Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A World Where Womanhood Reigns Supreme


The Seeds of My Own Re-evaluations -- Mary Walker
When I joined the team of "Living Islam" two years ago, my perception of Islam was dominated by prejudice and ignorance, and I found its treatment of women abhorrent. To me the veil symbolised the oppression of women, making them invisible, anonymous and voiceless, and the cause of this oppression lay in the will to perpetuate the family and maintain a patriarchal framework - the very basis of an Islamic Society. I thought women were entirely submerged by divine justification of their role as wife and mother.


"Living Islam" was filmed over two years in 19 different countries and on location I was a lone female in an otherwise male team. I was aware that I especially should behave appropriately. In my mind, women were to be neither seen nor heard. My first trip took me to Mali - to an untypical Muslim community in the bush. Making sure to cover every bit of naked flesh while the men wandered around in short sleeves, I wondered what rooms I was permitted to enter and who I was permitted to talk to. But I also wondered whether my new-found meekness was not in part a reaction to the overpowering atmosphere of the patriarchal society I found my self in. Was this how Muslim women felt - resignation in the face of impossible odds?
The first Muslim woman I met in Mali was far removed from my preconception about the Muslim female. She was the wife of a Shaikh dedicated to converting pagan villagers to Islam. A sophisticated, well-educated woman, previously married to a diplomat, she had renounced a Western lifestyle for a life in purdah. In my eyes, she had sentenced herself to life imprisonment. But here was no prisoner, no poor downtrodden slave. A sharp intelligent and influential woman stood before me, clearly the one "who wore trousers" round here. Here seclusion gave her a status of honour and allowed her to exercise control from behind closed doors without confrontation. She was the bargainer, the head of the household, and the manager of her husbands affairs and schedule. The emancipated woman in the West faces the conflict between confirmation of her femininity and the privileges that she associates with it, and repudiation of the confines of her female role and all the limitations that men want her to assume. From where I stood, this woman had transformed those limitations into privileges. On my next trip to northern Nigeria I met two more women who would alter my views even further. These were two women from the household of Shaikh Zakzaky, a fervent preacher of Jihad who urges his supporters to follow the example of Iran and replace the imperialistic western regime with an Islamic state. Zeenah Ibraheem, Zakzaky's wife and Fatima Yunus, her friend, had agreed to be interviewed about the role of women in Islam. They were in purdah and would only speak to another woman. The producer asked me to interview them. I was nervous apart from the fact that I had never interviewed anyone before. I was worried that my feminist sympathies would antagonise the women. But it was precisely these sympathies that Zeenah and Fatima themselves were questioning. Once again, the women were educated and articulate. And once again they had rejected the Western lifestyle which I considered so superior to Islam in its treatment of women.