Some Thoughts on Islamic Feminism


Saying that Quran is not inherently a patriarchal text does not automatically imply that Quran is inherently feminist either. Of course, feminist interpretations of Islam are possible but patriarchal interpretations are not just possible, they are already existing and dominant, and one cannot see much objective reason as to why a feminist interpretation should have more theological validity than a patriarchal interpretation as being the true interpretation, apart from the fact that it corresponds to feminist morality. If Quran cannot be read and understood at all without some sort of interpretation being imposed on it during the process, as the enthusiastic liberal Muslims who play the interpretation card would like to believe, then it implies that the text alone is devoid of meaning and there is nothing inherent to the Quran. It is inherently neither patriarchal nor feminist; it becomes either of these by virtue of the interpretation we choose to see it through. Yet this conclusion is something that would make most Muslims feminists uncomfortable, because they would like to believe that the “true Islam” conforms to their moral values of feminism. Apart from the uncommon Islamic variants which de-emphasize the centrality of textual interpretation in religion, such a deconstructed view of scripture is indeed awkward for most practising Muslims.

Some Islamic feminists say that Islam recognizes men and women as equal but prescribes different gender roles for them given their biological differences. Sounds neat, but it is a problematic position from a feminist point of view. It is not entirely clear how much biological gender can determine social gender roles. The tendency has been to view gender as primarily a socio-cultural construct (‘One is not born a woman, but becomes one’) and feminism has been in many ways a rebellion against the social norms of what women are and aren’t supposed to do. If Islam does indeed prescribe different gender roles, and it is a conclusion hard to avoid unless you resort to radical leaps of interpretations, then it is rendering itself an easy target for feminist attacks. All prescriptions of gender roles have a certain oppression about them. Furthermore, this is guilty of a binary conception of gender and ignores androgyny in its entirety.

The problem of reconciling Islam and Feminism becomes all the more apparent when we consider a topic like homosexuality. In this case Islamic feminists who support homosexuality have to explain away many Quranic verses (story of Lot, for instance) and hadiths which admonish against homosexuality, and even if we presume that this explaining away can be done successfully, there is still nothing left that is in favor of homosexuality. It may be possible to say that Islam can be interpreted in a way that makes it compatible with homosexuality, yet no one can demonstrate that Islam supports homosexuality, that Islam argues for homosexual rights. There is simply no textual evidence in positive acceptance of homosexuality, and this leaves a big chasm at the very heart of Islamic feminism. Clearly, the justified and well-cherished feminist support of homosexuality cannot be derived from the Quran. Therefore, feminism has at least some moral values on which Quran is, at best, silent.

Another example that can be brought up is that of the moral status of pre-marital consensual sex. Western Feminists are vastly accepting of consensual sex regardless of the marital status and do not deem it to be morally objectionable. Islamic Feminists tend to tip-toe around this. We may see them arguing that Islam doesn’t treat fornication as a legal crime, even though it does; the 4 witnesses requirement may be an unlikely possibility to fulfill in practice but it exists in theory. Let us give the benefit of doubt to the Islamic feminists and suppose that this can be successfully explained away and consensual sex is de-criminalized. Nonetheless, there is still no moral approval or acceptance of a casual sexual encounter in Islam. Islam morally prohibits pre-marital sex and all Islamic feminists who may believe that consensual sex is not to be morally judged and disapproved have a lot of explaining to do. And all Islamic feminists who disapprove of consensual sex also have a lot of explaining to do because it is a seemingly un-feminist stance to morally restrict sex to marriage.

These examples can be used to demonstrate the two grades of Islamic Feminism: 

Weak Islamic Feminism: Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
Strong Islamic Feminism: The feminist principles and values are already present in Islam and can be derived from them.

The feminist support of homosexuality and consensual sex, among other things, is in my view a refutation of Strong Islamic Feminism. Weak Islamic Feminism is a position that can be consistently argued for, though it still requires feats of creative interpretations, and has the accompanying (awkward) conclusions that Islam is not inherently feminist and that there are at least some feminist moral values that are meta-Quranic. Either way it shows that Islamic Feminism is yet to explore these questions in philosophical depth and is not likely to be successful unless it is accompanied by a broader reformative theology that tackles the problems of textual interpretation.

Comments

Salman Latif said…
I think the card of Quranic interpretations should be explicitly called a lame argument! If a theory has been interpreted in a definite way for more than a thousand years and has been practised all along in a similar vein, it's utterly absurd to say that it 'actually' meant something else. A theory is only as good as the majority of it's followers.
That being said, Islamic feminism does seem kind of an oxymoron when viewed in the context of the most widely-practised, widely-accepted and widely-held notions of Islam and Quran.
Shahid Saeed said…
Even if slavery and concubines can be contextualized, and the story of Lot too, there is no going around the moral provisions and gender roles, and the thousand years of dominant and consecutively agreed on defined roles for women. I remember a Mufti telling me something like there were 7 punishments for women for Eve's forbidden fruit folly, and one of them was they can never become the 'Khalifa' (this was in a debate on why a woman must not be the ruler of an Islamic State). There's nothing but anti-feminist stuff here. At best, there is ambivalence and some glorification
Umair J said…
Very interesting post. In my mostly uninformed opinion, the problem with generalizing concepts/ideologies borne out of particular historical contingencies, (such as the intellectual tradition of Feminism as the outcome of the woman's movement, engagement with marxism and radical thought), is that the terminology remains colonized and restrictive. A materialist reading of religion can demote it to the status of a historical contingency as well (turn of the millenium europe, 7th century Arabia etc), but the theological reading stresses unconstrained, unlimited relevance. So Islam is for everyone, everything, at every possible time. Now put a materialist ideology, like feminism, in touch with a non-materialist interpretation of religion, i.e. regular Islam and you're bound to end up with skewed results. This engagement between material and non-material/abstract can produce some overlaps (right to property for women in Islam) but in many cases will be restricted by the very nature of the term feminism, which as mentioned above is a historical derivative (not a divine one).

