Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gender, Feminism, and Muslim Scholars

I'm thinking I should start posting my journal responses here. See, I'm taking a class called Modern Islam, which is a continuation of Early and Medieval Islam. It's SO thought-provoking, and I'm SO, SO happy I decided to take it.

k, so, we have to read all these interesting articles and excerpts/chapters from books, often contested perspectives, and then respond to them, posting those responses in a page online set up for discussions. I REALLY have to share this particular one because we had to read an article by Maududi (the guy whom I respect as much as I do Zakir Naik) -- what with his thinking of women and all! My GOD, he's seen as a SCHOLAR??! Bloody heavens, we SERIOUSLY need to define scholarship, man.
Anyway, I love how each reading assigned to us is so different yet, each author uses the Quran to justify their views. All of them do this, and this is what I love about the Quran and Islam so much. There are Quranic grounds for the most liberal, most progressive thinking, AND their are Quranic grounds for the most backward, most strictest, most conservative thinking as well. No wonder our scholars never agree on anything.

k, so, here's what my professor wrote:

This coming Monday we will continue on the topic of different Muslim views on the status of women in Islam. Last week we read the essay by Fatima Mernissi in Charles Kurzman's text [Liberal Islam] and viewed Ahmed's film, "Paradise Lies at the Feet of the Mother." This week for a different, more traditional view, read Maududi's "Purdah and the Status of Women." [...] Then read two of the following authors: Nazira Zein ed-Din (Turkish secularist feminist), Benazir Bhuto (Pakistani nationalist feminist), Amina Wadud (Qur'an and Woman), or Muhammad Shahrour (Westernized Syrian male commentator on the 1995 World Conference on Women).

In your journal essay, describe, compare, and discuss Mernissi, Ahmed's film, Maududi and the two essayists you have chosen. Do they fall within any of the categories that Voll or Kurzman have developed to talk about modern Islam? How much sense do such titles and topics as "the role or status of women in Islam" make?

My response (I apologize for my prolixity! But I REALLY think it was called for -- this time :D):

Fatima Mernissi in her article “Women’s Rights in Islam” suggests that because the Quran and hadith have been interpreted by males who lived in a particular society and a particular time, it is not just to eternalize and universalize their interpretations. She seems to believe that “because” men have been the ones to interpret women’s position in Islam, and those interpretations have often been misogynistic (and they really have been), much of the mistreatment of women in the Muslim world can be attributed to these interpretations and justified as “Islamic.” Hence, she is calling for a re-interpretation of the Texts (Quran/Sunnah), a re-defining of women’s roles and rights within Islam, since new questions have arisen that need to be explored and new concepts have evolved that need to be addressed extensively. She gives examples of hadith transmitters, such as Abu Hurairah, who widely narrated as many hadiths as their lifetime would allow them, and Mernissi challenges their thinking of women, stating that they “saturate the daily life of every modern Muslim woman” (p.124). She also provides the views of others who, like Caliph Umar, were afraid of narrating hadiths because of the fear of being wrong; they preferred to rely on their judgment rather than their memory (p.125).

Akbar Ahmed deserves much esteem for having included many different women’s perspectives in his film. For instance, on the one hand, he has Amina Wadud (a female interpreter of the Quran who has earned the label of “feminist” by many Muslims; author of the book “Quran and Woman: Re-reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective”; and someone currently under threat by orthodox Muslims who believe that she is trying to “westernize” Islam); on the other hand, he shows many women who seem likely to disagree with Amina Wadud’s perspectives of women in Islam. In the film, Faiza tells us that although she’d never allow her husband to bring another wife home, he has the right to beat her if she upsets him – and that he has beaten her. A Muslim Sheikh confirms this by saying, “The husband can beat up his wife in two instances. One, if she brings home a male stranger. Why should she? And two, if she refuses to have sex wit him when he wants her to.” There’s a hadith narrated several times by Abu Hurairah that says that any woman who refuses sex to her husband is cursed all night long by angels (see for example, al-Bukhari, volume 7, Book 62, hadiths 1201-122).  Hence, in Ahmed’s film, we note the implication of the hadiths narrated by Abu Hurairah, the controversial transmitter who has narrated more hadiths that even the Prophet’s wives.

