Roles of Women: Norms and Cultures
Re-defining Muslim Women's Roles in the New Century
Azizah Y. al-Hibri
Professor of Law, T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA and Visiting Scholar, Library of Congress Law Library

More on Bias, Methodology, and The Muslim Woman. Many non-Muslims, familiar with the stereotypical image of an oppressive Islam, may wonder whether the attempt to reinvigorate the religious intellectual life of Muslims is worth the effort. They may find it hard to believe that such an approach would ultimately lead to full liberation. This raises two issues: First, Muslim women in the West have an added burden in their struggle for a gender-equitable jurisprudence. For one, their efforts are treated by other Americans with skepticism, even suspicion. Muslim women do not receive the same sort of support that secular women from Muslim cultures receive, despite the fact that the latter group has no grass root support. One glaring example of this lack of support is illustrated by an incident that took place a few years ago in our own capital. Muslim women wearing head scarves were not welcomed to a feminist demonstration in support of Bosnian women. Feminist mainstream organizers do not view Muslim women as valuable resources, nor have they made serious attempts to build bridges with them, or exchange accurate information.

The second issue relates to the nature of liberation sought by Muslim women. Different Muslim cultures will have different answers, and the women have to set their own agendas. However, one thing is clear, the Qur'an does not deprive the Muslim woman of her rights, societies do. As Muslim cultures interact through hajj, the Internet and other forms of mass communication, cultural differences will become minimized and Muslim women will benefit from each other's experiences across these cultures. The resulting societies may not be similar to our own, but we should hesitate to judge other societies solely by reference to our own model of women's liberation. Muslim women tend to be family-oriented. They aspire to spousal relations that meet the Qur'anic description of being based on affection and mercy. Consequently, their liberation movements are not likely to be based on polarization between the sexes, nor are they likely to seek confrontation. Most of the time, they are likely to use methods of conflict resolution, and may even rely on some men's piety to reach their goals. From the vantage point of many American feminists, these efforts may seem wrong-headed, even doomed to failure. From the vantage point of Muslim women, recent implementations of these methods have proven their effectiveness.