The notion of women as standalone human beings as opposed to property is a relatively new one, and while most cultures have made some attempt to move in that direction, there is still “work to be done,” if you like understatement.
Subjugation of women has been popular for millennia, and still is, largely because it is the most effective method for keeping a population in control known to man.
Literate mothers teach their kids to read. Economically empowered women are more likely to spend their earnings on things that will benefit their children and their community than on things that will benefit the king. A few generations of this and you end up with a populace that is both less dependent and less eager to sacrifice its sons for the glory and enrichment of said king.
To get a feel for what the Prophet was up against, read volumes 1 and 2 of the series. Selling daughters into slavery, people collecting wives like Pokemon cards, infant brides, it’s not rape if it happens inside the city limits, widows forced to marry brothers in law – imagine someone who, within the framework of that cultural context, walks in and starts preaching things like women own what they earn, women cannot be married without their consent, no girl can be married before the age of nine, no more than four wives under any circumstances, and no more than one unless you can take care of them and care for them equally (which really puts a crimp in the whole harem scenario).
That was revolutionary. It was outrageous. It was in direct opposition to millennia of cultural tradition. And, as usually happens, when religion and culture clash, culture wins.
That’s why the Church has spent 2000 years very deftly syncretinizing local pre-Christian religious and cultural practices with its own, and why Christmas is celebrated in winter even though historians say Jesus was probably born in the spring, and why the Virgen de Guadalupe just happened to appear to Juan Diego and demand a basilica in the exact same spot where the temple to Tonantzin the Corn Goddess had stood before the Spanish destroyed it, and where today stands the Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe, and whether that stuff surrounding her traditional image in the Tilma (google it if you don’t know) are rays of heavenly light or leaves of corn is a matter of faith.
And that’s why today, in many countries with large Muslim populations, one finds very un-Islamic realities in the treatment of women.
Some of the most vocal opponents of cafeteria-style Islam are some of the most avid practitioners of it, and selective literal interpretation of scripture is popular in all religions.
“Eye for an eye” is a perennial favorite of death penalty advocates, who seldom venture an inch & a half a way to expend the same zeal on exhortations to everyone to observe the conditions and rules for selling one’s daughter as a slave.
Mohammed was a feminist and a revolutionary, but he had a tough room to play. Just getting people to start thinking of women as equal human beings, just roll the idea around in their heads, was a challenge.
As Bishop Tutu remarked to Kira Phillips (still reeling from having been told seconds before that “God is not a Christian,”) “God is not finished with us. We are a work in progress.”
Yet how many Christians, who believe that Jesus was not only a Prophet of God, but “of one substance” with Him, complain that Mohammed did not ban slavery, did not do this, or do that, when the same Jesus, whom they worship as a deity, did not even go as far as Mohammed did!?
Now 1400 years later, and pre-Islamic customs still rule the day, even in the land of the Prophet himself, and the same westerners who slam him for the spread of Islam blame him because women in Saudi Occupied Arabia can’t drive cars.
…verily, in that is a lesson to those endowed with sight.
In the west today, a woman’s greatest value is still her sexual attractiveness. In the east, her greatest value is as a producer of sons. Those who enjoy going barefoot should beware of glass shards.
Below are a few links and snippets reflecting different points of view:
The revelation of Islam established women’s equal status and equal rights. The Prophet treated women as equals and was very responsive to their thoughts and needs. There was a tendency toward “ignorance” in the society where Islam was revealed, and it crept back in after the Prophet’s death and brought back some of the negative things that Islam had reformed, including misogyny. Eventually the misogynist attitude left over from “ignorance” gained a foothold in Islamic law and took away some of women’s rights and lowered their status. Islamic feminism is just an effort to restore the equal status of women as is their God-given right in Islam from the beginning. You hear a lot of how Islam is great for women in theory. In practice, there have been many systemic abuses against women in Muslim societies. The Taliban were the worst and most extreme example. So there is an urgent need to re-establish women’s rights and dismantle the patriarchal rule that has plagued too many Muslim societies. What makes it Islamic is that it’s based on the sources of Islam: the Qur’ân and the Prophet’s example.
(Prof Margot Badran is a historian and senior fellow at Centre for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University (USA)…)
In the post-colonial discourses, one can argue that the discourse on “Islamic feminism” is the result of an Orientalist approach to the so-called problems of women in Muslim societies in comparison with that of western women whereas the two sets of circumstances are entirely different.
It is a brilliant observation. But there is difference between Islamic feminism and Orientalist approach. Islamic feminism goes back to the text. It’s Muslims talking to Muslims. Orientalists are people from the west and they talk back to the west. Islamic feminists are looking into the basic texts of Islam in context of real life situations for concrete ideas. Islamic feminists are using Islamic categories like the notion of ijtihad. The tools can be different like linguistic methodology or historiosizing. But the frame should be within Islam, not foreign. You don’t have to be confused with the term. The project is not alien, it’s Islamic. You’ve to work within the premises of Islam, only the descriptive term seems weird.
Whether the theory and practice of “Islamic feminism”, as an ideology, is more close to Islam or feminism?
