This conversation needs to take place more widely, especially in feminist Muslim circles as well as in those fighting racism, Islamophobia, and other bigotry in the West: We need a way–a platform–to discuss problems internal to Muslims and Muslim/Islamic history that are rooted in patriarchy and that support and maintain patriarchy in way that would not be interpreted as perpetuating and/or endorsing Islamophobia. I, as a Muslim woman very critical of many practices and beliefs endemic to the Muslim communities I’m a part of, should have the freedom and the space to constructively criticize some of our traditions, even those espoused by the past scholars of Islam who are a part of the “canon” that forms Islamic scholarship and the Islamic tradition. And I should have this freedom and space to do so without worrying that Islamophobes will usurp my experiences, my ideas, my criticism and misuse them for their frightening agenda to hurt and malign Muslims and Islam. The Muslim community (in the West) needs to stop attempting to stifle internal criticism just because “what will the Islamophobes say? Let’s keep the bigger picture in mind here. For the sake of Islam and to avoid the further mistreatment of Muslims, let’s not focus on the negatives of our community and tradition and instead just embrace the goal of fighting Islamophobia.” Why? Because the problems I as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim feminist, face in my community because of patriarchal ideas attributed to “the Islamic tradition” are not important enough? Because women’s problems aren’t important enough to be tackled? This sort of spiritual shaming is an excuse to stifle critical thought–or just to stifle women’s criticism of their communities for not treating them with respect.
I’ve said in several blog posts before that, as a female Muslim feminist student of Islamic studies working on gender/sexuality and Islam, I often have difficulty talking about the patriarchy on which so many gendered guidelines in the “Islamic tradition” are founded. Examples include the fact that, despite the Qur’an’s silence on the matter, (the male) Muslim jurists decided that: a) Muslim women aren’t allowed to marry non-Muslim men but men are allowed to marry Christians and Jews (all the “yes, but …” aside); b) women are not allowed to lead gender-mixed prayers–or even other women in prayer–while men can lead anyone in prayer they want; c) women do have the right to divorce, but it’s not only difficult but we literally have to buy divorce from our husbands by returning everything we got in mahr (despite today’s Muslims claim that “no, no, no! you don’t understand! You see, Muslim grooms are required to give mahr to their brides at the time of the nikaah as a testament to the fact that they are financially responsible for their wives.” Except, not really. The hubby gives you mahr in exchange for being able to sleep with you legitimately for as long as you’re married. I need to remember to write about this in a separate blog post at some point.); d) in some schools of law, we as women require the permission of an adult male Muslim (a wali), usually father if he’s Muslim, to get married and may not do it without his consent; e) we can’t travel alone without the permission of our husbands or fathers–or alone, period; f) a husband can beat up his wife because, supposedly, he has the God-given right to do so. (These and many other ideas largely accepted as “Islamic” in mainstream Muslim thought have been debunked by the fabulous Fatal Feminist here.)
All of these statements come with exceptions, nuance, and all that other great stuff that should get any thinking human to go, “Um, actually, …” or “But it’s not that simple, right> Because, you see …” And, in fact, there are plenty of books and articles on some of these issues that analyze and discus them in detail. (You can find some of these here.) I’d have to dedicate a separate blog post to each of these points and so many other ones. But for now, stick with me – I have a point.
