Feminism and the Qu'ran
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Many Americans assume that Islam is bad for women. Perhaps because Muslim women have to wear a veil — which is seen as a sign of Muslim men’s domination and oppression of women. Some would point to the fact that Egyptian criminal law does not punish men for beating their wives if they have “good intentions.” Or to the fact that 55 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate. Or to countless stories from Saudi Arabia, such as the gang-rape survivor who was imprisoned for getting in a car with an unrelated male, or the woman who was caught driving and sentenced to 10 lashes, requiring a royal pardon. Or Saudi laws forbidding women to vote, let alone run for office. And Saudi Arabia did not even score the worst in Thomas Reuters Foundation’s survey of the worst Arab country to live as a woman. This ranking went to Egypt, where female genital mutilation is commonplace. According to the World Economic Forum’s Yearly Global Gender Gap Report for 2013, the Middle East region earned the lowest ranking.
In short, there are reasons to believe Islam oppresses women. My challenge to the reader then, is to understand that this gender inequality is indicative of Arab countries’ political and cultural climate, rather than inherent to the Qur’an or Hadith.
The Qur’an, like the Bible, requires sensitivity to interpret accurately. A case can be made that the Qur’an ascribes equality to men and women based on the creation of humankind. In a middle surah, or chapter (later surah in the Qur’an are more authoritative than chronologically earlier ones), it is written, “He [Allah] created you from a single person: then created, of like nature, his mate” (39:6). Based on this and thematically similar verses, scholar Mohammad Ali Syed argues that the Qur’an and the Hadith, allot essential equality to men and women. While this is encouraging, verses such as “If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them” (4:34) seem to decimate the possibility of Qur’an-sanctioned gender equality.
After dropping that bomb of a verse, please resist the urge to regress to the monolithic answer that yes, Islam is bad for women. Be assured that “there are Muslim leaders who contest sexism and resist the masculinist bias of inherited traditions,” insists professor of Islamic and gender studies, Sa’diyya Shaikh, of the University of Cape Town. In “The Veil and the Male Elite,” Fatima Mernissi revisits hadith methodology and makes a convincing case that Islam’s misogynistic traditions are the product of a particular narrator and historical exegesis — and not essential to Islamic belief. The implications of Islam’s “proof texts” against women’s rights are not self-evident.
Before passing judgment on what we believe to be oppressive laws, we need to understand the diversity of Muslim women’s perspectives on wearing a hijab. Though Westerners likely perceive the hijab as an external sign of oppression imposed by males, many Islamic feminists refute this. The hijab, according to Shaikh, has been used as a “symbol of resistance to colonial definitions,” for example, during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Mernessi also demands Western culture examine its own double standard regarding women’s appearances. She argues that we must recognize how our aesthetic preferences, which often laud the size four, also manipulates women. “The objective remains identical in both cultures: to make women feel unwelcome, inadequate, ugly.”
So, is Islam bad for women? As of now, the way it is used to support political regimes in Arab countries, can often be destructive of women to various degrees. As Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy urges, “Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.” We must remember that these unspeakable violations of women’s rights are not necessarily essential to Islam. This is the hope we have — that rigorous exegesis of the Qur’an will remove the possibility of justifying gender-based violence and discrimination against Muslim women.