The veils are lifted as Muslim women speak
March 25, 2005
WHAT: "Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out," a panel discussion revolving around a book by the same title.
WHERE: Montclair State University, Valley Road, Montclair; (973) 655-4000.
WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday.
HOW MUCH: Free.
Do you think of Muslim women as veiled, oppressed and silent? Think again.
Muslim women who are doctors, lawyers, scholars and journalists have been speaking out for years, but few people have been listening, said Fawzia Afzal-Khan, an Islamic feminist, actor and poet.
Why? "Because these women were speaking out against their own fundamentalist governments that are oppressive toward women, as well as against the United States, which in many cases supported these dictators," said Afzal-Khan, who is also a professor at Montclair State University.
It doesn't help that women have earned jail time in their countries for speaking out, she said.
Four Muslim women, including Afzal-Khan, will talk about the lives of Muslim women Thursday at Montclair State University. The other participants are Barbara Nimri Azis of WBAI Radio, who frequently reports live from Iraq; Maniza Naqvi, a novelist and poet employed by the World Bank in Washington, and Zohra Saed, a writer who lives in Brooklyn. The program is part of Women's History Month celebrations at the college. The panelists will read from and discuss the recently released book "Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out" (Interlink Press, 2005), as well as sharing their personal stories.
"I grew up in Pakistan in the '70s and I was educated at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a wonderful Catholic school. I loved my nuns - I still see them today," said Afzal-Khan, who has lived in the United States for 25 years. "I was Muslim but grew up in a multicultural society."
It was the struggle for power and wealth, and not religion, that led to the oppression of Muslim women in today's Pakistan, Afzal-Khan said.
"To say that it's Islam that is oppressing women is ridiculous," Afzal-Khan said. "To me Islam is a religion that preaches social and economic justice for all. The oppression of women is against the teachings of Islam."
People who go to the issue of the veil as proof that Muslim women are oppressed know nothing about the teachings of the religion and are painting all women with the same brush, Islamic feminists say.
For example, veiled women oppressed under the rule of the Taliban are not representative of women who choose to wear the veil for religious reasons in the United States and in non-fundamentalist Islamic societies. Through poems, plays, poetry and memoirs in the new book, Muslim women try to make sense of stereotypes both in Western societies and in some cases their own communities.
"The pieces are very bold," said Afzal-Khan, who compiled and edited the book.
In the "Little Mosque" series of poems by Mohja Kahf, the writer speaks out against women being banned from praying with men in the mosque. In the poem "First Writing Since," Suheir Hammad describes the extreme fear she felt as a Palestinian in the hours, days and weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Afzal-Khan was particularly moved by the one-woman play "Afghan Woman," written by Bina Sharif, who was born in Pakistan and now lives in New York. Sharif performs the play dressed in a body-covering burqa. The piece is a lament by an Afghan woman, first oppressed and silenced by the Taliban regime and further tortured when her children are killed by United States bombing of her village.
This is a classic example of a Muslim woman who is oppressed on all sides, the professor said.
"I applaud that women have the vote, but warlords still run the country, and last year hundreds of women and children died in Afghan camps," Afzal-Khan said. "So, in the larger scheme of things, what has really changed for Afghani women?"