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An Enigma for Americans

By Mahvish Akhtar

Michael says that he wonders what the women who wear a scarf or are covered “look like under all that fabric.” Rick says he doesn’t really think about it. What they wear is their business they are just people, granted a little different but still people.

Marry Ann thinks its ridiculous for anyone to walk around dressed like that. She also says, “I know not all of them dress that way but even then they try too hard to cover up… I mean why is that?”

Jaleesa, a high school student, says “although I personally would not like to live the way Muslim women do but the way they lead their lives is pretty smart and I totally think that it’s a good life.” She also said that “most women that I know don’t seem like they are being pressured into doing anything. They seem very intelligent and independent.”

These are all words of Americans who were asked what they think about Muslim women. I asked them if they felt that Muslim women were oppressed or subjugated by the men in their lives. Most of them told me that when their information was limited to what they heard on TV and read in newspapers they thought that Muslim women were oppressed. Out of the crowd that I spoke to some had had an opportunity to get to know some Muslim women. They said now that they know these women they realize that these women are very headstrong and opinionated. And knowing their personalities it doesn’t seem possible for anyone to subjugate them.

So the next reasonable question was what they think of when they see the women wearing a headscarf.

Rick said that he didn’t think anything. He said that it’s just another person that’s all.

Michael said that he always thinks what they look like underneath…which is a very legitimate thought.

Jaleesa says that there are many Muslims in her school and she is so used to seeing them it doesn’t seem weird any more. In the beginning however, she says, “I felt that this dress doesn’t make any sense”.

Austin says that as far as the equality of men and women is concerned, he feels that both sexes have their own part and are pretty equal. Of course, he adds on that he only knows from what he has heard from his Muslim friends and he has no knowledge of the religion on his own. Erica says that being a woman it’s scary to hear the stories you hear about Muslim women and how they are oppressed.

“It wasn’t until I started working with a Muslim woman that I realized that Muslim women are not as bad off as the media makes them out to be.”

Michael also said that before he knew any women personally he thought that women had to be chaperoned to go out and they could not make any decisions without a man. But now that he has gotten to know some women who are Muslim he knows that that’s not the case.

Americans have a very big lack of understanding about cultural and religious mores in the way marriages and relationships take place among Muslims. They also don’t understand how polygamy is concerned a normal practice in Islam. But once one explains how these things really take place and that most of the information given in the media surrounding these issues is not true and are usually myths, they change their minds.

For example, the concept of arranged marriage seemed unfair to most people that I spoke to. But they understood better once I explained that “arranged” doesn’t mean that the boy and girl never see each other or talk to each other, it just means their parents and families are involved in the process of getting them married.

Jaleesa, after hearing that commented that, “It would be good to have your parents helping you out since there is a lot to do for a wedding. It doesn’t really work like that with us…marriage is a personal matter in our culture.” Erica also was of the same opinion. Michael however, said that he likes it better the way it’s done in his culture but he added “as long as both parties are happy with a system, no one has a right to judge it.”

The same kind of thoughts come out when it comes to polygamy–they can’t understand it. Most of them think that every man has 15 wives and keeps them in harems. But when the true nature of polygamy is explained and it is also explained that the man has to be fair and treat all his wives equally, they are surprised. The other fact that stems out of the reality that it’s not easy to take care of more than one family is that there are not so many people who practice polygamy in the Muslim world. After learning all this they realize that even this one rule is not as terrible as they had imagined it to be.

So, what is the conclusion of all this investigation? One conclusion can be that with all the news and media around the world still doesn’t have as much factual information as you might think. The Americans based their knowledge of the rest of the world from their media and their media gives them only negative feedback about others.

The other conclusion could be that we need to work on trying to make others recognize us. The problem is persistent because we don’t do anything to solve it. It may be true that the foreign media makes Muslims or Muslim women look bad, but isn’t it our job to clear the misconceptions? After all if we don’t do this job…who will? I hope my efforts to discover what others think of us will benefit us as a whole.


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