Radical Islamic Feminism

| February 10, 2017 | 7 Comments

The perception in the West of Muslim women is one of quiet subservience. Before coming to Morocco, a number of people (who have never traveled to a Muslim country) talked about the rampant oppression towards women, warning me to “bring all your headscarves.” On the national scale, ” Trump, in the dystopian reality TV show he called a campaign and now an administration, has repeatedly demeaned and attacked both women and Muslims. At the intersection of this vitriol stood Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother he criticized for remaining silent while her husband spoke at the Democratic National Convention, insinuating that she was not allowed to speak.

After two months of living in Morocco, I don’t pretend to be an expert on Muslim culture. However, I have had time to observe it, while reading on my own, and reality is never as clear-cut as it seems. Yes, there is street harassment in Morocco (there is also street harassment in Boston). Yes, most women dress conservatively, but other women wear short dresses.

Take, for example, the hijab. A very visible identifier of a Muslim woman, it is also frequently pointed to as an indicator of her “oppression.” When mandatory, as in Iran, it becomes oppression; however, it is typically a woman’s choice to wear it or not. In Morocco, the hijab actually grew in popularity as a feminist movement. Women were tired of being harassed by men on the street, so they began covering their hair. It gave them freedom – freedom to go out unaccompanied in the street, to work, to the market, wherever – without the threat of sexual harassment. Some may argue that this is giving in to sexism, working within its structure without addressing its roots. Of course the mentality that perpetuates street harassment needs to be addressed, but the advent of the hijab should really highlight the resourcefulness of women. Not all feminism looks the same; feminist movements reflect the cultures in which they arise. They must in order to work for and to support all women.

Compared to other countries in the MENA region, Morocco is fairly progressive. However, in its 2016 country report, Freedom House gave Morocco a less-than-glowing review, citing (among other things) the arrest and trial for indecency of two women for wearing short skirts. It is necessary here, however, to make the distinction between oppression inherent in a religion and oppression executed by people using a distorted version of a religion.

In her book Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading, Moroccan doctor, Islamic feminist, and author Asma Lamrabet (see featured photo) analyzes how the Qur’an speaks to and about women. She breaks down passages that are often used to justify the subjection of women in Muslim societies, showing that it is not the language of the Qur’an that oppresses women but rather the male leaders who interpret it to maintain a patriarchal system of power. For example, she takes this verse:

AND [as for] the believers, both men and women they are close unto one another (ba’duhum awliya’u ba’d): they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong [...].

She goes on to point out the “intensity” of this “assertion of equality between the two sexes”. This verse, she says, is a call to all Muslims, regardless of gender, to “struggle against oppression, [and] do their best to ensure social justice”.

Lamrabet’s book makes it clear that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women; in fact it uplifts and liberates them. She writes, “It is this female profile, with a strong personality, blossoming, sincere and of a great bravery that the Qur’an evokes, and not that of an inevitably oppressed, retiring woman and an eternal victim”. The oppression perceived by the West is a result of a distorted Islam mixing with politics in order to create and preserve hierarchies of power (as seen in Iran, post-1979). Islam does not oppress women, people do.



feature photo credit: maec_maroc Conférence sous le thème « Femmes et hommes en Islam : L’égalité est-elle possible ? » via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, Food and Travel, HTC Abroad, Philosophy and Religion, Politics, Social Activism

Ellen Asermely

About the Author ()

Ellen Asermely is a senior (!) in the Pardee School studying International Relations. Born and raised in Rhode Island, the smallest but weirdest state, she enjoys coffee milk, the Big Blue Bug, and Awful Awfuls. In her free time, Ellen can be found by the ocean, eating anything with cheese on it, reading Harry Potter, or hugging strangers' dogs.

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  1. MsSharon says:

    “Islam does not oppress women, people do.”

    And those same people are called Muslims, who are following their Quran.

    Really, I’m in my 50s, and I never thought I’d see the day so called liberals would support an oppressive to women religion.

    It is known as the Regressive Left, coined by a Muslim man trying to liberalize Islam.

    • Isabella Amorim Isabella Amorim says:

      Religious texts are inherently a mixed bag of messages, because they were written by old men who had agendas. For example, here are some texts from the Christian Bible on women:

      “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

      “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

      “But every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:5)

      “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)

      “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22-33)

      “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18)

      Christians kept women from voting and owning property, and recognized women as the property of their husbands for hundreds of years. If you want to call Islam an “oppressive to women religion,” then Christianity is, too. Or, maybe, it’s just like Ellen said: maybe people pick and choose what they want from religious texts and distort religions in order to oppress others.

      • Veritas says:

        Yikes. What is it with people bringing up Christianity whenever Islam is criticized? Seriously, it’s like it’s mandatory for someone to fall on their sword in an effort to deflect from the relevant critiques made. Who brought up Christianity? You did, not the person you’re replying to. For all you know, that person is a hardcore antitheist who doesn’t hold a positive opinion about Christianity either.

