Islamic feminism: Fighting theology with theology
By: Rana Harbi
Published Friday, April 25, 2014
Determined to maintain their faith and culture whilst fiercely advocating for equal rights, Islamic feminists are reclaiming Islam for themselves by dismantling the edifice of religious patriarchy.
Can you be Muslim and a feminist? Can Islam and feminism coexist? Are Islamic texts compatible with women’s rights?
For Islamic feminists the answer is yes.
Islamic feminism is a feminist discourse that promotes gender equality and social justice within an Islamic framework, in an attempt to achieve normative reconciliation between Islam and women’s rights.
According to Islamic feminists, Islam has evolved in ways that are inimical to women’s rights not because Islam in its essence is incompatible with gender equality, but because of the hegemony of patriarchal interpretations that warped Islamic law. “By clinging to medieval jurisprudence, male clergy and conservative scholars turned Islam into a misogynist discourse that promotes gendered hierarchy,” Ziba Mir Hosseini, Iranian legal anthropologist and one of the foremost Islamic feminist scholars, told Al-Akhbar.
In the name of Islam and state-sanctioned patriarchy, Muslim women face a wide array of repugnant practices and unjust laws that not only ensure their subjugation but also label them as second class citizens.
“Islamic feminists are not trying to evade religion but are challenging those who claim that male superiority is divinely mandated by de-mystifying the narrow interpretations of Islamic texts endorsed by conservatives through the very rhetoric by which they were formed,” Mir Hosseini said. Using the basic methodologies of classical ijtihad and tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an and also the hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), feminist hermeneutics recuperate Islam’s egalitarian message by bringing their own experiences and questions as women into their readings of the various formulations of sharia law.
Some women historically, socially and politically contextualize verses from the Qur’an and quotes from the hadith in order to break down androcentric interpretations and liberate Muslims from a literal reading, while others use the tools of linguistics and anthropology in the hope of reestablishing the already inscribed, yet ignored, principles of gender justice.
Moreover, Islamic feminists also focus on highlighting verses that render a clear confirmation of equality between men and women in the Qu’ran.
Men and women from one nafs
Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim and associate professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that there is “no essential difference in the value attributed to women and men,” as they both have “inherently equal value,” and are “given the same or equal consideration and endowed with the same or equal potential.”
Wadud uses verses from the Qur’an that show how “true Islam” contemplates men and women as two equal entities from a single nafs,i.e. soul.
"O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah , through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer." [4:1]
Similarly, Sisters In Islam (SIS), an Islamic feminist association founded in 1987 that advocates for the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, use Qur’anic verses in their book titled Unveiling the Ideal: A New Look at Early Muslim Women to prove that Islam and gender justice are actually compatible.
SIS also uses [4:124], [33:35], [9:71-72],[16:97], [49:13] and many other verses to show how in the Qur’an, both men and women are treated equally as far as their relationship with God is concerned and are promised the same reward for good conduct and the same punishment for evil conduct."Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do." [16:97]
According to SIS, underlying the verses that affirm gender equality and reinterpreting the ones that hold multiple meanings is important because Muslim family laws such as those "that govern the relationships between men and women based on a framework of the superior husband and the subordinate wife, are unsustainable in the 21 century."
Polygamy is anti-Islamic
In countries with Muslim majorities, Islamic law is the chief source of the personal status law and an integral part of the constitution. Using political Islam, the belief that Islam should guide personal, social and political life, male elites are able to manipulate legislation in a way that promulgates male superiority. Asma Lamrabet, a doctor, author and head of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Morocco, believes that the rise of political Islam has reiterated the need to demonstrate the compatibility of gender equality within Islam.
“By emphasizing the difference between sharia, the fixed and divinely mandated, and Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh, the changeable and man-made, Islamic feminists in Morocco were able to deconstruct the patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and ultimately succeed in pressuring substantial legal reforms in the Moroccan personal code, Mudawana, back in 2004,” Lamrabet told Al-Akhbar.
Even though the 2004 women-sensitive Mudawana is sharia-based, it gave women rights equal to those of men in critical matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, and also forbade domestic violence and ensured marital rights.
