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.