2011 is being called the year of revolutions. All eyes are fixed upon the Middle East and North Africa as the spark from Tunisia turns into a flame that threatens to engulf the staunchest of dictators. At the same time, this focus on "people power" in the Arab world is reintroducing the region, its people, its culture and religion in a whole new light, from a whole new angle.
A region that was once spoken of primarily in terms of oil, wars and religious extremism is now being associated with terms such as people power, social justice, equality, unity, liberty, etc. We are witnessing all this as the revolutions are being broadcast on our television screens. We are also seeing on our televisions and YouTube videos, women: Muslim women out on the streets protesting, holding vigils, chanting, and sporting banners for liberty and a change to the status quo of the societies to which they belong.
2011 is also a reflection of Muslim women who are moving beyond the issues of veils and headscarves that our politicians continue to obsess over. Their peaceful struggle for freedom of expression, justice and equality exhibit the same ideals that their male counterparts are demanding as these popular protests continue to gain momentum.
Going back to the role of Muslim women in Islamic history, it is not hard to find examples and models that embody the role Islam has allowed, and even required, women to play within the socio-political constructs of their environments. Khadija bint Khwaylid (peace be upon her), the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) figures prominently in the history of Islam. She participated actively for the propagation of Islam through the influence she wielded in society at the time.
Lady Fatima (peace be upon her), the daughter of our Prophet, was the first and staunchest defender of Wilayat after the demise of the Prophet. Her speech, which she delivered regarding her right to Fadak as her inheritance, reverberates on the pages of history books. Her stances and actions laid the groundwork for what came on the day of Ashura and beyond.
Known as the conqueror of Syria, Lady Zainab (peace be upon her) revolutionized the society of Syria through her speeches delivered from the courtyard of Yazid ibn Muawiya, and through her stances towards his oppressive and tyrannical rule even whilst being imprisoned. She rekindled the memories of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) in the hearts and minds of all who listened and reminded them of the true essence of Islam, bringing forth an upheaval in the social and political equations of the time.
In ancient Spain, Muslim women boasted of being part of the social fabric as mothers, doctors, surgeons, teachers, principals, poets, scientists, etc. Iran's Islamic revolution has examples upon examples of women taking stances to change the fabric of their society – there were women who refused to attend co-educational schools due to a Hijab ban, while thousands of chador-clad women took to the streets and faced showers of bullets sent their way by the Shah's armed forces.
Indeed, even the contemporary Western woman owes a great deal to Islam. Islam redefined not just the rights of women, but also the role a woman can and must play within society. Starting from the building blocks of family structure and composition, Islam was foremost in remodeling the institution of marriage as a contract between one man and one woman to define its parameters in which both parties are considered equal. It went on to empower women within the society by acknowledging first and foremost that all believers, men and women, were equal in the eyes of Allah. Islam provided the foundational basis and philosophy upon which women's rights and roles within contemporary times can be defined and polished to match the dynamism of a woman's character and power, as well as the requirements of the society.
The women we see on the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain are a product of this philosophy. They are shattering Western stereotypes of Muslim women that are limited to the Hijab (without encompassing its philosophy), forcing them to look beyond the veil at the woman who is not afraid to stand up to a tyrant, becoming the voice of the oppressed.
As the images of dynamic Muslim women actively shaping their societies hit the airwaves, the world is forced to stop and reassess the shallow definition it continues to ascribe to a woman in a headscarf. As thousands of women in their chadors, abayas, scarves, sheilas, and burqas take the reins, they challenge the perception that Islam is detrimental to a woman's individuality and civic sense, alienating her from the larger society. The powerful, politically and socially aware women have managed to practice their faith and express their religiosity without compromising their position and participation within the society as a whole.
So as revolutionaries forge ahead, breaking barriers, perceptions regarding a Muslim woman's ability for social participation continue to be challenged, calling for a re-evaluation of how Islamic laws pertaining to women are perceived.