Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is there such a thing as Islamic Feminism?

I looked at my husband, "the egyptian" and asked, "Why do Muslim women seem so oppressed?" He turned to me and said, "The Qu'ran offers more equality to women than any other Holy Book."

I raised my eyebrow.

So I researched it. For one thing, I live with a man who practices Islam and who happens to come from an "arab-centric" country. Two - he has sat in front of me and had heated debates about gender equality and Islam.

My question is - is the oppression from  Islam? Or the Arab culture?

Turns out - a little of both, but more so - the Arab culture.

There is actually an Islamic Feminist movement spreading across the Middle East, however it is moving slow, due to fear and lack of resources. But it does exist - even if on a smaller scale, and a century long over due.

I found an article by Amina Wadud, an Islamic Studies Professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University, titled - "A'ishah's legacy."  To quote her exactly, here is what she said about feminism and the Qu'ran:

"I converted to Islam during the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s. I saw everything through a prism of religious euphoria and idealism. Within the Islamic system of thought I have struggled to transform idealism into pragmatic reforms as a scholar and activist. And my main source of inspiration has been Islam’s own primary source — the Qur’an. It is clear to me that the Qur’an aimed to erase all notions of women as subhuman. There are more passages that address issues relating to women — as individuals, in the family, as members of the community — than all other social issues combined. Let’s start with the Qur’anic story of human origins. ‘Man’ is not made in the image of God. Neither is a flawed female helpmate extracted from him as an afterthought or utility. Dualism is the primordial design for all creation: ‘From all (created) things are pairs’ (Q 51:49)."

Wadud goes on to explain how in Islam, women were seen as different, yet equal. If that is so, then I asked myself the question - why all of the oppression? Why can't women drive in Saudi Arabia? Why are women denied an education in Taliban controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Why? And if there is such a thing as women's rights in Islamic countries - how is that defined as opposed to the Western definition?

She goes on to explain the two different sides of Feminists in Islam.

"On the Left were many secular feminists and activists who, while Muslim themselves, defined Islam on a cultural basis only. Their politics was informed by post-colonialist and Marxist agendas of nationalism. Concrete issues of women’s full equality: standards of education, career opportunities, political participation and representation were understood in Western terms. The cultural imposition of veiling was to them a symbol of women’s backwardness; for them full entry in the public domain and other indicators of liberation were reflected in Western styles of dress.

On the far Right, Muslim male authorities and their female representatives, known as Islamists, spearheaded a reactionary, neo-conservative approach. They identified an ideal Islam as the one lived by the Prophet’s companions and followers at Madinah. All that was required today was to lift that ideal out of the pages of history and graft it on to modernity adopting a complete shari’ah state, unexamined and unquestioned and opposed to modern complexity. Then life would be perfect. There were no inequities towards women because the law was divine and the matter of patriarchal interpretation was irrelevant. Female Islamists representing this viewpoint handed out booklets (written by men) with titles such as ‘The Wisdom behind Islam’s Position on Women’. Although the arguments were not intellectually rigorous or critically substantial they held a substantial sway. Ironically, these arguments would also form part of the rhetoric used by secular feminists to discredit human-rights and social-justice advocates who were in the middle ground, who insisted on fighting from within an Islamic perspective, or who happen to wear hijab."

The truth is, in Islam, women were afforded rights when it came to marriage, divorce and inheritance hundreds of years before women in the west were ever afforded such rights. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of women in Arab societies included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood. Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a status but rather as a contract, in which the woman's consent was imperative. The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property.  Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives.

The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the nineteenth century. The Iranian poetess Táhirih was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis. As a prominent follower of the Bábí Faith, she openly denounced the wearing of the veil and other restraints put upon women. One of her most notable quotes is her final utterance prior to her execution, "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."
Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), is often described as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. In his work, Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygamy, the veil, and purdah, i.e. sex segregation in Islam. He condemned them as un-Islamic and contradictory to the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today.

One of the major areas of  campaigning for Islamic feminists are aspects of sharia (Islamic law) known as Muslim personal law (MPL) or Muslim family law. Some of the thorny issues regarding the way in which MPL has formulated include polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property. In addition, there are also more issues regarding the underlying assumptions of such legislation, for example, the assumption of the man as head of the household. (Something I am trying to understand to this day.)

