Female "Muslims" making a statement to the world
This response discusses the debate of whether gender construct of European Muslims either should conform to traditional Islamic understanding, or be re-constructed to suit modern lifestyles. By drawing upon the Islamic texts, and analysing thoughts of academics, this essay will demonstrate that gender construct according to the Islamic understanding does not require change for modern lifestyles. Furthermore, this response will highlight some of the issues raised by some Western ‘Muslim’ thinkers that challenge the Islamic understanding of gender construct, in order to show the validity of their claims. The response will be split in three sections, the first deals with terminology and definitions to provide understanding of how some terms will be interpreted. The second focuses on the issues Feminist thinkers bring forward and their validity, and finally the last section focuses on females that call for a balanced utopian society.
1.1 What is 'Modern'?
The term "modern" when applied to a Western European context, particularly government and legislation; can be taken as post-modern secular societies that may have governments with a religious ethos, but are progressively liberal in action and thinking, devoid of religious arbitration. These connoted definitions are typical of ‘democratic’ countries, predominantly found in the West (Powell 2005). Using this definition for the purpose of this essay, it becomes apparent that the call by some 'modern' Western Muslim women is towards 'Islamic Secularism', rather than just an updated reformed version of Islam. This implies that what was once a movement seeking justice and equal rights through early feminist theory during the 1980s has taken a shift away from Islam radically, by moving towards secularism; a complete dichotomy of terms.
1.2 Islamic Secularism & Feminism - An Oxymoron
‘Islamic Secularism’ can be argued as diametrically opposing each other, since Islam traditionally does not call towards secularism; likewise traditionally, secularism is devoid of religious rulings. We see in Western Europe a trend appearing whereby the decay of religion precipitates cultural change. European churches become museums like the mosques in Spain as oppose to places of worship, and the religiousness of those who go to mosques are often more a functional social activity, rather than spiritual observance, by going only on Fridays for Jummah. Indeed, even terms such as 'Islamic Feminist' or 'Muslim Feminist' share the same diatribe. Haifa Jawad adds that they are “so convinced by Western values that they see no other form of liberalisation other than the Western model” (taken from Osman 2003:74). Concerning the public sphere, Islamic feminists argue that women may be heads of state and imams, a claim that secular feminists never advanced. In the private sphere, Islamic feminists are:
"Challenging the conventional notion of male authority over females in marriage and the family. Islamic feminists also call upon all Muslims, including men, to live by the egalitarianism of Islam, something secular feminism side-stepped." (Badran, November 30, 2000)
Suggesting that egalitarianism can be Islamic ignores genetic differences in within gender. By challenging Islamic understanding from the Prophet Muhammad and the companions, it cannot be plausible to state Feminism can be Islamic, since it is a rejection of the interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah in its original form by the great companions themselves, and many numerous early classical scholars and exegetes. Allah states in the Quran:
“This day, those who disbelieved have given up all hope of your religion; so fear them not, but fear Me. This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (Al Maa’idah 5:3)
The term used is “perfected”, implying not only the religion of Islam is complete, but also unnecessary of any change in fundamental laws and rights given to men and women. Secularism by nature implies a permissive liberal society, and is an:
“Extreme form of liberalism in which the traditional liberal virtue of tolerance has degenerated into an unwillingness to discriminate. According to this anesthetic philosophy, right and wrong are archaic concepts that belong to the ash heap of history. What counts is “openness”…” (London, 2008:1)
On the contrary, the Shariah constitutes rights and limits upon the individual and on the Muslim communities. These rights and limits come from Allah that cannot be changed, as they are divine in nature, as rights granted by legislative bodies can be withdrawn or manipulated since they conferred by man. The notion that ‘Islamic Feminists’ call Muslims beyond the divine, to a secularist gender construct, automatically rejects the divine gender construct of traditional Islam. The Qur’an abhors such action thinking where it indicts:
"Those who do not judge by what Allah has sent down are the disbelievers (Kafirun)…They are the wrong-doers (zalimoon)…They are the perverse and law-breakers (fasiqoon)." (Al Maa’idah 5:44-47)
It is evident that the "Feminism" that exists is not islamically acceptable whether it is “Islamic” feminism or “Secular” feminism; however, a growth in women using the Quran and Sunnah to bring reform and remind societies of the values that exist within Islamic understanding is also apparent. Islam already has a term for this: Da’wah.
