It is true that in societies trapped in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, women continue to receive abominable and oppressive treatment. But then, this is true of all societies. Muslims cannot be singled out for such a flawed social order. This distortion, however, should not deflect our focus from some path-breaking and stellar contributions of Muslim women not just to Islamic civilization but the secular society as well Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” In Khaled Hosseini’s novel about life in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the character Nana, a poor unwed mother, gives this grim advice to her five-year-old daughter, Mariam. In 25 words, she tries to sum up the way the world thinks men govern the lives of women in the world of Islam.
The portrayal of Muslim women in the media is grim and sombre. The public perception of them is one of stubborn stereotypes: supposedly powerless and oppressed, bereft of even fundamental rights. This picture keeps reinforcing itself, largely because this is how the Western media caricatures women in Islam. Recurring images beamed into our homes and phones keep strengthening the belief that Muslim women are being denied access to education, social space, privacy and educational and development programmes for socio-economic uplift.
It has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics. This powerfully flawed narrative dominates our newsfeeds. It overshadows the reality that nine Muslim women have led their countries in the last three decades, while the US couldn’t even elect its first real female presidential candidate in 2016. In many Arab countries and Iran, more women are in university than men.