Muslim Women Fight For Rights Using Islam

by Cara on February 19, 2009

in feminism, human rights, International, misogyny, paternalism, patriarchy, religious fanaticism

The NY Times recently ran an article that is, if not exactly news (because it’s about something that has been going on for some time), nonetheless interesting and important. On the issue of Muslim women using Islam to make feminist arguments, they write:

Ms. Anwar argues that the edict, issued late last year by the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia, is pure patriarchy. Islam, she says, is only a cover.

It was frustrations like those that drew several hundred Muslim women to a conference in this Muslim-majority country over the weekend. Their mission was to come up with ways to demand equal rights for women. And their tools, however unlikely, were the tenets of Islam itself.

“Secular feminism has fulfilled its historical role, but it has nothing more to give us,” said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist who has been helping to formulate some of the arguments. “The challenge we face now is theological.”

The advocates came from 47 countries to participate in the project, called Musawah, the Arabic word for equality. They spent the weekend brainstorming and learning the best Islamic arguments to take back to their own societies as defenses against clerics who insist that women’s lives are dictated by men’s strict interpretations of Islam.

I find it quite interesting, in fact, given the conditions they describe, that Islam is noted as being an “unlikely” tool for dismantling patriarchy.

There seems to be an awful lot (prejudiced) assumptions about Islam wrapped up in that single statement. But while it certainly can be argued, as Audre Lorde famously phrased it, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” it’s hardly a sentiment that’s shared universally among any type of activist.  Further, in assessing the truth of the statement with regards to any particular situation, we first have to discuss and identify which “tools” belong to the “master.”  And I don’t think that Islam as a religion necessarily qualifies as one of those tools.

Islam, like many things, may be a tool wielded by those who wish to reinforce patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that it belongs to them.   And while I’m no expert of any religion, I have indeed heard precious few compelling arguments based in fact which show that Islam is inherently and significantly more misogynistic than Christianity, at the same time as I constantly hear the bad arguments attempting and failing to make precisely that point.

Christian texts say a whole lot of fucked up, misogynistic things, and the religion has been used to justify a whole lot of fucked up and misogynistic actions.  The same thing goes for Islam.  But so what?  Reproductive capacity has also been used to justify a lot of fucked up and misogynistic shit, and aside from very few very radical feminists (with whom I vehemently disagree), no one will argue that it makes reproductive capacity inherently misogynistic and contrary to feminist goals.

Islam does not “belong” to patriarchs any more than it belongs to any other follower of the religion.  And those who follow a religion have a right to read the relevant texts for themselves, form their own opinions, and shape the religion’s destiny.  As the women quoted in the article note, religion is all about interpretation.  And it’s entirely valid to believe that the prevailing interpretation is wrong.

I also fully believe that one has to work within the confines of the situations they are presented with.  And sometimes that involves compromise.  Not compromise, I think, that involves selling out other people within your movement who are less fortunate than you, but with putting some of your own personal ideals on the back-burner in order to make things better for everyone in the meantime.  I can’t say for sure that this is what the women profiled in this article are up to — after all, if the banning of yoga was what was considered the last straw, it sounds like they might be quite privileged within their own countries; they may also actually fully base their feminist beliefs in Islam, rather than be merely using it as a tool  — but the fact still remains that while ethical compromise may not be ideal, that doesn’t make it always undesirable, or always impossible.

Indeed, not everyone will agree with this tactic.  Just like not everyone agrees with the tactic when Christian women or LGBT activists similarly employ it, as they so regularly do.  Some people do indeed think that all religion is patriarchal and therefore irredeemable.  Some people believe that all religion is fanatical, and some of them have come to that conclusion by living under religious rule themselves.

And that’s okay.  There are always going to be disagreements within movements.  And there are always going to be multiple movements fighting at the same time for the same cause.  Until we get that much sorted out — and I’m quite skeptical that we want to if “sorting it out” means ending it — I’ll say that I’m really glad to hear about what these women are doing, what they have accomplished, and how they are spreading their vital information and organizing tools to other women.  And while indeed clever, nothing about it is “unlikely.”

