Melody Meozzi is an inspirational Iranian writer, activist and attorney.
Melody’s first book, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, brings together the stories of twelve young people, all vastly different but all American, and all Muslim.
Melody is a United Nations Global Expert with the UN Alliance of Civilizations and has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reporting to the U.S. Congressional Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Melody shared her views on Islam, women and culture with Safe World founder, Chris Crowstaff.
There is a ‘western’ perception that Islam and women’s oppression inevitably go together. And may be especially Shia Islam. Is that a myth?
I think it’s a huge myth. Sharia law for example is not based as much on the Qur’an as it is on the Sunnah, which means that there is much more room for interpretation. Only the Qur’an is accepted as divine revelation. The Sunnah, on the other hand, are handed down by one person to the next via oral tradition, and as such, there have been many miscommunications. Furthermore, as a general rule, Shi’as don’t give as much weight to the Sunnah ans many Sunnis to.“Human being are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!”
Obviously anybody can interpret anything the way that they want, to perpetuate misogyny or whatever else they want to perpetuate. And, throughout history, many all over the world, of all different religions and ethnicities, have done so. Definitely.
But the basis of Islamic law is that you can’t force it on anyone.
I think people assume that Shias are more radical in some way and, as a Shia, I fully disagree with that. We have saints that are women, for example. Shia Islam has a great deal of respect for women.
On top of that, there’s a notion of martyrdom and so forth. In a lot of Shia movements – there’s a real interest in the reinactment of the Battle of Karbala which established Shi’ism in a lot of ways. And there’s a strong degree of liberation theology that lies within Shi’ism, which doesn’t as much lie within Sunniism.
For me I consider myself very culturally Shia. But the Q’ran specifically teaches over and over not to separate your religion.
So that separation of Shi’ism and Sunniism is not a spiritual reality for me – it’s more historical and political and, as I say, cultural.
Islam is one faith. Whether you’re a Shia or you’re a Sunni or whatever sect you belong to, first and foremost you’re a Muslim. And nobody can judge whether somebody is Muslim except for God.
It’s very obvious that any religion can be used for oppression – and many religions have been used as tools of oppression throughout history.
Could you say a bit about Islam and women’s rights?
I think it’s really important that Muslims are willing to stand up and talk about Islam and women and women’s rights. I think it’s really important to shatter those myths and help raise awareness.
I think society and governments in particular will use whatever they can to perpetuate misogyny, to perpetuate sexism, and they’ve done so. If they didn’t have religion, they would have used – and they have used – political systems and political thought in order to do that.
People argue that, without religion, the world would be wonderful. There will be no war. I fully disagree. We’ll find reasons to disagree and divide ourselves, whether it’s based on religion or based on something else. And that has something to do with the human psyche and I don’t think, particularly, with religion.
Definitely people would find some tool to oppress people with.
But, as a women’s rights organisation particularly, we do get ‘how can you defend Islam because it oppresses women? Look at how the women have to live.‘
It’s very funny that you have this notion of oppression, even with people who are familiar with laws in so-called Muslim countries.
They see women who are covering their hair or their bodies and immediately the assumption is that there is some male figure that’s forcing this to happen. In many situations, that’s not the case. This is a choice by a Muslim woman or a Jewish woman to cover. And I think it can be very liberating in those cases.
I think in the US, in Europe in particular, you see a focus on women’s bodies that you don’t in some of these Muslim countries.
Being naked doesn’t make you free.
There is a presumption that ‘if I can where a bikini then I must be free’. And I agree. You need to be given that option.
But you also need to be given the option to wear whatever you want and to cover if that’s what you choose to do.
In a lot of these countries, we don’t have the same incidences of eating disorders, for example, and the same obsessions with extreme body weight, for example.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a level of superficiality. There is. But there isn’t the same level of obsession. In that sense, I would say, in the Middle East, we are freer in certain respects. This isn’t a black and white issue – it’s not as if women’s rights are sufficiently respected in the West either. It’s just again, there are different things oppressing us in the West – the media that sexualises girls as young as ten, the fashion industry airbrushing white, blond already-emaciated models and presenting them to us as the paragons of beauty, and of course our consumer-driven culture.
In Iran, it’s the government more than anything else that doles out the discrimination. Different mechanisms, but they all have the same goal of keeping women subjugated with irrational images and ideologies.
There’s also this image that the women are all shut away behind doors and the men are in charge and the women are not allowed to do anything and that’s all because of Islam.
But I wonder if this is patriarchy making its stamp on Islam? Are there examples which show that this does not actually represent Islam – that this is patriarchy?
You have to realise that Islam came about after Christianity and after Judaism. And you now have very reformed movements in those religions.“The Prophet said that women hold dominion Over sages and over men of heart,
But that fools, again, hold the upper hand over women,
Because fools are violent and exceedingly froward.
They have no tenderness or gentleness or amity…”
We have in Islam now more reforms, whatever you want to call it. Of course you had the Islamic Rennaisance.
