The ability to choose is paramount to the freedom and autonomy of women globally. Patriarchy has invested much in ensuring that women have reduced opportunities and are penalized severely should they attempt to step outside of traditional gender roles. In the West, we often look to the Middle East as the epitome of female oppression thereby disregarding how this understanding is Islamophobic as well beneficial to patriarchy.
Comparing ourselves to other groups of women is not the path to achieving equality. Even when we disagree with the decisions that women make, we must remember that if each person has the right to determine their life’s path, this will immeasurably improve the circumstances for women globally. Obama recognized this when he gave his speech at Cairo University.
Though some have come to view the hijab as the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression, this can only be understood in this way if we purposefully forget that, for example, for many women in Iran, the hijab was donned in support of the revolution started by the Ayatollah Khomeini in rejection of the corrupt government that was controlled by Western nations. The hijab came to represent a rejection of Western decadence and deceit.
The hijab as a garment of political protest is not a concept readily embraced by the West, because it is counter to our construction of Muslim women as eternal victims. Obama stated in his address:
“I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.”
Rather than demonizing women for what is in some cases a legitimate choice to either respect their religious and cultural values, we should be focusing on increasing opportunities for girls and women across the globe. Obama states,
“I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.”
An educated woman will seek to ensure that not only are her children educated but that they understand the value of education as it relates to their life chances. Education is an issue only in the Islamic world, but in every corner of the globe, wherever women struggle to survive under the cruel leadership of patriarchy. By reducing this issue to a McWorld vs Jihad debate, we reject the concept of patriarchy as a global force. Our goal, instead, must be empowerment through choice and education.
When right wing fundamentalists seek to curtail a womans right to make reproductive choices, this behaviour is partially based in the belief that women are incapable of making rational decisions. When women were denied the right to vote, it was because affairs of the day were deemed to be beyond a woman’s ability to comprehend. When western women were denied access to institutions of higher learning, this move was defended as a move to deter us from abandoning our so-called “natural” roles as mothers and nurturers.
Choice enables women to participate as equal citizens, regardless of where they reside. The Wall Street Journal reports that 60 percent of degrees are earned by women; it is therefore hardly surprising that, even in our current recession, the unemployment rate is higher for men than it is for women. When given access to education women are equally capable of success and it is this that must become our central focus. Obama went on to state:
“Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.”
“Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity –- men and women –- to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice”.
There will be those that read this speech and take the position that Obama did not speak forcefully enough regarding some of the inhumane living conditions that Muslim women endure on a daily basis. It cannot be ignored that even after investing years and billions of dollars in Afghanistan, women there are still murdered for seeking an education and largely live in poverty. Many are forced to beg on the streets to achieve sustenance for themselves and their children. Beatings and honour killings continue unabated, as clerics and ordinary men pervert Islam to promote male hegemony.
The aforementioned crimes against women are well documented and reported. As the father of two daughters, Obama has made it clear that women’s issues are of great concern to him. He understands that the same patriarchal oppression that affects women globally will one day turn its attention to those he loves the most.
By emphasising choice, Obama is attempting to offer to the world a vision of what is possible when we affirm the autonomy of women. When we press for change, it is important not only to condemn the actions of the past but to present an argument as to why the value we seek to confer will improve the lives of all. For change to occur, not only must those who believe in the systemic oppression of women come to see equality as a human right, they must also see how it will benefit them.