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{ 17 comments }

1 Amy February 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Great article. just wanted to say that-many people would find it ironic that as a muslim born of an irish family into the faith my religion was never really taught to me (i learnt the Bible from a young age but not the Quar’an) and i very much believed the media representations of islam. that was until, for a college project, i decided to actually research islam and woman and it turned me into a feminist-not because islam is anti-woman but from what i found pro-woman and it made me feel “wow-this is so different to what we’re told!”

its amazing (but not surprising) how much about islams view on women is left out-for example the very clear passages that states a womans first right is a right to an education irrespective of what other people feel, the importance of the female orgasm (if men obtain pleasure during sex but neglect their wife’s needs this is considered a sin) and the right to an abortion to name a few. (there are many instances outlined in which women can obtain abortions-not surprisingly rape and incest being the first.) Eve is not blamed for getting Herself and Adam kicked out of the garden of eden, and it is cited that the pain women have on their menstural cycle is not because of Eve’s sin (as its not apportioned to her) but because, i dunno how to explain this-giving birth is considered a great thing which is balanced by the pain of the menstural cycle. sorry-i knows thats kind of unclear.

it is said a woman is wiped of all of her sins when she gives birth-men obviously don’t get this pardon. i am still learning about islam but i remember this bit about when a man came to the Prophet(pbuh) and asked after God, who do i repsect next. The Prophet(pbuh) replied first your mother, secondly your mother, thirdly your mother, and fothly your father. it is said in the Quar’an that “Heaven lies at the feet of your mother”, and as i do understand how people could draw mysoginistic feelings from islam-especially if you see how its practised in some supposidly “muslim” countries, from what i have begun to learn i am beginning to see somthing very different and it has filled me with a great sense of hope and has begun making me more active in feminist studies.

2 Ryan February 19, 2009 at 2:35 pm

This is pretty cool. When I read this the first thing that popped into my head was Sarah and Angelina Grimke arguing that the bible explicitly states that God created men and women equal (and thus women had a right to participate in the public sphere).

3 Renee February 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm

I think that there are many things that are declared Islamic that are not necessarily so, for instance the Qu’ran specifically calls for both men and women to be modest, it does not demand the wearing of the veil. I believe that those of us that have been steeped in Judeo Christian teaching have a tendency to reject Islam based largely in our inability to accommodate difference. I also find it particularly telling that we continually construct Muslim women as victims that need to be saved and then reject them when they point out their agency.

4 Cara February 19, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Word to all of that, Renee!

5 Jha February 19, 2009 at 8:11 pm

I’ve also read some Leila Ahmad, who writes that Islam began something like a proto-feminist movement, which drew women to its cause who then brought it home. It only became as misogynistic as it is now because of the prevailing misogyny then -_-;

Seems to me that most religions are built on the backs of women to carry men into the limelight. But Islam is one of those religions that actually calls for equality in its texts.

6 Elena Perez February 19, 2009 at 11:26 pm

I caught this article too, and since I just came back from an alternative spirituality conference that dealt a lot with the sacred feminine and reclaiming that in various world religions, that NYT article really spoke to me.

7 PattiLain February 20, 2009 at 1:08 am

Yeah, I’ve known a few Muslims women and they didn’t wear the head scarves or anything because they said you just need to keep your shoulders and knees covered, or something like that, which you can easily do in jeans and a t-shirt.

Also, a woman I work with kept her surname when she got married because that is perfectly normal under Muslim rules. She says a lot of the misogyny happening in Islam is people using the religion as an excuse, as was mentioned above, people tend to interpret things differently to further their own agenda.

I apologise if this comment sounded ignorant at all, I actually don’t know much about Islam other than casual discussions with colleagues and friends.

8 James February 20, 2009 at 11:27 am

PattiLain, many Muslims do believe that women need only avoid particularly immodest dress, such as displaying shoulders or knees. Many millions of Muslims, however, believe that women must be veiled at all times when men may see them.

It’s true that many people will use (or abuse) ambiguous religious texts for their own purposes, but in this case, the veiling of women has been a mainstream Muslim belief for many centuries.

9 Dori February 20, 2009 at 11:55 am

James,

Define “mainstream.” I am challenging your assertion about veiling mainly because it seems to come with several assumptions. What are you considering to be “mainstream” Islam? Cause it one of the most wide spread religions in the world and the practice of veiling is not homogeneous in the least, not even within the same country. Countries with mandatory veiling laws are in the minority iirc, and some predominantly Muslim countries actively ban the practice. There is no real head authority in Islam (no such thing as a Muslim equivalent to the Pope) to dictate a widely held belief or practice, so where does your evidence come from?

hint: if it comes from the fact that all the Muslim women you see are veiled, consider this. Maybe you only know they are Muslim because they are veiled. You could see an unveiled Muslim woman and never know she was Muslim.

10 James February 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm

What are you considering to be “mainstream” Islam?

Well, Dori, I don’t mean to imply that this is the only Muslim interpretation, or that it’s the majority view. I simply mean that this view holds sway among a substantial portion of the Islamic population, and has done so since the Middle Ages.

I certainly agree that Muslim practices in this regard are far from uniform, and that few Islamic countries go so far as to mandate the veil by law, which is a different matter.

There is no real head authority in Islam … to dictate a widely held belief or practice, so where does your evidence come from?

Where does my evidence come from that strict veiling is a widely held belief or practice among Muslims?

Well … you shouldn’t assume that I have “evidence” that can be conveyed online, but let me try to find something.

