By Maricela Lechuga
What images come to mind when one thinks “Muslim woman”? Is it perhaps the image of a woman whose eyes are the only thing to be seen through the slits of a black niqab?
Last Thursday night the Muslim Student Alliance held an event titled “Women in Islam” at the Colleges 9/10 Multipurpose Room. The event was a platform for discussion and education that sought to challenge the one-dimensional, homogenous image of Muslim women perpetuated by the media’s representation of them in fundamentalist governments.
Those who spoke at the event, including students and keynote speaker Maha ElGenaidi, suggested that such fundamentalist governments have misinterpreted Islamic teachings for political control but that the actual Islamic faith, when interpreted correctly, can be liberating for women.
ElGenaidi, president and CEO of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, complicated the stereotype of Islam as an oppressive religion toward women with her elucidation on the controversial use of the hijab, the head scarf that some Muslim women choose to wear as a sign of modesty and piety.
According to ElGenaidi, Western feminism disregards Muslim feminists who adhere to religion and wear the hijab. She explained that she feels liberated rather than oppressed by wearing her hijab. She chooses to wear it because it forces people to judge her for her character and piety instead of by her appearance, she said.
“What they don’t realize is that the hijab that I wear is by choice [and] it is not something I do because I’m forced to,” ElGenaidi said. “In fact, I do it in spite of what male members of my family want from me. For me I see it as far more liberating than having to worry about my physical appearance and having to dress in a way that is pleasing to society.”
Bettina Aptheker, a professor of feminist studies and history at UC Santa Cruz, believes that while Islam can in fact oppress women, it is not alone. She said that both Western societies and Muslim societies are oppressive to women, and pointed out the Western obsession with thinness as an example of how both Christian and Muslim societies are repressive in their own ways.
“I think [wearing the hijab] is entirely a question of what women want to do,” Aptheker said. “It has become symbolic of oppression, but it’s not more symbolic of oppression than many other Western traditions that we do, including the terrible obsession with thinness in the West. Women in general in all these different societies are very oppressed and struggle against it.”
Oppressed or not, Deena Hafsinin, a third-year molecular cell and development major and member of the Muslim Student Alliance, emphasized that pity is the last thing Muslim women need. What they need, she said, is for people to understand and respect their choices.
“People see Muslim women and they don’t understand that they’re not oppressed,” Hafsinin said. “That is not what we need. We don’t need pity. We need you to understand that we have a choice in our [lives] and that these are our choices. You must accept them.”