By ICRD Intern Cassidy Lyon
“Oh wow, that’s very Western of her.”
I looked back at my American colleague, shocked that she could draw such a conclusion about Meriem, a girl that I knew as a rather traditional Muslim. Just a glance at Meriem is telling: hijab tightly enclosing the edges of her face, long sleeves covering even her wrists, and a polite refusal to shake hands with any of her male counterparts. Meriem, however, was a self-proclaimed feminist and staunch supporter of women’s rights.
That night, Meriem’s claim to be a feminist tipped off a fierce discussion among my colleagues, some of whom insisted that she been indoctrinated by Western ideologies. They tacitly believed that Meriem could only have come to the conclusion that she deserved an equitable space in society with the “help” of the West. Without realizing it, my colleagues were reinforcing the age-old prejudice that other cultures, and especially women of other cultures, are mentally and ethically inferior.
I, on the other hand, could hardly pinpoint a single Western characteristic in Meriem. She was born in Morocco, was a devout Muslim, wore conservative Moroccan clothing, and had never travelled to Europe or America. Surely she could not be “Western” simply because she had a predilection for equality. It astounded me that even worldly minds could believe that values like equality were birthed in the West and only disseminated by colonialism. It seems that my colleagues were unaware that the struggle for women’s empowerment has long been woven into the history of Islam.
It dates back to Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammed in the seventh century, who was one of the first generations of Muslim women and set a bold precedent for those who followed. As the narrative source of over 2,000 of Muhammad’s teachings—known as “hadith”—she played a crucial role in shaping the early foundation of Islam itself. Not only did she influence the religion and scholarship of the community, Aisha was a leading political and even military force, commanding a rebellious army that was ultimately defeated at the “Battle of the Camel”. Aisha was no anomaly either. One prominent Indian sheikh has identified at least 8,000 female religious authorities and scholars in a forty volume biographical dictionary.
These historical women of Islam are a source of inspiration, even for women of the West. The struggle for gender equality is not unique to the West, and that legacy of struggle lives on around the world, even within the Muslim community.
For Muslim women who wish to fight for their rights, Islamic scripture and history provides solid precedent. It is not necessary to “reform” Islam, but only to look closely at the narratives of empowerment that have existed since the age of Muhammad. As many Muslim-majority societies are plagued by conflict, these narratives will prove crucial to educating the next generations on the role of women, particularly in light of the parasitic bigotry disseminated by extremist groups.
Despite what my American colleagues may believe, Meriem isn’t a product of Western ideals, but rather a reflection and amalgam of the Muslim scholars, poets, jurists, patrons, and feminists long before her. Her predecessors and inspirations fill pages of traditional Islamic texts and ancient Middle East. As she pins her hijab and prepares her debates, she does not look to the West for inspiration, but remembers her own legacy.
Meriem: A Reflection of Faith and Feminism
By ICRD Intern Cassidy Lyon