For example, in the Mudawana, polygamy is extremely restricted as it needs the authorization of a judge, an exceptional and objective justification, the approval of the wife and the sufficient economic resources to support the two wives and families.
Polygamy is one of the sensitive issues in Islam as it turned from being an action approved under highly exceptional circumstances to a corrupt recurrent practice held by men driven by lust.
In light of this issue, SIS published a book titled Islam and Polygamy to accurately explain polygamy in Islam.
According to SIS, the problem with this verse is its isolation "from its context and turning it into a universal rule or moral injunction.”
The first part of verse 4:3 about polygamy states, “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four.”
SIS considers polygamy to be permitted only when a large number of women have been rendered yatim, i.e. orphans and widows, due to devastating wars, and views the verse as an explicit declaration that “polygamy is not a right, but a restriction and responsibility to ensure that justice be done to orphans.”
Furthermore, SIS believes that Muslims who regard polygamy as a “right” have forgotten or intentionally overlooked the second part of verse [4:3] that states,
“But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”
In SIS’s opinion, when "the Qur'an explicitly stresses just conduct towards women and equal treatment among wives, it also recognizes the impossibility of fully living up to these ideals,” hence making polygamy almost impossible.
“And you will never be able to be equal [in feeling] between wives, even if you should strive [to do so]. So do not incline completely [toward one] and leave another hanging. And if you amend [your affairs] and fear Allah - then indeed, Allah is ever forgiving and merciful.” [4:129]
Domestic violence is not sanctioned by the Qur'an
Another two sensitive issues among many addressed by the Mudawana and also by Islamic feminists all over the globe are male guardianship and domestic violence.
According to the Mudawana “women are men’s sisters before the law.” When it comes to marriage, women cannot be married against their will and they don’t need their guardian's, father’s or brother’s, approval to get married. Also, a woman can file for divorce if her husband doesn’t fulfill his obligations according to the marriage contract or causes her harm by physically abusing her or abandoning her.
These legislations openly challenge the traditional Qur’anic exegesis of verse [4:34] which has been used to justify both the inherent superiority of men over women, and the legality of men beating women.
“Men are the protectors and maintainers (qawwamun) of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for God is Most High, Great (above you all).” [4:34]
Certain misogynistic concepts have become imbedded in Islamic academic discourse as a result of the classical exegetes' commentary on this verse, which were undoubtedly influenced by the patriarchal paradigm of the medieval period from which they were produced.
The popular contemporary Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi states in his book The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam that a man is “entitled to the obedience and cooperation of his wife,” and that if he does not receive this, as a last resort, he can “beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive areas.”
Even though the dispute over the first part of the verse and the word qawwamuna is fierce and highly critical, the dispute is even more intense when it comes to the second part of the verse and the word idribuhunna.
Iranian-American scholar, Laleh Bakhtiar, an author of more than 20 books on Sufism, psychology, and other topics, published an English translation of the Qur’an in 2007 and says that she spent nearly three months on this verse in particular.
Instead of translating the root verb daraba as "beat them lightly," Bakhtiar translates this key verse to mean "go away from them,” thus arguing that idribuhunna, as it appears in the verse, does not mean “hit them” but “leave them.” She bases her word choice on certain verses where the same word is used yet holds different meanings and translations.
In verse [4:94], the word is used to mean to “go abroad” or leave; “O you who have believed, when you go forth/go abroad (darabtum) in the cause of Allah , investigate; and do not say to one who gives you [a greeting of] peace …”
Also in verse [14:24] the word is used again but with a different meaning; “Have you not considered how Allah presents (daraba) an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky?” Hadia Mubarak, a Syrian-American women rights activist and the first woman to serve as president of the national Muslim Students Association, has posited six possible meanings for daraba and prefers the translation “to create an effect upon her.”
Islamic feminists also use specific verses to show how the Qur’an admonishes men who oppress or ill-treat women. One of these verses is verse [4:19]; “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them - perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good."
Even though Muslim men and women are starting to acknowledge the need to revisit and reinterpret the Qur’an so that it fits their daily lives, Islamic feminists have a long and possibly dangerous path ahead as they are stepping into an area dominated for centuries by traditional, conservative Muslim clerics who won’t give up without a fight.