“The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Oppressed!

GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.


By Kannaporn Amoraseth Akarapisan, a program coordinator and instructor at the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Payap University, Chiang Mai, THAILAND

“I often read or hear that Muslim women are oppressed. How can you explain it, and What do you think about it?”

These are “the questions” that are typically asked of me, particularly from western women who consider themselves progressive and/or feminist. This line of questioning occurs frequently when I am giving my talk about Islam or women in Islam to international students at Payap University—a Christian University in Chiang Mai, Thailand—where I work. Most of the students are American and they usually ask these types of questions out of curiosity and concern. Here are my answers.

As a professional, I only deal with the first part of the question; “how can I explain (about the oppression),” in an objective manner. I do not respond defensively but academically in order to avoid offending my interviewers. I explain that the question derives from both misunderstandings and ignorance about Islam. In fact, Islam is the religion that prevented people in Arabia (1,430 years ago) from routinely killing off their daughters. Islam sought to ensure that women have rights over their properties and to emphasize that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah (God). Islam says the best among men are those who have one wife and be fair to her (Quran;Al-Nisa). That people cannot judge true Islam from Muslims who have mingled Islam with local traditions or customs. Islam has a dress-code not only for Muslim women but also for Muslim men.

However, “the veil” for Muslim women may be the most misunderstood of all and may make Muslim women look oppressed in the eyes of non-Muslims. However, after earnestly studying Al-Quran and Hadith (Islamic Holy Scripture and the Prophet’s practices) 11 years ago, I myself started wearing the veil because I totally agreed that the particular Islamic rule is truly for a woman’s own safety and protection of her mind and body.

Regarding the second part of the question –“what do (I) think about (the oppression)”—I wish to reveal my personal thoughts, not only to a person or a group, but to the entire world especially the west. Here is what a Muslim woman thinks when it comes to the term “oppression.”

I am constantly perplexed as to why non-Muslim women/feminists link the veil or the high covered-up dress with oppression or repression. I proudly wear them because they are a sign of submission to Allah. I believe that this sentiment is shared by Muslim women all over the world. Moreover, when I am wearing the veil, I feel I have control over my own bodies and my appearance. I never have to be concerned with how people will think about my hair or birthmarks that I may have on my bodies. I have something deeply personal and special that I choose to share only with my husbands. I feel immense pride and joy when I get a job or achieve something because it obviously came from my ability and intelligence—not because I have beautiful long legs, perfect skin tone, and big front or back bumpers.

On the other hand, I often wonder if women who dress up so openly or suggestively are mentally oppressed. They require men’s attention so much that they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to look the way they think that men want them to look. They work hard to save to undergo cosmetic surgeries just to earn men’s admiration for the (fake) beauty. They eat only half of what they want to eat, just to maintain sexy figures for men’s eyes. They must be aware of how they look all the time. Perhaps they are repressed! Their beauty is available not only for men in their family, but all men everywhere who can see through them without using any bit of imagination. Their husbands should be depressed!

I have never understood why some women eagerly allow men to use them. They allow men to use their beauty in many ways as if they were objects or products to sell. I never understand why western feminists try to convince me to stand up and fight for my rights when I already consider myself as equal—sometimes even superior in my households. According to Allah’s rules and laws women and men are equal with different duties and responsibilities in society. I believe that western feminists have the wrong notion of what “equal rights” between men and women truly mean. This has resulted in the breakdown of the family structure which is leading to the collapse of many societies. I believe that Muslim women of the world do not want to see our families and our society follow this destructive path.

In closing, I would like to ask our feminists sisters—who think that Muslim women are oppressed or repressed—not to feel or think for us. Rather, please ask us how we feel or think. We will be happy to tell you, though you may not agree with our answers but we can learn from each other and be friends with different viewpoints. Please note that while you are looking at us sympathetically, we are also looking back at you and feeling the same way! But we may not be as vocal about it.

6 thoughts on ““The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Oppressed!

  1. First of all… this is very naive to say that Qur’an grants equal rights to women as men (in a modern understanding of equal opportunity/responsibilities).
    Second, I love how Muslim sisters often write or argue against some type of “western feminist” view. Feminism is an ideology that affirms that women are HUMAN beings just like MEN. So it seems pretty clearly to me that the author strongly believes that it is in fact true.. the women ARE equally human. So that makes her a feminist. I know it’s a loaded term and can get a little confusing.

  2. Without condemning or condoning, I do find some problems with the arguments presented in this piece.

    The notion that it is a benefit for women to be covered (for their protection, and to reserve their beauty for a more select audience) reaffirms the belief that women are creatures of beauty and cannot be viewed in other terms. In some ways, it works as a perpetual cycle: we’re unable to escape the objectification of women because the donning of veils depends on this phenomenon’s existence.

    This is not to discount the author’s arguments about female objectification in western societies and the woman’s complicity in it.

    I spoke with a self-described progressive Muslim woman recently, and she had some interesting opinions. One argument that I had never encountered before was her frustration with the burden of action being placed on so largely on women’s shoulders. If we were to accept, for a moment, that the radiant beauty of woman is too powerful a force to go unaddressed, doesn’t it seem rather imbalanced that women must take disproportionate measures to deal with the problem?

    I think the problem with any action or cultural practice is when it is escalated to the level of compulsion. There are obviously different dynamics at play when a woman wears a hijab, and some of them are doubtlessly positive and beneficial.

    I think one advantage of societies that breed “western feminists” is that, in emphasizing the value of women and the validity of their opinions, they are more likely to be tolerant of deviations from the norm, whether the issue is modesty of dress or anything else.

    Ultimately, when dealing with society/cultural gender dynamics, I think it becomes problematic to demand specific solutions. At that point, it becomes tradition, and then value, and then, irrationally-followed belief.

  3. Hijab is aim to protect muslimah (muslim women), as Islam is the religious of prevention. Women body are high valuable for her husband only not for other to see. What’s wrong wih the world now, when someone wearing properly cloth to cover themselves people complaint, while one who almost nude and wearing very few pieces of cloth then people admire??!! We should ask the comments from the one who wear hijab that how they feel? As I never heard any complaint from them but only from the one who don’t wear it! I think you should study carefully about Hijab, prior to comment, why Koran mentioned and asked ladies to wear hijab. The hijab is not only cover your body but also your heart and soul!
    Peace be upon you all.

  4. My question is: it is aBSOLUTELY correct that originally, Islam promoted women’s status. In fact, so much so that the medieval literary Western concept of “romantic love” and respect for women as such really started in the Islamic cultural center of Bagdad. In contrast, in Judaism women’s role was always quite restricted. In early Christianity, women could be priests and prophets equally–but that was changed within a few hundreds of years when men took control of Christian orthodoxy. It seems to me that historically, the role of women in Islam has changed—and not for the better—and I don’t know but I wonder if it was not because of local customs intruding on Islam as it was originally practised. Why can’t women drive cars or go shopping by themselves in Saudi Arabia, for example? What about job restrictions? Isn’t the hajib related to local cusoms of protection again the very strong sunlight in southern climates (very practical at the time; less necessary today). In other words, didn’t the hijib PREdate Islam–did women only start to wear the veil after Islam–I don’t know the answer to that but I suppose it was the original custom. Compare the meaning of traditional women’s clothing in other societies, including in the West—why do Roman Catholic nums [and priests and the Pope as well!] wear the clothing they do—it is medieval in origin, but today it functions differently. I would like to see a deeper discussion on this topic. And no one is denying the existence of sexism and discrimination in the West–that is why feminists are working on it. I notice that this is a hard topic to discuss, a sensitive topic….why is that?

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