Maududi first explains why the idea of women in Islam is a problematic one, for women as mothers have different rights and are to be respected highly, while women as wives seem don’t seem to be regarded as much. He later explains why Muslims have come to conclude that Islam liberates women, as it allows them many rights that include going to the Mosque for teaching and learning and participating in battles, rights that some Muslims even today ignore. It is important to note that he disagrees with the idea of reformation, saying, “When our so-called reformers saw with dazed eyes the European ladies in their full make-up moving freely and participating actively in social life, they could not help longing to see their own womenfolk also tread the same path of freedom and progress” (p.21). He also considers “equality” propaganda and asserts that the reason these “reformers” in the early 19th century felt the need to “reform” Islam was that they felt humiliated by seeing their women wearing too much clothing; in his view, “they were in fact laboring under self-deception” (p.22). Maududi also believes that the limited and conditional freedom that women are allowed in Islam (e.g., they cannot leave their homes unless absolutely necessary) has been abused as an argument for freedom for women to “abandon home life” (p.24). Hence, Maududi would unarguably disagree with Amina Wadud and especially with Fatima Mernissi. How can Maududi be considered a “scholar of Islam,” what with the sort of attitude that he holds towards women (that God has created them inferior to men naturally, and women shouldn’t try to excel men because they will not succeed)? I find it shocking and unbelievable that he is not only considered a scholar of Islam but a reformist as well. He is no better than the Salafis, Wahabis, and other orthodox Muslims who are intimidated by the mobility of women and are somehow convinced that the only way a society can achieve morality is by limiting all sorts of freedom to women, which it bestows on men practically limitlessly.

Nazira Zaid-ed-Din offers her views broadly on the veiling (“niqab” in Arabic). She doesn’t understand why many have neglected to discuss the disadvantages and benefits of the veiling. In her view, when we as Muslim women wear the veil in our Muslim homeland but not in the west and are not reprimanded by our male family members for doing this, it is because we have more faith in the conduct of the “unveiled” westerners than in our own. She argues that the veil is an insult to the woman who wears it because her wearing it implies that she cannot protect herself without it. In other words, if a society is filled with men who cannot respect women unless they are entirely covered up, the problem is not in the conduct of the woman; it is in the way that the society brings up its male members; thus, society should focus more on teaching men how to behave properly and respectfully rather than by compelling its women to wear the veil. Zaid-ed-Din also explains the Quranic verses that are used to conclude that God favors men over women and that is the major reason for women to cover up (hence implying that the covering of women is a form of their subjugation). She argues against them, and supports her own arguments, by using the overall message of the Quran – justice (which entails goodness and equality).

Amina Wadud’s stance is that no method of interpreting the Quran is impartial, that particular details in their interpretations reflect their own perceptions and beliefs. She describes the various interpretations of the Quran, such as those that are traditional in thinking and those that are responses to those traditional thinking that seems to demean women. She argues that while the Quran does not deny the differences between men and women, it does not define roles for men and women, the possible rationale being that the Quran is, in Muslims’ beliefs, for all people of all times of all societies. And for the Quran to define these roles would be unwise in  that each society might have different roles for its men and women; would they then be required to change their social structure solely to become Islamic? Wadud reminds her readers that the Quran was sent at a particular time in history and a particular place, when and where people held almost entirely different conceptions and misconceptions about women. The many questions that the Quran answers were endemic in the society and time the Quran was revealed in. It was inevitable, therefore, that the classical scholars/interpreters/commentators of Islam defined women’s roles in a certain way and attributed them to Islam, for it was moral in their societies; it is just as inevitable today when Muslim scholars are rising to call for re-interpretations because, they believe, since women’s roles have not specifically been defined in the Quran, we cannot deny them their roles of today. She explains this by stating the example of why women were to wear the veil in Arabia during the time of the Prophet: “Women of wealthy and powerful tribes were veiled and secluded as an indication of protection. The Quran acknowledges the virtue of modesty and demonstrates it through the prevailing practices. The principle of modesty is important – not the veiling and seclusion which were manifestations particular to that context” (p.132). Her argument is a rather compelling one, one with which Mernissi and Zaid ed-Din would agree but Maududi would disagree.