When the prophet Mohammad came to Saudi Arabia – at the time, women were treated like property. Infant girls were buried alive. He stopped that from happening. You would say that’s so barbaric and of course he would stop it, but it took someone like him to do that. So he was dealing with a culture in a time that was very backwards.
I think what is a huge problem right now is that people are confusing culture for religion.
There are some cultures that really do oppress women of course. But those cultures aren’t Islam and they don’t represent Islam.
I think if you look to the Sufi poets, for example, and what they taught. Islam is a very personal thing, like any religion.
Rumi has a poem where he says ‘there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground’. And I think we need to recognise the diversity within Islam and how beautiful that is and what that achieves.
In terms of the oppression of women, that’s one of the things that the Prophet Muhammad came to Arabia to stop. I think the idea that the Prophet Mohammed had when he came to Saudi Arabia was to improve the situation, not just with respect to women’s rights, but with respect to human rights in general in the area. It was a grim time so obviously there was more to be done and now we just need to continue moving forward.
As much as I support and look up to women who cover and wear Hijab – for whatever their reasoning is, as long as it’s a choice of their own – I think as time goes on, as we’ve seen with Christianity and Judaism as well, this won’t be something that defines Muslims. The garb alone won’t be something that defines Muslims so much, and people will better realise that what defines us as Muslims, or Christians, or Hindus, or Jews, isn’t our choice of attire or our public devotions, but rather, what defines a person of any faith is what lies in her heart, and NO ONE but God Himself can ever fully know that.
Do Muslims generally recognise Sufism as Islamic?
Sufism is a form of Islam – whirling dirvishes for example. It’s very much based on mysticism and that God is love and that the goal of life is to unite with the divine.
Iranians especially are very proud of Rumi. And Hafez is another sufi poet and the Divan of Hafez – his main collection of writings – is considered the best interpretation of the Qur’an by a lot of Iranian Muslims.
And some people put it side by side with the Qur’an, and see some of his poems as being direct interpretations of the Qur’an. For Iranians, Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, the poets, are how we understand Islam and if you want to know what Iranian Islam is like then you need to understand where Sufism and Sufi poetry comes from.
With regard to Iranian law – the Iranian constitution seems quite reasonable, until you read the clause in it relating to ‘Islamic Principles’, which seems very much open to interpretation.
What do you feel, as an attourney and as a Muslim, about this clause?
Many of the provisions, as you say, are reasonable, but are then followed by ‘unless it violates Islamic Principles’ and the truth is none of the things they’ve outlawed – under such clauses – truly violate Islamic principles.
What violates Islamic principles is the pseudo Islamic Republic – because to have a regime that isn’t secular and to have a regime that claims to represent Islam is anti-Islamic.
Because in order to be a Muslim you have to form the proper intention. And you can’t form the proper pure, independent intention, in a regime that claims to be Islamic but isn’t – and is forcing its misinterpretations of Islam upon you.
So I think it’s sort of very difficult to be a Muslim inside of Iran – and to practice the way that you would practice as a Muslim and make your own independent choices, which is necessary in order to be a Muslim.
The Qur’an teaches specifically that there should be no coercion in religion.
In a theocratic state of any kind there’s coercion. Whether that’s in Iran, whether that’s in Israel, is irrelevant. If there’s a state that claims to be a state that follows a religion, I don’t think that state is a viable one currently in the world.
When they suddenly bring in these laws that you mustn’t wear make-up or you mustn’t show any hair under your scarf, is that actually written down in black and white or is it a bit vague?
There are laws that are written down that they don’t enforce and there are laws that are not written down that they do enforce – and of course there are laws written down that they also do enforce.
A lot of what goes on in the streets with respect to morality laws, they’re not very well enforced because you can’t enforce them on the entire population.
A lot of hijabs that the women where in Iran are pretty much like a headband at this point. It really doesn’t cover your hair. Their hair seems to fall out the front and back. You know they’re very consumed with the way they look and their Monteux, the jackets that the women wear, are becoming shorter and tighter and they’re really fighting in these very small ways against the regime.
And even the men are wearing tighter tee-shirts and there have been comments about men plucking their eyebrows – you know they’re really getting involved in this minutae.
My grandmother, when she lived in Iran, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s – she went around and refused to wear a Hijab and whenever somebody came up to her she would just say:
“I’m too old to be sexy – if you’re getting aroused by me there’s something wrong with you”.
So do morality rules apply to men as well? Do they also have restrictions on their clothing and appearance?
There are rules that apply to men as well.
Technically they shouldn’t even be wearing tee-shirts but they do and they seem to get away with that.
If they wear black tee-shirts they can usually get away with it more.
Sometimes people will get trouble. But it just becomes very difficult to enforce these kinds of dress codes. Particularly when such a large majority of the population is completely ignoring them.
(asafeworldforwomen.org / 23.05.2011)