The Western media tends to view women in Islamic societies through a lazy and paternalistic eye. Bound by the Burqa and silenced by patriarchy, the women of the Middle East are objects of pity in that exist within scored Islamic societies. (The UK Guardian describes Pakistan as one of "The worst places in the world for women.") When Muslim women’s suffering occurs in the West, the media shifts the blame from society to “extremists.” The “moderate Muslim” is the voice of Islamic reason; “moderate” means more “like us”, and a “Muslim” is someone who kneels down to pray five times a day.
Through the beatings, rapes, honour killings, and stonings, we hear more about Muslim women than we do from them. The Telegraph tells us that the Muslim Council of Britain thinks "women cannot debate [while] wearing veil". Adnan Khan writes in the Globe and Mail that "we have failed to protect Muslim women under threat." The sympathy is warranted, but the paternalism is evident.
For Shahinaz Ahmed, there is a problem here. "I think that Western perception is skewed. There is this view that the veiled women who is controlled by the man and who is not free must be liberated. The notion of wanting to liberate Muslim women from their shackles, while not even asking women how they want to be liberated, is faulty."
Ahmed is the CEO of Education For Employment Foundation (EFE), a nonprofit company that tries to help disadvantaged youth via market-based education. EFE provides its students with instruction that qualifies them for entry-level positions with private sector companies. It has been able to place 96% of its graduates in formal employment.
"At EFE, about 40 percent of our students are women", Ahmed said, "And they are incredibly hard working women. We try to teach them how to negotiate society, the home, and work, so that they can be able to make their own decisions."
Ahmed, who has lived in both the UK and Egypt, thinks that one problem women face the world over is being judged according to a male scale. "I know many women who are working and successful, but they are also responsible for their home life. So they are really carrying two jobs. Women carry a bigger load and take on a lot more in life than men, just in order to be deemed equal".
When the Egyptian Revolution was in its infancy, many within the Western media were quick to suggest that the protests raised a new hope for women’s rights. The LA Times reported that Women in Egypt, "long treated as second-class citizens... [had] found an unexpected equality on the front lines of the protest".
"Women of Egypt”, a popular group on Facebook, showed dozens of photographs of women in colourful veils and denim jeans standing amongst thousands of protesters, facing the army. "Egypt Women Show Courage Participating In Mubarak Protests," headlined the Huffington Post. Muslim women, the story went, were seen seizing their once-unthinkable chance for "liberation."
The story soon soured. The LA Times, merely 12 days after proclaiming a "new hope" for women, ran the headline "After Egypt Revolution, Women’s Taste of Equality Fades". In December, Foreign Affairs told us "How Egypt’s Revolution Has Dialed Back Women’s Rights", and by January 2012, the New York Times signed away hopes of Egyptian women, speaking on the women’s behalf: "Egypt’s Women Find Power Still Hinges on Men," the paper ran. The implication being that the women’s power was not physical or intellectual, as women were still "dependent on the protection of men," but as "symbols of the military government’s repression."
Take another look at that early and optimistic media coverage. The women "found" equality, as if they stumbled into it accidentally, perhaps under the protection of men. The images of Muslim women that were beamed around were nothing if not symbolic, especially to Western prejudices.
To a Western audience, the symbolism was revolutionary: "Middle Eastern women wearing jeans, dancing and singing in public? This must be a good thing" we were asked to think. The veil, which had once covered what we presumed to be frowns in swathes of black fabric, now framed smiling faces. Symbols of repression now became symbols of hope.
In this coverage, the place of women never changes. The women move from symbols of Mubarak’s repression, to symbols of liberation, and finally, to "symbols of the military government’s repression".
Each of the articles above was written by a man, and each of the articles focused on the “subservient” place of women within Islam
"When the mantle of Islam is brought into a variety of problems it becomes contentious, because Islam is a part of people’s identity," Ahmed noted, "In the West, there is a perception that Arab women are weak, religious, and covered up. That perception is very limiting, and not true either".
"I see a lot of young women in Egypt doing things that my generation would never do. I see women starting businesses and NGOs, or [those] who are confident enough to stand up for their political beliefs,” she continued, “The Revolution has really changed our beliefs as a society. Women have questioned our society. Women are vocal in the streets, on Twitter, on Facebook, and that is not going to stop."
Perceptions can be skewed in two directions, Ahmed observed. "Women in the West who choose to stay at home and look after their family are seen as unaccomplished. It is as if they should be apologetic for staying at home. In Egypt, it is the opposite, a woman who stays home and looks after her family is highly regarded. Of course, the opposite is also true, a woman who wants to go out and work and become economically independent is perceived negatively in Egypt, but one of the most important things for women is economic independence, and with that comes autonomy."
Ahmed believes that the Arab Spring has shown women challenging the paternalism of the Arab World, echoing the way in which women achieved greater empowerment during World War 2.
"The Arab world tends to be a very paternalistic society, in Egypt our parliament has less than ten women in it,” she said, “But during the election many women went out to vote. They just didn’t get to vote for women."
"What amazes me about young women in Egypt today is that if the system doesn’t work, they create their own systems. My generation tried to navigate the system, but this generation is trying to do away with the system completely by creating businesses and NGOs, going out and getting involved, teaching people. The awareness of women’s issues now exists throughout Egypt."
Ahmed went on to express her optimism about the future of women in the country. “They are a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “At the moment it is looks very bleak; women’s voices are not heard; there is a push to restrain women using religious discourse, but I think we will work our way out of that."
Ahmed’s caution is wise. The military is brutal in their treatment of women. Not long after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, female demonstrators were forced to undergo virginity tests to ascertain whether they were “suitably moral.” At the same time, videos of women being beaten in the streets spread all over the world.
Perhaps the best thing men, and the Western media as a whole, can do is to give more space to the opinions of women who are trying to build something for themselves.
A woman is not a veil, and neither is Islam.