From "The Times", London. November 9, 1993.
Lucy Berrington finds the Muslim faith is winning Western converts despite hostile media coverage.
For many, the term "Muslim women" prompts images of beaten-up housewives chained to the stove, blinded by their veils, pregnant with sextuplets and frantic to be westernised.
To British women, whose glossy magazines recount tales of "honour killings and female circumcision, often wrongly identified with the Muslim faith, it seems inexplicable that Islam could be a rational choice. Female converts, they say, are either brainwashed, stupid or traitors to their sex.
Muslim women strongly reject such accusations. British converts are often strikingly well-educated. Dozens of the older women seem to be perpetual students, and are anxious to distinguish between genuinely Islamic behaviour and cultural diktats. The oppression of women, they say, is a political issue not a religious condition.
A recent interview in Vanity Fair quoted Fatima Mernissi, a leading Islamic scholar based in Morocco, thus: "You find in the Koran hundreds of verses to support women's rights and perhaps four or five that do not. [The fundamentalists] have seized upon those four and thrown away the rest."
Rabia Lemahieu-Evans, a Belgian convert, social anthropologist and postgraduate student at the Muslim College in London, feels Muslim law, the Sharia, should be re-examined in its modern context.
"The Prophet was a reformer of the 7th century, she says. "It was a tribal society but he united people in a religious sense. He encouraged the emancipation of the slaves but, as in Judaism and Christianity, he did not outlaw it because perhaps society wasn't ready. He did the same for women. He set things in motion but in the 20th century we need to look carefully at the historical circumstances."
Muslim women are regularly asked to defend their faith. Many respond by questioning the alternatives.
"A woman in my office said, `At least I'm not a traitor to my sex'," says Hassana, 39, who converted in 1988.
Her friend Nouria, 36, who converted in 1974 after finding some verses of the Koran in a dustbin, said: "Most of the women in this country are traitors to their sex. It's almost as if we've been defeminised." Both women are from Scottish Protestant backgrounds and live in London.
Hassana wears the hijab (the scarf) and has tried the veil: "It makes you feel very private, very safe. Your self-confidence gets boosted. You can be doing what you like under there. I've worn my personal stereo."
The attraction of Islam for many converts is its premise of separate spheres; the different biological destinies of men and women. Many Westerners feel this smacks of discrimination but Muslims say the alternatives impose impossible demands. They define Western emancipation as "women copying men, an exercise in which womanhood has no intrinsic value.
Gai Eaton, information officer at the Regent's Park Mosque, who came to Islam 40 years ago after a diplomatic career, says: "Whatever the pattern of gender relationships in the Islamic world, women do have a dignity that on the whole they don't have in the modern world. I think it springs from the awe in which the mother figure is held." He quotes the Prophet: "Paradise is at my mother's feet," and cites a wealthy Arab living in London, exiled for life for mistreating his mother.
Many Eastern women are content with role differentiation because it ensures their status and power in their own spheres: the household, family and community. Iranian women can receive payment for breastfeeding their children.
"On television recently, they were discussing why women shouldn't have the right to keep their own names on marriage," says Nouria, who has an Egyptian husband and five children. "This is a right I got 1,400 years ago. Issues such as property, children and inheritance have all been settled, and it's very finely tuned in the woman's favour." She cites arrangements for divorce, maintenance and child custody, and an Islamic `wages for housework' school. She adds that in a sense men are just guests in their own homes: "My husband has to ask my permission before another man can stay in the house. This is my kingdom, my domain."
Many Muslims contrast the status of women in Islam with what they see as the dismal plight of women in the West. They note that here women work full-time out of financial necessity, remaining lumbered with the housework and childcare. It is a puzzling version of emancipation.
Modern Muslims, they say, are not necessarily destined to be housewives. There is a demand in the community for their own social workers, lecturers, journalists and doctors. A female Muslim gynaecologist would make a good living.
Among the greatest advantages of Islam, which to many emphasises the failure of feminism, is its "sisterhood". Converts find great mutual support among Muslim women, which reflects the wider community values of Islam. "There's no such thing as a Muslim woman on her own," Nouria says, "nor a single Muslim parent on her own. Nor a mentally ill woman on her own. If anyone with a commitment to Islam sees you in hijab and you're suffering, they step in and help. That's abnormal in Britain."
According to Riffat Yusuf, 27, a London radio journalist who was born a Muslim, the community is the point. "Rather than the issue of `the Muslim woman' its really about societal progression, moving on. The thing about `the Muslim woman' is also the thing about `the Muslim family' and `the Muslim community'."
Nouria agrees. "I see no future in this country, the way its going," she says. "It comes back to women. "Scratch any `new man' and you find an old man trying to get out; men will always be the same. Women are changing much faster, but they are not trying to get what they want. Everything the feminist movement is aiming for, except abortion and lesbianism, we've got."