Some have described the plight and status of women today, and particularly in countries where they live under Islam, using words like gendercide, femicide, gender apartheid, a pandemic, war on women, the new holocaust. In India alone it is estimated that 5000 women a year die because of dowry disagreements. More than 11,000 women died in the USA from domestic violence during the same period that 6000 troops died in in Afghanistan and Iraq. 1 in 3 women worldwide experience violence of some form in their lives.
The plight of women has been highlighted again recently by the abuses perpetrated against women in Iraq, in particular, by members of ISIS. Particularly distressing has been the abuses suffered by Yazidi women who were captured in large numbers and sold as sex slaves to ISIS fighters. The magnitude and horror of such acts make it difficult for many of us to know how to react.
Every day, women in the countries where Islam is the dominant religion are facing a range of abuses:
- Egypt: Thomas Reuters Foundation research suggested Egypt was the worst country in the Arab World for women.
- Sexual violence, harassment and trafficking combined with a breakdown of security, high rates of female genital mutilation and a rollback of freedoms since the 2011 revolution put Egypt at the bottom of the poll.
- 99.3 percent of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment.
- 27.2 million women and girls – or 91 percent of the female population – are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM).
- 63 percent of adult women are literate.
- Iraq’s second-worst ranking reflects a dramatic deterioration in conditions for women since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Mass displacement has made women vulnerable to trafficking and sexual violence. The Iraqi penal code allows men who kill their wives to serve a maximum of three years in prison rather than a life sentence.
- 14.5 percent of women have jobs.
- 1.6 million women are widows.
- Thousands of displaced women have been forced to work as prostitutes in neighbouring countries including Syria, Jordan and United Arab Emirates.
- Yemen: Historically marginalised, Yemeni women have been fighting for rights since the 2011 Arab Spring. Experts say child marriage, human trafficking and rape are endemic. The ongoing civil war is leaving mothers with terrible choices, sometimes about which child to feed.
- No law deals effectively with domestic abuse and marital rape isn’t recognised.
- There is no legal minimum age for marriage.
- Only 53 percent of girls finish primary school.
- Lebanon does not punishing marital rape, for biased inheritance laws and discriminatory employment laws.
- No law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Lebanese women can’t pass citizenship onto children or foreign-born husbands.
- One in six Lebanese women are illiterate.
There is a problem, but the story is not all bad. There are women, from within Islam calling for change, challenging laws, societal norms, traditional practices, cultural values and religious leaders.
- Tawakkol Karmen: received the Nobel prize in 2011 – the first Yemeni, the first Arab Woman and the second Muslim to do so. A journalist, in 2005, she founded Women Journalists Without Chains. “We are the new generation struggling for our freedom. We know that this is a new world and the future is ours. And as women, they built walls around us because they are afraid of us,” she said. In a country of extreme brokenness here is a voice calling for radical change.
- Hidayet Tuksal is a Turkish theologian known as a feminist. She is questioning Islamic narratives about women and what she describes as sexist and misogynistic mentalities shaped religious texts, doctrines and Islamic scholars.
- Amina Wadud: a convert to Islam, she is calling for progressive interpretations of the Quran. She is particularly known for leading prayers at a mosque in the USA.
- Irshad Manji: is an advocate for a reformist theology of Islam, and is the founder and director of the Moral Courage project that seeks to teach young leaders to make values-driven decisions for the sake of their personal and professional integrity
And there are many other women famous and everyday women who want to live differently.
There are those who state that these women are so far outside of mainstream Islam that they are irrelevant. I would argue that these women are part of a major wave of change that can shake Islam, providing the space for radical change. Women in Islam are both the fundamental keepers of tradition, and the most radical voice for change, and that should be a pointer to us if we want to see the Muslim world reached.
Where does it point us? It points us to Jesus. Think of his interaction with the Samaritan women, the women caught in adultery, the women with the bleeding, the Syro-Phoenician woman. These women were facing monumental cultural and religious challenges, and it was into these very challenges that Jesus spoke. In Jesus we find a radical departure from the rules of society and religion, and see the power of God to engage the deepest of a woman’s needs.
We see that culture and religious norms are not barriers to women being transformed by Jesus. Jesus shows us the profound brokenness of religion and culture that sanctions the abuse and marginalisation of women. He addresses both the needs of the women and the brokenness that sanctions her abuse.
Jesus addresses the outward circumstances of women’s lives and their relationship with the living God. He affirms their faith, and draws them into the community of his people. He empowers them to live transformed lives. The woman with the bleeding was healed, and Jesus drew her out to speak to her faith and the bigger life of belonging to his community. The woman caught in adultery was saved from stoning, and then challenged to live a life that honoured God. Changes were brought to the outward circumstances and the heart of women. Encounters with Jesus were wholistic.
We cannot ignore the challenges in women’s situations, their abuse and marginalisation. The whole gospel will address particular women’s needs, the structural issues in society and religion that abuse and marginalise, and their identity and relationship with Jesus the Messiah.