In a response to “Islamo-Facism week”, the college of liberal Arts weekly “Dissent In America Teach-In” focused on women in Islam this past week.
Chaired by religion professor Rebecca Alpert and sponsored by the department of religion, the department of history, and the history honors society Phi Alpha Theta, the Teach-In provided a variety of perspectives on the issues surrounding women and the Islamic faith. Panel members who lead the lesson consisted of educators and students from Temple and the College of New Jersey.
Phillip Hoefs, a graduate student in the department of religion, has taught a class on women in Islam at Temple and encouraged his students to look at portrayals of Muslim women in the media critically.
“You have to balance the sensational and mundane,” Hoefs said.
He encourages his students to ask themselves why the story is being run.
Jessica Winegar, a recently hired associate professor of Temple’s anthropology department, was also a member of the panel.
“What does it mean to speak of women in Islam, when they practice Islam in so many different ways and understand it in so many different ways?” Winegar said.
Muslim women come from many different countries, ethnicities, and age groups, she added. Some live in countries where Islam is the law, while others live in countries whose political system is separate from religion.
“What about Muslim women who do not feel that religion encapsulates their lives, as the phrase ‘women in Islam’ implies?” Winegar asked.
It is important to look at Women in Islam individually, rather then collectively, Winegar said.
One individual, whom Winegar uses as an example, is a woman living in the Islamic country of Egypt. She is an abstract painter who, although born into a Muslim family, is a self-proclaimed atheist. Although she does not believe in Allah or any God, she still attends services with her family at the Mosque for funerals, weddings, and holidays. Winegar compared this situation to Atheist Americans who still celebrate the Christmas.
Panelist Michelle Byng, a professor of sociology at Temple, researched media representations of Muslim women focusing on the controversy surrounding veiling. She collected data from articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post starting from January 2002 to December 2006.
Byng spoke about the Niqab, or head covering which covers the entire face, which has been banned by the French government on the basis that it infringed on the religious freedom of others.
She addressed the differences between societies that implement laws forcing or forbidding veiling, and those who allow women the freedom to choose. Byng questioned the lack of political and social debate in the United States surrounding veiling, adding that pretense for public debate regarding the legality of veiling is abundant. Teachers at Philadelphia public schools and members of the Philadelphia Police department are prohibited from wearing the Hijab or veil.
Byng theorized that European nations like France are failing to assimilate Muslims by depriving them of cultural and religious representation, which has the potential to incite radicalism or terrorism.
Manar Darwish, a religion professor at the College of New Jersey, was born in Egypt and has lived in the United States for 21 years. In reading from her own article, “Forced to Veil”, Darwish described veiling as an action of individual choice. Darwish described her parents, who were born in the 1920s, as part of a generation that was at the forefront of Egypt’s modernization, or westernization.
“In the summer time the women wore short sleeves or sleeveless shirts with skirts that fell right below their knees, just like their American and European counterparts,” Darwish said recalling family photographs.
Barry Greenstein, a junior physical anthropology major who attended the lecture, said his view of Muslim women has been widened by the Teach-In.
“Its illegal for me to walk into a convenience store with my face hidden, so I don’t see why that should be any different for anyone else,” Greenstein said.
Darwish explained that when she was growing up in Egypt, wearing the Hijab was widely associated with being uneducated or of low class. Darwish, who chooses to wear a headscarf and modest clothing herself, said she was inspired by her older sister, who began wearing the Hijab in college.
Darwish also noticed that by wearing the Hijab, women were freed from the materialism of the fashion industry and instead could focus on inner beauty and developing their minds.
Veiling is a matter of personal choice, according to Hassan Chaudhry, a senior biological anthropology major who also attended the Teach-In.
“I think it’s a woman’s right whether she wants to veil or not; its her individual decision.”
Emily Gleason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.