Yesterday I had an opportunity to hear what some educated women of Islamic faith and their husbands think about the treatment of women and how concerned they are about it. After Dr. Abdul Hye, an NASA scientist, presented his prepared speech on science and religion and an overview of Islam, I asked about the treatment of women. I had been invited as a journalist and considered it the right thing to do. The audience consisted of a number of Muslims, Jews and Christians, including four Catholic nuns as well as two Baha’is.
I prefaced my questions with the fact the Islamic countries of the world, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as well as others have practices that keep women from jobs, from driving cars and from living their lives equally with men. I mentioned that all the religions represented in the room had at the top of their organizations men, not women. The Pope is a man, all of the members of the International House of Justice of the Baha’is are men, the Mullahs and Imams are men in the Islamic religion, and most of the preachers in the Protestant denomination are also men. I expected hostile reaction and was surprised at what happened next.
The speaker condemned the practice of treating women cruelly but also the press that tends to emphasize those areas and people who do the worst things. He mentioned the press gives exaggerated profiles of the practices in Middle Eastern countries. He went on to say that the Prophet Muhammad had a different view of how women should be treated, that his first wife Khadijah had been a business woman and had considerable influence in decisions. He said women in Islam can inherit and own property and that there have to be four witnesses to any accusation of immoral behavior regarding women for them to be punished. One young man joined the explanation and said it’s difficult to understand the mind of God. He reminded folks that all the prophets had been men. I questioned these answers and was surprised at the reaction I got.
Many young Muslim men and women nodded affirmatively in agreement with me as I spoke. Then some of them came up to me afterward to continue the dialogue. A number of women told me they agreed with what I had said. Even the Catholic nuns said they too were concerned about women’s rights, had questions themselves and that I had said things they had always wanted to say. We talked about the treatment of women all over the world, the torture, the killing, the unkindness, the discrimination and the lack of real power women have and how if men had the responsibility of directing spiritual affairs what a miserable job they had done.
One man who had smiled and nodded in agreement with my questions during the meeting introduced his wife, clad in veil and traditional dress who had been sitting in the back. She said, “I thought America would be different. I thought women would be treated differently. I have wondered about all this myself, and something didn’t seem right.”
Several young Muslim men agreed as well. Nearly all are doctors, including the women, and said they are worried also about what is happening in some of the countries where Islam has advanced. They expressed concern about some of the uneducated, unemployed Islamic youth and their behaviors in different parts of the world that reflect badly upon the culture of Islam.
One young doctor said how he comes from Bangladesh and worries too about Pakistan on the borders and militancy in Islam among extremists. He declared that many in his country are fearful, but they would stand strong to make sure their country doesn’t become militant as a whole and that women might be treated fairly. He told me even the Prophet would be concerned about the poor treatment of women in various parts of the world.
Were these young people representative of a large group, or even the majority, of Muslims we do not see or hear when we read our newspapers or listen to our television sets? Are these voices lost in the militancy that marches with signs in public that reach the front pages?
My questions were very direct at the end of the meeting, and I wondered how Dr. Kurshid Khan felt afterwards, since he had invited me to the meeting and was its host. Dr. Khan is an engineer with 21 years and eight months experience as a safety engineer in the United States Air Foce before retiring to civil work. He emigrated to the United States many years ago from Pakistan. So I called him today and asked him about it. He is the Vice President of the Islamic Association of Shreveport and a Muslim chaplain.
Instead of being annoyed with the question, Khan laughed and replied he appreciated the fact it stimulated discussion. We talked about hypocrisy and how some religions teach one thing and practice another. Dr. Khan said it is of concern to him as well that uneducated people do bad things to hurt others. He said “the uneducated are afraid of Western ways of life which threaten authority and that’s how they become cruel to their wives.” He maintains this is not how Muslims are to behave and that Muhammad declared that boys are a gift from God, girls are a blessing.
I learned yesterday that there are men and women in the Muslim world who feel strongly about protecting women’s rights but some may just follow custom and tradition as many Christians do without question and outside the boundaries of the teachings of their religion. One woman said yesterday, “You have asked the questions we have also asked,” and thanked me as I left. I left thanking them as well, and Dr. Khan today, for giving me a message there are those who say they will counter violence against women and aggression in the world within the Muslim community.