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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Islamic Feminism Fallacy

Since I have started my research on Arab American feminism, and the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender, I keep coming across "Islamic feminism". At the beginning I thought this is a movement by activist women in the Islamic world who work to gain equality and women empowerment in the Muslim world. Reading more about it, I realized this is half of the story. Yes, it is concerned with the situation of women in the Muslim world, but Islamic feminists work on the assumption that the subordinate position assigned to women in the Muslim world is created by misinterpretation of Quran and Hadith by misogynist scholars who want to keep their domination over men.

I have read the Quran hundred of times, memorized the long chapters starting from al-Baqarah to Al-Anaam, which contain most of the Islamic commands that established the Islamic State in Medina after 622 A.D. I read them over and over again, searching for something that may have inspired Islamic feminists to think that Islam in its essence support equality regardless of gender, but I failed to find any, not because I have missed certain implications, which may have been suggested by a verse here or there. To consider women equal to men is basically an alien thought to the Arab world at that time; it is actually an alien thought to the whole world known then, not just to the Arab Peninsula. Considering the historical social context of Islam, it can not support gender equality.

However, Muslims want to believe in the universality of Quran, that the book is a miracle and speak to Muslims anywhere, anytime, simply because they believe it is God's direct word, rather than a revelation to the prophet. This is the major difference between Islam and other Abrahamic religions: while Judaism and Christianity maintain that the Bible is a revelation, Muslims believe Quran as the direct words of God, which can't be modified, changed, or reinterpreted! Actually, Quran points out in several verses in different chapters that the Bible has been re-written, and corrupted by the Jews and the Christians and Shia Muslims believe that Imam al-Mahdi, when the time comes for his return, will bring the authentic Bible which the Jews and the Christians have corrupted.

So Quran is the word of God, and according to the Prophet's last speech in Mecca, whatever ordained by him and the Quran, should be followed to the end of times. Accordingly, till now women get only half what men get from inheritance, one man's testimony is worth two women's, men control marriage, and husbands are allowed to beat their wives if they deny them their marital 'rights'. Islamic feminists can't find their way around these few Islamic ordains, unless they advocate for the non-universality of the holly book, that it is not the direct word of God, and it can be re-interpreted to adapt it to the changing historical and cultural environments in the Muslim world. By removing this characteristic from the Quran, they open the gate for criticism of the holly text, which will encourage critics of Islam to reduce the text to be man's narrative, rather than the divine word of God. Muslims won't allow that, not even the feminists themselves.

Islamic feminism in the way it is now is just a fallacy; it tries to end patriarchy in Islam, while unfortunately this religion is this patriarchy. I know that I sound like those western feminists who mock "Arab feminism" as oxymoron, assuming that being an Arab denotes a culture that is hostile to women, and prefer patriarchy rather than individual freedom. For some reason, this is true. Our culture is family culture, collective consciousness and identity culture, and doesn't support individuality. In such context, where the individual should sacrifice their individuality for the unity of community, it is only natural that woman's individual freedom is suppressed for the sake of collective solidarity. The best Arab woman activists can achieve is 'women empowerment' which simply means helping women within this patriarchal culture to reach their potentials, to play around the cultural rules, and 'empower' women without trespassing cultural codes. The same logic applies to Islamic feminists. Because empowering women within such hostile environments to women, or only through trespassing 'holy ordained rules', is like 'mission impossible', and whatever they have achieved is unfortunately too weak to change women's situation in the Arab/Muslim world, Arab/Islamic feminists spend most of their activism on defending the concept of "Arab" or "Islamic" feminisms against their western critics, engaging in endless debates to "correct" western views about the Arab culture and Islam.

One of the Islamic feminist writers, Mohja Kahf wrote couple of poems called "Hijab scenes" in which she criticizes Islamphobia in US and how the headscarf invite assumptions about Muslim women's oppression in Islam. It is quite common argument today to say, "I don't need to take off my scarf to be a feminist". No I don't, if feminism means here defending my culture and religion, rather than gender equality and woman's individual rights. Women's decent clothes are ordained by the Quran to protect women from men, hadiths assert that woman's body can tempt men's to sin, and everything in the woman's body is erotic to men and need to be covered. So, if a Muslim woman need to express her devotion to God/Allah she should cover up, so she won't be a source of temptation to men!! It is all about protecting men's decency and purity. How is that empowering women? or how is it pro-feminist? I can't understand that!       