But why is it so difficult to talk about these, you might ask? Well, because one sort of risks appearing and sounding Islamophobic, or inciting Islamophobia. The Islamophobia industry thrives on internal criticism and critiques by Muslims of Muslims and the Islamic tradition. This has meant keeping quiet about so many real problems that Muslims, especially Muslim women, face within the Muslim community–some of which go back to patriarchal ideas of gender supported by the vast, rich, complicated, gray “Islamic tradition”–because of the fear that Islamophobes might hear and see, and then they’ll run with that information and go, “See?! We TOLD you Muslims are backward!” You’d think Islamophobes are truly egalitarian-conscious humans who think women are full, complete, real human beings, or something. (But Islamophobes are anything but, I swear.) I’ve said in other blog posts that I get Muslim female readers emailing me asking about safe spaces where they can comfortable raise the questions they have, discuss so many issues that they’re facing that their Muslim community tells them is what God expects/wants of women (but heaven still lies beneath the mother’s feet), who they can talk to about these things without being judged or without giving Islamophobes an opportunity to pounce on them as Muslim women or on Islam. I’m currently exchanging texts and emails with a Muslim female who made a really good comment in our last conversation: “If the foundation of what we call ‘the Islamic tradition’ is so sexist, why are we letting it continue as a tradition in the first place?!” And I agree with her, also, when she said that any Muslim “scholar,” in the past or present, who believes that a husband has the right to hit his wife should not be considered a scholar (for more on this wife-beating issue, check out Ayesha Chaudhry’s book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition). Our standards of authority and scholarship need to be better than this such that such a violent perspective should lead to the denial of any and every person’s right to claim authority in our community. I agree with this person that we have to be better than this, that we can’t say, “Well, just because you don’t like one person’s one opinion doesn’t mean you should reject everything else they have to say.” Actually, it does, and actually, we can–and should–reject everything else they say if they do not consider women human enough to think they can be hit by their husbands, however “lightly” and even if it’s “just for symbolic purposes” (!!). Because the fact is that these scholars’ “opinions” about women, with no experience about what it’s actually like to be subjected to their opinions, have real and often destructive consequences for women. So, yes, we should have that option to deny them their scholarly status in our communities and tradition.
The point is, we need to have these kinds of conversations in the open, wherever it is, online or offline, and for once stop fearing that we’re inciting Islamophobia. Islamophobia doesn’t exist because of us. It has other roots and purposes that sustain it.
I don’t know if this kind of space exists, and I wish it did. I can’t even claim that it exists on my own blog, because I’ve noticed on Twitter that some of my blog posts on Islamic feminism and patriarchy in the Muslim tradition and in Muslim communities–or the struggles of being a Muslim feminist–have been circulated by Islamophobes to highlight their agenda of “LET’S FREE THESE POOR OPPRESSED MUSLIM WOMEN!!!!” Like, I don’t get it – do they not read the every other line I have about how empowering it is to be a Muslim, a feminist, a woman today despite the struggles?! So, yes, I censor myself on my blog a lot because my blog is public, and I don’t want islamophobes to take my voice away from me. But that sucks because if I can’t say so much of what I wanna say on my own blog, then where can I?
Anyway. I was saying. When it comes to laws/rules/guidelines about women, or just generally about sexuality and gender, patriarchy reigns. (Yes, yes, it’s not just Islam. Every other religious tradition has done the same thing, and this is why religious feminism is so important, as is generally the contributions of women to studies in religion.) I appreciate the temptation to avoid identifying virtually every gender-related law/guideline in Islam or the “Islamic tradition” as patriarchal because we don’t want to think that our jurists and scholars could be so sexist. We have been taught to think that these men were so sincere in their intentions, so pious – but we have to keep in mind that piety and good intention don’t negate sexist attitudes. Because for that to happen, for us to begin equating piety with a gender (and racial and other) egalitarian sense of life and practice, we have to acknowledge that patriarchy is harmful and needs to be combated by everyone, and that that must begin as soon as yesterday. So, yes, these guys “meant well,” but that’s what’s called benevolent sexism. And benevolent sexism is still sexism. And, yes, context is important here, but let’s also admit that contexts change all the time. Given today’s context, do we still really need all those patriarchal statements and rules and laws that were formulated and developed by the ‘ulama who may or may not have meant well, who knows?
We tend to equate “Islam” with the (personal, social) opinions and statements of the men who shaped Islamic law for us over several centuries. Many continue to think that to challenge the claim that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim (Christian or Jewish, for simplicity’s sake for now) man is to challenge God. The most important thing here is that God actually never said a Muslim woman can’t marry a non-Muslim (Christian/Jewish) man, so there. Or that women cannot lead a gender-mixed prayer. Or that women need the permission of a man to leave home or marry a man they wanna marry. And so on. Then why do we have these rules? Because, (un)fortunately, that’s how religious and laws and societies and people and traditions work. But the good thing is that traditions and ideas change with them. Which is why it’s been time to start considering the more feminist, more gender-egalitarian views and interpretations of Islam as a part of Islam. We’ve already begun doing that, but only for some things (like denying that past jurists and scholars were totally okay with wife-beating as a man’s “God-given” prerogative), and not for other things (like not for women’s interfaith marriages or female-led prayers, in the mainstream). Why?
