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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Women Changing the Face of Islam

Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Moharrak was the only woman in a four-person team called “Arabs with Altitude.” “I don’t care about being the first,” she told Al-Jazeera, “so long as it inspires someone else to be the second.”

Although  many voices of tolerance call for dialogue with the Muslim people and those who practice Islam, the fact is, the religion itself doesn't do much to support women.  But now,  the women of Islam are helping to support themselves.

Obviously, without women there would be zero Muslims, but women are not valued for their contributions to the culture. ( I write this from the point of view of having been in a dinner conversation several years ago, with a few Muslim paramedics, who candidly explained how they culturally experience sudden infant death syndrome among babies. A boy receives more aggressive life support than a girl.  This discourse is a tragically true story.)

Unfortunately, the face of Islam is usually male and stern.  This affect doesn't help to build tolerance when extremist terrorist networks within the Muslim culture are stereotyped as religious fanatics.  Clearly, 50 percent of the Muslim culture includes women, it seems like the world should see more of them from behind their burkas and hijab shrouds.  

Women can change the face of Islam. In so doing, they will improve tolerance for their culture and faith, transcending the stereotype extremist image.

Perhaps because of the international availability of cable news like CNN or social networking, a few Muslim women are cautiously attempting to be role models who will change the face of Islam. 

Some Muslim women like Malala Yousafzaiare trying to break out of the mold, as reported in Huffington Post.

Malala Yousafzai gave a stirring speech at the U.N. last Friday, her first major appearance since being shot in the head by the extremists in the Pakistani Taliban, in October, for her efforts to promote girls’ education in the country.

Yousafzai was celebrated July 12, her 16th birthday, which the U.N. proclaimed Malala Day. “By targeting Malala, extremists showed what they feared the most: a girl with a book, ” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a speech marking the event.

They thought that bullets would silence us, but they failed,” said Yousafzai, wearing a shawl that once belonged to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007. “There was a time when women’s activists asked men to stand up for women’s rights. This time we will do it for ourselves.”

Another woman Saudi is making her statement in film.  Haifaa al-Mansour faced some unusual obstacles while directing “Wadjda,” a coming-of-age story about a young girl who plots to own a bicycle despite a ban on women riding in public. The film is the first to be shot entirely on Saudi soil, and, due to restrictions on men and women working together, al-Mansour often had to direct the actors and crew remotely with a walkie-talkie. Despite these challenges, Saudi Arabia’s first female director has said her country is becoming “more tolerant and more accepting.” However, the film will be available in Saudi Arabia only on DVD or television, as public cinemas generally are banned.

A woman climbing Mt. Everest is always an interesting story, but when she's also a Saudi, her accomplishment indicates social change towards women is indeed on the horizon.  In May, 27-year-old graphic designer Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Moharrak was the only woman in a four-person team that called themselves “Arabs with Altitude.” “I don’t care about being the first,” she told Al-Jazeera, “so long as it inspires someone else to be the second.”

As the face of Islam women are revealed, controversy ensues. A 21-year-old Syrian woman caused a minor sensation in November when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook without the veil she wore most of her life. Looking right into the camera, Dana Bakdounis holds her passport with a note saying, “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years, I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and (on) my body.” The post was briefly removed after Bakdounis received a flood of comments and threats, though Facebook later apologized and said this was an error. Twitter users created the hashtag #windtoDana in support.

These and other heroic women stories, some published and probably many more occurring "under the veil" are eventually finding their way into talk shows, social media and word of mouth communications.   Collectively, women will rise and shed the burkas of oppression and change the face of Islam for the better.

It's hard to understand how fifty percent of any group can remain oppressed for as long as Islam women have been wrapped in inequality.  Nevertheless, there's no time like the present to change this social gender stigma.  The Muslim culture, where extremists and fanatics hide, cannot thrive unless the negative stereotypes are improved.  Islam women seem to be awakening to this challenge. In so doing, there is hope for tolerance both within their own culture and certainly to the skeptical universe outside the veil.

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