Islamic feminism and the fear of inciting Islamophobia

This conversation needs to take place more widely, especially in feminist Muslim circles as well as in those fighting racism, Islamophobia, and other bigotry in the West: We need a way–a platform–to discuss problems internal to Muslims and Muslim/Islamic history that are rooted in patriarchy and that support and maintain patriarchy in way that would not be interpreted as perpetuating and/or endorsing Islamophobia. I, as a Muslim woman very critical of many practices and beliefs endemic to the Muslim communities I’m a part of, should have the freedom and the space to constructively criticize some of our traditions, even those espoused by the past scholars of Islam who are a part of the “canon” that forms Islamic scholarship and the Islamic tradition. And I should have this freedom and space to do so without worrying that Islamophobes will usurp my experiences, my ideas, my criticism and misuse them for their frightening agenda to hurt and malign Muslims and Islam. The Muslim community (in the West) needs to stop attempting to stifle internal criticism just because “what will the Islamophobes say? Let’s keep the bigger picture in mind here. For the sake of Islam and to avoid the further mistreatment of Muslims, let’s not focus on the negatives of our community and tradition and instead just embrace the goal of fighting Islamophobia.” Why? Because the problems I as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim feminist, face in my community because of patriarchal ideas attributed to “the Islamic tradition” are not important enough? Because women’s problems aren’t important enough to be tackled? This sort of spiritual shaming is an excuse to stifle critical thought–or just to stifle women’s criticism of their communities for not treating them with respect.

Image 1 feminism

So much for the Qur’an’s command that we be just in all our dealings. Oh, wait – “but who said it’s just to give women and men equal rights?” But of course.

I’ve said in several blog posts before that, as a female Muslim feminist student of Islamic studies working on gender/sexuality and Islam, I often have difficulty talking about the patriarchy on which so many gendered guidelines in the “Islamic tradition” are founded. Examples include the fact that, despite the Qur’an’s silence on the matter, (the male) Muslim jurists decided that: a) Muslim women aren’t allowed to marry non-Muslim men but men are allowed to marry Christians and Jews (all the “yes, but …” aside); b) women are not allowed to lead gender-mixed prayers–or even other women in prayer–while men can lead anyone in prayer they want; c) women do have the right to divorce, but it’s not only difficult but we literally have to buy divorce from our husbands by returning everything we got in mahr (despite today’s Muslims claim that “no, no, no! you don’t understand! You see, Muslim grooms are required to give mahr to their brides at the time of the nikaah as a testament to the fact that they are financially responsible for their wives.” Except, not really. The hubby gives you mahr in exchange for being able to sleep with you legitimately for as long as you’re married. I need to remember to write about this in a separate blog post at some point.); d) in some schools of law, we as women require the permission of an adult male Muslim (a wali), usually father if he’s Muslim, to get married and may not do it without his consent; e) we can’t travel alone without the permission of our husbands or fathers–or alone, period; f) a husband can beat up his wife because, supposedly, he has the God-given right to do so. (These and many other ideas largely accepted as “Islamic” in mainstream Muslim thought have been debunked by the fabulous Fatal Feminist here.)

All of these statements come with exceptions, nuance, and all that other great stuff that should get any thinking human to go, “Um, actually, …” or “But it’s not that simple, right> Because, you see …” And, in fact, there are plenty of books and articles on some of these issues that analyze and discus them in detail. (You can find some of these here.) I’d have to dedicate a separate blog post to each of these points and so many other ones. But for now, stick with me – I have a point.

But why is it so difficult to talk about these, you might ask? Well, because one sort of risks appearing and sounding Islamophobic, or inciting Islamophobia. The Islamophobia industry thrives on internal criticism and critiques by Muslims of Muslims and the Islamic tradition. This has meant keeping quiet about so many real problems that Muslims, especially Muslim women, face within the Muslim community–some of which go back to patriarchal ideas of gender supported by the vast, rich,  complicated, gray “Islamic tradition”–because of the fear that Islamophobes might hear and see, and then they’ll run with that information and go, “See?! We TOLD you Muslims are backward!” You’d think Islamophobes are truly egalitarian-conscious humans who think women are full, complete, real human beings, or something. (But Islamophobes are anything but, I swear.) I’ve said in other blog posts that I get Muslim female readers emailing me asking about safe spaces where they can comfortable raise the questions they have, discuss so many issues that they’re facing that their Muslim community tells them is what God expects/wants of women (but heaven still lies beneath the mother’s feet), who they can talk to about these things without being judged or without giving Islamophobes an opportunity to pounce on them as Muslim women or on Islam. I’m currently exchanging texts and emails with a Muslim female who made a really good comment in our last conversation: “If the foundation of what we call ‘the Islamic tradition’ is so sexist, why are we letting it  continue as a tradition in the first place?!” And I agree with her, also, when she said that any Muslim “scholar,” in the past or present, who believes that a husband has the right to hit his wife should not be considered a scholar (for more on this wife-beating issue, check out Ayesha Chaudhry’s book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition). Our standards of authority and scholarship need to be better than this such that such a violent perspective should lead to the denial of any and every person’s right to claim authority in our community. I agree with this person that we have to be better than this, that we can’t say, “Well, just because you don’t like one person’s one opinion doesn’t mean you should reject everything else they have to say.” Actually, it does, and actually,  we can–and should–reject everything else they say if they do not consider women human enough to think they can be hit by their husbands, however “lightly” and even if it’s “just for symbolic purposes” (!!). Because the fact is that these scholars’ “opinions” about women, with no experience about what it’s actually like to be subjected to their opinions, have real and often destructive consequences for women. So, yes, we should have that option to deny them their scholarly status in our communities and tradition.