According to the Wikipedia article on the hijab, for instance: “All four Sunni schools of thought (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali) hold that entire body of the woman, except her face and hands … must be covered during prayer and in public settings.”

Since Sunni Muslims constitute by far the largest grouping within Islam, I think that pretty much covers it.

The same article describes the view that women need not wear the veil as a “minority viewpoint.”

Maybe you only know they are Muslim because they are veiled.

It’s true that when it comes to strangers, often the only outward sign that a women is Muslim will come if she is wearing some form of head covering.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I use this to gauge how many women wear the veil.

If nothing else, it would be quite strange to try to judge Muslim practice by looking solely at women in my own country.

11 Dori February 20, 2009 at 1:05 pm

James,
So you are basing this statement on wikipedia and no other actual experience, is what you are saying.

Go read this, its based in actual research. If you need the bibliography, I’ll get it for you.

12 James February 20, 2009 at 1:39 pm

So you are basing this statement on wikipedia and no other actual experience, is what you are saying.

No, Dori, I’ve actually taught this issue at the college level. I was casting about for a reference for you, since you asked whether I could provide “evidence” (and I assumed you weren’t looking for a citation to an offline source).

If you disagree with the statement on Wikipedia, please say so.

Go read this, its based in actual research.

Most of what you write sounds right to me. So I’m not sure what your concern with my position is.

You do say that veiling, “as it is recognized by non-Muslim westerners, and even some Muslim westerners,” is a largely urban and recent phenomenon. I’m not quite sure I follow that part, as I understood that most basic forms of veiling have deep roots in Muslim history.

You also seem to be focused largely on national laws, such as those requiring or prohibiting veils, rather than what Islamic doctrine or practice permits or dictates. The latter is what I had commented on.

13 Dee February 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Vieling in Islam.

The Qu’ran actually speaks of modesty – for both men and women. It doesn’t necessarily specifically refer to veiling, but consider this: it is believed to be, from some scholars on Islam, a throwback to the arid climate that many Muslims come from.

As with all religions, many of the customs are born of necessity, not of ‘God’ whatever you may call him/her. For example, Leviticus states that people shouldn’t eat shell fish. Well, given the environs that Leviticus was likely from, eating shell fish could have been dangerous, nay, deadly.

Islam, like everything has to be put in perspective. In the correct perspective Islam is actually a very woman friendly religion – but as usual people highjacked it for their own purposes.

14 Dori February 20, 2009 at 8:02 pm

James, I am not coherent enough at the moment to make myself clear (long work day) but lets just say that I take issue with guys who have not experienced this teaching about it or making sweeping statements. No offense to you, since I don’t know you personally, and I have no way of knowing if this is true of you, but my experience with American men teaching about subjects regarding women in Islam is not terribly good. I have encountered a great deal of teachers that are teaching on something that they have a very limited perspective on.

My hackles also tend to go up when discussions of women in Islam divert to talk of the veil because frankly, from the perspective of those women, the only people who freak about it that much are either men, non-Muslims who don’t know what it means, or a combination thereof. There is a heavy cultural aspect that gets ignored, and there is no standard within Islam itself, nor is there even agreement between different groups as to how it should look or even if it should be done. The “Islamic tradition” is actually more of an “Abrahamic tradition” since both Judaism and Christianity have similar traditions of head covering that have evolved differently, but are still practiced in some form.

yeah, like I said, incoherent. I do want to apologize for my snappishness, but this is a subject that is very near and dear to me, so I get defensive very easily.

15 James February 21, 2009 at 7:09 am

Dori, I appreciate that you have concerns about people teaching this material. I would hope your concerns aren’t specific to “American men,” since Americans have no monopoly on ignorance about Islam, and neither do men. I would also hope that you would recognize a distinction between teaching basic facts and trying to convey the subtleties of the issue, since millions upon millions of students, in this country alone, need to learn something about the world’s great religions.

It sounds like we’re in complete agreement about the specific facts and issues we’ve been discussing. I can certainly understand that you’re used to hearing sweeping or ignorant statements about Islam and the veil, and were on alert for exactly that kind of talk, and I have no problem with either your sensitivity on this issue, or with what you seem to think (mistakenly) is incoherence on your part. :-)

16 Dori February 21, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Thanks James :D

Yeah, I said American men because that is who I have the most direct experience with. I can’t tell you how many male professors I have had who have dismissed my personal experiences with and research about this topic. I do recognize the difference between basic fact delivery and making nuances clear, unfortunately it is also very common that those reading those facts do not know that difference.

17 efren September 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

well for both of you dori and james congratz…thanks for that long discussion about at least we readers benefited a lot…i hope you can tackle other topics like the perspective or view of muslim women with regard to abortion or contraception…

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