular monstrous other. People lack the knowledge and the ability to fully comprehend most of the statements in historical documents that have been written or orally passed down. An example of this is the hadith (sayings by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)) in the book of hadith called At-Tirmidhi (864 A.D.) by Abu `Isa Muhammad ibn `Isa at-Tirmidhi. The hadith states the following, “The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: ‘The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.’” This hadith is widely misunderstood by terrorists because of the word "Muslim." Looking into the actual hadith though, it says every Muslim, man or woman. This notion that the hadith only applies to men is false and equally ridiculous. Although this monstrous other was mainly constructed by ignorance and terrorist groups, one could say it also formed itself as people chose to blindly follow what they knew wasn't true.

Muslim Women and the Media: FOX News, an Image Analysis

Muslim women and the media - Source: FeminismandReligion

The media is extremely powerful and can shift people’s views about different topics and subjects in a matter of minutes. News media, depending on the broadcasting station, has its own left-side or right-side views on issues about war, race, sexual orientation, gender equality, and especially religion. The news media plays a huge role in not only creating and exploiting the monstrous other of how Islam forbids education for women, but plays an even larger role in shaping the minds of the world at large. Anytime a radical group releases a statement about how women should understand their worth to be only married servants for men, and do not deserve to be educated, news outlets, such as FOX News, feel the need to exploit it, bring in an "expert" and bad-mouth the religion of Islam as if it condones not educating women. Unsurprisingly, mainly conservative news outlets tend to have a negative attitude or bias towards the religion in general and continue to expend false facts and out-of-context verses of Hadith and the Holy Qur’an.

Images of Islamic women on the news broadcasting station FOX News in the past two decades of 1996-2016 have depicted Islamic women in almost slave-like and stereotypical ways. I have selected forty images that were broadcasted or taken by FOX News in the years spanning from 1996-2016. I’ve selected images that depicted Muslim women, not paying much attention to the topic they were being referenced to; however, I excluded images where the women depicted are not Muslim, were blurred, or are from movies and reality TV shows, such as Arab Idol, soap operas, etc. When finishing analyzing the images, it can be seen that the data confirms the research hypothesis which stated that FOX News from 1996-2016 has featured at least one stereotypical characteristic of Muslim women in its images. Some images depict women basically being forced into marrying a man she’s probably never seen. FOX News has stated several times that this is an “Islamic practice” when numerous verses in the Holy Qur’an and hadith contest to this. Other images stereotypically depict the women serving tea and other commodities to men. 34 out of 40 images consistently brought forth one or more stereotypical traits about Muslim women. These unnerving images by FOX News negatively influence the population in shaping and reinforcing the dismissive attitudes toward Islam and its followers, especially Muslim women.

Power Dynamics: Society & Education

Muslims girls at school - Source: Shutterstock

Women being restricted from or not being allowed to be educated effects society by letting women, particularly Muslim women, think they have no right to education in their own religion; society has an effect on this by assuming that Islam oppresses women by not allowing them to freely get an education as they please without further researching the complexities as to why this isn't true. This cultural taboo again affects education by discouraging women from getting an education due to the widespread belief that they have no right to it, which is again false. Dr. Raheeq Abbasi, Secretary General of Minhaj-ul-Quran International, states that gender equality in Islam effects society in many ways because of the ripple effect it can have. He explains that when one person hears information, they are more likely to spread it, and soon the majority of the population will come to dislike the religion of Islam due to the “lack of gender equality” it is accused of missing because of cultural taboos that have already spread (2009). Farah Onaid of also explains the importance of Muslim women’s education and how it can lead to the betterment of the way people view Islam. She explains that education is not only a right, but a responsibility upon every Muslim (2014). In order for this cultural taboo to cease to exist, one must understand that ignorance and lack of understanding of any religious group only make room for taboos like this one to exist. Highlighting the importance of education will shed light on the dark, false, cultural stereotypes that shroud Islam and its followers.

Modern Muslim Matriarchs

Muslim women have dominated the 21st century with their beauty, intelligence, and overall revolutionary contributions to their respective societies. They’ve reclaimed the narrative that educated Muslim women are needed and are everywhere. Names that you may not have heard of due to the dismissive, negative attitudes shrouding Muslims brought on by the media’s heavily biased opinions of Middle Eastern countries, Muslims, and minorities in general. These modern Muslim matriarchs have more to offer than just their beauty; they offer positivity, change, and most of all, they offer hope in societies where it seems like diversity is being traded in exchange for bigotry and exclusivity. Women like Dalia Mogahed who was the first Muslim woman to work inside the White House alongside former president Barack Obama as an advisor in addition to being a distinguished speaker and writer. Women like Malala Yousafzai who was an activist for women’s right to education at the early age of 16. The youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient of her time, Malala’s face is forever etched in the minds of thousands of women who gained access to education due to her fight against the Taliban. Women like Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim activist who co-led the Women’s March on Washington which demanded that women across the nation “…have parity and equality at all levels of leadership in society.” These women have always expressed and are unafraid of displaying their faith. They epitomize what it means to be a woman, a Muslim, and a humanitarian.

Education has and always will be a right for women who wish to seek it and for those who choose not to be guided by erroneous authority figures. It is imperative for any nation, country, or city that hopes to be successful and move towards a sustainable and prosperous reality that the women of that society be given every opportunity to attain knowledge and seek out education for the betterment of the world as a whole.    

Like any article, the information above is solely the property of the author, Cieaf Abualdahab. Any form of use or reproduction of this article must have the written or electronic consent of the author. Any inquiries, questions, comments, concerns can be sent via e-mail, [email protected]

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