EXPLOREFAITH: 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
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.
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.
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.
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
What has happened?
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.
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
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?”
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.
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.
Are imposed rules of dress a throwback to another culture or are
they more about fostering a religious and/or spiritual attitude
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
that is what, really, this Iraqi constitution is dealing with right
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.
How do the religious principles apply to women’s rights as
far as property ownership?
MEHDI: Let me tell you some of the exact rules, then we
can look at how they’re being handled or mishandled.
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.
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.
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.
it doesn’t happen. It’s not implemented.
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