Friday, March 30, 2007

The Canadian Conversation: Muslims & Gender Equality

Michael Adams, the president of the polling firm Environics, wrote an interesting piece titled The Canadian Conversation in Tuesday's Globe and Mail. Here's an excerpt:

What Canadians are saying is two things. Bienvenue au Canada and read the Charter. In it, you will see we have two core values: freedom and equality. Freedom to be yourself (within the confines of the law) and equality, our way of achieving freedom. First and foremost, women are equal to men. The vast majority of Canadians have rejected patriarchy, which is part of the reason many of us have questioned and often rejected traditional religious belief and practice. We do not require you to reject your religion (religious freedom is protected in our beloved Charter, too), but we do expect you to embrace our value of gender equality. That, in a nutshell, is our concern with sharia law. It also lies at the root of our sometimes irrational-seeming reaction to head scarves. We worry hijabs are signs of patriarchy rather than expressions of Muslim women's lib. But we may be wrong; let's talk.

Let's talk indeed. The values of gender equality can vary depending on perspective. The common view may be to allow for women whatever is allowed for men, and vice versa. And when there appears to be something that isn't the same for both (for example, distribution of wealth in inheritance or type of dress), it seems to be out of line with the concept of gender equality.

Many Muslims look at it from a different perspective. They hold that while both men are women are equal in the eyes of God (i.e. they are held equally accountable/are rewarded for their actions, bad and good), both are inherently different. Men's bodies are different from women's, women's bodies can do what men's can't, and both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Even their minds work differently.

These differences don't make any one better than the other. They're just different.

And because of these differences, many Muslims believe God has given different functions to each, to optimize their productivity in the areas each is more proficient in.

So, since women in general are more sensitive and caring, God has given them the privilege of bearing children (and thus mothers have three times the reward from God and three times higher status compared to men when it comes to parenting), while men, due to their relatively higher levels of physical strength and stamina (in general) have been charged with duties that often have to do with labour and hard work, such as being the main breadwinner of the household.

And that's where the perceived inequality in inheritance comes in. Being the one responsible for the care of the entire family (not to mention seniors such as parents and grandparents too), men are given a greater share of inheritance, while women generally enjoy a smaller share -- by themselves.

As for dress, many Muslims, especially women, will tell you how disappointed they are with the rampant objectification of women in our society, including Canadian society. Despite the "official" image that women aren't treated differently than men, we all know of how females are viewed and treated by males (in the workplace, at school, on the streets, in bars, etc.) and how society at large treats (i.e. uses) women (in the media, women's roles in films, advertising, even the evening newscast!).

"Is this the gender equality the Charter talks about?" wonder many Muslims.

When Canadian Muslim women "cover up" (practically all out of their free will), either with the hijab, niqab or the burqa, they are making a statement: leave me alone, I am not a sex object; value me for who I am, not what I look like.

The choice to dress in whichever manner one wishes to is part of the fundamental right to expression. If men and women have the right to uncover to the point where they are practically naked, why can't they do the opposite?

In the end, it's a matter of personal choice and individual freedoms. Canadian Muslims don't tell anyone what they should or shouldn't be doing, and they especially don't tell others how to practice their faith and what others should believe in. They'd appreciate the same in return.


Hamza said...


thanks for the msg. I really liked this article although i found it ironic that the president of Environics believes that the hijab is a sign of patriarchy rather than women's liberation. But meh, he can believe whatever he wants. But the interesting point would be for him to run a poll on muslim women who wear hijabs. Maybe the outcome will be something different than his personal views.

Muslim Muckraker said...

You're welcome. I'm not sure if that's his personal opinion or if it's what he decuded from his polling.

Hamza said...

i don't think there has been a poll to show that most muslim women who wear hijab are wearing it by force. Otherwise it would have been on the headlines of every newspaper.

Safiyyah said...

I tried posting a comment here a few days ago, but it didn't work for some reason. Anyway, I wanted to say that while I very much enjoy reading your blog, I think your analysis here is somewhat simplistic and perhaps even misleading. Has God really prescribed gender-differentiated family roles (besides childbearing, which is clearly something only women can do)? There are numerous examples from the Prophet’s time that show that the roles overlapped and were often shared between the sexes. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not this is the norm, it seems to me unclear that gender differentiation was meant as a religious prescription to be continued over the many hundreds of years that followed.

Moreover, your explanations of labour and of inheritance laws are anachronistic, in that in modern societies, a) most jobs aren’t physically intensive and don’t need to be filled by a male, b) females often earn nearly as much as males, or at least enough to maintain themselves, and c) there are many single-mother families. One might ask, given these changing circumstances, whether the inheritances laws aren’t in need of adaptation.

Re. hijab, it really isn’t correct to generalize that women wear it for fear of objectification. That has been the common argument in the past, but it really isn’t a very good one. Ultimately, Muslim women wear certain types of clothing for a host of different reasons. The Quranic prescription seems to be a) for modesty, and b) as a marker of a free woman and thus a means by which one’s physical protection was secured.

Muslim Muckraker said...

Thanks a lot for your comments. I may not see eye-to-eye with you on everything you've said, but you've certainly given me a lot to think about.