I abhor titles like “women’s roles in Islam” or even “women in Islam.”  They are too broad, too general. “Islam” is a concept, and when someone says “women in Islam,” she/he is making that concept rather practical and is even defining it. There are many problems with this, the most important one being that have yet to have Muslim scholars agree on what the roles and rights of women in Islam are. So, when I see such titles, I am compelled to ask, “Women’s roles according to whom? As interpreted by whom? Which Quranic verses and hadiths did these people use to come to this conclusion? What kinds of hadiths were they? Who narrated them and when? Are there any discussions held on them even today, or are they dispositive? How supportive is the Quran of those hadiths that debase women?” etc. There’s a plethora of writing on women’s roles and rights in Islam, but there is almost none on men’s roles and rights. Surely, the whole “women” topic has attracted much attention in every society, possibly since women have been (and still are) mistreated in many, if not all, cultures/religions – but often in different ways. For instance, Maududi and most other Muslims find nothing wrong with the idea of having women cover up their bodies “because it liberates them, and they should not be disrespected like the women of the west”; other Muslims find this problematic because to them, the more a woman covers up, the more she is agreeing with society that she’s a sexual commodity who, if she shows any skin, will be molested and insulted by certain males who are searching for a prey to attack. Although some women feel more liberated when they are covered up (though I strongly believe it is because they are programmed to believe this), others feel more liberated when they do not cover up as much. Who is to say what liberation really is?


  1. I REALLY wanna add ... that the western students' responses to Maududi were so interesting! Of course, I completely agreed with them, but those orthodox Muslim friends of mine who in personal debates with me clearly disagree, they didn't speak up at all. Had they spoken up and expressed disagreement with the western students (who are not Muslims), we'd have had a stimulating discussions. But, nooo, we'd rather keep our views to ourselves and fight the people behind their backs.

    Anyway, this one girl REALLY told Maududi off, lol. We let her read her entire journaly entry (I have access to it; I'll post it on my blog with her permission if anyone's interested in reading it -- it was AMMMMAYZING!). For those Muslims who think that western women really ARE oppressed because they work too much, they have to handle more than one job, they *have* to show their legs and other body parts, etc., think again! Or let a Western girl know that's what you think -- an educated western girl, that is. Like the girl said, "At least I won't be IMPRISONED if I choose to dress in a way that's not acceptable in my society. I might get weird looks from people, but at least I won't be penalized by the government for it. But let a Muslim woman in a Muslim country/community show her legs or not cover her face where she's supposed to." I'd like to add: Or let a Muslim woman drive her car in an area where she's not supposed to, and see what happens to her. In 1992, a group of some 40 Muslim veiled women in Saudi Arabia decided to get their cars and drive them on a highway near the nation's capital in Riyadh. My, oh my, all of them were imprisoned (and I think even physically tortured as well).

    Yes, let's always let the subaltern speak for her/himself. The Muslim women in the east who do things because they're forced to by religious and cultural standards are JUST as oppressed as the western women who do what they do because their society *makes* them. I call it oppression only because of the lack of choice -- but I think the "western oppression" is FAR more favorable to the "eastern/Muslim" one, since you actually get punished there for doing or not doing something while you don't necessarily in the West.

  2. I am a Muslim girl living in Europe originating from the middleast, i often get questioned "why i don't cover my head or wear a head scarf cuz i am a Muslim" i always try to explain Islam is not about covering your self in black from head to toe it is about being modestly dressed and not attracting unnecessary attention, so i am wearing modest clothes. Yes if i am clad in a "burqa" or "hijab" i would be attracting lots of attention and surly putting thoughts in others minds as to how my body is, and what beauty i am hiding, that is what Islam says not to do. The interpreters when discussing "women" read the statements without analyzing when they were sent to the Prophet (P.B.U.H) what was culture, society, norms at that time. When the Quran was revealed during the "period of Jahiliyah" Islam was the most "modern" religion in terms women and women rights and respect. There are so many Hadiths from Abu Hurraira (RA) which have been narrated about how the Prophet (PBUH) treated his wives, how he "enjoyed them" and "took the to see plays" or "archery" how can this reflect the current "status of Muslim Women" as to be bound inside the house, covered with no social life etc. When Islam 1400 yrs ago said that i "husband or his family" has no right over the wife's earned money unless she willingly shares it, in order to earn she must go out side and be social, and be able to do what any other man can do, otherwise Allah (SWT) would have clearly stated as to through what means can she earn and what must be avoided by the Muslim women. The Muslim women was supposed to be the most modern women but the "male dominated society" changed it to their preference.
    1400 yrs ago Islam made legal things like "masturbation" so that it will not provoke evil in your mind, how can this religion suppress women rights? Every Halal or Haram in Islam has been justified/reasoned logically so that later on we can use the reasoning to decide the way or living as to what is permissible and what not.


Dare to opine :)

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