Growing up as a young Muslim girl in Canada, I was always told by my parents that I could be and achieve anything I set my heart to. I wasn’t restricted at all; in fact, I was privileged and had numerous opportunities. I grew up with the idea that gender roles weren’t important and that I could choose my fate.
I visited Pakistan when I was twelve years old, and as a young girl, I was extremely shocked at how different it was from Canada. It was obligated for me to be covered whenever I left home; in Canada I occasionally wore short sleeves and rarely covered my hair, since I had a choice and my parents never forced me. I remember leaving my uncle’s home in Pakistan without a head scarf and almost being dragged back inside as he scolded me, “A girl must be covered when she decides to roam the streets.”
When I came back to Canada, everything seemed different. After living in such a conservative and religious environment for the summer, I began questioning my role in the world as a Muslim girl. I became exposed to other people’s opinions about my role and I learned that most believed that Muslim women are oppressed. I didn’t understand as a twelve year old girl—was my religion really abusing women?
Religion vs culture
I began to read about women’s treatment in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and I wondered; did my religion really allow this to happen? Did my religion not allow women to drive? Did my religion really allow a man to throw acid on a woman for refusing to marry him? Did my religion punish women for being women? After research and reading proof in religious scriptures, I realized no. My religion didn’t; but the people who manipulated, misunderstood and misrepresented the religious scriptures did.
I realized there was a line being blurred; a line between culture and religion. Our religion doesn’t allow a woman to be abused and treated as harshly as she is in those countries. Our culture on the other hand misunderstands the Quran and manipulates it; meanings are left behind and words are taken out of context.
The role of the media
The media plays a large part in this. The media insists that all women in Islamic countries are oppressed and need help from Westerners. The media blares that Islam is a religion for men, and not for women. The media claims that women do not have rights in Islam, and that we are essentially nothing. As a Muslim girl, I have come to realize that this is not true. The culture has been taking precedence over the religion, and I struggled to understand why this was the case.
Sarah Boumedda is an 18 year old student in Montreal who feels adamant about the line between culture and religion in Islamic countries. “It seems as though, in Muslim countries, instead of culture influencing the practice of religion, people use religion as a pretext to justify cultural beliefs or practices, often times, in a wrong manner.”
Boumedda explains how Islam came at a time when the condition of women in the Arab Peninsula was extremely negative. “The religion actually provided those women a much wider range of rights than they were allowed by the local culture where they lived. Most of the misconceptions people have about the alleged misogyny of Islam come from the local culture of a few Islamic countries. Even though the condition of women before the emergence of Islam was much worse, women’s rights in those countries are a local, cultural issue, that happens to be confused by many as a religious issue due to the strong religious influence this country is under.”
Farida Mohamed, President of the Montreal’s Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), addressed violence against women such as forced marriages, female genital cutting, and honour killings in a conference in Montreal. She expressed great distress after trying to explain her thoughts on the difference between culture and religion. “There is no religious justification for any of these forms of violence…it’s just cultural. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where does it say in the Quran that women aren’t allowed to drive? Islam tells you to adopt the idea of one God, but it does not instruct you to get rid of your culture. So everyone is practicing Islam according to his/her culture.”
Mohamed tweaked her glasses and shifted in her shoes as she continued passionately, “If you go through the religious writings, you will see many hadiths explicitly stating women’s rights and roles. In Pakistan women have acid thrown in their faces because they’ve been suspected of having an affair, and again where does this idea come from? Since when do you have the right to harm someone? Sometimes, cultures are stronger than religion, and religion plays second place. Yet these perpetrators consider themselves to be fervent Muslims but they put the religion aside and put cultural value upfront.”
Culture and religion are two aspects of Muslim countries that are dangerously intertwined and interchanged. Our religion preaches love and respect for women, but our culture manipulates our religion and allows women to be abused. It’s becoming an idea held throughout the world, and the name of Islam is beginning to be undermined by many people. It is important to know your rights, and to speak up and assert that religion and culture are two different things. Of course, our culture has positive aspects to it, as well. But it has come to a point where Islam is being hazardously misinterpreted and manipulated. And we have to stop it. Before we lose another woman of Islam to a crime that our religion does not justify, and never will.