The point is, we need to have these kinds of conversations in the open, wherever it is, online or offline, and for once stop fearing that we’re inciting Islamophobia. Islamophobia doesn’t exist because of us. It has other roots and purposes that sustain it.

I don’t know if this kind of space exists, and I wish it did. I can’t even claim that it exists on my own blog, because I’ve noticed on Twitter that some of my blog posts on Islamic feminism and patriarchy in the Muslim tradition and in Muslim communities–or the struggles of being a Muslim feminist–have been circulated by Islamophobes to highlight their agenda of “LET’S FREE THESE POOR OPPRESSED MUSLIM WOMEN!!!!” Like, I don’t get it – do they not read the every other line I have about how empowering it is to be a Muslim, a feminist, a woman today despite the struggles?! So, yes, I censor myself on my blog a lot because my blog is public, and I don’t want islamophobes to take my voice away from me. But that sucks because if I can’t say so much of what I wanna say on my own blog, then where can I?

Anyway. I was saying. When it comes to laws/rules/guidelines about women, or just generally about sexuality and gender, patriarchy reigns. (Yes, yes, it’s not just Islam. Every other religious tradition has done the same thing, and this is why religious feminism is so important, as is generally the contributions of women to studies in religion.) I appreciate the temptation to avoid identifying virtually every gender-related law/guideline in Islam or the “Islamic tradition” as patriarchal because we don’t want to think that our jurists and scholars could be so sexist. We have been taught to think that these men were so sincere in their intentions, so pious – but we have to keep in mind that piety and good intention don’t negate sexist attitudes. Because for that to happen, for us to begin equating piety with a gender (and racial and other) egalitarian sense of life and practice, we have to acknowledge that patriarchy is harmful and needs to be combated by everyone, and that that must begin as soon as yesterday. So, yes, these guys “meant well,” but that’s what’s called benevolent sexism. And benevolent sexism is still sexism. And, yes, context is important here, but let’s also admit that contexts change all the time. Given today’s context, do we still really need all those patriarchal statements and rules and laws that were formulated and developed by the ‘ulama who may or may not have meant well, who knows?

We tend to equate “Islam” with the (personal, social) opinions and statements of the men who shaped Islamic law for us over several centuries. Many continue to think that to challenge the claim that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim (Christian or Jewish, for simplicity’s sake for now) man is to challenge God. The most important thing here is that God actually never said a Muslim woman can’t marry a non-Muslim (Christian/Jewish) man, so there. Or that women cannot lead a gender-mixed prayer. Or that women need the permission of a man to leave home or marry a man they wanna marry. And so on. Then why do we have these rules? Because, (un)fortunately, that’s how religious and laws and societies and people and traditions work. But the good thing is that traditions and ideas change with them. Which is why it’s been time to start considering the more feminist, more gender-egalitarian views and interpretations of Islam as a part of Islam. We’ve already begun doing that, but only for some things (like denying that past jurists and scholars were totally okay with wife-beating as a man’s “God-given” prerogative), and not for other things (like not for women’s interfaith marriages or female-led prayers, in the mainstream). Why?

Those of us who support “non-conventional” ideas like women’s right to an interfaith marriage–or the fact that we need to challenge the traditional claim that a woman is “Islamically” prohibited to mary a non-Muslim man–are often accused of wanting to “change Islam.” But that depends on what we mean by “Islam.” If “Islam” = the opinion of the male ‘ulama/fuqaha (scholars/jurists), their interpretations of Islam (that, I have to point out, were influenced by their time and societies, understandably so), then, actually, yes let’s please change those opinions, let’s definitely offer new ones that speak to our realities and experiences and concerns and time and societies; but if by “Islam,” one means the Qur’an and maybe the non-patriarchal hadiths, I’m not sure what the accusation is hinting to. How does one “change” a text? The truth is that all texts, written and otherwise, are open to interpretations, and those interpretations can be completely different and may even oppose each other. Patriarchy has historically been read into the Qur’an, but yet, when we read feminism into the Qur’an, we’re accused of being “biased,” and the strategy is dismissed as being anachronistic–as though there’s something wrong with reading feminism into a text where imposing patriarchy on it for centuries has been totally acceptable.

