Do Muslim women need saving? Muslim women, advocates debate

Last modified: Thursday, April 03, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — When Mehlaqa Samdani of Longmeadow told her friends in Pakistan that she was organizing a discussion on whether Muslim women need “saving,” she said, they first thought she was talking about finances.

The anecdote drew knowing laughs from a crowd of around 30 people Wednesday on the second floor of the Friends Meeting House at a public dialogue based around the question, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”

The event was the second in a six-part series called “Bridging Muslim/Non-Muslim Divides,” a joint effort of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and Critical Connections in Longmeadow. Samdani, who moved to the United States from Pakistan in 2002, founded Critical Connections in 2013 and organized the series with Olivia Dreier of Belchertown, executive director of the Karuna Center.

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Wednesday’s event featured a conversation between Samdani and Falguni Sheth, an associate professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College, who addressed topics such as “hijab,” or the wearing of the veil, and the way Western media cover news out of Muslim countries.

“The news is not there to help you understand,” Sheth said. “The news is there to capture you.” She added that this has been the case especially since the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Early in the dialogue, Samdani suggested that Western news media could give most Americans the perception that women in Muslim countries are oppressed. She referred to coverage of “honor killings,” or the murder of family members due to the perception they have caused shame to the family, and women in Saudi Arabia not being able to drive.

Sheth said she agrees that these are examples of unjust, wrong and criminal acts, but said she does not feel these events justify making generalizations about the way all Muslim women are treated.

Before the dialogue began, Samdani gave the disclaimer that, though the phrase “Muslim women” would be used throughout, it is “not a homogenous phrase” — just as there is no singular “West,” she said.

Sheth stressed that in attempting to understand issues in Muslim countries, Americans find “commonalities” with the problems in their own culture. She likened the issue of honor killings to domestic violence in the United States.

“If a man shoots his wife because she was flirting with another man in the bar, is that not an honor killing?” she asked. In the United States, she said, people might perceive violent crimes as “individualized” and “random” instead of tying them into a larger problem in society.

“Patriarchy is not just a Third World issue,” she said.

Women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, she said, is a situation of an oppressive state government. She compared it to difficulties in access to voting, health care and childcare in some of the southern United States.

Samdani said most people seem to believe that women wear the veil because they are either “observant” of their religion, or “oppressed.” She asked Sheth what she thinks the different reasons are for people to wear veils.

“I think we have to ask women who veil,” Sheth said, though noting that this could be awkward.

She likened it to the way some women might assert their identities through piercings, tattoos, and different hairstyles. “You might say well, these are very deeply personal things — precisely,” she said.

Before asking a Muslim woman why she wears a veil, Sheth suggests that people ask themselves why the practice might make them uncomfortable.

“Does it tell us something about what women are capable of, or does it distract us from seeing what women are capable of?” she asked.

Naz Mohamed of Hadley, who nodded frequently throughout the dialogue, said the message on finding commonalities among the different cultures was especially poignant for her. She noted that she is a member of the Hampshire Mosque in Amherst.

“It really hit home because that’s how we need to view what’s going on in ourselves and in the world,” she said.

All events in the series are free and open to the public. The full schedule of events is available on the website of the Karuna Center,


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