Women and Islam the Western Perception Term Paper

Pages: 15 (4510 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Women and Islam

The Western perception of Islam is of a religion that is especially restrictive of women. Christianity has had its own more restrictive policies toward women in the past, but the West believes it has evolved to a more equitable view of the rights of women and of equality of the sexes. Islam is seen as living in the past and as failing to modernize, while Islam sees its restrictions as socially constructive and as elevating women rather than keeping them down. Such differences in perception are based on historical differences and also on the way the West has changed and now expects others to do the same without necessarily making the case in a way that appeals to Islam. There are some distinctions to be made among different Islamic countries, however, though too often the West sees Islam as a monolithic and more unified social order than is actually the case. Many of the Arab states and the states turning to fundamentalism manifest the harshest restrictions on women, while some of the more liberal Islamic states show more Western influences. The place of women in Islamic society derives largely from the historical structure of Islam and from the degree to which outside influences have been allowed.

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Masculinity-femininity is a dimension that is reflected in social attitudes toward men and women and in expectations placed on each. Islamic society is more traditional than American society today, though full equality of the sexes has not been achieved in America as yet, either. Once again, the roles of men and women in Islamic society are determined by Islamic law and the Quran. There has been a religious element in shaping the way men and women are viewed in American society as well, but as America has become more secularized, that influence has lessened. Definitions of masculine and feminine have come under increasing question and challenge, and the roles of men and women in business and society have become more equal and less related to gender. In Islam, Muhammad is meant to represent perfection, and the faithful are meant to follow his teachings and to be as much like him as possible. Those who achieve the perfection of Muhammad are highly revered as saints or holy men, and people give any living holy man great respect:

Their blessing and touch has almost magical power. They are appealed to in time of war as arbitrators. They are akin to the members of religious orders which have convents here teaching is given and hospitality is available. (Parrinder 18-19)

The primary beliefs of Islam are found in the pillars of faith, and these are supported by the followers by conforming to the laws of God as found in the Quran. Prayer is an essential duty, to be undertaken with a specific method, time, and place. Almsgiving is a duty of all Muslims as a mark of piety. Fasting is called for as well, demanded at different times of the year. Pilgrimage to Mecca is a duty to be undertaken at least once in a lifetime, and more for the truly pious. The fifth pillar of faith is the profession of faith in Allah and his Apostle, Muhammad (Parrinder 15-16).

The Quran embodies the chief doctrine of Islam. This work is the highest authority on doctrine, ethics, and customs. The Five Pillars of Faith make up the practical duties of the Muslim, and a secondary set of tenets involves the doctrines to be believed, of which there are also five -- that of God, that of the angels as servants of God, that of the books (the Quran, the Pentateuch, the Zabur, and the Injil), that of the prophets, and that of the resurrection on the last day (Soper 215-216).

The centrality of such tenets suggests that the individual is to be subsumed by the social order, that the society is more collective than individualistic. Consider Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has a long cultural history based on tribalism, and tribal membership remains a pervasive aspect of social relations today. In the Eastern Province, which has a large Shia population, there is thus a different social identity that plays a role comparable to tribal membership. Tribes have both sedentary and nomadic branches, city dwellers and villagers, agriculturalists and merchants, and people engaged in every conceivable modern occupation. Tribal affiliation influences hiring and employment even among foreign companies, which have become acclimated to the system (Nyrop 77). Tribalism also suggests a society more collective than individualistic.

The role of women in Islam has been a subject of debate in both the Islamic world and the West, though the West may have a distorted view of the elements of this debate. Leila Ahmed writes of the subject as a problem with historical roots and shows how the role of women has developed through time, over the history of the rise of Islam. The position of women in the Arab world at the time of Muhammad is discussed, though Muhammad made changes in the way women were to relate to society and were to be treated by society. The autonomy and monogamy that had existed before was exchanged for male guardians and the male prerogative of polygamy thereafter, and these elements can be seen as embodying a general view of women that has been reproduced in laws and religious practices ever since. In essence, Ahmed shows that the position of women in society is closely bound with the prevailing marriage practices in that society. The practices existing before Muhammad and those existing after were related, but in both cases these practices involved attitudes toward the role and responsibilities of women. The essential attitudes set forth in marriage practices in Islam are carried over into every aspect of women's lives.

Eickelman considers the same issue and states that the place of women in Islam ic society has a dual nature. It is first of all based on Islamic practices and Islamic teachings which themselves may be ambiguous (as Ahmed has noted). In addition, the role and status of women is influenced by the specific country in which that status is measured. Eickelman finds one set of practices in fully Islamic countries and another set in what he calls revolutionary situations, such as with the large Muslim population in the Soviet Union, where women have enjoyed equal legal rights and educational opportunities since the 1920s. Of course, the Soviet Union as a whole was not an Islamic nation, and Islamic nations are more closely bound to Islamic law.

The writings of both Ahmed and Eickelman only hint at the status of women. Admittedly, the subject is complicated by the fact that there is no single Islamic mode to identify how women are to be treated. That is, the Quran itself is ambiguous on the issue, as Ahmed notes, and Islam has developed in somewhat different ways according to the different societies in which it is found. There are clear differences between Islam in Arab countries and Muslim countries and Islam in non-Muslim countries, as might be expected, but there is also great variety between different Muslim countries in terms of this dimension and many others.

One measure of the social order refers to the degree of uncertainty one will accept. Islamic societies would be classed as low uncertainty social orders. In such a society, time is viewed as something that passes but that is not hurried. People in such a society take each day as it comes and live more in terms of present actions. People find security in their history, which ties in with a society such as Islam that lives by the rules of the Quran and celebrates the past of Muhammad above all else. For this reason, these societies also tend to be more conservative and to cling much longer to traditional cultural practices.

Islamic Social Order

Esposito notes the fact that modern Islamic reform is often seen as simply a reaction and response to Western imperialism, but he notes that in truth the roots of modern reform lie in both Islamic and Western sources and that an understanding of these issues requires a study of premodern Islamic revivalism and Islamic modernism. Islamic modernism is built on the structure of the premodern revivalist legacy, which by the middle of the nineteenth century showed great concern for the weakness of the Islamic community being compounded by the threat of subjugation to the Christian West.

For many Muslims, European colonial domination was the end of a long period of decline, and the political and religiocultural threat of Western imperialism brought forth several different types of response, from jihad movements to modernist reform movements. Esposito notes that "Islamic modernism represented an Islamically rooted response to unite and strengthen a demoralized community. Its method was a reinterpretation of Islam that not only drew on Islamic tradition but also attempted to assimilate the best of modern science, thought, and institutions" (Esposito 33).

Islamic revivalist movements of the time sought to transform… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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