by Cindy S.
(The February 2014 Adult Education series features supported missionaries of COTC. Each week, they share about their work and lead a discussion related to the people they serve. One of these discussions was led by Cindy, who shared about her work among Muslims. This blog is a summary of some of the main points of that discussion.)
In a recent phone call with my mom I was asked to give her the basics ~ in a nutshell ~ of “Anglicanism.” Mom had been fielding a lot of questions from her friends who have known me a long time and wondered about my new church family. It was a joy to help her understand what has become an integral part of my life. In the recent Adult Ed. Class presentation I had the privilege of addressing the topic of the Muslim world as seen through the eyes of Muslim women. A world which, not unlike Anglicanism, values tradition because it gives a secure sense of place and identity.
In the class we examined the use of the veil which, unfortunately, has become equated with “oppression.” Interestingly, Christians veiled before the coming of Islam. From ancient times, respectable dress for Eastern women involved veiling, and that continues in many countries today. It was considered a necessary modesty for Christian women in the 1st century. Women continued to wear the veil in many Middle Eastern countries until the early 20th century.Veiling was instituted as the means for freeing a Muslim woman to take part in public life while remaining modest and not revealing her body in an inappropriate way. It is surprising to many that the people publicly demonstrating for a return to more traditional customs in Iran or Egypt or Pakistan or Algeria have been women.
While relationships between the sexes are matters of individual choice for Westerners, within most Muslim communities such relationships are permitted according to a different rationale. It is not as much a question of what the individuals concerned would like, but what the group decides is “good.” Life in general is community-oriented and, as a result, an individual’s main goal becomes one of seeking to avoid the disapproval of the group. The dual themes of honor and shame tend, therefore, to be strongly emphasized in cultures where the community is responsible for maintaining correct and honorable behavior in its members. Honor has to do with public value and worth. But honor exists only in the eyes of a public who expects certain things and evaluates individuals accordingly. Modesty becomes not just a matter of dress–it is proper behavior befitting the people of God. It is certainly not wise to judge the seeming inequality between Muslim men and women from an uninformed, Western perspective. Women do have an advantage, when family is central to a society like Islam. It is often overlooked by those focusing on authority patterns. Women are the ‘central’ figures in the ‘central’ institution of Islamic society.
During our discussion time, we also looked at the diversity and change in Muslim cultures. A quote from Bill Musk (“Touching the Soul of Islam”) summarizes:
“There is the official attitude to women in the Qur’an, but there are also the various ways in which this is interpreted and applied in different places, and even in different families within the same country. Muslims will give different answers to (these) questions depending on their own understanding and practice of Islam.” (p. 53)
In every society families and family structures break down. Muslim cultures are no exception. Times of change bring great strain to traditional ways of behaving. War, migration, wealth creation, urbanization, education, television and health care all contribute to the broadening of horizons and the fragmenting of customary habits.
As we seek to understand the Muslim world or anything which is unfamiliar, adopting the heart of a learner and asking good questions is always the best place to start. Just ask my mom.