No, you can’t put it like that. Islamic feminism is speaking for justice to women as Islam stands for. It’s a tool to remind people what Islam is for women. It’s not more Islam or more feminism. The term Islamic feminism is an idea of awareness preaching that men and women have equal rights based on re-reading the Quran, re-examining the religious texts and telling people to practice it. Some people, who do this for the sake of women, don’t call themselves Islamic feminists. They won’t say it Islamic feminism. Some have stereotypical notions about feminism, so they don’t use. Some others believe that we need a term to develop a discourse and fight the cause, so they use. It’s a rethinking process anyway. I agree that there’s difficulty in the term. At one point I also stopped using the term and started to use `gender activism’. You don’t have to term it Islamic feminism always, because people get scared. I use it now because Muslims themselves are using and people understand. What’s important is the discourse, not the term. We’ve to tell them, religion is not a problem, but it is the solution….
In the case of Western feminism, the preferred
goals have been those traditionally fulfilled by the male members of society. The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect
and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and even despised. Both men and women have been forced into a single mold which is perhaps more
restrictive, rigid and coercive than that which formerly assigned men to one type of role and women to another.
This is a new brand of male chauvenism with which Islamic traditions cannot conform. Islam instead maintains that both types of roles are equally deserving of pursuit and respect and that when accompanied by the equity demanded by the religion, a division of labor along sex lines is generally beneficial to all members of the society.
This might be regarded by the feminist as opening the door to
discrimination, but as Muslims we regard Islamic traditions as standing
clearly and unequivocally for the support of male-female equity. In
the Quran, no difference whatever is made between the sexes in relation to God. “For men who submit [to God] and for women who submit [to God], for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men
and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God
much and for women who remember – for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward” (33:35). “Whoever performs good deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did” (16:97).
It is only in relation to each other and society that a difference is made – a difference of role or function. The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and identity are two different things, Islamic traditions maintain – the former desirable, the latter not. Men and women should therefore be complementary to each other in a multi-function organization rather than competitive
with each other in a uni-function society…
Islamic feminist discourse is a Qur’an-centered one that distances itself from the entangled web of fiqh schools as well as existing socio-cultural realities of Muslim societies and their customs and traditions. The main concern is understanding the pure and essential message of Islam and its spirit. This can also be found in the model of the Prophet (PBUH) himself in his very treatment and compassion to his wives, daughters, and women companions, a treatment than cannot be too emphasized. Attention is being paid to instances in early Muslim history and community when women are reported to be extremely outspoken and to reveal what can be described as a feminist/oppositional consciousness (see Omaima Abou Bakr, “Reflections of a Muslim Woman on Gender,” on the Islam 21 Project web site and Mohja Kashef in Windows of Faith).
The dawn of the nineteenth century marked the commencement of an era of worldwide social change that has continued to challenge the religious and social basis of all societies to this day.1 European colonial powers formed the political and economic ideological framework that was to encroach upon the Islamic world. The gradual emergence of the global economy and the political ascendancy of the West dictated a global trend that was not easy for non-Western nations to avoid. These changes have invariably been multidimensional in nature; from the emergence of territorial states in their current format to educational reforms. One of the areas to undergo a radical transformation is relations between the sexes, as women searched for their identity and place in the new world.
While common perceptions view `feminism’ and `Islam’ as a contradiction in terms, Fatima Mernissi2 argues that throughout the history of Islam, small numbers of women have seized power in both political and military spheres where their western sisters were unable. Throughout the Islamic world, their has been a growing awareness of both feminism as a movement and feminist issues. This essay seeks to understand some of the root causes that lie behind issues currently being raised by Muslim feminist reformers asking whether these issues are essentially `religious’, `cultural’, or `social’ in nature. I will not go into details about the particular concerns. It is that which lies behind the issues that I wish to deal with. The sheer size and cultural diversity within the Islamic world renders it impossible to accurately survey all issues pertaining to feminism. Therefore, much of this essay is limited to the Arab experience.
The Nature of Islam
Before examining the issues raised by feminists, I believe that we need to ask `What is the central nature of religion?’ or in this case `What is the central nature of Islam?’ A substantive understanding of religion, where belief in either theistic beings or the supernatural is the prime objective3 comes across as inadequate when religion constructs a comprehensive world view ethic. Clifford Geertz understands religions as representations of cultural systems. Religions are influenced by the process of social change, while at the same time, able to influence such changes.4 Talal Asad takes this viewpoint a step further, arguing that religion as known today, is a modern invention tailored for military conquest.5 For Lawrence, religion is reduced to a subset of culture, and will differ between different cultures.6
This type of function view of religion, leads to Durkheim style views of religion, where religion exists to give adherents a symbolic framework that allows a total perspective on their relationships within the society.7 Religion symbolically legitimises the present order by providing a system of self understanding the community and its function in the cosmic order.8 This can be seen in the way ethnic religions, such as Judaism and Hinduism, have their basis in a social structure founded on kinship relationships. Here, religion protects the community against migration and cultural assimilation.9 Young views Islam as a more than an ethnic religion. As society moves from an ethnic to a universal identity, wide ranging cultural reformation takes place, including religious reform. Under a charismatic leader, religious principles are reformed in an attempt to bring society back to its original social and cosmic order…
We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.
We are inspired by the active participation of women in public life during the time of Prophet Muhammad saw. Biographical collections devoted to the Companions (Sahabat) of the Prophet included the biographies of over 1,200 female Companions. Among them were transmitters of hadith, saints and sufis, matyrs, liberators of slaves, and heroic combatants.