WESTERN ‘MUSLIM’ FEMINISTS
There are many examples of ‘modern’ Western female thinkers that call for a reformation of gender construct away from the traditional Islamic understanding. Their claim implies that there is something inherently incorrect about Islam, either due to patriarchal hierarchies in society or problems with the contextualisation of Islam during the early Iranian period when Islam became more politically inclined.
2.1 Aasma Abdol-Hamid: Promoting Freedom of Choice
The construct of gender being sexually liberal is an increasing popular ideology in Western Europe. Some ‘Muslim’ women call for liberalisation perhaps in order to gain a seat in parliament, or simply to draw media attention. For example, in Denmark outrage from Muslims was evident concerning Hamid’s views on homosexuality. She states that a Muslim is “still a Muslim even if they are a homosexual” (Hamid September 27th, 2007), yet argues that:
Wearing a headscarf does not mean that I’m oppressed or deprived. The values on which I live my life are Islamic and not Arab. It is important to make a distinction between religion and culture.” (Kynock, May 16th, 2007)
Typically, according to Muslim feminists whether to wear the veil or not is important because power over the veil represents freedom of choice. In particular, the ability to choose whether to veil or not, in accordance with the Muslim feminist's own personal interpretation of Islamic faith and morality, is at the very heart of what Islam represents to Muslim feminists: the basic Qur'anic ethic of the sovereign right of both women and men as human beings who have the freedom of self-determination. Hamid forms a sexually liberated gender construct, yet confines herself within an Islamic framework by adorning the Hijab.
The Islamic understanding of homosexuals is clear, as the incident of Lut in the Quran clearly illustrates this unnatural act. This is further supported by the hadeeth of Ibn Askar that, “Hadrat Abdullah bin Abbas said: This mischievous act started when Satan came to these people (Lut) in the form of a very handsome lad and invited them to cohabit with him…” (Zafeeruddin 2006:14). Despite considering herself a practicing Muslim, her upbringing of practicing in non-Islamic religious services such as confirmations and Christmas (Traynor 2007) had to have influenced her ideologies making them liberal rather than Islamic in nature, which may explain her contradictory views of gender construction in Islam.
2.2 Amina Wadud & Naïma Gohani: A Call for Female Leaders
Both Wadud (America) and Gohani (Italy) have gone against the typical understanding of the male construct in Islam of leading the prayer claiming that it equally acceptable for a women to be Imam in mixed congregations. Interestingly, both use unions in order to sponsor their prayer cum media spectacle, highly influenced by Western liberalism. Qaradawi argues from an Islamic perspective that:
“to avoid the stirring the instincts of men that the Shari`ah dictates that only men can call for Prayer and lead people in the Prayer, and that women’s rows in Prayer be behind the men. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was reported to have said, “The women’s best rows (in Prayer) are the last ones, and the worst of theirs are the first ones, while the men’s best rows (in Prayer) are the first ones and the worst of theirs are the last ones.” (Qaradawi, March 16th, 2005)
Qaradawi shows that the rulings are not based on cultural dogma, but on religious teachings, indicated by the consensus of traditional male and female Islamic scholars (ijma). In an effort to seek equality of leadership, Wadud and Gohani through their ‘liberal’ stunts of Islam have overlooked the simple fact, that the imam is from the person leads the prayer to the end of the prayer, and not the often-connoted meaning of imam as a leader of the Muslim community. It may be the case that the leader of the community may also be its imam; however, this is not a rule as is shown in the hadeeth of the Mahdi, where Jesus allows others to lead the prayer despite leading the Muslims to peace (Sahih Muslim 225). Therefore, not only is this call to authority invalid regarding the prayer, but also against the doctrine of Islam.
