Women’s rights in Islam is a growing topic of conversation in Western societies, and it is perceived, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that Muslim women are less equal than their male counterparts. Why do we often hear of violence against women in an Islamic context? Why is that many Muslim women are required to cover their faces? Are there justifiable grounds for these practices?
Soteria International believes in the promotion of spiritual human rights, of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that everyone has right to enjoy these freedoms, regardless of their gender. Suppression of women within a religious group does not align with the organisation’s ideas of equality in spiritual and human rights.
On Wednesday 3rd May 2017, the European Parliament in Brussels hosted the event, “Are Women's Rights in Islam Compatible with Modern Society: Misconceptions in Islam regarding Women's Rights.” The conference was organised by the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR). Gerry Campbell, Dr Azmayesh and Mattie Heaven were invited to speak about the topic, and the event was sponsored by four MEPs, representing different political parties. After two hours of thought-provoking debate, the speakers concluded that the root of abuses of women’s human rights within Islam lies within misinterpretation of holy texts. The general consensus was that Islam is indeed compatible with modern society, as least as much so as any other religion is.
MEP Esteban González Pons began by acknowledging the importance of women's voices being heard. He argued that it is common sense that women should be at the forefront of the debate when it comes to women's rights issues, yet this is so often not the case. He acknowledged the vital role of education in teaching values of equality between men and women, and in the balanced (as opposed to extremist) interpretation of religious texts.
Mattie Heaven was the first invited speaker to answer the question posed by the conference. She was brought up in a Muslim family in the UK, and talked about her experiences of a patriarchal system within her community, and women being valued as half that of men. She questioned how she could practise a religion, which seemed to go against her core beliefs and basic human rights. Ms. Heaven asked people within her community why women were considered to have less worth than men, but was told this was the teaching of the Quran and that she must accept it. Ms. Heaven decided to continue asking questions, which led her to realising the influence of interpretation. She researched further and failed to find any equality imbalance within the Quran (she provided the example of 54 mentioned names of women and 54 names of men). She also discussed how there are no verses in the Quran that command women to cover their head and faces. The Niqab is mentioned, e.g. in the context of a veil from wall to wall, but there is no mention of a woman. She continued by discussing the importance of the balanced interpretation of religious texts and how the language must be interpreted as it was when it was written. Certain words have been modified and changed over the years and being aware of this is key to avoiding misunderstandings. We must distinguish between these misunderstandings, which have arisen over generations, and the actual religious teachings. Ms. Heaven found that she was empowered by her research and concluded that Islam is indeed compatible with modern society.
MEP Julie Ward strongly agreed that women's rights in Islam were compatible with modern society, at least as much so as any other religion. She outlined the importance of education over all age groups, and proposed ongoing civic education and intercultural dialogue as a solution in tackling intercultural issues.
Gerry Campbell, Former Scotland Yard Detective Chief Superintendent was next to address the question. He agreed with MEP Pons that women needed to play a bigger part of the women's rights dialogue, but added that men also need to talk more about it. He said the question that should be being asked is: "Are men's attitudes to women and girls compatible with modern society?" Mr Campbell discussed how women's rights abuses such as honour killings and female genital mutilation (FGM) are happening in Europe, right on our doorsteps. These practices are often associated with Islam, but in fact they are culturally rooted. Mr Campbell highlighted the need to distinguish between good and harmful cultural practices. He argued that eradicating harmful practices is achievable; harmful practices were created by man, and therefore can be changed by man. Finally he talked about the community based Big Brother Movement (BBM), as part of the solution to eradicate violence against women.
MEP Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea contributed to the discussion of misinterpretation of the Quran, and how it augments radical beliefs and practices. She believes the solution is to work towards one true universal interpretation of the Quran (there are currently many versions), agreed upon by experts. She backed up the comments made by Mattie Heaven, saying that at the time the Quran was written, men were in positions of power (because man had decided this), and that when interpreting the texts, the context of the time it was written should be kept in mind. She argues there are no women's rights in Islam, in Christianity or any other religion, only human rights.
The final speaker, Dr Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, a French-Iranian juristic scholar and researcher, known for his research in the field of Gnosticism, Islam and Christianity and for his advocacy for Human Rights, discussed how The Quran is based on gender equality. He says it is mankind who created violence and inequality, and hid it under the pretence of religion to make it legitimate. Elitist behaviour over the course of the history of Islam which did not respect the rights of women has been related it to Islam to legitimise it, even though it has nothing to do with the true teachings of the Quran. Dr Azmayesh argues that there are two versions of Islam. One is based on false interpretation, and is followed by "fake" Muslims who read the "anti-Quran". This should not be confused with the true Islam, which is based on true interpretations of the Quran, and promotes gender equality and respect of both women and men alike. This true Islam is most definitely compatible with modern society.