They're Not So Different
It should be obvious, yet Muslim women are often presented as different, exotic, or even a symbol of backwardness. A Middle Eastern secondary teacher urged me, “Tell women in the West that Muslim women are like them, in their family and community, their life and work. There are educated Muslim women, doctors, lawyers, teachers, workers—we’re all the same.” Personally, I find our common femaleness gives me a shared bond with Muslim women everywhere. I’ve had some great times hanging out with Muslim friends and enjoy being with them. In the west you see women sitting together in coffee shops, leaning forward, intently listening, talking about relationships, family, clothes and cooking. Muslim women talk about exactly the same things when they get together. It’s a common language of women world-wide. I attended a mosque women’s program in the Middle East for a couple of years, and much of the content was similar to what I’d hear from women in many church discussions—bringing up children and taking time for prayer and reading (their) scriptures. They also talked about how to live godly lives in the pressure of the world, or with spouses, who weren’t religious.
A Sense of Fashion Might be Inherent
Many wear the hijab (head covering), all kinds of versions of it—and many don’t. While hijab can mean ‘veiling’ or ‘screening,’ we shouldn’t let it screen us from friendship. I find that on public transport in the west, women in hijab are often more ready to chat with me than women in western dress. Western women are usually more focused on their phones or tablets. Dress choices that may look intimidating to us are usually about modesty. And Muslim women are very often fashion-conscious. For example, in Cairo women want to wear bright, matching colours and patterns of dress and scarf. In places where most women seem to be wearing look-alike full-length dark coats, they give careful attention to differences of style, material and buttons, and subtler colour variations. In Asia I watched TV programs showing how to tie headscarves as trendy fashion statements. And in women-only space, the most conservative black over-garments may be taken off to show designer wear underneath.
They Can be Power Brokers
I sometimes hear Muslim women described as powerless and oppressed, but that isn’t the full picture. Even in very conservative societies, if women face restrictions in public areas, men also face restrictions on their entry, and movement in women’s domestic space, especially beyond their own immediate families. Women’s status can often change significantly over a lifetime. A young bride living in the home of her husband’s parents may not have much power. However, when she has a son, and when her son grows up and gets married, that changes. A friend who had worked in the Middle East told me that whenever anything needed doing, or paperwork signed, they would ask the women, and it would happen. Older women, particularly mothers, can be significant power brokers in an extended family.
A Deep Concern for Purity
This includes moral purity. Often they are worried about the risks of exposure to the sexual freedoms of western culture, and may assume it characterizes all the western women they meet. Feel free to share your own concern about living according to biblical standards in the face of pressure from the contemporary culture.
It also includes physical purity. Physical impurity prevents Muslims from carrying out their basic religious duties of prayer, fasting, reading the Qur’an. Careful washing rituals are the means to restore purity. And defiled conditions affect women much more than men (any kind of emission from the body, whether solid, liquid or gas, is a cause of impurity). So all Muslims become impure and must wash to gain purity every day. Moreover, women become impure for a week each month. This is very different to western understanding. But the people in Jesus’ day constantly thought about purity and requirements for washing before religious duties. It means a lot to tell our friends about Mark 5, where Jesus heals from unclean spirits, and how he isn’t defiled by the woman with the flow of blood. Nor is he unclean from touching a dead body (according to Jewish rules of the time). Rather, he heals a woman, gives life to a dead girl, and purity of heart to all of us.
"Mama's Boy" isn't an Insult in Islam
In many Muslim societies, a stronger relational bond is one between mother and son. A’isha, Muhammad’s favourite wife, and source of many quotes that shape Muslim life and society, is reported as saying: “The person who has the greatest right over the woman is her husband, and the person who has the greatest right over the man is his mother.” Marriage ties are often not as strong as family blood ties. The mother-son relationship may be a more significant line of influence than the husband-wife one. When I was encouraging young women to come to literacy classes, it was more often mothers or sisters-in-law (not husbands), who might prevent them from attending.
Family Welfare is a Major Concern
Muslim women often carry much of the responsibility for family welfare—health of family members, harmony in relationships, and success of children. These can be deep daily concerns for women, especially in countries without good health facilities or education, facing issues of drought or war. Women may be more anxious about these areas than about theological issues or questions. So they are very conscious of the many negative forces that can affect them and their families. In some places this includes fear of others’ envy, or the ‘evil eye’ that can bring bad luck. I have friends with PhD’s from Western universities, who use a blue bead for protection against the evil eye. Fear may also extend beyond this life. A common quote from Muhammad says, “I saw the majority of inhabitants of hell were women.”
Women Like to Tell Stories
In conversations, stories are often used to make a point or solve a problem. Shehrezade was the intelligent and resourceful woman in “A Thousand And One Nights” who used stories to change the mind of the king, save her own life, thousands of other women. We can tell stories about Jesus, any place, any time, especially about the many women he cared for.
Muslim women, like us, are image-bearers of God, so we love them as people created and loved by God. In all our lives and cultures there are things that fall short of what God has made us to be. So we pray for them, as for ourselves, for God’s complete redemption in Christ of all that falls short of His glory.