It can be argued however, that women are seen as subordinates to men and therefore this allows women to call for gender construct between men and women to be equal in rights. Many critics of Islamic understanding refer to verse 4:34 in the Quran, the issue of qawamah or authority in marriage. This verse does not organize an inherent superiority of men; rather it stipulates a functional relationship between women and men, which represents their ideal mutual responsibility in the social order. Some Muslim women use feminism as a tool to claim that this verse is used to subjugate women, although this may be true to a degree, Islam has already clarified this matter through many of the classical renowned scholars such as Ibn Sa’d (Haq & Ghazanfar 1972). The popular idea that Islamic law has not changed since medieval times is apocryphal. This misunderstanding perpetuates the assertion that Islam, like Christianity, should undergo a “reformation”. It is simply a transposition of the Western secular worldview on to Islam. Therefore, it is unnecessary to redevelop gender construct, using a separate label of “feminism” to pursue beyond what Islam prescribes, when Islam already provides the framework, merely requiring a re-awakening in Muslim minds.
2.3. Leila Ahmed – Her Call to Remove Women’s Abuse
Some ‘Muslim’ feminists have gone a step further and blamed Islam in totality for lending itself to being interpreted as endorsing and giving religious sanction to a deeply negative and debased conception of women. According to Ahmed, Islam permitted these intolerances:
“…by licensing polygamy, concubinage, and easy divorce for men, originally allowed under different circumstances in a different society… As a result, a number of abusive uses of women became legally and religiously sanctioned Muslim practices…” (Ahmed 1992: 87)
Ahmed argues that Islam is at fault for the ‘misinterpretation’ of gender construct in Europe, calling for a social and intellectual change through feminist ideologies in her works. It is justified that the Muslim world needs to promote intellectual change particularly with women, since in a patriarchal society if it avoids using the intellect of females then the Islamic world is only at half its strength and potential. Nevertheless, to blame Islam for the fact that people have freedom of choice and interpretation is illogical. Islam does not prohibit freedom of interpretation, this is evident by the existence in the four major schools of thought in addition to ijtihad (legal reasoning) for those authorised for those qualified in this field. Ahmed misunderstands the Islamic viewpoint on plural marriages, as Islam prohibits polygamy but endorses polygyny, yet unlike any other religious book states, “marry only one” (An-Nisa 4:3). Even in Europe, a form of polygamy is practiced; in France, the acceptance of “mistresses” is a normal practice. This shows that gender construct in modern Europe is far from perfect; the act of having mistresses, and cohabitation fail to preserve the rights of the male and female since they are not religiously acceptable, leading to forms of abuse to both women and men. The institution of marriage in Islam endorses rights, limits on the husband and wife, whereas to have mistresses are illicit, and has no protection from religion. Despite calling for a removal of abuse to women, she unknowingly has promoted acts of prostitution, mistresses, and decline in the institution of marriage by rejecting the Islamic limits on marriage Fiqh rulings on divorce for men and women; this would result in a futile nation of Muslims.
2.4. Yvonne Ridley & Dr. Habibah Ellahee – Constructing the Political Muslim Woman
The trend for Muslim women to support political organisations and become involved with them has had a backlash upon the community in hindsight. Ridley and Ellahee, both support Hizb-ut-Tahrir who have protagonists such as Ed Hussain, have been criticised for their rejection of Islamic arbitration concerning governmental affairs. Ellahee argues that:
“I am a Muslim woman, some would say an "Islamic feminist". Despite the stereotypes, radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizb-ut-tahrir, unlike the traditionalists or culturalist movements like the Taliban, are usually the source of most Muslim women's sense of Islamic empowerment or Islamic liberation away from things like forced marriage, child custody, abortion, domestic violence, sexploitation, etc.” (Ellahee October 31st, 2005)
Ellahee promotes such political parties and endorses their validity; Ridley goes a step further and promotes concepts such as to stop “co-operating with… [the police] in any way, shape or form” (Ridley June 7th, 2006), in order to empower women over their male counterparts, which is against the principle of following the laws of the land in the Shariah. It would be more beneficial for the Ummah as a whole for these female role models to participate, support Islamic organisations and institutions already in place, such as the mosque; and be sufficiently knowledgeable in both the affairs of this world and the deen (Murata and Chittick 1996). Although they face resistance in some of these areas, Muslims must resist being manipulated or deflected by other people's agendas and prejudices from the noble responsibility we have of conveying our message accurately to those around us. To do this, it is necessary to understand this message and those around us, to seek out what is common between us, and to build up good relationships as “The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another.” (At-Tawbah 9:71).
