I’ve been thinking a lot about why non-feminist scholars (including male academics, even otherwise feminist-friendly ones! – see here, for example) and popular mainstream “traditionalist” scholars of Islam don’t engage Islamic feminist works. Sure, a part of it may have to do with the academicy language of much Islamic feminist scholarship, but I believe it’s more than that. Because male academic scholarship produced by men who aren’t very pro gender egalitarianism is still read and cited and promoted by traditionalist folks, especially if they’re white, male, and are anti-LGBTQ.
And then there’s the fact that Islam / the Islamic tradition is considered all flexible and dynamic–so as to allow for plenty of room for re-interpretations of many past, historically established opinions (more on this in the next blog post, but for now, Lamia Shehadeh’s book The Idea of Women Under Fundamentalist Islam. would be a good start; also Karen Bauer’s Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses does an excellent job showing how Muslim scholars have always picked and chosen what works for them.) And even some of the most conservative, least gender egalitarian scholars, preachers, leaders utilize that flexibility to their benefit. BUT!! — And this is very important – when it comes to gender, or re-interpretations of the Qur’an or hadiths or revisions of past juristic consensus so as to accommodate new, updated knowledge on gender and sexuality matters , that flexibility is no longer an option (except when it serves the interpreter’s personal or political whims); Islam then suddenly becomes a done deal, frozen in the 7th century and a bit later, or maybe up until colonialism, and every right, every privilege a Muslim woman could want has already been granted to her and she should be grateful, and anything more is just us being greedy and competing with men, or, even, wanting to be men.
So, this has me wondering: Fine, traditionalist folks don’t do it because “it’s haraam” (ya, ok), but WHY don’t even (male) academics cite and acknowledge Muslim feminist works, even when it’s relevant to their argument? Now, I think it’s because gender is simply not deemed relevant to their work. These men and their scholarship are genderless, objective, and cannot afford to be tainted with the biasness that feminism is tainted with. Some feminist scholarship (as Shehadeh discusses in the conclusion chapter of The Idea of Women Under Fundamentalist Islam) suggests that it’s also because these scholars might lose credibility if they cite women in their scholarship. Women, period, not necessarily feminists. I think this argument makes sense, too. Especially because it also, at least partially, explains why women, too, resist feminist thought.
But I don’t know if this “it’s not relevant” theory explains why traditionalist scholars/preachers/teachers of Islam (aka celebrity shaikhs, including white male converts allergic to a feminist or feminist-friendly Islam) dismiss feminist or gender egalitarian thought like they do. In this case, I think the relevance argument isn’t as helpful as is this one: It’s actually because Islamic feminism threatens the patriarchal family model on which these folks’ authority AND interpretations of Islam thrive. (Lamia Shehadeh discusses this, too. Like when leaders like Ayatollah Khomeini taught for decades that women were not allowed to vote, thus getting the support of patriarchal men, which happens to be the majority, to bestow legitimacy on him, but when he was running himself, it suddenly became permissible, even necessary, for women to vote because he needed to win! Or like when Mawdudi taught it was haraam for women to be leaders, esp political leaders, but then turned around and fully supported Fatima Jinnah when she ran for presidency in 1965! Or when Zaynab al-Ghazali preached the submission of wives to husband but herself did everything she said was haraam for other women. This hypocrisy is integral to the survival of patriarchal interpretations of Islam, to the success of patriarchal Islam. And that’s not okay.)
But re what I was saying that feminist interpretations are a threat to patriarchal, mainstream Islam, here’s quote that explains it all so well it hurts:
“It is clear that, with a few recent exceptions, the ulama do not take feminist critiques seriously, nor do they hold gender egalitarianism to be a virtuous ideal. It would appear that this scorn for gender egalitarianism has deep historical roots. The ulama historically promoted, and for the most part continue to promote, a hierarchical model of gender relations in which men are accorded “a degree” over women in terms of rights and responsibilities. This hierarchy is what Ayesha S. Chaudhry [in Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford Islamic Legal Studies)] calls an “idealized cosmology,” and it describes the theological presuppositions about the God–human relationship that informs how law is created and discussed. So long as jurists presume a patriarchal idealized cosmology, in which men and women are fundamentally unequal, gender- egalitarian Islamic legal reforms will be stymied.” From Rumee Ahmed’s article “Islamic Law and Theology,” p. 11.
I’m thinking about all this partly because it’s a major part of my current research, partly because these thoughts eat at me daily and nightly, and partly because, on our Facebook FITNA group, a bunch of our detractors (usually Muslim males) come their troll us and say, “Women can’t lead prayers because this male scholar from the 12th century said so! It’s haraam!” And it’s just frustrating to constantly have to tell them to read the bunch of stuff that actually deals with this issue so you don’t repeat stuff you clearly have no clue about. And it’s not just that these people don’t like to read – because I know they read patriarchal male scholarship. But there’s something about feminist arguments, feminist analyses, feminist interpretations, feminist practices that’s so offensive to them they cannot engage it. In this post (under the heading “hi. let’s actually read Muslim feminist scholarship”) I wrote a couple years ago, I remind readers of the need to actually read feminist works so we can actually talk, so they know what it is that we’re actually debating and challenging and correcting.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the hypocrisy of Muslim male leadership/scholarship to declare that Islam is flexible and accommodating of new contexts, questions, etc. – but they’ll say this for all things except anything gender-/sexuality-related. They tell feminists that we’re “picking and choosing,” but all of Islamic tradition is built on this idea of picking and choosing, ALL scholars have always done this and continue to do this (picking and choosing, that is), and we even have technical terms for the process of picking and choosing. one of which actually is ironically bid’ah – good bid’ah, remember? We’ll also try to figure out why all of Islam is flexible except when it has to do with gender/sexuality matter. Anyway, more on this coming up.
P.S. If it sounds like there’s too much going on in this one post, that’s okay with me. There’s a lot on my mind right now, I’m extremely angry at patriarchy at this very specific moment in time, and I’m overwhelmed because I haven’t blogged in a while and I have so much I want to blog about, but the topics are emotionally and spiritually draining so I’m avoiding writing here, even though I know that I’ll feel so much better once I’ve written it here.
P.P.S. Read Muslim feminist works. Here’s a good start.