Pakistan is an easy flight from Malaysia, and yet the two Muslim countries seem so far apart right now in how women are treated within their Islamic societies.
In Pakistan on Tuesday, the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl, Malala Yousafzai, who is well known for her courage in seeking equality for women, especially girls’ education. But the Pakistani military, which has long supported Islamic extremism in its rivalry with India, has been less than enthusiastic in eradicating the terrorist group.
In Malaysia, by contrast, a TV station recently ran a 13-episode prime-time contest for women under 30 to find the best one to become an Islamic preacher. The show was called “Solehah,” an Arabic word meaning “pious female.” The Muslim women were judged on their knowledge of Islam and speaking abilities. The winner received a trip to Mecca, $10,000, and a car.
Islam has many faces but none more telling than in how women are treated in different places. It’s time that Pakistan and other places where Muslim women live in fear or in social chains learn how Islam can be practiced differently.
The Wahhabism brand that comes out of Saudi desert life and imposes a fundamentalist view of women has helped breed violent groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In Iran, with its hard-line Shiite Islam, women were recently banned from taking many courses at dozens of universities, a move seen as pushing women to stay in the home. Even in newly democratic Egypt, a draft constitution calls for equality of women and men only “insofar as this does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic sharia.”
But a more tolerant and perhaps more authentic Islam is found in many other countries, especially in Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. In China, the 10 million Hui Muslims have hundreds of female imams and mosques for women. Female preachers often travel to spread their faith. In North America and Britain, Muslim women often lead prayers in mosques.
“Islam neither limits women to the private sphere, nor does it give men supremacy over the public and private life,” writes Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Pakistan has long had secular leaders and women in prominent public positions. It elected a woman, the late Benazir Bhutto, as president. But the country has also seen the rise of radical Islamic groups that seek to suppress women and use violence to gain power.
Public outrage at the shooting of young activist Malala suggests a stronger willingness among Pakistanis to confront the Taliban and other extremists. But Pakistan also needs to look to those Muslim countries that not only suppress Islamic violence but also elevate women in their status.
Malala, who rose to fame at age 11 while writing a blog for the BBC, survived the attack. Now if enough Pakistanis push the military to end the Taliban threat, she might someday become an Islamic preacher.