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Laying down 'the White Woman's Burden'

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 31, 2003

I try to look into the face of the long-suffering Muslim woman into whose world Americans have entered as soldiers. But a common complaint runs through the literature in which Muslim women describe themselves: they accuse the West of misrepresenting them. If so, who are they? What is the face of the Muslim woman?

A flood of stereotypes come to mind, from scantily-clad belly dancers to burqa-shrouded women.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri of IndonesiaWoman in burqa
President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia and the burqa

But no stereotype explains the Muslim women who have become heads of contemporary nations: President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia; Prime Minister Tansu Ciller of Turkey; Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Sheik Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh; Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. The list could scroll on.

Clearly, the characterization of Muslim women is flawed if only by being incomplete.

The most recent stereotype to bombard the American psyche is of the Muslim woman who lives veiled and in fear of all men who, by virtue of their maleness, are her oppressors. This is the Afghan woman under the Taliban regime. The image is a snapshot of one truth in one context.

But is it true in general of Arab-Muslim women who have become the focus of world attention?

The first step in answering this question is to distinguish between Muslim and Arab-Muslim women.

An Arab is defined as "a member of a Semitic people originally inhabiting Arabia, who spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain during the seventh and eighth centuries a.d." The modern Arab League consists of 22 states. With geographical distance and other differences separating those who call themselves Arabs, being Arab has come to be considered as much a matter of culture as it is of ethnicity.

A Muslim is simply anyone who adheres to the Islamic religion. One in four human beings is Muslim with most adherents living in Asia or Africa. Only about 12 percent of Muslims are Arab. The Arab-Muslim woman is a minority within Islam and seems to be more defined by being Arab than by being Muslim.

Indeed, many Arab women are Christian. The Arab-American Institute estimates that 54 percent of the 3 million Arab Americans in the United States are Catholic or Protestant; 23 percent are Muslim. And, yet, such women are often lumped together with the Arab-Muslims beside whom they live.

This is especially true of the women in Arab nations who often look identical to the Western eye, whether or not they are Muslim. And, yet, even the faces of these women change dramatically depending on the culture of the country in which they live.

Consider the veil, which has become a symbol of the Arab-Muslim woman to Westerners. Many Muslims argue that hijab (head cover) does not come from the Koran but from the later interpretation of Islamic law. The scholar Sanusi Lamido Sanusi writes, "Even a cursory student of Islamic history knows that all the trappings of gender inequality present in the Muslim society have socio-economic and cultural, as opposed to religious roots."

In Saudi Arabia, Islamic religious law, known as Shariah governs virtually every aspect of life. This includes a strict code of dress, which virtually inflicts the hijab upon women.

By contrast, Tunisia has legally banned women from wearing the veil. In 1997, President Ben Ali was quoted as saying, "We have been concerned to ensure an equality of opportunity between men and women and to renew legislation regulating the sphere of women." The political circumstances of Tunisia created local traditions that denied women choice.

In other Arab nations, such as Egypt, hijab is a personal decision. In Lebanon "it is not uncommon to see two girls in Beirut, one in complete hijab, the other in heavy make-up and tight dress, walking hand-in-hand. Lebanon's diversity is reflected in strange ways."

The freedom women experience in any particular Arab nation seems to derive from local tradition rather than from the Koran.

I stare through a glass darkly at an exotic culture and my analysis may be flawed. But one point I am certain. To understand the Arab-Muslim woman, I must lay down "the white woman's burden."

This is the feminist version of the "white man's burden" — a theory that was used to justify colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In essence, the theory said that white people had a moral obligation to civilize brown people. The Rudyard Kipling poem in which the term originated was written to justify the British colonization of India.

Western feminists seem to believe they have a moral obligation to save the Arab-Muslim woman by molding her into their own image. But if the oppression of Arab-Muslim women results from local traditions and not from religion or ethnicity, then it is possible to respect Islam and Arabs without disrespecting her.

By abandoning the assumption of superiority, Western feminists can say to the Arab-Muslim woman, "we don't disparage your religion or your ethnic origins. We only want you to have choice."

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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