Islam and feminism: disagreements and common ground

Gender research has spread in Western countries in modern times. Researchers are interested in the history of women in different contexts. The relationships between women and religion are one of the traditional areas of research. On the other hand, the feminist agenda is often more interesting for young Muslim men and women. Some see it as a way to reform Islamic societies, others consider it as an agent of colonialism trying to destroy non-Western civilisations. In his next article for our newspaper, Realnoe Vremya’s columnist Karim Gaynullin considers those problems that exist between Islam and feminism.

Feminist theory: on way to fight patriarchate

Feminists try to reconsider the status of the woman in culture and religion. Those provisions that indicate the male sex’s privileged position, patriarchate are criticised.

Patriarchate is a crucial concept to understand the feminist idea. For feminists, “patriarchate” is a whole system inside which a social choice is always or more often made in favour of men.

There are debates over the idea of “patriarchate” and “masculinity” inside feminism itself too. So today’s two key movements — radical and intersectional feminists — are at odds over the status of male domination.

For radical feminists, “patriarchate” is a central and major historical form of oppression prevailing over all others.

Radical feminists took the Marxian class theory and transferred it to the relationships between the sexes. Men benefit from the current system of oppression not only as individuals but also as an entire class above the woman. In this sense, it is necessary to perform a revolutionary act, to fight the existing contradictions. And this is impossible without dramatically breaking the system down. There are different methods of this breakdown among radical feminists, for instance, complete separation and creation of exceptionally female communities that are free of masculinity.

For intersectional feminists, the patriarchate is just one of a variety of oppression systems.

Besides the female issue, they table problems of racism, an attitude to people who refuse their gender, the post-colonial agenda and troubles of people from poor countries. Intersectional feminists believe that all people have privileges, and every person’s task is to reflect on one’s own privileges — it is possible to come to equality only by correcting oneself and other people.

Critics of feminism claim that the idea of the patriarchate is a conspiracy theory. One should understand a conspiracy theory as a desire to describe public processes through some inherently obvious system where a certain group of people gets the benefit from all the things happening around. A minority of both sexes had real privileges in most human history. The majority included slaves, peasants or simply the poor, and they didn’t claim to be the powers that be regardless of their sex.

Radical and intersectional feminists separated and did this in the seemingly important issue — what the “woman” is.

For radical feminists, the concept of woman is connected with the biological sex, while for intersectional feminists, one can become a woman. Moreover, for intersectionality, people who feel uncomfortable about their gender end up in harsher oppression than ordinary women. Radical feminists are either for excluding trans women (that’s to say men who “became” women) from female communities or against the trans theory in general claiming that “women are women, while men are men”.

An interesting story happened to writer Joanne Rowling, the author of the famous Harry Potter universe whose views are inclined to radical feminism. She was indignant on Twitter that in an article on coronavirus women were described as “people who menstruate”. This was done not to insult the trans community. The English-speaking online community split into those who supported Rowling and those who named her transphobic and even saw some racist and anti-Semite intentions in the renowned series of books.

Besides the two mentioned movements of feminism, we can name others too — black feminism, Marxist feminism, liberal feminism.

They are a synthesis of feminism with a different ideology. While the mentioned two groups try to create their own theory.

Issue of Islam and issue of feminism

The methodology of Islamic law is a far cry from the theory of patriarchate. When Islamic theologians talked about specific legal decisions, they never described them by interests of some classes or sexes. For Islam, Sharia provisions that included relationships between the sexes go back to revelation from God himself.

Islamic criticism of political ideologies often pays attention to this. Ideologies are earthly, they were established by people. The norms dictated by ideologies are a matter of judgement. Moral categories aren’t judged logically. So a choice is made with the norm a person imposes on a person and the norms God establishes for a person. If we compare these two origins of legal systems, the divine origin will always be preferable for a believer.

This is the main difference of religion from an ideology. Such things as “Who benefits?”, “How to seek justice?”, “How to achieve freedom?” are important for an ideology. While religion asks a meta-question: “Who asks questions?” Religion says that all ideologies lose their attractiveness as those having lower nature compared to the divine one.

Back to the privileges. They always depend on the narratives of a questioner. In modern consumption society, “privileged” means owning property. But it wasn’t always like that. In traditional society, religious clerics and philosophers were respected more than urban capital owners, feudal lords or even wars. In Islam, it is alims and sheikhs, monks in Christianity and Buddhism, Brahmans represented the supreme, divine power in Hinduism.

The idea of social subjectivity of the woman is a crucial point where feminism and Islam come across. According to Islam, a woman can bring a lawsuit, inherit property, choose a partner on her own, manage her property and money made, initiate a divorce if her rights are violated, get an education. These rights seem self-evident to contemporaries, but historically, a noticeable minority of women had them. A part of the enumerated rights was included in the first suffragists’ requirements.