Those of us who support “non-conventional” ideas like women’s right to an interfaith marriage–or the fact that we need to challenge the traditional claim that a woman is “Islamically” prohibited to mary a non-Muslim man–are often accused of wanting to “change Islam.” But that depends on what we mean by “Islam.” If “Islam” = the opinion of the male ‘ulama/fuqaha (scholars/jurists), their interpretations of Islam (that, I have to point out, were influenced by their time and societies, understandably so), then, actually, yes let’s please change those opinions, let’s definitely offer new ones that speak to our realities and experiences and concerns and time and societies; but if by “Islam,” one means the Qur’an and maybe the non-patriarchal hadiths, I’m not sure what the accusation is hinting to. How does one “change” a text? The truth is that all texts, written and otherwise, are open to interpretations, and those interpretations can be completely different and may even oppose each other. Patriarchy has historically been read into the Qur’an, but yet, when we read feminism into the Qur’an, we’re accused of being “biased,” and the strategy is dismissed as being anachronistic–as though there’s something wrong with reading feminism into a text where imposing patriarchy on it for centuries has been totally acceptable.
I’m writing all this to say: As you might note, so many of the patriarchal, sexist things that Muslims commonly believe are a part of Islam are not found in the Qur’an. Muslim feminist scholarship has done phenomenal work on this, and I cannot emphasize that enough. But for now, I want to highlight the fact that what we think of as the “Islamic tradition” (Islamic law, fiqh, Muslim male scholarship that has historically been considered authentic and “real scholarship,” and just generally agreed-upon positions/laws/guidelines) has actually compromised some of the core teachings of the Qur’an just to accommodate patriarchy. In the next few blog posts, I want to discuss this fact.
Now, you–as an “objective” person, of course–might think, “Oh, c’mon, patriarchy isn’t so bad! Besides, when ‘patriarchy’ ‘breaks’ Islamic rules like these, it’s often for the benefit for the women.” Well, not quite. You see, patriarchy has no reason to benefit women; women’s interests aren’t its priority–men’s interests are. So, of course, it’s likely that occasionally, patriarchy might benefit women, but that’s incidental – it’s not intentional. Examples of these? Sex/gender segregation for those women who are more comfortable being themselves around other women than around men they’re not immediately related to. There’s nothing natural about this. It’s not like women are inherently programmed to be more comfortable around other women. It’s that the dominant ideas about modesty and comfort are so patriarchal that some girls grow up to prefer gender segregation. Think of the many mosques around the world that don’t segregate their men and women with a barrier. When I was a teenager, the mosque I attended regularly didn’t have such a barrier – and no one complained, no one wondered, and no one expressed discomfort with praying behind men without a barrier between us. It’s only when you’re accustomed only to segregated spaces that you grow to only want that.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring those kinds of spaces. I’m a strong proponent of choice and comfort, no matter what influences those choices and comfort (… well, okay, sometimes I do care about those influences, if they lead to broader laws that affect everyone else). But my point is that our preferences, our choices, our desires are influenced by the larger force of patriarchy; patriarchy still plays a fundamental role in how we “like” things.
This is getting long, and I really don’t want to make it longer than I think it needs to be, and I haven’t even gotten to the plenty of examples I want to discuss that support my point that patriarchy has been the one thing that male scholarship has historically (and even today) aimed to accommodate, often at the expense of breaking core Qur’anic principles. Like everything else, this point comes with all sorts of qualifiers and disclaimers and exceptions. I’ll address those when I get to them. The topics I’ll discuss include:
– obedience and submission to God only or to husbands as well?
– nothing must stand between the worshiper and the imaam during prayer, but somehow, the barrier separating women and men in mosques, etc. becomes totally acceptable. How come?
– the Qur’an’s idea that believing women and men are allies of one another contrasted against this patriarchal idea that women must not be seen in public or women must not work together with men
– the Qur’an suggests that a wife may choose to decline mahr, but yet, with the sexual purpose that mahr serves in the Islamic tradition, what happens when a woman says no to mahr? Is the marriage still considered valid? How does that affect the way divorce (khul’, female-initiated divorce) takes place? This has to do with the jurists’ idea of the purpose an value of mahr.
– polygyny (multiple wives) and the Qur’an
– and so on.
This should be all for now.
Peace! And happy new year to all!