Find out more about Anisa Mehdi's latest projects by visiting her Web site.


Anisa Mehdi

on women's rights, rules of dress and inheritance, and the intent of Islamic law

Anisa MehdiEXPLOREFAITH: Currently you are working on a a documentary film series on Muslim women that is described as tracing "the roots and precedents for women's power and leadership roles in Islam." However, many people may see Islam and women’s rights as mutually exclusive… that rights for women are not valued in Muslim society. How are you addressing women’s roles in Islam through your documentary?

ANISA MEHDI: I’ve got a long list of women who are candidates for this film through whom I would like to show the various realities within which Muslim women live these days. I would also like the stories to be told of what the reality was for Muslim women in the early days of Islam. That is very different from what we see typically in the media today…scenes of oppression, lack of opportunity professionally, lack of opportunity for education, which, as I've said before, are cultural mandates rather than religious mandates on these people. Nevertheless, they exist! And they exist in countries with mostly Muslim majorities, some of which profess to be Islamic states. So we want to find out what happened between the early days and the present.

For example, the wife of the prophet Muhammad ran the company for which he worked. She was his boss. She owned a trading company that ran caravans from Yemen to Damascus, and he was an employee. He caught her eye because he was tremendously good at what he did, he was honest, he was forthright, and they say handsome…and she was fifteen years his senior. She proposed to him. And he, smart man that he was, accepted the proposal.

They had a strictly monogamous relationship, from what all the history says, for 20, 25 years. When he had his first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel, she believed him. So she was the first to come on board as a Muslim.

Already we have in the earliest example an independent, professional woman who gave counsel to her husband, who was loyal to him, with whom they had children. After her death and after the early Muslims left Mecca and moved to Medina under duress, there were examples of women who ran the markets. [Muhammad] appointed a woman to be in charge of the markets of Medina. Craftspeople, artisans, scholars, jurists, warriors, nurses, women were in every part of life—community life, professional life, diplomatic life.

EXPLOREFAITH: What has happened?

ANISA MEHDI: As the followers of Islam went out into the world and starting sharing “the good news,” they did not eradicate pre-existing cultures as did the European conquerors in South America, who just decimated the Aztec, Inca and Maya population. Instead people were invited to consider this religion or keep their own.

There wasn’t an imposition of a new culture or way of life, so the ways of life that were there already continued to flourish. [From this mix] came new amalgams of societies that included some traditions that kept women in. Historically speaking, this was not unusual. Look at the Crusaders and the chastity belts they would lock onto their wives before they left. A man’s honor was dependent on his wife.

EXPLOREFAITH: What about today, when implementation of Islamic code is sometimes synonymous with restricted rights for women?

ANISA MEHDI: There are different interpretations of Islamic legal code that we have seen applied. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic legal code, for example, is abhorrent to the mullahs of Iran. They are absolutely horrified at the way the Taliban implemented Islamic legal code. Now there are people who would look at the mullahs of Iran and say, “Oh my goodness! How can they possibly think that what they are doing in their country is any reflection of Islamic legal code?”

In the United States, we have different interpretations of the Constitution. There are those who say abortion is permissible and there are those who say it isn’t, all based on the same Constitution.

There is huge variation. Then there are those who would say, “Listen, the question about if I cover my hair or not needs to be a personal decision. It neither should be prohibited nor required.” In Turkey it’s prohibited and in Iran it’s required. It’s a problem in both communities.

EXPLOREFAITH: Are imposed rules of dress a throwback to another culture or are they more about fostering a religious and/or spiritual attitude and experience?

ANISA MEHDI: What the religion says in terms of dress is that both men and women should be modest in their presentation. Men and women should not set out to allure each other. The relationship between the genders should not be about ooh…am I gonna get you. Or, what is it Patti Labelle sings? Voulez-vous couchez avec moi? The command is modesty…be appropriate…don’t flaunt it.

If you look around American society today, there’s a lot of flaunting. I have two daughters, and I have to be very clear with them that what you want the world around you to know about you is what you have in your head. That’s your value, not how your belly button looks. Your bodies may be beautiful and perfect, and you want them strong and healthy, but your value is not in what’s below the neck.

I think that’s something that women in this country have been dealing with for quite some time. Can you legislate that? No, you can’t. You want people to use their common sense. You want people to dress appropriately. My understanding of Islam as I was taught by my father and many of the people with whom I’ve studied is…you will be appropriate to your time, to your culture.

So I wear a one-piece bathing suit, because I love to swim. I don’t wear a G-string in public. Why? Because it’s not appropriate.

For a society in Southwestern Asia, Central Asia and so on, you have very harsh weather conditions. You’ve got a beating sun. You don’t want to expose your skin because you’ll burn to a crisp. This is where the tradition of covering came from in the first place. It’s so that you would be protected from the elements.

Men and women cover in those parts of the world. They wear scarves on their heads. They wear long flow-y dresses because then the air can rush up your dress and cool you a little bit. But how do you legislate good common sense? That’s where the “big government…little government” question comes in. How much is government going to poke its way into the private affairs of human beings?

I think that is what, really, this Iraqi constitution is dealing with right now.

The religious principle is “appropriate presentation” so that you’re not seducing one another, so that your life isn’t about sex. Your life has a more intellectual and spiritual quality, and you support that by appropriate dress.

EXPLOREFAITH: How do the religious principles apply to women’s rights as far as property ownership?

ANISA MEHDI: Let me tell you some of the exact rules, then we can look at how they’re being handled or mishandled.

On inheritance: Very clearly, in the 7th century women were given the right to inherit property, land, jewels, money, whatever. This was very different from most other societies in that period of time.

But the law says that when a parent dies and there’s a son and a daughter, the son gets more than the daughter gets. Islamic law mandates that. Why? Because the daughter gets to keep for herself whatever it is she’s inherited, and the son is required to use his extra money to care for his sister.

Now does that happen? Of course not. It may happen from time to time, from place to place, but typically you find men saying, “I get twice as much as you!” They take it and run. That happens all over the place. Look at deadbeat dads in the United States. But that’s how the law was set up and, indeed, women get half of what men get. Even so, if you read the whole thing, the requirement is that brothers are supposed to use their extra to take care of their sister. Her money, he can’t touch it. That’s for her to use.

But it doesn’t happen. It’s not implemented.

EXPLOREFAITH: For many people in the West, this is all very foreign. They don’t understand Islamic law at all.

ANISA MEHDI: Neither do a lot of Muslims. And that’s a problem.