By Camille Phillips
MARCH 31, 2014
In Western media, we hear reports that Muslim women are relegated to a second class, largely powerless status and are denied education, independence and employment. We hear stories of women brutalized and abused.
But says, Professor Mehnza Afridi, that picture is painted with too wide a brush. She teaches courses on Islam, Judaism, Women and Religion, world religions, genocide studies, and Arab and Israeli literature at Manhattan College, with a special interest in contemporary Islam and gender issues in the Islamic world. She’s here for a presentation this evening for the Lee Institute Speakers Series.
While the stories of oppression and violence against Muslim women are true, they don’t represent the full diversity of experiences of Muslim women, and fail to distinguish cultural structures from religious principles, said Afridi.
“These are all different women living in different patriarchal structures,” she said. “A woman in Pakistan has different rights than a woman in Morocco. A woman in Morocco has different rights than a woman in Saudi Arabia. A woman in Saudi Arabia has different rights than a woman in Yemen…and we are quite wide spread. We are 1.5 billion people in the world today.”
And those different rights often come from cultural traditions overlaid by misinterpretation of the Quran, said Afridi.
“The main message of the Quran is about Islamic justice, it’s about principles of egalitarianism, it is about human rights. And we have lost that along the way due to patriarchy, and men being in charge of interpretation,” she said.
“Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, his first wife was a business woman, she owned real estate. His youngest wife, who was 18 when he passed on, was a person who interpreted texts. We’ve forgotten these lessons, and we’ve let a system take over where we need to look at the interpretation of Islam, and the Quran and especially women’s rights.”
During her presentation tonight at Ladue Chapel, Afridi plans to deconstruct the cases of two Muslim women who have had the eye of Western media, Malala Yousafzai and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yousafzai is the author of “I am Malala” and Hirsi Ali is the author of “Infidel
Yousafzai is a Pakistani woman who was shot in the face at fifteen by the Taliban for going to school. Ali is a Somali woman who escaped to the Netherlands to avoid a forced marriage.
In Pakistan, Yousafzai has been rejected as in icon of the West, said Afridi. But that interpretation needs to be dropped because it fails to recognize that we are a global world, she said.
On the flip side, Americans have latched too strongly onto Ali as the quintessential Muslim voice. The problem there, said Afridi, is that she is not representative of most Muslim women.
“She has led a very sad life, I feel empathy towards her, however she has condemned the Quran and Islam,” she said. “One of the critiques I would have of the American media is that they … focus on Muslim women who are angry at their religion…why don’t we have some really positive voices for a change?”
Afridi is a Pakistani Muslim woman who grew up in Europe and the Middle East before studying in New York and South Africa. For a time she became a nihilist, but now she embraces Islam.