This does not mean that women should not use modern methods of lobbying; politically there is room for Muslim women. Again France’s example is striking, when the conflict arose regarding hijab, school commissioners realized they had no statistics on the number of headscarves worn in the French schools, so Muslim women lobbied for change. This lead to reform in obtaining data for the Muslim community and it is now known that only twelve thousand young women on all French territories worldwide wear the headscarf. The traditional Islamic understanding supports this as Khadija (RA) inherited her business from her father, and her business, social and political life continued even after the marriage to the Prophet (SAW).
It can also be argued that the re-emergence of overt Islamophobia as a result of 9/11 and subsequent ‘war on terror’ rhetoric has given credence to the French government for banning the hijab, a form of gendered Islamophobia that systematically oppresses women of their rights to show their identities. This has led ‘feminists’ within the faith base clash with such issues seen as patriarchal oppression, and not from the Muslim patriarchy. This adds to the argument there is a necessity from those who deem the veil as inviolable, to recall Muslims back to the traditional understanding of gender construct, and not to the modern construct Leila and others exponents who do not view the veil in such a way.
TOWARDS A UTOPIAN SOCIETY?
3.1 Ann Sofie Roald – Harmonising Culture & Context
The “modern” gender construct fails to harmonise the Islamic values that are important, this is seen with the increasing trends of cohabitation rather than marriage, increase in sexually liberal societies and the rise of radical political groups outside the confines of Islamic legislation to name a few. It needs to be understood that religion and culture cannot be easily separated, as many young Western Muslim women may think (Roald 2001). Islamic attitudes towards social concerns such as gender relations, female circumcision, and female dress emerge as responsive to culture and context, rather than rigid and inflexible through ijtihad. Roald adds that gender construct "has hardly ever been treated as a religious question. It has instead been usually perceived in socio-political terms." (1999: 369). This results in women using radical practices in order to draw attention to the problem of gender construct, often outside the fold of Islamic jurisprudence, despite the fact Islam has already given women a voice shown in many examples in the Quran and Sunnah such as women voting in the pledge of Al Aqabah. Ijtihad locates the law within a specific time and space, and is a reinterpretation of law based on new social contexts by qualified mujtahids. This has been a constant feature of Islamic jurisprudence in the Muslim world from the early medieval period, through the Renaissance to the advent of modern secular liberalism (itself an imposition of recent Western hegemony).
3.2 Fatima Heeren – An Appeal for Traditional Islam
There are many protagonists of the view that traditional Islamic understanding of gender construct is acceptable in this ‘modern’ era. The institution of marriage mentioned earlier is an ideal example of how Islam perceives gender construct to be equitable and differs from the call of identicality that Gohani and others claim, rather, it is the firm structure of Islamic family life that enables them to outlive Western practices. Islam by its nature is patriarchal as Mawdudi highlights that the male must:
“Uphold the tenets of faith and his authority symbolizes that of God in the world. The man is in fact respected in the family precisely because of the sacred total function he fulfils. The rebellion of Muslim women in certain quarters of Islamic society came when men themselves ceased to fulfil their religious function.” (Lemu and Heeran 2003:37)
Evidently, Islam has the ideal gender construct, however; according to Mawdudi, the laxity of men led to the uprising of radical women who wrongfully blame Islam for the problems they face. This adds weight to the argument that although women face many problems due to gender construct, the practice of modern men is contrary to traditional Islamic thinking, making it even more necessary for Muslims to call back towards traditional Islamic thinking, rather than further away from it. With the rise of the ‘metrosexual’ Muslim, this could not have been truer.
