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I attended a session at IslamExpo at the weekend on a topic that keeps coming up: "Do Muslim women need liberating?" I expected that there would be the usual preoccupation with defending the faith and restating that Islam does not oppress women. But I was pleasantly surprised to listen to open criticism of indigenous culture in the Muslim world and a more profound examination of the role Muslim women themselves play in their own oppression.

Merve Kavakçı - the former Turkish politician - claimed the modern evaluation of the situation of Muslim women was inherently biased. She believes there is a Western assumption that Muslim women are subjugated, which is attributed to Islam - a non sequiteur in her view, since while Muslim women do need to be liberated, it is not from the religion but from their indigenous culture. This is a crucial point: it's worth noting, for example, that female circumcision - the biggest stain on Islam's reputation - is predominant in Egypt, a secular country, and virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia. The distinguishing factor is the different cultures in both countries.

She should have been more mindful of the reasons why Islam is seen as oppressive by non-Muslims - she failed, for instance, to tackle the question of whether the Qur'an and the hadith may have inherent qualities or messages that lend themselves to a male dominant interpretation, a monopoly she herself acknowledged. Women from the very beginning of Islam participated in military combat and were given rights of divorce, alimony and so on, but such scriptural verses which compromise women's credibility in testimony, raise issues surrounding women's inheritance rights in addition to controversial texts in the Qur'an cannot be ignored in any debate about whether Islam subjugates women.


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