        But anyway, I’d like to press against your claim that “religious texts are inherently a mixed bag of messages.” Show me the mixed bag of messages in Buddhist scripture, for example. There are numerous morally repugnant acts that can be justified by appealing to the contents of the Koran that cannot be justified by appealing to Buddhist scriptures.

        Important moral inequalities exist between religions, like it or not. For all the horror and evil that could be perpetrated in the name of the New Testament, it pales in comparison to the evils that could be carried out in the name of Koran, and I’m saying this as a rather fervent nonbeliever by the way.

        In closing, here are some passages that I think encapsulate some of the salient differences between Christianity and Islam.

        Quran 24:2 — The [unmarried] woman or [unmarried] man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.

        Link to the translation I’m using: https://quran.com/24/2

        John 8: 1-8 — 1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

        2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

        3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

        4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

        5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

        6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

        7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

        8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

        9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

        10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

        11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

        Standard KJV translation used.

        • Ellen Asermely Ellen Asermely says:

          I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Buddhist religious scripture, but either way it doesn’t stop avowed Buddhists from committing atrocities – take the example of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Those are Buddhists, encouraged by a Buddhist leader, committing a genocide. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/may/12/only-takes-one-terrorist-buddhist-monk-reviles-myanmar-muslims-rohingya-refugees-ashin-wirathu

          And I will say that in your comment from February, you also brought up the sexism that exists in the other Abrahamic religions. My point is that people are the ones who oppress each other. Religious texts were written or edited or translated by people, mostly men, with a motive. It benefited those people to maintain a patriarchal power structure. It benefits them to be able to claim religious legitimacy to oppress women. People have been leveraging religious authority to lend legitimacy to whatever they want to accomplish for a very long time, and it happens in all religions. I am not trying to compare religions and say which is better or worse for women. I’m saying the people constructed organized religion and they’ve constructed the power dynamics in societies today.

          In the original post, I wanted to highlight the power and agency of Muslim women and Muslim feminists. They are challenging the existing power structures in Islamic societies while holding onto their faith, and interpreting the Quran in a way that liberates women. They have taken strides in breaking down the nominally “Islamic” laws regarding inheritance, marriage, etc. that oppress them. Why deny them that agency?

          • Veritas says:

            “I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Buddhist religious scripture, but either way it doesn’t stop avowed Buddhists from committing atrocities – take the example of the Rohingya in Myanmar.”

            I am well aware that Buddhists are persecuting the Rohingya in Myanmar. I’m not arguing that Buddhists are immune from the pull of morally pernicious beliefs. Buddhists are people too, obviously, and are subject to the same shortcomings as any other people. What my position is, though, is that there is nothing scripturally that those Buddhists can use to justify their actions. There is no straight line from Buddhist scripture to the persecution of anyone. From what I’ve read and heard on the matter, some Buddhist leaders in Myanmar are claiming the Rohingya are “lesser beings” who were once insects in past lives, but to be clear, they are not pulling from Buddhist scripture when they say these things. In contrast, a straight line can be drawn from passages in the Koran to the persecution of women, and I have provided clear examples to highlight that line. People of any belief system are capable of committing terrible acts of brutality — this is undeniable. Nevertheless certain belief systems provide a stronger support system for those wishing to commit vile acts. Mainstream, by-the-book Islam is one of them.

            “My point is that people are the ones who oppress each other.”

            True, however, you’re omitting the fact that people are motivated by certain things — like their beliefs. Some belief systems are, from a moral standpoint, worse than others and are more likely to lead people to behave in certain ways. Take the history of the United States for example: people used their belief in Manifest Destiny to justify the extermination and genocide of millions of Native Americans. Beliefs matter.

            “I am not trying to compare religions and say which is better or worse for women.”

            From the article: “Lamrabet’s book makes it clear that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women; in fact it uplifts and liberates them.” Sounds like you’re saying that Islam is pretty good to women here.

            “They are challenging the existing power structures in Islamic societies while holding onto their faith, and interpreting the Quran in a way that liberates women.”

            Too bad the Koran is such a mess and makes such an interpretation hard to take seriously, one of the reasons I think achieving widespread reform in Islam is going to be difficult. But time will tell, I guess, and I definitely support Muslims who view their religion honestly and want to make changes within it. However ignoring inconvenient verses in the Koran and ignoring the long list of evils carried out by Mohammed is not being honest.

            “Why deny them that agency?”

            I’m perfectly fine with Muslim women having all the agency they want, but let’s not pretend that the Koran has many positive things to say on the topic of women’s liberation.

  2. Veritas says:

    “Islam does not oppress women, people do.”

    I’m interested to hear how you reconcile that position with Quran 4:11 (on inheritance): “Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females.” Or Quran 4:24 (sex slavery): “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.” Or Quran 33:50 (sex slavery again): “Prophet, We have made lawful for you your wives whom you have given their dowry, slave girls whom God has given to you as gifts, the daughters of your uncles and aunts, both paternal and maternal, who have migrated with you.” I’ve limited myself to the Quran but the Hadith and Sira also contain passages that are degrading to women.

    It would seem to me that, going by the contents of its holy books, that sexism is an integral part of Islam, as it is with the other Abrahamic religions. No distortion by its adherents required.

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