Muslim majority countries that have some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Muslim minority countries that already have incorporated MPL into their own law or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India, Israel, and South Africa.

Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation in many of these countries, arguing that these pieces of legislation discriminate against women. Some Islamic feminists have taken the attitude that a reformed MPL which is based on the Qur'an and sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women, and which does not discriminate against women is possible.

Such Islamic feminists have been working on developing women-friendly forms of MPL. (See, for example, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women for argument based on the Qur'an and not on what they call medieval male consensus.)
There are several main issues for Islamic Feminists:
- Dress Code
- Sex & Sexuality
- Personal Law
- Equality in the Mosque
- Equality in Prayer

With the dress code -  Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly; this concept is known as hijab and covers a wide interpretation of behavior and garments. In some countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia women are expected to wear the all-covering burqa or abaya; in others such as Tunisia and Turkey they are forbidden to wear even the headscarf (often known as the veil) in public buildings. There is mixed opinion among Muslim feminists over extremes of externally imposed control.

 In the Qu'ran - it does state that both men and women should be dressed modestly (33:59-60, 24:30-31; in translation by Ali, 1988, 1126–27). It however does not use the words veil, hijab, burka, chador, or abaya. It uses the words jilbab meaning cloak and khumur meaning shawl. These do not cover the face, hands or feet.

Furthermore until the third through the ninth century women prayed in the mosques unveiled. The whole body covering with the burka, chador, and other items of clothing is a tradition and cultural manifest from a conservative reading of the Qur'an by Mullahs; men. It is not what the Qur'an itself states.

As for equality in the Mosque - A survey showed that two of three mosques in 2000 required women to pray in a separate area, up from one of two in 1994. Islamic feminists have begun to protest this, advocating for women to be allowed to pray beside men without a partition as they do in Mecca.

As for equality in Prayer - According to currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives.

You may be thinking, "Nicole - what in the world?" It comes from the information I recently received about a Saudi women arrested for driving. Reuters reports - Manal al-Sharif was arrested on Saturday while driving, a day after she posted footage on the video-sharing website YouTube showing her driving in the Eastern Province city of Al-Khobar.

Religious differences aside - I believe Women should be treated with respect, and be allowed to have all of the freedoms their male counterparts are allowed. If a woman wants to learn how to drive, then she should be able to. If a woman wants an education - then so be it. If a woman chooses to not cover her hair, that is fine also.

However, I do believe in women dressing with a sense of propriety, and I do believe that men and women are different, just not that one is any better than the other.



Dafeenah said...

Islam and culture are two different things. Even many muslims do not really truly understand the actual religion themselves. They only know what their parents taught them and what they learned from others. Cultural islam is more widely practiced than actual islam. I know because I am an American muslim convert that has lived in the MIddle East and the subcontinent for the last 7 yrs almost. The laws like those in Saudi have nothing to do with actual islam whatever oppression women face is due to people twisting the religion to suit their own personal agendas and has nothing to do with the actual religion itself.

I wear niqab because I chose to not because I am oppressed and forced to. I don't understand why I am considered "oppressed" but a nun is considered "religious". This is something that has always confused me.

The first wife of RasoolAllah (saw), Bibi Khadija (sa) was an extremely wealthy business woman. She was far more wealthy than RasoolAllah (saw) and it was HER wealth that financed islam during its early days.

There is much about women in islam that people do not understand, but I think it's totally inappropriate to say Islam oppresses women. People who abuse and twist islam to suit their own personal agenda oppress women, but it is wrong to blame the actions and misdeeds of people on the religion itself.

Yenta Mary said...

Islam has a long and illustrious history of respecting women, educating them, granting them rights; it's unfortunate that so many extreme positions have sullied that and bred such fear. At the same time, you can still believe fervently in your religion and respect tradition while being modern and expressing yourself; Jeremy's driver's ed teacher wore the hijab, fasted during Ramadan (had the patience of a saint to take kids driving when she hadn't eaten, too!), wore a long robe ... and yet, she was the driver's ed teacher! And she had a French manicure ... :)

Cheeseboy said...

Very interesting. I learn something new every time I visit your blog it seems.

The Bipolar Diva said...

So interesting. So much to think about, as always. Thanks Nicole.

Anonymous said...

I took a class about Islam and I believe we discussed this issue. It really is a cultural problem not a religious issue.

Different but equal. I like that. It's true.


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