Friday, February 25, 2011

I have the pleasure of turning 22 at CSW 55. I've only spent my birthday away from friends and family once before. I spent my 20th birthday in Tangier, Morocco, while studying in the country. Having a birthday at CSW turned out to feel a lot like it did when my birth was marked in north Africa two years ago. In Morocco, I was in a Muslim-majority country. This morning at CSW, I attended a panel discussion on the violence against and marginalization of Muslim women. While this panel featured women experts from Iraq, their arguments and discussion greatly reflected the sentiments expressed by my Muslim friends and colleagues in Morocco, regarding gender in a Muslim society.

The idea of religion and women seems to have the potential to create many setbacks regarding women's status. Using religion to justify patriarchal ideas, and embedding those ideals through religious upbringings, isn't something that resonates solely in Islam. Men dominating leadership roles is celebrated in Christianity as well. Why do we do ths? Men may be viewed to have more wisdom than women and therefore more able to lead religious communities. I disagree with this notion, which is often a subconscious characteristic of religion.

A woman from Uganda in today's panel's audience brought up the idea of female imams, or religious leaders in Muslim mosques. The idea is progressive in Muslim societies, as it is is in most Christian sects as well. The energy from her comments filled the room as she boomed,
"The men are against women imams because they say her body in front of them will distract them from prayer.
"Her bottom, her curves, it will tempt them.
"Can not a woman be thinking the same about the male imams when he is leading prayer in front of women?"
The audience applauded.
Her question dove to the core of a common double standard women are often subject to. The idea that we must mask our bodies so as not to attract 'unwanted' attention, or to make sure we are viewed as 'respectable' women in society.

I left the panel thinking about how societal judgment of women in public is not equal. Regardless of religion, we as women are held to practice norms in public and the workplace if we wish to be respected, and I think it's safe to say that men are not expected to fulfill similar norms. It is important to reflect on these differences. While living in Morocco two years ago, I reflected daily on women's appearance in public. I had to cover my body up more while living there, so as not to attract unwanted attention on the streets. Today, on my birthday, I may be able to cover my skin up less in the streets of New York (if it weren't 38 degrees out...), but a wardrobe viewed as 'scandalous' would still warrant at least one cat call per block. Maybe I can make a birthday wish that erases these gender inequalities. I suppose of that were possible, women would have wished away our worries ages ago, and conferences like CSW would not be needed.

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