As someone who every now and then interacts with left-wing activists from the 70s, i've seen this problem come up in a different garb. Some try to reconcile their belief in a religion with a belief in Marxism, coming up with nonsensical ideas like Islamic Socialism, which despite Ali Shariati's best efforts, never took off (because Islam offers protection to private property).

I dont see why people have to use the two labels together anyway, at least in matters of actual practice (which is what these things are mostly about). Most people who identify themselves as Muslim Feminists, or Islamic Socialists use these labels as markers of self-identification, as opposed to ingredients for intellectual inquiry.

Sorry for the incoherent rant, its too early in the morning. Great post.
Kinza Ahmed said…
What a lovely post! I'm glad someone is looking at things in a way that seem reasonable, logical and fair.
Even though Islam may not support feminism, I believe that, given the biological characteristics, women can do whatever men can. But, in the process they lose much more than what they gain, like to be a mother to future generations, a woman needs to be pure and unharmed so she can do that job well and without any oddness around it. As you many have noticed as well, that women who go work outside of their homes seem fairly off-balance (even steadfastness/firm beliefs/self-appropriation can be a signs of that)and have a definitely affected manner. Even though not a feminist, I do believe that women be given equal rights in a society. It should be up to the women to decide whether or not they'd rather have a job while taking care of their homes.
Also, with women coming out to work, leaving their homes empty and filling up positions that a male counterpart could've filled to provide for his family is not exactly preferable. Although, our governments should be established enough to provide for women who are suffering and don't have a man to support them.

I know it's just theory, but I think we're slightly underestimating Quran. It might have different levels to it's meanings for each kind of human being's satisfaction.
F. said…
@Salman Latif
"A theory is only as good as the majority of it's followers."

Sums up exactly how I feel.
Barooq said…
Dude I tried so hard to keep it in but I can't.
Please philosophy ki jan baksh do, ya actually learn to construct an argument.

Let’s take a para now shall we ?

"The problem of reconciling Islam and Feminism becomes all the more apparent when we consider a topic like homosexuality."
How?
I fail to see the apparent connection. Weren't you supposed to show the causal link? And btw, it is nowhere in the remaining para

"In this case Islamic feminists who support homosexuality have to explain away many Quranic verses (story of Lot, for instance) and hadiths which admonish against homosexuality"

WTF dude? Islamic Feminists who support homosexuality? Who are these people? Again where the f is the causal link and why they have to explain AWAY , and not just fucking explain?

, "and even if we presume that this explaining away can be done successfully, there is still nothing left that is in favor of homosexuality."
If A is equal to B is not equal to A . WTF again? If explaining "away" is done, it would actually explain something in favor of homosexuality dude and hence would leave something in favor. You cannot add a comma and contradict both sides to sound all mythical philosophical. This is not an argument. This is just babble that doesn’t even make any sense.


"It may be possible to say that Islam can be interpreted in a way that makes it compatible with homosexuality, yet no one can demonstrate that Islam supports homosexuality, that Islam argues for homosexual rights."

AGAIN! Contradictory before and after the fucking comma! It Islam is made to be interpreted as compatible to homosexuality that would mean literally Islam if not supports, at least accepts homosexuality man. You say something otherwise after the comma.

"There is simply no textual evidence in positive acceptance of homosexuality, and this leaves a big chasm at the very heart of Islamic feminism."

What fucking chasm?
There was no correlation established in the first fucking place.

"Clearly, the justified and well-cherished feminist support of homosexuality cannot be derived from the Quran. Therefore, feminism has at least some moral values on which Quran is, at best, silent."

You call the support justified and cherished; I didn't even see the support because you didn’t establish that and I am saying like for the tenth time, so having a moral value on which Quran is silent doesn’t even make sense.

Dude do you put words in a randomizer and publish the output? And this was one para. I can do it with the whole post and well most of your blog when you are actually writing something and not quoting and copy pasting.

I wouldn’t have been so angry btw and just laughed my head off the sheer stupidity of the post, hadn't I clicked on your idiotic attempt to explain "away" Derrida. Read a fucking book for a change and not Wikipedia.
“Islamic society center is Islam and male dominated society center is male”, my ass. Derrida would be turning his grave. No one asked you to cliff note him for the 3rd grade if that’s your defense, and if you actually interpret him that way, time to start with Sophie's world again or better yet, Twilight :@
Randomhyper. said…
I agree with this, more or less. Islamic feminism is not to challenge Islam, and it can also be perfectly compatible with our religion. However, I have to also agree with Barooq: I don't know of any feminist Muslims who support homosexuality.
Awais Aftab said…
@Randomhyper

There are many, especially in the blogosphere. Here is one example:

http://thefatalfeminist.com/2011/05/28/the-people-of-sodom/
nuclearbattery said…
@Randomhyper I know a handful, some are in active relationships too. But the idea is not about knowing 'them'. If it was that easy to be convinced by people.. then all we would have to do would be to remember that there's always someone out there who believes in our 'this can't be possible's. Always.
stumblingmystic said…
I missed this -- Kinza said above:

"As you many have noticed as well, that women who go work outside of their homes seem fairly off-balance (even steadfastness/firm beliefs/self-appropriation can be a signs of that)and have a definitely affected manner."

Say what? What do you even mean? Off-balance? Affected manner? A little judgmental, are we? How about documenting what you're saying (if you can even define it clearly) with any kind of empirical proof?