Many people perceive Islam as a chauvinistic religion that belittles women. They cite the condition of women in some “Muslim countries” to prove this point. Their mistake is that they fail to separate the culture of a given people from the true teachings of the religion they may profess. It is appalling that today the oppression of women still exists in many cultures around the world. Women in many Third World countries live horrible lives. They are dominated by men and denied many basic human rights. This does not apply to Muslim countries alone, nor does it apply to all Muslim countries. Islam condemns this oppression. It is a tragic injustice to blame these cultural practices on religious beliefs when the teachings of the religion do not call for such behavior. The teachings of Islam forbid the oppression of women and clearly emphasize that men and women are to be respected equally.
Unfortunately, oppressive practices against women that exist in certain parts of the world have mistakenly been associated with Islam by some people. One of these practices is the ancient pagan custom of female genital mutilation, sometimes mistakenly called female circumcision, which originated and is still practiced in the Nile River Valley and surrounding areas. It is practiced by a number of ethnic groups of a wide variety of faiths throughout parts of Africa, especially in northeastern Africa. Many women in Africa are victims of this horrible, dismembering, barbaric custom.
Female genital mutilation is an abomination and is absolutely forbidden in Islam. It is unfortunate that, even though Islam forbids it, certain ethnic groups have perpetuated this practice even after their acceptance of Islam, leading some to assume that it is a part of Islam. Today, as these people gradually gain a better understanding of Islam, they are abandoning this cruel pagan practice. In Kenya, for example, one group of people who do not practice female genital mutilation are the Muslims.
Male circumcision, however, is clearly an Islamic practice and in fact was taught by God’s Prophets and Messengers, including the Prophet Abrahamp. There should be no confusion between the prohibited act of female genital mutilation and the encouraged act of male circumcision.
Another horrible practice is that of “honor killing,” when a man kills a female relative in his family because he feels disgraced and humiliated by her behavior. This conduct, although extremely rare, is practiced by certain groups of people in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and other places. This is outright murder in Islam. It is not permissible for a person to kill anyone out of some notion of “honor.” It is by no means exclusive to Muslims and “Islamic countries,” and it violates Islamic law. Racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry or prejudice are also prohibited in Islam.
Unfortunately, forced marriage is practiced in many traditional societies. It is another practice that is forbidden in Islam. Some fathers had forced their daughters into marriage at the time of the Prophet Muhammadp. When the women complained to the Prophetp of this, he nullified their marriages or gave them the option of ending the marriage even if it had already been consummated, establishing the clear precedent for Islamic law concerning freedom of choice about marriage and putting an end to this oppressive practice. Sadly, this still goes on in many parts of the world today, including in a number of “Islamic countries.” Although this practice is illegal in almost all countries, many women in traditional societies either do not know their rights or are too afraid to demand them.
All of these practices are against Islamic law, and it is the responsibility of all Muslims to eradicate them in their societies. Yes, Islam is tolerant of cultural diversity and does not believe in eradicating the ways of life of different people, nor does it force people to give up their cultural identity when they embrace Islam. However, when the cultural practices of a people contravene the laws of Islam or deprive people of their God-given, inalienable rights and freedom of choice, it becomes a religious obligation to abandon those practices.