03/14/2013 06:58 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Sex on the Back of a Camel

I often find myself in the middle of discussions with strangers about how little people know about Islam.

Those making the critique are usually not Muslims themselves and the reason they're telling me this is because they've just met me as part of my work. For over a decade, I've sought to highlight the rights granted to women in Islam, first as a writer and activist and now as the Curator of the International Museum of Women's groundbreaking global exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices.

It's not uncommon for people to introduce themselves to me then immediately launch into describing the fear that gripped them after 9/11 and how they felt compelled to run out and buy a copy of the Qur'an. They'll share with me their surprise at discovering how many stories the Qur'an shares with the Bible and Torah. Women will at times confess how they've felt relegated to second-class citizenship in their own faith, whether they are Christian, Jewish, or Hindu.

Inevitably, the conversation ends with a handshake or a hug, an agreement that the world would be much better off if we just understood Islam better.

A place where I rarely hear this much-needed dialogue is among Muslims. Rarely have I heard a Muslim proclaim that s/he ran out and purchased a copy of the Qur'an -- or even pulled the old family one down and began to read it to understand their faith better. Or to confirm the accuracy of what they've just heard their sheik or imam proclaim at the mosque or their local politician assert as a means to remain in power or establish laws that directly impact women.

Growing up Muslim or even growing up in a Muslim-majority country doesn't necessarily mean one understands and practices Islam as it's intended. Just look at how power and politics and patriarchy have come into play.

In my latest interview, prominent Malaysian leader, activist and Muslim feminist, Zainah Anwar, talks about her inspiration to co-found Sisters In Islam:

Women told us how they went to the religious authorities to complain about their marital problems and were told that it was their husband's right to take a second wife, to beat them, to demand obedience, to demand sex... They were told to go home and be good Muslim wives and their husbands would then treat them better. Women were confused and upset with the kinds of messages they heard over radio and television and in talks on Islam they attended at private homes and mosques. That you can never say no to your husband's demand for sex, even if it's on a camel. That even if your father is dying and you are just upstairs with your husband and he forbids you from being at your father's bedside, even if he is calling for you in his dying breath, you must obey your husband and stay upstairs. That no matter if you have licked the puss oozing from your sick husband from head to toe, you still would not have done enough for him. That hell is full of women because they have disobeyed their husbands and have left their heads uncovered.

Misogyny that's carried out in the name of Islam isn't limited to Malaysia. Acclaimed Yemenite photographer, Boushra Al Moutawakel, gives a nuanced portrayal of women's plight in her haunting Hijab series. In the first photograph, a mother and daughter sit smiling at the camera. The daughter is holding a doll. The mother is wearing a colorful headscarf. The daughter is too young still to cover. As the series progresses, however, the mother and daughter are both covered in black veils -- and so is the doll! Neither is smiling. Soon, even their faces are hidden behind burkhas. Finally, they disappear.

In our interview for Muslima, when I asked Dr. Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, to name an abuse she continues to see, she said, "the lack of dignity and equality ... that people still view women as vulnerable, weak, and soft." In Afghanistan, women are forced to wear the burkha even at the high price of their own health. Dr. Samar says that "most of the women in Afghanistan are suffering from osteomalacia," a softening of the bones due to poor nutrition and lack of sunlight.

In 2002, Dr. Samar served as the Minister of Women's Affairs in Afghanistan but was forced to resign when she received death threats for questioning conservative Islamic laws (an unfortunate fate that seems to plague many of the leading female reformers I've interviewed).

I hesitate to even write "Islamic" laws because many of the laws established to deny women their dignity and rights aren't based in Islam. In her essay, "How Islam Confirms Women's Rights," renowned Islamic scholar and the first American women to translate the Qur'an, Laleh Bakhtiar, discusses the many ways Islam holds the same expectations for both men and women, from marriage to divorce to inheritance. In fact, women's equality is not only embedded in the language of the Qur'an but embodied in the phrase, "There is no compulsion in religion." (2:256) Meaning, that's it's up to an individual's free will to choose what to accept as a religious obligation.

In her interview with me, Bakhtiar says, "If we truly believe that Islam grants us equality and justice, then we need to work for it from within."

I can't think of a better way to start that work than for all of us to begin undertaking a truer understanding and practice of Islam.