Wednesday, May 7, 2008

TIME’s Blind Spot in Seeing Women in Islam

TIME magazine released its “100 most influential people” list this week. Of the 100 people, only one is a Muslim woman.

Madeeha Hasan Odhaib of Iraq (pictured right) carries the honor of being the only influential Muslim woman of the year. An Iraqi seamstress-turned-district council member, she employs 100 women, and is cited as an activist and heroine in the mini-profile written by previous winner Queen Rania of Jordan.

Odhaib is accompanied by 10 other Muslims, all male, who span categories such as leaders, builders, and thinkers.

On one hand, it’s unfortunate that the academics who compile the list only considered one Muslim woman influential in all of 2008. (This list, remember, America-centric as it is, considers Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey among the top 100.) Then again, it may be a good thing that the woman chosen for the list — which considers “influential” a neutral term, including both positive and negative influence — is a woman decidedly in the “positive” camp. Odhaib is praised as the symbol of “all of Iraq's courageous women, whose resilience and resourcefulness hold the promise of a new dawn.”

Compare that to women included in years past. I hesitate to describe them all as “Muslim women,” because although some identify (or once identified) as Muslim, they are best cited by critics of Islam as examples of where Islam needs to go. 2005 featured Ayaan Hirsi Ali, (pictured below) an ex-Muslim who went from denouncing Islam to be the source of human rights violations to working for a neoconservative American think tank. The profile was written by Irshad Manji, a controversial figure in the Muslim community. Manji, another critic of Islam, differs by her self-identification as a Muslim. (See some of her other work for TIME here.) The list for 2006 included Wafa Sultan, yet another outspoken critic of Islam, whose inclusion contributed to this petition accusing the magazine of an anti-Islam bias. In their profiles, both Hirsi and Sultan are praised for their activism. Here’s a sample, from Sultan’s profile:

Sultan's influence flows from her willingness to express openly critical views on Islamic extremism that are widely shared but rarely aired by other Muslims. … "I even don't believe in Islam," she says, "but I am a Muslim." By so sharply voicing her beliefs, Sultan crystallizes the mission for the rest of us who want to take the slam out of Islam.

Both profiles are written by women who have not stepped out of Islam, like Ali and Sultan have. Sultan’s profile was written by Asra Q. Nomani, a Muslim reformer, still controversial but less so than Manji. Nomani and Manji note their disagreements with the subjects of the profiles but nevertheless praise the work they have done. As they hold “Muslim membership cards,” their support, I suspect, is meant to hold more weight, affirming Islam critics that Ali and Sultan bring the change Muslims need.

Hold on, you might argue, “influential” doesn’t mean you have to like the person. After all, Osama bin Laden was listed amongst “top leaders and revolutionaries.” While people often think of “influential” in a positive light, it’s true that TIME considers influence “for the better or for the worse.” Managing editor Richard Strengel described what the magazine looks for as “people whose ideas, whose example, whose talent, whose discoveries transform the world we live in. Influence is less about the hard power of force than the soft power of ideas and example.”

This is what the Western non-Muslim media seems to miss so often. Anti-Islam commentators aren’t that influential. Sure, they get interviews on all the news channels and neoconservatives revel in their every quote, but that’s not change. People who hate Islam continue to do so. Muslims who don’t see Islam as the hateful monolith they portray it to be get angry. Sorry, but Ali-types aren’t bringing on the Islamic revolution of secularism. Their influence lies instead in convincing the non-Muslim masses that Islam is the evil they fear. But that kind of influence isn’t what the magazine recognizes.

If TIME wants to look at Muslim women who are making a difference within the Muslim community, it should turn to women who are still within the Muslim community (instead of using them to praise Islam-bashers). TIME has to realize that influence can come in many forms, and Muslim women activists don’t always take the image it imagines them to. Can a conservative Muslim woman be influential? Certainly. Look at Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America. She’s made waves for being the first woman, convert, and non-immigrant to head the mainstream Islamic organization — not for denouncing her religion. Muslims who work within the framework of Islam are far more influential to Muslims than those who turn against Muslims and Islam altogether. And let’s not forget Muslim women can be notable for reasons other than their religion (like the Hindu and Mormon women on this year’s list). Were she still alive, Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, for example, should have made the 2008 list. Odhaib is yet another example.

TIME has some good examples on its record. In 2004 it featured Shirin Ebadi (pictured left), an Iranian human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts towards democracy and human rights. Ebadi has spoken about her faith and challenged the idea of Islam as inherently misogynist. Queen Rania of Jordan, also noted as a human rights activist and spokesperson against stereotypes of Islam, was profiled the same year. These women do in fact deserve to be called “influential.”

Don’t get me wrong — being influential doesn’t have to mean making Islam look good. I acknowledge that winner-of-Islam-distortion bin Laden has definitely made an impact on the world. But when it comes to Muslim women, I don’t know of any famous bin Laden female counterparts. It’s the women like Ebadi and Odhaib who make an appreciable difference in the lives of Muslim women. That’s influence. TIME would be wise to take note.

Photo credits TIME magazine.