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In the Newsroom

September 9, 2009
Misinterpretation of Qur’an holds back gender equality

Hoda Osman reports from Morocco. Photo: Hoda Osman

Egyptian-American reporter Hoda Osman reported from Morocco on the Worldfocus signature story “Moroccan single moms cope with hostility, shame.” She writes about her own perceptions of equality and Islam.

As we prepared to air our piece on single mothers in Morocco, the case of the Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein caught world attention and once again raised the issue of the treatment of women in Islam. Hussein was facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers, which was supposedly in violation of the country’s so-called “decency law.” On Monday, she was fined but given no lashes — probably as a result of the international attention the case received. Sudan claims to be following “Islamic Law.”

To many in the West, the case is another example of how Islam promotes subjugation and repression of women. To me it’s yet another example of something I’ve long concluded was Muslim women’s main problem, especially in the Arab world: Men’s manipulation of the interpretation of the religion and their abuse of it, as well as societal and cultural norms dictating what women can and cannot do

For centuries, Islam was used as an excuse to stop women from entering certain fields, to suppress them and make them believe they were inferior to men. It worked. Many Muslim women I’ve met throughout my life actually believed they were less important than their male counterparts and obligated to serve them.

I’ve read the Qur’an numerous times and spent time studying different interpretations of its verses. To me, the spirit of justice and equality are clear throughout its 114 chapters. Reading it always made me feel powerful, not helpless.

In the 1990s, small groups of Muslim women in different countries started fighting for rights they believed where given to them under Islam, but taken away by society. They decided to use the same weapon used against them. They went back to the religious text and reinterpreted it to prove that their religion honors and respects them and sees them as equal to men. The movement is sometimes referred to as “Islamic Feminism,” but the term is controversial.

Small accomplishments were achieved across the Muslim world. In Egypt, women were at the mercy of men to get a divorce and some spent years in limbo if the man refused to grant a divorce. In 2000, women finally got the right to divorce. Last year, Egyptian women who have children outside of wedlock also won the right to register them under their own name and without a marriage certificate, which is also the case in Morocco. In Kuwait, four women were elected to parliament for the first time last year. And in Bahrain, feminists are planning to debate the interpretations of Qur’anic verses for the first time.

While working on the stories for Worldfocus in Morocco, I was impressed by the tolerance and openness of the society — a result of the influence of Sufism on the culture, we were told by some.

But the status of women who had children outside of wedlock was no different than in any other Arab country. They were a source of shame, often outcast by society. You can’t blame religion or the law for that.

Whereas women and men are seen on equal foot by Islam when it comes to fornication, societies seem to be much more forgiving of men. Women who have sex outside of marriage, especially those who get pregnant and have children, face a myriad of problems and dangers as you will hear from them in the piece first hand. Even the woman who dedicated her life to helping those single mothers was the subject of a death threat by religious extremists.

To clarify, having sex outside of marriage is considered a sin in all Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to the Qur’an, the punishment for both man and woman is flogging. In my opinion, many of Islam’s harsh punishments are meant as deterrents rather than for actual implementation. For example, to prove that a man and woman had sex, you need four witnesses to step forward and say they actually saw the act, which is obviously nearly impossible.

Unfortunately, whereas the “Islamic feminists” have a tool –- the reinterpretation of the text -– that they use to try and free themselves of unwarranted restrictions, this story will show how much harder it is to change societal attitudes and cultural norms.

– Hoda Osman

For more coverage of women in Morocco, visit our Women in Islam extended coverage page.




[…] Hoda Osman believes that misinterpretation of the Qur’an is holding Muslim women back. […]


No doubt there are many Volumes
in the Library Of The Soul!

But this does not tell of
the Soul’s True Condition
nor does the mere knowing
of the Existence of the Library
reveal the many Natures
contained within the Subject Matter(s)
of all the Volumes which
might be housed in the Library itself…

The Volumes
with their many
Accompanying Interpretations
might remain evenso
in worlds of Red Dust
on Old Intellectual Shelves
unread…or if read…
partially unapplied
or in many ways
at unexpected levels
of psychological understandings
with absence
of full comprehensive awareness
remain fully (anatomically) undiscussed.

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