In conclusion, this response shows that Islamic traditional thinking of gender construct is sufficient for modern times, and goes a step further in suggesting that has never been more necessary. Islam’s theology of gender contends with the demand for familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering superficial generalisations about Islam’s attitude to women. Instead, this response shows at least 3 categories of ‘feminism’; the first indicates that some Muslim women have fallen into the trap of utilising un-Islamic means of promoting their cause that have merely sidelined them even more in the Islamic community, rather than bringing about change. However, they have been successful in placing the issues such as leadership and women participation in society under scrutiny for Muslim jurists. The second category do not use un-Islamic measures to communicate, rather they call for un-Islamic practices such as secularist societies totally in contradiction 1400 years worth of Islamic teachings, in other words unqualified mujtahids such as Hamid. Finally, the third category suggests that some Muslim women do call for appropriate change back to traditional understanding, and that modern lifestyle is in fact the cause of gender related problems. Some may class this final category as a form of feminism, although not in the form that exists today like the first two categories. The concept of continuous renewal is central to Islamic jurisprudence. Gender construct may not be a dichotomy; rather, feminism has changed into a tool for attaining power. Islamically, gender differences are acknowledged and then harmonised to form the perfect balance. Most feminists have removed the traditional Islamic rhetoric and replaced it with manmade ideologies, and therefore transgressed their boundaries - they want to be identical to men.
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· London, Herbert (2008) America’s Secular Challenge The Rise of a New National Religion, New York: Encounter Books
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· Roald, Anne Sofie. (2001) Women in Islam: The Western Experience, London: Routledge
· Siddiqui A.H. (1976) Sahih Muslim Chicago: Kazi Publications
· Zafeeruddin Muhammad (2006), Islam on Homo-sexuality, Karachi: Darul Ishaat
· Mygind, Liv (2007, September 27th), “Muslimske homoseksuelle hylder Asmaa” (Muslim homosexuals tribute by Asmaa), Politiken, p. 12
· Osman, Ghada. (2003) “Back to Basics: The Discourse of Muslim Feminism in Contemporary Egypt.” Women and Language 12(26), 73-78
· Roald, Sofie Anne. (1999) "Notions of 'Male' and 'Female' Among Contemporary Muslims: With Special Reference to Islamists", Islamic Studies, 38(3), 369
· Powell, G. B. (2005, Sep) Democracy in the West: Still Working? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington D.C.
· Badran, Margot (2000) Middle East Program: Exploring Islamic Feminism Available at <URL: http://tiny.cc/Iz1g4> Access date: 20th June 2008
· Ellahee, Habibah (2005) Islamic Feminism Available at <URL: http://hassanandhabibah.blog.co.uk/index.php/hassanandhabibah/2005/10/31/title~309175> Access date: 20th June 2008
· Kynock, Gaye (2007) Asmaa Abdol-Hamid: Her choice to wear a Headscarf Available at <URL: http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/674/article/61/> Access date: 20th June 2008
· London, Herbert (n.d.) America’s Secular Challenge Available at <URL: http://www.encounterbooks.com/books/americassecularchallenge/?display=excerpt%20> Access date: 20th June 2008
· Al-Qaradawi, Yussuf (2005) Woman Acting as Imam in Prayer Available at <URL: http://tiny.cc/u3YLf> Access date: 20th June 2008
· Ridley, Yvonne (2006) Call to Muslims over police help Available at <URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/5054600.stm> Access date: Wednesday, 7 June 2008
Traynor, Ian (2007) Feminist, socialist, devout Muslim: woman who has thrown Denmark into turmoil Available at <URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/may/16/religion.uk> Access date: 20th June 2008
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