Every now and then, a story pops up regarding Islam and feminism. Abrahamic religion and women’s rights have always been uneasy bedfellows. The books are not exactly conducive to a feminist spin. There are lines here and there, but broadly and predominantly, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not consider women to be the equals of their male counterparts. So what are modern feminists to do in the face of the doctrines of Islam? One approach is to criticise those doctrines. Unfortunately, too few Western ‘intersectional’ feminists adopt this strategy. Many prominent campaigners in the West, regrettably, opt for an accommodationist line. This is not only disingenuous, but it also, ironically, betrays the women who live in oppressive countries where speaking out is prohibited. Actual defence of Muslim women’s rights is sacrificed at the altar of political correctness and cultural relativism.
Dr Susan Carland is a prominent Australian academic and author. She is also a converted Sunni Muslim. She is married to Waleed Aly, a host of the Australian news show, The Project. Dr Carland has recently published a book titled Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism. At the launch she quipped that “secular feminism” was only one kind of feminism, and that “you can have Islamic feminism, you can have all different types of feminism.” She also defended the notion that “many Muslims see the Qu’ran and the hadith as a defence for their arguments against sexism, not as a stumbling block.” I often find that the most pernicious causes are those that have a veneer of respectability and even moral superiority. What could be better than showing Islam in a good light, one that empowers women and fights bigotry? The problem is the text. Any project that seeks to use Islam as a vehicle for feminist ideals is immediately crippled by two facts. The first is that the Qur’an and the Hadith, when read in their entirety, are the antithesis of the feminist drive for equality. The second is that even if Muslims wanted to excise the objectionable verses, they can’t because the Qur’an is considered to be the perfect and unalterable word of the creator of the universe. What hubris would a human have to possess to feel comfortable editing the work of Allah?
The first problem is the most contentious. Many people argue that Islam is a feminist religion. This is akin to arguing that slavery empowered the slaves. There are several verses in the Qur’an that explicitly embrace and particularise women’s second-class-citizen status. Take Sura 4:34 as an example:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.”
It would take a particularly obtuse (or ideologically indoctrinated) individual to take from this passage a message of gender equality. Allah has made men “excel” women. A woman who is rebellious should be punished and ridiculed. Can you imagine how quickly a statement of the same character would be condemned by feminists if it were made by, say, Milo Yiannopoulos? This double standard is a cancer that does little other than strip the feminist movement of mainstream credibility. One verse scarcely constitutes the majority of the Qur’an, but there are similar references to the superiority of men and subjugation of women throughout the text: 2:228 (men are greater than women), 33:59 (men dictating how women are to dress), 33:33 (women are to stay at home unless given permission to do otherwise), 2:223 (wives are to be sexually available to their husbands upon request), 66:5 (disobedient wives can be replaced), 4:11 (males shall inherit a share equal to that of 2 females), 2:282 (women’s court testimony worth half that of a man’s), 5:6 (men encouraged to cleanse themselves after casual contact with women, such as shaking hands), 53:27 (angels all have male names because angels are sublime beings), and 38:44 (Job encouraged to beat his wife with a branch). Given these references, it is astonishing that feminists would attempt to leverage Islam in service of their goals. Not only that, but when pressed on the issue, many reliably defend Islam as a “feminist religion”. On the Australian political panel show, Q&A, Muslim and feminist activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied stated that Islam is “the most feminist religion.”
This is Trump-level reality denial. One struggles to counter such statements due to their detachment from the facts. When one combines this sort of rhetoric with the demonisation of women who should be feminist icons, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one is hardly surprised that many are, unjustifiably in many cases, sceptical of the feminist project in 2017.
The second issue confronting feminists on the point of Islam is that the religion is different from Christianity or Judaism. Christianity and Judaism both have traditions of debate, nuance, and, perhaps most importantly, reformation. Martin Luther was doing something no Muslim would ever contemplate when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ church in Wittenberg: he was reinterpreting the Christian faith. Notwithstanding the apocryphal story of how he disseminated the document, the start of the reformation was one of a long series of events that would cement the fundamental fungibility of Christian doctrine. It could, and would, be reinterpreted by a number of preachers over the following centuries. Islam has no such tradition. There is, of course, the fundamental schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This division is fundamentally based on what authorities Muslims are willing to accept. Sunni Muslims derive their name from the arabic word sunnah, which roughly translates to the examples and teachings of the Prophet. Sunni are simply those Muslims who advance those teachings. The Shia are those who believe that Muhammad’s family and descendants also have spiritual authority over the Islamic community. So the split is less about the fundamentals of Islamic doctrine and more about who can decree doctrine. Christianity has thousands of sects that believe radically different things about Jesus, God, and the menagerie of other characters in the Bible. Some sects abandon whole segments of the Bible, while others embrace only the most fringe texts, such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt. The point is that within Christianity, there exists an environment that allows for disagreement and debate. The same can not be said for Islam. This is not to discount the Islamic scholars over the centuries who have railed against the fundamentalism of their coreligionists, including those venerable ones who are righting against Islamism today, but the difference exists and pretending it doesn’t won’t help the women and minorities who are being oppressed and persecuted in Muslim-majority countries around the world.
If we are to ensure that gender equality is pursued to its logical conclusion, then we must first either alter or abolish those systems of thought that make such a conclusion an impossibility. I think religion in general and Islam in particular are huge impediments to achieving the emancipation of women. Islam actively advocates the opposite goal with a majority of its teachings. At a minimum, we must absorb this fact and construct our arguments accordingly, lest we allow ourselves to be manipulated by half-truths and lies.
Tom is a blogger and academic based in Australia. He is currently working to be admitted as a lawyer and wants to travel and write about his interest areas of politics, philosophy and science.