For ideologies, the woman’s rights are an achievement of humankind, but for religions, this is a part of the order established by God. In religion, both the man and the woman can feel that their identity isn’t a concept invented by education but a part of the natural state of affairs.

This year, Dar al-Minhaj publishing house has issued a big encyclopaedia consisting of 43 (!) volumes dedicated to female scientists of Islam.

Nevertheless, classical Islamic law doesn’t claim that the man and the woman are equal in legal issues. For instance, in accordance with classical Islamic law, a woman inherits a smaller part compared to her brother, her word in the court is of less importance than that of a man... In pre-Islamic society, women were almost powerless, but Islam didn’t establish the equality that came with modern times. Islamic feminism considers this as an incomplete process on the way to equal rights, while traditional Islam denies the process and claims the provisions created by revelation as the unchangeable divine law.

Islamic feminism

A standpoint analysis is an important principle of the feminist interpretation of holy texts. According to it, a male interpretation and male theology cannot explain the metaphysical experience of the woman.

Armed with this foundation, feminists began to create their own Ijtihad by voluntarily separating traditions and fatwas that seemed to them “misogynistic” from Islamic tradition.

At the same time, feminists widely use hermeneutic methods borrowed from French leftists. On the other hand, they actively utilise the rhetoric of Islamic modernists, including “Sharia values” and the temporary condition of legal provisions. As Islamic religion was subjected to the influence of patriarchal civilisations of Arabs, Persians and Byzantines as pure revelation, in their opinion, it is necessary to clear it from the impurity of the “male” outlook and provide a “female experience”.

Stereotypes that the Islamic world has begun to face feminism just recently are widespread in our society. In fact, modernists began to talk about the position of women as early as in the 19th century.

So such Jadid philosophers as Muhammad Abduh and Qasim Amin wrote separate works devoted to this matter. Moreover, a considerable part of Arab states experienced socialist experiments when governments tried to reconsider the position of women in society. In modern times, women became rulers in a lot of Muslim states. For instance, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Feminism is, in essence, an anthropocentric movement that claims that a person is a source of ideas of kindness, that’s to say, equality is objectively good. A critic of Islamic feminism might ask the following question in reply: if it is deliberately known that God ordered the woman something that contradicts gender equality, should she obey or be against God’s decision?

The conflict between Islam and feminism starts at this point — between convictions of values formed by a person and direct decisions of God in revelation.

For instance, Amina Wadud, an American feminist, writes that any interpretation of the Quran, including traditional, isn’t free of subjectivity. This means that there might be a feminist interpretation of the Quran.

On the other hand, no traditional interpretation of the Quran uses the values that are strange to the Quran itself. Moreover, Islamic orthodoxy thinks that the ideas of good and evil that are created by a person aren’t objective and are below the divine will (the issue of husn and qubh in Ash’aris). Why doesn’t the deconstruction under the flag of “subjectivity” spread to the feminist theory itself?

Islam and feminism: between conflict and agreement

We can often see Muslims write: “feminism isn’t necessary for Islam because Islam already gave women all the rights”. However, Islam appeared long before feminism when those issues were simply not topical. In this sense, Islam is a thing completely from another environment and another value paradigm.

On the other hand, as an Abrahamic tradition, Islam established the woman as a legitimate subject in society. In this respect, the feminist rhetoric “the woman is also a person”, that’s to say, an owner of rights and freedoms that are characteristic of a human being, is an idea that is close to the Islamic outlook on the woman.

Feminists’ rhetoric as a fight against objectivisation, trade of the female body, violation has a lot in common with the Islamic female agenda.

Apart from the female agenda, intersectional feminists talk about the problem of post-colonial societies and the oppressed state of non-white people in the modern culture, which coincides with Islamic decolonialism and the claim that all races are equal. Moreover, as some have “progressive” and others have “traditionalist” positions, the same position on these issues rarely leads to dialogue.

On the other hand, what to do when it comes to a specific Sharia ban that contradicts the feminist ideology? Which position does the one who criticises the Sharia ban has? Feminist or Islamic? Where to set priorities? It is the questions that are hard to answer when reading works of Islamic feminists.

I think that Islamic feminism is honest up to a point. Beyond the point, one will already have to decide what you have more, Islam or feminism.

The feminist movement itself is separated enough to offer a single view on womanliness and religion. Nevertheless, feminism itself is linked with the already formed ideas and culture. It is tied with ideas of a sexual revolution and gender theory. This is why in many aspects, the global feminist culture contradicts the culture of the Islamic civilisation. Islamic societies in different parts of the world face problems of the oppressed position of women. They often aren’t rooted in the Islamic religion itself but in the enduring ancient cults.

What I am certainly convinced of is that in the 21st century, Islam is impossible without the woman. They will play a role as representatives of the Islamic civilisation and creators of the new world. On the other hand, it is not obvious for me that the Islamic female movement has necessarily to be linked with feminism in the way the modern Western culture offers it.

By Karim Gaynullin