I was rooting through some old documents the other day and found an essay I wrote for my civil society class at Georgetown University. I remember spending a few days at the library with Starry Gee researching the issue, and even as an Arab woman living in the region, there were a lot of new revelations, not just about how others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s an interesting read.
American exposure to the Middle East increased exponentially after 9/11. There was a desire to learn about the other side. Perhaps because this exposure came with a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, the perception leaned more negatively. Many saw the region as fostering primitive beliefs and backwards traditions, especially concerning women. One of the main problems was the inability of some to distinguish between the Islamic religion and Arab traditions, and the lack of knowledge of other religions and beliefs in the region.
Generally in the West, the idea of ‘male protection’ or the headscarf is viewed as signs of inequality, and the idea that women would embrace these ideals considered ludicrous. But, what is considered oppressive by some is not viewed the same by others, as is the case here. Cultural relativism plays a large role. The problem is that each side believes the other to be culturally conditioned.
In the book, “Women in Islam: The Western Experience”, the author makes mention to the in-group/out-group perception, where one observes the ‘practice’ of other groups but the ‘ideology’ within their own.
Clearly the missing aspect here is communication, or rather, the lack thereof. This can be seen from the introduction of universal women’s rights in the region. According to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’ –
“The modern language of human rights is confrontational and insensitive to traditional resources…” (pg. 145)
What is perceived as westernization by the region is rejected and the people revert deeper into the old traditions. This furthers the impression of intolerance. The media also plays a momentous role in this issue. Again from ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’
“As soon as women in those societies appear covered in their headscarves…our cries of human rights violations becomes part of media and academic sensationalism.” (pg. 145)
However, Muslims families in America give an altogether different perspective. They tend to integrate themselves to American culture without losing their own, and this is helping to change perceptions and dismantle misconceptions.
With the advances of technology and communications, these gaps between cultures and regions is closing day by day, as people from each group begin to grasp the differences, but also the similarities, of West and East. This understanding will pave the way, hopefully, towards peace.
1) Women in Islam: The Western Experience. Anne Sofie Roald. Routledge. 2001
2) Muslims in the United States. Ilyas Ba-Yunus & Kassim Kone. Greenwood Press. 2006
3) Islam and The Challenge of Human Rights. AbdulAziz Sachedina. Oxford University Press. 2009