While many Muslims prefer to deny this, Islam is *not* a simple religion (no religion is a simple religion), and there’s no such thing as just one Islam–okay, fine, one understanding of Islam–that all Muslims agree upon. For the umptieth time, if that were so, and if Islam were as simple as many Muslims insist it is, then there wouldn’t be so many different sects of Islam, sub-sects, schools of law, movements with different agendas, and so on. So don’t come to me with a simplified idea of a religion that’s as complex as are its followers. And definitely don’t accuse me of being “biased” in my feminist approaches to Islam when you don’t consider patriarchal approaches to Islam to be equally biased. Patriarchy is a sad reality, an oppressive norm, something we should be striving to eliminate because of its destructive nature, not something by which we should be measuring the “(in)correctness” of new strategies and approaches to Islam.
That said, Muslim opponents of Islamic feminism (or of an Islam that espouses gender equality as integral to its teachings) constantly tell us that Islamic feminism is biased. They say this as if I’m supposed to stop being a feminist and stop working on Islamic feminism just because it’s–wait for it–“biased.” By which, of course, they mean it’s not patriarchal, it’s not something that the patriarchal tradition supports (because, haven’t you heard, feminists? You need patriarchy’s permission to fight patriarchy according to patriarchy’s preference), and, most importantly, that the traditional (patriarchal) male ulama industry never acknowledged feminism as a reality, a necessity, or a possibility in an Islamic / spiritual framework.
They tell us that that the Islamic feminist effort at seeking gender equality and justice in the Qur’an and Sunnah is replete with “agenda” – as though patriarchy has no agenda, as though patriarchal/traditional Islam has no agenda, or, even, as though having an agenda is effectively bad. On the contrary! In the book Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (in Ch. 4, “Wilayah in Prophetic Practice”) as well as in Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, Ayesha Chaudhry points out this hypocrisy:
This methodology of searching hadith for counter-patriarchal influences [of the Prophet] might be criticized as agenda driven and not a genuine search for the ‘true’ prophetic impulse. However, this methodology may surprisingly be in line with the way prophetic reports were used in the Islamic scholarly tradition in the precolonial period. For example, when Qur’an commentators and jurists cited prophet reports to support their particular interpretations of the Qur’anic text, they often drew only on the texts of prophetic reports, regardless of whether the chain of transmission was weak or strong. The chain of transmission of prophet report usually came into play only when a scholar wanted to debunk another scholar’s position or interpretation.
Furthermore, Qur’anic commentators and jurists drew on the prophetic practice selectively to argue for a particular legal position or Qur’anic interpretation, making prophetic practice fit into their own framework rather than portraying Prophet Muhammad as a complex person. For instance, in the case of the husbandly privilege to discipline wives in verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, exegetes and jurists supported the right of husbands to hit their wives for disciplinary purposes by citing prophetic reports that emphasized the magnitue of the rights of husbands over their wives, rather than prophetic reports that might challenge such disciplinary rights [for more details on this, see Ch. 5 of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition]. They regularly cite prophetic reports in which Prophet Muhammad described a husband’s rights over his wife as so grand that if he had to command one human to prostrate to another, it would be a wife to her husband; or that a wife’s salvation lay in her husband’s pleasure/displeasure; or that Prophet Muhammad did not like a woman who complained against her husband; or that a husband ought not to be questioned about how he treated his wife, particularly with regarding to hitting his wife. In contrast, no scholar cited the Prophetic report in which Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife ‘Aisha reported that Prophet Muhammad never hit anyone–not a child, woman or slave–in his life, except when fighting in war; or the report in which Prophet Muhammad cursed a man who repeatedly hit his wife; or when he divorced a man from his wife because the man had hit her excessively. In employing Prophet Muhammad’s [r[prophetic practice selectively to support a gender-egalitarian visions of Islam, Muslim feminists would be doing exactly what Muslim scholars did when using prophetic practice to support patriarchal perspectives of Islam. The malleability of prophetic practice is not new, nor is the methodology of selective reading; it is the gender-egalitarian principles guiding the reading, as well as the self-conscious and forthright nature of this reading that is modern and creative (pages 92-93 of Men in Charge?).
There’s no need to reproduce the whole chapter here (but OH MY GOD, you guys!! Read this book!! It brims with new information); hopefully, my point is illustrated clearly. But I’ll repeat:
When Muslims tell us that feminism, a feminist approach at understanding Islam, or feminists in general are biased, understand that they are denying the partiality, the prejudices of the non-feminist Islams that have historically been in power. EVERY approach is going to be biased, be that a feminist one or the tradition/patriarchal one (yes, I do believe that the regnant traditional Islam is a patriarchal Islam). We have plenty of evidence that Muslim scholars have compromised Islam and core Islamic values to accommodate their patriarchal whims, no matter how natural their whims appeared to them. These Muslims are essentially telling us that there’s no bias in the scholars’ choice to completely overlook the plenty of evidence that we have in hadiths in which the Prophet, for example, never hit anyone, that he divorced a man from his wife because the man hit her and instead allowed for husbands to physically discipline their wives at any and all costs–some going so far as to say “just don’t kill her” (!!), others saying, “but she enjoys it, so do it, no probz, boyz” (!!?! As if they’ve even cared about what we actually enjoy and not – and, by the way, if a woman enjoys being hit, and your point is to teach her a lesson, is beating her really a punishment? Goodness, patriarchy, make up your mind!).
In other words, Muslim male scholars, especially the pre-colonial ones who make up this abstract thing called the “Islamic tradition,” can totally get away with their biases, despite the harms their unquestionably biased interpretations end up causing especially for women, but a feminist interpretation of Islam that insists that justice, equality, and love are among the core values of Islam is so biased it must be totally rejected.
As I always say, and may I say this till I breathe my last, death to patriarchy, inshaAllah. It has, in my professional feminist opinion, destroyed Islam. And here, I don’t mean some visible but powerful force that no one really operates: here, I mean Muslim male scholars who have shaped precisely this patriarchal Islam.
Of course, there are exceptions in their patriarchy (e.g., in the Hanafi tradition, a woman doesn’t need a wali in order to get married, she becomes independent at the age of 18, etc.; in the other schools, a woman is allowed to initiate a divorce even for what many might consider the “simplest” of reasons, like unhappiness with the husband). But that doesn’t make these traditions non-patriarchal or any more merciful (e.g., in the Hanafi tradition, because the woman made her own decision to marry whoever she wanted without the approval or consent of a male guardian, she cannot initiate a divorce from her husband; and in the other traditions, her marriage is invalid if no Muslim male guardian approved it – in all of them, she cannot marry a non-Muslim man; and also in all of them, the mahr is fundamentally tied to her sexual availability to her husband; and so on). Those oppressive, or at the very least restrictive, elements of patriarchy remain even if occasionally there’s a tiny feminist gesture here and there.
So don’t be coming at me to try to silence me and tell me that I’m biased in the feminism I seek in Islam if you’re not going to condemn male scholars, exegetes, jurists, etc. for their biases, either. Once you acknowledge their biases, I’m completely happy to have a conversation about the notion of “objectivity.”
Note to Islamophobes: Go away, especially if you’re here because you needed a reminder of how “oppressed” all Muslim women are. As if you are such an egalitarian human being or as if your own religion/faith or tradition (secular or otherwise) is bereft of patriarchy.
P.S. Folks, check out this list of a whole bunch of scholarship on Islamic feminism and other books/articles that challenge the popular, traditional, patriarchal understandings of Islam that too many of us grew up with and that most non-Muslims remain ignorant of.