An elderly woman stopped me in the mall the other day to ask what I was wearing. I told her a head scarf, or hijab, and overdress, or abaya. I said my Islamic religion requires me to dress modestly and hide the contours of my body so as not to attract the opposite sex.
"You people are oppressed and submissive," she replied, questioning why God would want a woman to hide her beauty. She added that my clothes were just plain "ugly." So according to her, if women are seen as persecuted based on what they wear, then many of the world's women from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia would be considered oppressed.
The head scarf continues to be perceived in the West as a symbol of religious cruelty. A survey last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that more than half of the 1,000 U.S. respondents believe that Islam encourages the oppression of women.
Actually, many women in Middle East and Islamic countries are free; others are working to bring about more change. That's probably news to many Americans. Next week, for instance, Kuwaiti women will participate in parliamentary elections for the first time in the country's history. . .
Unfortunately, some men often refer to distorted or false interpretations of Islam to prevent women from getting behind the wheel of change. Islam does not prohibit women from seeking education, public office or employment. But culturally, many men view educated or working women as a threat. If a wife seeks employment, her husband is viewed as not fully providing for his family. If a single woman attends a co-educational institution, she might be considered "loose" for mixing with the opposite sex.
For these cultural reasons, don't expect a radical feminist revolution in the Middle East. Reforms will be gradual. With more than 44 million women still illiterate in the region, access to education remains a top priority. Employment among women in the Arab region is among the lowest in the world, 33.3%. Further, many women still live with discriminatory laws.
But the recent changes in the region are significant because they are coming from within these societies. Debates about women's rights take place on local TV programs, in books, newspapers and parliamentary chambers. Muslim and Arab women, veiled and unveiled, are using their minds, not foreign armies, to gain freedoms. These increasingly public debates point to a reawakening in the Arab and Islamic worlds, where societies are examining their own religion, culture and prejudices to better understand how to address injustices against women.
It took American women more than 130 years after the signing of the Constitution to gain the right to vote. It took more than two decades after that before the women's rights movement truly blossomed. American women, perhaps more than most, understand that what a woman wears has nothing to do with having the same opportunities and rights as men. And as U.S. history shows, a revolution doesn't happen overnight.
Souheila al-Jadda is a journalist and associate producer of a Peabody award-winning program, Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, on Link TV. She also is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.