Disclaimer: This was an incredibly difficult post to write. First off, Islam has so much controversy surrounding it: Jihad, 9-11, suicide bombings, and the list goes on. These terrible things are perpetuated by bad people. Secondly, I have Muslim friends (both in America and abroad) and I love them. They are good people. With that said, I feel compelled to speak out against the extremist factions of Islam that perpetuate violence against the innocent.
People who perpetuate violence in the name of God really, really get to me. So seeing news stories or films depicting the torture and killing of women and children in Islamic countries really gets me riled up. When I think about what it would be like to be a woman in a place like Pakistan or Afghanistan, I just don’t even want to go there because I am a woman and mother to a baby girl and a little boy.
Malala Yousafzai’s story comes to mind. In 2009, at 11 years old, she started blogging for the BBC, detailing her life as a young girl trying to get an education in Pakistan. The Taliban moved into her town and wanted to ban girls from attending school, so she became a young activist, promoting education for young women. In 2012, at age 15, she was shot in the face by a member of the Taliban. She survived and continues to speak out for the rights of women and children, especially on the subject of education. I hear a story like this and my mind gets this message: women are worthless and they must obey. Or else.
Subservient. Worthless. That’s the message I–and I think many Americans–understand about a woman’s place in Islam.
But this series of blog posts is supposed to be about my personal experience with the different religions, not about societal attitudes or philosophical arguments, so I’ll tell you a story about the first time I visited my husband’s home country of Malaysia. Malaysia is a Muslim country, so I felt anxious because all I had to go on was the media’s coverage of Islam. When we met up with a group of my husband’s Muslim friends, all the women wore head coverings. My chest filled with outrage and anxiety because, to me, wearing thehead covering was an act of submission.
“Why are they being forced to wear those?” I thought. “Why don’t they step out from behind the veil and stand up for their rights as women?”As if they’d rise up like the American bra-burning feminists of the 1960s. Right.
Before I even spoke with my husband’s friends, though, I had seen many, many Muslim women wearing the hijabin Malaysia. Just random people out in public: at the airport, at the grocery story, at a restaurant. But my American mind had only seen movies and news stories which showed the Taliban stoning women in a stadium or shooting girls for attending school. My mind imagined these Malaysian women to be meek, hidden, and oppressed.
Then I actually had a real conversation with them and what I actually encountered during that first meeting with my husband’s college mates was a group of empowered women who held Engineering degrees from American universities. They were mothers and wives. They were strong faithful women who spoke their mind and exhibited character. They came across as “normal” to me.
I even felt comfortable enough asking them about their head covering. They explained the difference between a hijab and a burqa; the hijab is a covering for the head and chest, but does not cover the face. They explained how Muslims in different countries practice differently. A Middle Eastern Muslim would have different attitudes than they might about how a woman should dress in public. These new acquaintances explained that they wear the hijab as an act of modesty. I’d never considered that and I felt kind of stupid when they explained it that way. Now, when I see Muslim women wearing a head covering, my brain registers “modesty” instead of “subservience.”
I can’t solve the violence in the Middle East. I can’t save a woman from being stoned or a schoolgirl from being shot by the Taliban. Most of my “crazy day” is spent doing mundane things like folding laundry or changing diapers. But I do know that I want my kids to grow up in a good world. The only thing I can affect is my little piece of this world: my family. So my hope is that I can raise my family to use critical thinking and common sense when formulating opinions. And when we don’t really understand something or somebody, we actually ask a person who knows the answer. I can teach my kids to use kindness instead of violence, but to also stand up against injustice (even on the playground). Then I can pray each night, with one baby girl and one little boy, for “peace in the whole world. Amen.”