Monday, July 11, 2005

A letter to Oprah 

Dear Oprah,

We are writing you this letter in response to your show on women around the world, in which there was a lady from Saudi Arabia who was abused by her husband and you addressed the rights and freedom of women in Islam. We believe that you are in a very influential position to clarify stereotypes and misconceptions about the Middle East and we are writing this letter because we have the utmost respect for you and really believe that your intentions were positive. However, as we are sure you and your producers are aware, Saudi women are not the only battered women and Rania al-Baz was more a representative of a battered women from anywhere around the world - there are women also in America as well as China who are abused and battered- and it was unfortunate to link it with her being a Saudi and a Muslim.

There is a serious misconception in the West about Islam as a religion, and the cultural practices in some countries that are predominantly Muslim. We think it would be extremely educational for your audience to learn a bit more about the rights of women in Islam, which is in fact one of the most liberating religions for women, however through the media it has been portrayed as quite the opposite - primarily due to a lack of understanding and political interest in maintaining an "enemy" in order to justify America's foreign policy with regards to the Middle East. It is a similar brainwashing of the masses as with the negative portrayal of African Americans in order to maintain slavery and dominance in the past.

There are two distinct issues that we would like to address; the first being the negative portrayal of Saudi Arabian Culture, and secondly, the link of these cultural practices to Islam.

Let us first address the Saudi Arabian culture. There is no denying that some of the practices in countries like Saudi Arabia do indeed seem bizarre to the Western world, however we can look at Western practices and also view them as bizarre and immoral. There is a famous anthropological article written in 1956 by Horace Miner entitled "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema", which discusses how the Nacirema people are so obsessed with their physical appearance that "they have extensive mouth rituals... the women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour... and the men scrap and lacerate their faces with sharp instruments." The author of this article was describing North Americans and the primary message was to demonstrate that you can make any culture seem bizarre if you are looking at it as an outsider.

Most international cultural practices will differ from those in your home country. Different races have different traditions and as we have experienced over human evolution, that unfamiliarity breeds contempt. If we were to go back 40 years to the sixties, and imagine there was a famous talk show host, such as yourself, who had a show on different races with the aim of 'familiarizing Americans on what other people live like', the Caucasians were happy go lucky, but the African Americans were portrayed as dirty, immoral and barbaric. How would you have felt? Would you not have thought that it was a false accusation? That of course there are some African Americans who are dirty, immoral and barbaric, but is that message representative of the majority? Does that message help bring peace to the world? Or does it reinforce negative stereotypes that result in discrimination, racism, oppression and violence? We would have expected your show to dig deeper into the different cultures and explain why certain traditions exist, in order to increase awareness and understanding, to explain the unknown, and to truly break down barriers between Arabs and Americans. The question 'why?' was never asked on your show.

To give you another example of Middle Eastern way of living is our lives. We come from the Sultanate of Oman, a neighbouring country of Saudi Arabia, where the entire Omani population is Muslim. In Oman we have female Ministers, female ambassadors, female Directors of mutli-billion dollar businesses in addition to full time mothers, engineers and bankers. If we compare the way of life in Oman to Saudi Arabia it is quite different, however, we are still Arabs, and still Muslims.

The second point we would like to make, which is that we must differentiate between culture and religion. For some reason, Western media has decided that Muslims and Arabs are one and the same, regardless of the fact that according to CNN Islam is the fastest growing religion. One would question why this would be the case, why are so many people embracing Islam if it is a religion of terrorists who oppress women? The reason is because most of the people who convert do their homework, and learn to differentiate between Islam and some poor practices of individuals. In particular for females, through their homework, they come to realise that Islam is one of the most liberating religions to have ever existed for humanity, and it explicitly values femininity and the female. If we look at thousands of years of history from the Ancient Chinese, Hindus, Pharaohs, Babylonians, Assyrians, Pagans, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians and current Western Civilisation - there is certifiable evidence that none of these civilizations or religions respected and protected women to the same extent as Islam does. This is because Islam recognised all of the oppressing behaviours of prior religions and civilizations and prescribed rules in order to abolish them. Furthermore, Islam is a religion for all time and its content is relevant to all generations, those of the past, the current and the future, as the human instinct does not change with time.

To give you a brief overview of some of the rights of women in Islam:

1. The rights of a wife - In order for a marriage to be valid in Islam, a man must first provide the woman with a wedding gift called the "mahr" which should be cash and could additionally include property, jewellery and clothing. This gift is to ensure that the woman is financially secure regardless of divorce. Even if they divorce the day after they consummate the marriage the gift is for her to keep.

Furthermore, a husband is obliged in Islam to financially provide for his wife and cover ALL household and clothing bills for his family. If he does not do so it is considered a sin. In return the wife is obliged to take care of his children and be intimate with him. She is not obliged to cook, clean and stay at home, it is her choice to do so if she wishes.

In Islam there are 5 core goals that a husband and wife should strive for in their marriage: 1. Tranquillity, 2. Affection, 3. Mercy, 4. To protect and give comfort (the direct translation is to be each other's clothing) and 5. To have and raise children. Everything that a husband and wife do in a marriage should have these goals in mind - therefore, physical abuse does not comply with mercy, adultery and arguing does not comply with tranquillity, abstaining from sex and ignoring one another does not comply with being affectionate. And of course the most controversial topic of all, polygamy does not comply with 3 of them, in fact, in Islam it is made clear to man that he can have up to four wives under certain conditions and only after he gets permission from his wife. Even if she agrees, he MUST treat them equally in all aspects - emotionally, financially, physically, which for a human is impossible and Islam recognizes this impossibility and says that those men who cannot fulfil that criteria will be punished -therefore discouraging polygamy as opposed to encouraging it.

