If we do a statistical review of issues impacting women in majority Muslim countries we see a vastly improved situation, particularly in the last 20 years. Women’s participation rates in education, employment and even politics has vastly improved. As an overall statistic, women’s mortality rates, particularly around childbirth have improved. Women’s access to health care has improved. All of these statistics are available, in detail, and in the public sphere, through institutions like the UN, World Bank, and a range of women’s NGO’s and INGO’s.
These are statistics we need to be cognisant of because they tell us that there are shifts happening for women. Of more interest perhaps is the story behind these shifting figures and I think we can note the impact of the Millennium Development goals. They have certainly given focus and impetus to governments in many of the nations where Islam is dominant, but perhaps we should also note that their implementation has often been tied to foreign aid in other areas, with outside pressure and finances driving this. At the same time, it has also seen a growth in local associations, NGO’s, in research being done internally, in women being able to hold their governments to account to provide resources for addressing issues that are particular to women. The knock of effect of this has been governments finding ways of reining in the voices of these women. This can mean bringing women into the political centre, with promise of influence and then being able to largely muzzle them with the governments agenda, new NGO or association laws that effectively close down the grassroots work of women, or even the jailing of activists and voices for change on the grounds of anti-state activity.
There are examples everywhere: In Egypt, Amal Fathy was the second woman jailed in one year for speaking out against the treatment of women in the country. The government described her crime as spreading false news although the sexual harassment was proven. In Saudi, women were granted the right to drive but at the same time at least 10 prominent women activists were jailed the same year. And while the West celebrated women being granted the right to drive as a major reform breakthrough for women, they closed their eyes to ongoing marginalisation, discrimination and abuses.
One of the challenges for us is our obsession with symbols that we don’t fully understand or which stand as antithetical to our beliefs about what freedom is. Whether it is women driving in Saudi Arabia, or wearing the veil, for example, these symbols that confront our sensibilities blind us to listening to what women consider to be significant issues. When we get some movement on issues we consider significant, like women granted the right to drive, we applaud breakthrough. The problem is that the changes we call for are often not the issues most confronting women or where they are seeking change. I can’t tell you what the issues most confronting women in the community where you live and work, but I want to suggest that the issues challenging women today are changing, and we need to hear their voices to understand what they consider to be the most important and impactful issues.
People often ask whether the Arab Spring, considered by many commentators a major shift in Islam today, signalled change for women. We talk of the women on the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, of Tawakkol Karmen in Yemen who won a Nobel prize for her role in the protests for change in Yemen. To answer that question we need a brief history lesson. Algeria: women became part of the movement and battle for independence and this was seen as a breakthrough moment. Now women would be given rights because they fought alongside their men to gain independence. Promises were made. And then, when independence was gained women were told to get back into the home, sent back to the private sphere, and their hopes and dreams were shattered. Speaking with women in Egypt and Tunisia today, those who were on the streets fighting for change in the Arab Spring, they imagined a new tomorrow when they would be able to participate in all sphere of political and social life as equals alongside their men. But then when change happened, history repeated itself as it has on numerous occasions before. They were marginalised and excluded.
When we look at the changes happening across the world where Islam is the dominant religion, statistics and stories point to change on one hand and the lack or even loss of progress on the other. Both things are true at the same time.
As we think of women under Islam and what is happening with, in, by and for them today, we need to think in terms of polarities, opposites which are both true at the same time: New freedoms and curtailing of freedoms; political, legal, social and economic progress and exclusion and marginalisation; participation for change and exclusion from change; heroines challenging traditional norms and villains denigrating the community and nation; leaders paving the way for change and victims of exclusion and abuses.
So how does the Good News of Jesus’ love speak to women in these contexts? As we bring the stories of women in scripture to the front of the Biblical narrative we find our understanding and experience of God must embrace marginal voices as our teachers and exemplars. In the political, social and legal arenas Muslim women are often marginalised, and we tend to view them only through the lens of their need. I am encouraged by some of the work being done on Hagar that sees the voice and agency of a woman who flees injustice and yet returns at the command of God to be a free woman, even as a slave in Abraham and Sarah’s household. The story of the Syrophoenician woman was for many years one that I could not reconcile, but now I reflect on it often as I see how God takes the outsider, the marginalised, the least, and as her desires are expressed, brought into conversation with Jesus, shows his disciples that the theology shaping their actions is far from the reality of God’s love for people. And so I find myself asking how Malala Yousafzai, Tawakkol Karmen, Um Ahmed in Dar as Salaam in Egypt, Ayesha Bibi in Multan in Pakistan show me the reality of God encountering the least in this world’s eyes (our world as God’s people)? What do they teach me of who God is and how today he speaks his life and love and transforming power into these painful and conflicting realities.
What were the transformational moments in women’s stories that reveal the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God present among us? Whether it is the more well-known stories, though so often told from an androcentric reading, such as Ruth or Esther or Hannah, or those almost missed stories that may not be more than a verse or two in the Biblical narrative such as Tamar or Abigail or the wise woman of Abel-beth-maachah, we find those moments of transformation, that so often change the future we would have envisaged, are power in weakness, life in death, leadership in servanthood, wisdom in foolishness. As we consider what is happening among women who live under Islam they help us see that in brokenness, suffering, weakness, violence, there is life, hope, courage, joy – there is transformation in which we can see the hand of our loving sovereign God at work – if we look for the blessed are the weak, powerless, marginalised, excluded stories.
Featured Image: With thanks to IMB Photos
© When Women Speak … September 2023
CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).