[This is based on a talk hosted by the LSE Student Union's Islamic and Feminist Societies on 22nd January 2007]
From a personal perspective, I identify as both a Muslim and a feminist and I don’t see this as in any way contradictory. To this end, I’d like to discuss five potential challenges to a reconciliation between feminism and Islam.
From a professional perspective, I am interested in how policy can support Muslim women’s rights and interests accepting that the term ‘Muslim women’ includes myriad of people not all of whom agree with each other.
1) Theory vs reality
As a Muslim, I have very little criticism to make of the Qu’ran in terms of its treatment of women. As a doctrinal text, it did indeed widen women’s options, and enshrined rights that women did not previously have. It is, I think, entirely accurate to say that the Qu’ran was an advocate for women’s liberation.
The practice of Islam all over the world, with some exceptions of course, is generally one of active policing of Muslim women, our bodies, our autonomy. In this country, we do have forced marriage, we do have murder in the name of honour, and we do have female genital cutting or mutilation within the Muslim community, and using Islam as a justification.
We can argue about the validity of those interpretations of the Message of course, but the reality is that those interpretations exist. They are real, whatever the theory of how things ought to be.
I know that one defence against this would be to say that there is Islam the religion and Muslims the people, but I don’t think that’s good enough. Because it is Muslims as people that need to be ensuring that Islam the religion fulfils its potential. I think it has been too easy for some people to excuse the oppression of Muslim women by Muslims by claiming that the ‘true’ version of Islam isn’t so sexist.
2) History vs present
We seem to be a bit stuck in the past when it comes to finding inspiring Muslim women to learn from. We have definitely had some inspiring Muslim women in the past. But have there been no inspiring women in the last millennia? What have Muslim women been doing for 1000 years that we can’t seem to find them? I raise this point because Bibi Khadija (Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) first wife) and other women of her time are regularly referred to as evidence of Islam’s progressive approach to the woman question. And they are excellent examples of, in my opinion, feminist Muslim women.
But I think that we have also had some inspiring Muslim women in our lifetimes. Shireen Ibadi and Fatema Mernissi are two current examples and there are many others if you don’t happen to agree with their take on things.
Just as Bibi Khadija challenged the way women were perceived in her time by taking on roles that were the purview of men, so too are there Muslim women challenging prevailing social norms and trying to reframe what options are open to Muslim women in the present. I would like to see more Muslims, especially Muslim men, embracing these trailblazing women as examples of:
- excellent Muslim leaders, for all Muslims
- inspiring Muslim women for those interested in Muslim women’s rights
3) Sex and gender
There does seem to be a tension between some of the fundamentals of feminism and some of the core ideas within Islam. Feminism is very much about understanding and then redefining gender roles and relations. Although feminists disagree about many things, they are committed to equality and freedom for women.
Related to this is the idea of choice. Thus most feminists subscribe to the idea that women should have the right to choose whether and how they should fulfil roles such as wife, child carer and bread-earner. Feminism separates biological sex from socialized gender. In this understanding men can be the primary carers of children while the mother works more outside of the home in paid labour.
Islam on the other hand has more difficulty with the idea that gender is a social construct. Gender roles are seen to be derivative of biological sex and are therefore not so flexible. Motherhood, and caring for children and the domestic sphere generally, is understood to be one of the most important, if not the only, responsibilities of a woman.
That is not to say that a Muslim woman cannot join the paid labour market. But I do think there is deep resistance to the idea that a father could take up more of the caring responsibilities when this happens so that the division of labour in the home is more balanced. Individual men do of course do this, and it is a process of negotiation that is ongoing and ever-changing.
But the status of motherhood is very high in Islam which I think presents a challenge to the idea that it is a gender role that is socially constructed and not a biological fact. So the circumstances where men are doing more of the care work I think are very much the exception and not seen as the ideal situation.
4) The role of men
A lot of Muslims and a lot of feminists seem to be quite obsessed with the position of Muslim women in Islam. That’s great for me of course. But how helpful is it really in terms of advancing my interests to be the object of constant battle, debate, and discourse? Is the issue really about ‘Muslim women’ in these discussions?
Feminism talks about gender inequality as much as it talk about women’s rights. And, perhaps most importantly, feminists emphasise gender relations as a primary vehicle for the oppression of women.
But the important point to take away from it is that feminists care about men. The way to liberating women is to engage with men. What men are doing matters. Women can only be un-oppressed if we understand who is gaining from the oppression, why, how they are doing the oppressing, etc. Men are a part of the conversation about why women lack power in society.
Islam does also recognize the equal importance of men I’d say, but I don’t think as Muslims we follow that opportunity through in our debates. We are perhaps too happy talking about Muslim women, and Muslim women are the battleground of so many of our conversations and debates about what is right and proper and halal. But why don’t we talk about what is going on with Muslim men?
5) Rights and law
Both feminism and Islam have a healthy preoccupation with women’s rights. They differ, however, in how they attempt to realize these rights. Feminism’s purpose is to change society using law when necessary. They see women as agents and subjects. They strive to embody the ethos and politics of feminism, and they are the emancipators – doing the actual changing of society so women have more equality.
Islam’s purpose is to change society as well, but its agent of focus is often the individual. It seeks to encourage individuals to be ethical and just from within an understanding of the Divine. It has guidelines about how we should eat, speak, dress, pray, relate to each other, etc. and it is through this self-regulation of individual behaviour that an ethical society could then be built.
Muslims do also flirt with establishing norms in law for example through Shariah. But it is when these guidelines about self-conduct become codified in law that difficulties arise because a central tenant of Islam is that there is no compulsion in religion. If I choose to drink or eat pork, it is my potential sin and my soul that could suffer. It is up to me to take responsibility for my choices to stay on or stray off the Path.
Establishing law when we’re talking about murder is understandable. When we’re speaking of other areas such as dress, individual choice is a more acceptable guiding principle. If there is no compulsion in religion I should not be forced to wear the hijab. But I’m not sure how well Muslims have been grappling with choice in this country. Are we really ok with women choosing not to wear the hijab?
In these discussions amongst Muslims, I find that we don’t use the language of ‘rights’ to make our points. More often I hear the language of ‘dignity’ used, as in “we want to preserve the dignity of Muslim women”. And ‘dignity’ is used interchangeably with ‘modesty’. In this narrative, Muslim women are treated more as objects rather than agents or subjects. And the purpose is not to change society, but to change individuals, to change individual Muslim women.
What I would like to see is:
- Muslims embodying the faith: living righteously and ethically.
- Muslims acting as emancipators: engaging more actively with women’s rights.
It’s not enough to say that there’s nothing contradictory between feminism and Islam. Muslims must be an active, proactive force for change against the clear, sustained and grave oppression of Muslim women.
zohra is Policy Officer for Race & Gender at the Fawcett Society. She coordinates Fawcett’s new ‘Seeing Double’ project on ethnic minority women. This article follows on from the roundtable Fawcett hosted in December called ‘The veil, feminism and Muslim women’. A report on the discussions is available on the Fawcett website.
This is a guest post.
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Filed in: Religion,Sex equality