Furthermore, a woman is not obliged to marry anyone she doesn't want to and the Sheikh (religious man) asks for her consent before conducting the wedding ceremony. In addition a woman in Islam does not take the name of her husband, but retains her own name and identity, and this is symbolic of the marriage in that it is a joining of two individuals who come together to enhance each others lives and not to become one.

2. The rights of women in divorce- There are clear rules with regards to divorce, conditions in which it is allowed, what the process is and the rights of the woman who is divorced. Most of these rules are there to protect the woman. An example is that a man who wants to divorce his wife has to leave the house and he cannot kick her out, it is her choice if she wishes to remain in the residence.

3. Financial independence - Any money that a woman earns in her employment or inheritance is hers and she is not obliged to pay or contribute a cent to her husband or parents, it is her choice if she wants to lighten their financial load. If she financially contributes she is granted blessings from God, but if a man requests her to financially contribute he has committed a sin.

4. Inheritance rights of a woman- In Islam inheritance rights are stipulated in great detail in order to avoid arguments and disappointments. Furthermore, it is the first religion to clearly state the inheritance rights of women. This is in order to ensure her financial security. If we look at the UK just over a century ago women were kicked out of their homes upon the death of their fathers or husbands and were not allowed to inherit. Islam prescribed these rules to protect her over 1400 years ago.

5. Mothers in Islam- Motherhood is seen as one of the most important roles of humans and mothers are given great importance and respect. In fact the Prophet says that "paradise is under the feet of mothers". Children are obliged to show the utmost respect for their parents. In fact in Islam it says that first you must show respect and obedience to God, secondly his Prophet, thirdly the mother, fourth the mother, fifth the mother, sixth the father.

6. The Hijab (headscarf)- Women in Islam are seen as jewels that should not be exploited for the satisfaction of men. The Islamic dress code demands respect and preserves your self worth. It is in fact an interesting dichotomy that in the West the headscarf is seen as an oppression of women and we find it a liberation of women. In Islam, a woman has many different dimensions to her all of which have a time and place. When she is in an intimate relationship with her husband she is obviously sexual and hence her beautiful and seductive attributes are exposed, but there is no need for her to be sexy anywhere else. At work or in public she is viewed to have integrity, a mind, a voice, it is her soul which is displayed to the world as that is what they should be focussing on, not her sexuality. Perhaps it is a very simplistic way at looking at life, but we all joke that men can't multitask, and if they see a sexy woman they will certainly be thinking of one thing, instead of focussing on what she is actually there for, to work, to contribute, to think, to converse with. The Islamic dress code simplifies interaction between males and females and makes it clear what your purpose is through your dress. The dress code is also significantly correlated to the self esteem of a women. When a woman dresses modestly in public there is no confusion as to whether she is given attention or opportunities because or her rights and capabilities or because of her sex appeal. Therefore the primary purpose of the Islamic female dress is to ensure that woman are not seen sexual objects to be exploited or manipulated into believing that their only value comes from their sexuality.

7. The value of female capabilities as opposed to trying to be like a man- On a spiritual level men and women are considered equal, however on a physical level there is a difference between them and their strengths and weaknesses. In Islam a man and a woman are two different entities that have been created to complement one another. Both should be equally valued. The prime focus is that a woman does not need to behave like a man to be successful, worthy or valued. If she chooses to she could, but why would she want to? She has her own strengths and capabilities and that is what makes her valuable. Furthermore, men should also not behave like women. In Islam, a woman is not restricted to what type of job or role she can take on, but she is asked to give priority to being a mother if she has been blessed with children to ensure that her children receive the love and nurturing that they require.

8. Education- The first word of the Quran brought down to the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was 'Read!'. Education, reading, acquiring knowledge, travel and exploring and appreciating what the world has to offer is one of the fundamental values in Islam, and its importance is demonstrated by being the first thing that God communicated of the Quran. All Muslims are required to educate themselves regardless of being male or female, in fact the Prophet emphasised that women have a right to education.

9. The story of Adam and Eve. In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Eve is portrayed as the temptress, who tempted Adam to eat the apple and hence they were expelled from heaven. In Islam, the story is quite different and symbolic. It states that they both ate from the apple, neither tempted the other and hence were equally guilty.

Above are just a few items we thought we should highlight, there are dozens or rules and examples in Islam that demonstrate the liberation and importance of women and one could write many volumes. Of course in practice, not all of these rules are applied all the time. Similarly, just because you are a Christian or a Jew, doesn't mean you won't lie, steal or kill. But there is a major distinction between the religion of Islam and the implementation of the religion by humans. It seems as though the media only focuses on poor implementation, but never looks at what is really expected of Muslims. It never focuses on the people or groups of people who correctly implement Islam. What was most disappointing about your show is that you reinforced this negative stereotype, when the purpose of that show was to create awareness. We truly believe that you had no negative intentions, and that it was either a miscommunication or a lack of education, hence we have written this letter to help you see a side that is rarely exposed in Western media.

For the many years of watching your show, we have seen that your goal is to try to help people, improve and change lives, a very noble cause, and we have seen that you have already had shows on Islam and on Muslim women, however this must be a continuous positive process, and one negative statement about Islam can nullify all the positive messages previously communicated. We believe that your help in clarifying some of the misconceptions about the Middle East and Islam will help spread peace and understanding across the world instead of perpetuate hatred and misunderstanding. If you are interested, we could arrange some speakers for you on the topic to help clarify some of the misconceptions, we could write an article for your magazine or even make a short documentary with the aim of clarifying misconceptions. It would be a pity for so many people to be left in the dark and it would be unfortunate if you did not share these learnings with your audience. Like you said on your show, you believe that peace will probably come through the work of women, let us turn that into a reality.

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