Checking My Western Bias

By: Katie Maher

Taking History of Women and Gender in the Middle East is one of the best decisions I’ve made at Georgetown. I used to have a lot of preconceived notions about Islam. Particularly when it came to topics surrounding the treatment of women in the Middle East, I allowed my Western bias to skew my judgment, causing me to form a negative opinion of the Islamic tradition in many ways.

Growing up in a post 9/11 society, my thoughts have been clouded by news reports of Islamic terrorism and hatred toward America. But it’s easy to forget that there are two sides to every story. This semester in my History of Women and Gender in the Middle East, I challenged my Western bias and learned a lot about the Islamic faith and Muslim culture.

Here are some misconceptions I had about Islam and the Middle East, and how reading primary sources written by Muslim women and excerpts directly from the Quran changed my opinion:

Misconception #1: Islam is an inherently violent faith.

Reality: Islam is a religion of peace and submission that stresses the sacredness of human life. A verse of the Quran states, “if anyone kills a person, it is as if he kills all mankind, while if anyone saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind” (Quran, 5:32). Those who promote violence in the name of Islam are misinterpreting the Quran to satisfy their own hateful agendas.

Misconception #2: The Qu’ran teaches the disrespect of women.

Reality: One of the most common misconceptions surrounding Islam is that women have minimal rights, and that women are innately inferior to men in the eyes of God. It’s important to recognize the difference between cultural influences and religion. Many countries around the world where Islam exists are patriarchal, with social constructs that promote male-dominated gender roles. However, Islam as a religion promotes equality amongst men and women. Islam isn’t responsible for the gender inequality that prevails in many regions dominated by Muslims. Rather, this mistreatment of women is a construct of patriarchal societies.

Misconception #3: Islam forces all Muslim women to wear the hijab.

Reality: For a majority of Muslim women, wearing a hijab is a choice. The Quran teaches women that God is always watching, and so many women cover their heads in reverence to God. Other women do so because it engenders respect and honor for women in their communities.

This is not to say that I agree with everything that I learned or read in this class. In many parts of the world, Muslim women lack education, and face oppression or denial of basic rights. However, this class gave me a better understanding of the motivations and intentions of Islam. It taught me often times the violence and aggression that exists toward women in the Middle East is a product of individuals misinterpreting Islam, which is how these misconceptions get perpetuated in the first place. I don’t claim to fully understand the complex topic of gender in the Middle East, but this class certainly expanded the way I think about gender in relation to Islam.