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gender Expectations in the Arab World

One of the many reasons that drove me away from Iraq was gender expectation: since ever I heard my mother saying that I need to get married and have children. Without being a wife and a mother, my life is meaningless. I have seen my sisters, colleagues, TV and media, all nurture this idea that today at the age of 38 and with all what I have achieved in life, I can't really feel complete because I haven't been married, and I don't have kids.

I work on feminism in multi-ethnic communities (US) and explore how women work on their gender identity along with their racial/ethnic identity. Meaning, how to preserve your cultural identity and at the same time celebrate your sense of gender equality. This may sound like out of date and tedious. One may say that women can be anything they want now and feminism is not needed now and this whole debate is pointless. It is not, especially in the world I grew up in, the Arab /Muslim world. 

When culture (whether it stems from religion or social tradition) prescribes certain roles for its members, it definitely limits individual freedom. This is true for all cultures: liberal, conservative, traditional or religious. There is always an implied force higher than the individual that maps for him/her the role they can play in that culture if they want to be part of it, otherwise they will simply be outcast. 

When I was in my teens and it was time to think of man-woman relationship, I was showered with hadiths and verses from the Quran about the superior position of the husband and how rewarding is to be a good wife (obedient wife). The first hadith we learn in school says that heaven is under mothers' feet, which was interpreted that becoming a mother assures women eternal paradise and motivate Muslims to be good to their mothers because they own heaven. But, about those women who never get the chance to be mothers? what is their reward? What about the woman who didn't get married and didn't have the chance to be "good wife", or the one that, for some reason, didn't become a mother? No hadith or Quranic verse talk about these non-existent women!!

Women in the Arab/Islamic world are driven toward these two roles and if they don't play at least one of them, then they are deemed incomplete creature, not even human beings. Because of this sense of inferiority, I have seen many women settle down for "any" marriage, even if it is inconvenient, like marrying unsuitable man, a man they don't love, or accept to be a second wife. Even when there are no economic or social reasons that push these women to such inconvenient marriages, there is always the psychological reason which is this sense of being incomplete, that she won't fulfill her role in life unless she is a wife and a mother.

Marriage becomes only a first step toward fulfilling the ultimate role, to be a mother. Sisters, friends, colleagues, with high education degrees and great career potential would feel that there is nothing like being a mother. It can be true, but by saying that, they embarrass all the wretched women who are no longer marriageable, or sterile wives. Their words imply the message that: if you are not a mother, then unfortunately you have missed your chance to be happy, that you have missed heaven!!

The world of men is different. The world prescribes for them different roles: the world asks men to work hard, to have a career and provide for themselves. A single man who is not married is not socially stigmatized, but a hero who decided to stay away from the cage of marriage. His achievement in life is not measured by his social status, whatever he does in his private life is his own choice. However, truth to be said that in our culture even men are pushed into reproduction to keep the family name, but the pressure is definitely less than the one placed on women. A single man is single by choice. A single woman means "no one wanted her"!! A childless husband is free from all the pressures of fatherhood; a childless wife is sterile woman!

The judgments and the social pressure that women in the Arab/Muslim world come from their immediate social circles, mostly from women themselves. That is why feminism is failing there: it is no more than a thought advanced by women who 'failed' to be what they should be 'good wives and mothers'! The persistent idea that feminism is only for women who couldn't secure a husband, who couldn't breed makes all the efforts of women activists who work for women empowerment fruitless. There is always the implied presumption that feminism is against family life: to be a feminist then there is the claim of being against marriage and against motherhood for the preference of career, which is deemed unnatural.

As long as these thoughts persist in the Arab/Muslim world, women empowerment is failing, feminism is a taboo and women's situation continues to be the worst. For women empowerment to succeed and to have the hope for individual freedom to prevail in our culture one day, we need, first women to realize that they are equally human to men. The biological differences between male and female do not mean less or more humanization, and do not prescribe inferiority. When women accept that, and start question every demeaning thought or measure against their humanity, then we can have hope to improve our situation.

Nadia Fayidh Mohammed