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.”