women, islam, feminism, feminist
(Image: ISHR.org)

Sorry, Islam Is Not a ‘Feminist Religion’

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.

About Tom Adamson

mm

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.

Check Also

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, Military Coup, Harare, Africa

Zimbabwe Military Detain Mugabe, Take Control In Harare

Zimbabwe’s military detained President Robert Mugabe within his residence in Harare early Wednesday, according to local reports.

13 comments

  1. Excellent article Tom: “This is Trump-level reality denial.” Amen Bro!

  2. Personally speaking, all religion is a cancer in this world.

  3. An article that needed to be written and disseminated.

  4. you have elaborated quite well that ISlam is not similar to Christianity … as it is anti-reformation .
    As a Muslim I think it is & I am happy and proud that it is .
    christinality has been reformed / transformed from one thing to completely the opposite over time … that it only retains the name but not the meaning.
    ISlam is a STABLE value system that it’s core value are not altered across time … do not know why you consider this a bad thing .
    Humans are humans across all history , social traits and human behavior are basically the same across times and Islam as a value system does provide guidelines for that … why it should be reformated . if something was not acceptable then it still should not be acceptable now .

    • The number of problems within your comment is more than could be reasonably expressed in a reply. My main objection is: do you seriously accept the Islamic core belief that women are inherently inferior, as clearly expressed in the Koran? That single idea alone is enough for me to reject your faith, let alone its requiring adherents to believe in a sky Allah fairy god without a shred of evidence.

    • Nasreldeen 1964,

      I hope you are able to read this. I ‘m not sure if this will post as a reply to your comment you posted on May 16. You wrote that Islam was stable and not open to reformation and that human behavior and traits are “basically the same across times”. And you were were happy and proud about this. I thought your comment was interesting. I have the exact opposite view. I think the greatest weakness of Islam, which makes me unhappy, is that the Quran claims to be immutable. And I think one of human beings’ greatest strengths, which I am proud of, is that we are able to change our behavior and traits.

      I will use one example, but there are many, to demonstrate my point that inviolate holy texts like the Quran are stifling to human progress. In our past, slavery was widespread-virtually universal-and socially acceptable. Now, it is outlawed in all countries and universally reviled. Yet the Quran accepted slavery. Yes, it encouraged freeing slaves and treating them well. Yes, this attitude was progressive for its time and place. But can you imagine a leader today being lauded if he legalized slavery but encouraged the freeing of slaves and the good treatment of the slaves one chose to keep? Right, it’s unimaginable. Slavery has become as socially unacceptable as cannibalism. Yet the Quran says:

      4:36 “Show kindness unto parents, and unto near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and unto the neighbor who is of kin (unto you) and the neighbor who is not of kin, and the fellow-traveller and the wayfarer and the slaves whom your right hands possess.”

      Nasreldeen 1964, if you’ve read the Quran, you know that I’ve chosen one of the more charitable passages about slavery. If you haven’t read the Quran, and I know many Muslims haven’t read it in their native language, I hope you do. Warning, it’s not for the faint of heart. When I read the Quran in English, I became an atheist before I finished the first surah (chapter).

      If the Quran is the last and perfect word and it regulates slavery, Muslims have a problem. They must either accept this or not. If they stick with the former, they worship a god that does not denounce slavery. If they do the latter (i.e., reject or ignore passages in the Quran) they are conceding the fallibility of the Quran. And if the Quran is wrong about slavery, and surely any decent person would agree with that, then the claim that the Quran is perfect is a lie.

  5. Do (western and Islamic) feminists attach to Islam because it speaks to something in the feminine psyche that is diametrically opposed to their public pronouncements about autonomy? It would have been interesting to hear a little more in the film clip.

    • What is this ‘feminine psyche’? Is it more than a figment of your imagination? I don’t object, though, to your idea that a lot of women might unconsciously cling to a theology that lets them lean on men for decisions and thought. It’s easier than relying on yourself and having to be held accountable. But not many would admit it, so who knows?

    • mm

      I think the weirdest thing is that a lot of the feminists that defend the misogynistic elements of Islam aren’t Muslims. There are many atheist feminists that take the side of theocracy, rather than defend, say, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Most of these women are liberals, though, so I think it has a lot to do with the reticence to criticise another culture, rather than a deep, ideological attachment to Islamic doctrine. Practically, though, it doesn’t make much difference: they are a cancer.

  6. Don’t forget that women grow up in a patriarchal, misogynist world. They learn self-hatred from birth. They learn to judge themselves from a male perspective, which is the only perspective their culture teaches them. Why else do you think they so often advocate for men and against other women. So much intra-female hatred in this world and so little solidarity. That is not to say that women should become man-haters. Rather, they need to stop being self-haters and woman-haters.

    • That doesn’t say much for the female half of our species, that they are not strong enough to keep from internalising this supposed male perspective which might be passed on by their mother as well. Weakness is being touted by feminists as the female prerogative and is somehow to be celebrated. I want to see the triumph of female empowerment and equality, but I won’t support this vile notion of intrinsic submissiveness or inferiority.

      Take the example of menstruation. Is it or is it not disabling? If you say it is, that women are physically weakened and lesser than men for part of every month, then you’re giving an excuse for women to be discriminated against, particularly at work. If you say it isn’t, then you might be accused of not giving support to your co-strugglers in the feminist cause – but I’d argue it is the better option. Don’t let even the feminists tell you that you’re inferior.

  7. Gosh, this is so well written. What a pleasure to read!

Leave a Comment