I’m writing all this to say: As you might note, so many of the patriarchal, sexist things that Muslims commonly believe are a part of Islam are not found in the Qur’an. Muslim feminist scholarship has done phenomenal work on this, and I cannot emphasize that enough. But for now, I want to highlight the fact that what we think of as the “Islamic tradition” (Islamic law, fiqh, Muslim male scholarship that has historically been considered authentic and “real scholarship,” and just generally agreed-upon positions/laws/guidelines) has actually compromised some of the core teachings of the Qur’an just to accommodate patriarchy. In the next few blog posts, I want to discuss this fact.

Now, you–as an “objective” person, of course–might think, “Oh, c’mon, patriarchy isn’t so bad! Besides, when ‘patriarchy’ ‘breaks’ Islamic rules like these, it’s often for the benefit for the women.” Well, not quite. You see, patriarchy has no reason to benefit women; women’s interests aren’t its priority–men’s interests are. So, of course, it’s likely that occasionally, patriarchy might benefit women, but that’s incidental – it’s not intentional. Examples of these? Sex/gender segregation for those women who are more comfortable being themselves around other women than around men they’re not immediately related to. There’s nothing natural about this. It’s not like women are inherently programmed to be more comfortable around other women. It’s that the dominant ideas about modesty and comfort are so patriarchal that some girls grow up to prefer gender segregation. Think of the many mosques around the world that don’t segregate their men and women with a barrier. When I was a teenager, the mosque I attended regularly didn’t have such a barrier – and no one complained, no one wondered, and no one expressed discomfort with praying behind men without a barrier between us. It’s only when you’re accustomed only to segregated spaces that you grow to only want that.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring those kinds of spaces. I’m a strong proponent of choice and comfort, no matter what influences those choices and comfort (… well, okay, sometimes I do care about those influences, if they lead to broader laws that affect everyone else). But my point is that our preferences, our choices, our desires are influenced by the larger force of patriarchy; patriarchy still plays a fundamental role in how we “like” things.

This is getting long, and I really don’t want to make it longer than I think it needs to be, and I haven’t even gotten to the plenty of examples I want to discuss that support my point that patriarchy has been the one thing that male scholarship has historically (and even today) aimed to accommodate, often at the expense of breaking core Qur’anic principles. Like everything else, this point comes with all sorts of qualifiers and disclaimers and exceptions. I’ll address those when I get to them. The topics I’ll discuss include:

– obedience and submission to God only or to husbands as well?
– nothing must stand between the worshiper and the imaam during prayer, but somehow, the barrier separating women and men in mosques, etc. becomes totally acceptable. How come?
– the Qur’an’s idea that believing women and men are allies of one another contrasted against this patriarchal idea that women must not be seen in public or women must not work together with men
– the Qur’an suggests that a wife may choose to decline mahr, but yet, with the sexual purpose that mahr serves in the Islamic tradition, what happens when a woman says no to mahr? Is the marriage still considered valid? How does that affect the way divorce (khul’, female-initiated divorce) takes place? This has to do with the jurists’ idea of the purpose an value of mahr.
– polygyny (multiple wives) and the Qur’an
– and so on.

This should be all for now.

Peace! And happy new year to all!

11 thoughts on “Islamic feminism and the fear of inciting Islamophobia

  1. ISIS, Al-Qaida, 14 years old Hena Akhter lashed to death for being raped, 9/11, in Köln and other cities mass sexual harassment, fatwas ruling how to treat sex slaves, Paris attacks, Hamas, Boko Haram, torturing dogs, migrants from northern-africa and middle-east being over 16-17 times more likely to commit rape than the native population, Munich olympics, Taleban, pedofilia, ect.

    In comparison you really don’t have to worry about giving gunpowder for those opposed to islam in general and the escalation in europe will ensure that this will remain the case.
    You should be more concerned of ever more people deciding that we don’t need feminism that protects rapists.


    • Continue on, please – tell me more about what my concerns should really be and what it’s like to be a Muslim feminist in the West. Go on.


  2. I’m surprised that the topic of hijab wasn’t mentioned here. The fact that in Islam a woman’s virtuousness is dependent on what she wears and especially if she covers her hair is plainly, no doubt, sexual objectification. The dogma that women must cover their hair (and 97% of their body) in order to be truly obedient to God is within itself degrading. Not to mention Muslim social pressures on girls and women to don it is insufferable and a clear indication of the sexism and bigotry in the Islamic community. The fact that in order for us to worship our lord we must cover ourselves the way we cover in front of men (allegedly speaking) can also be considered as shirk, and of course, degrading. I cannot think that we can speak of women’s rights in the Islamic community without mentioning this.


    • Thank you for your comment, Addled.
      I don’t follow what you’re saying. Did you understand my point–or anything I said here? Your insistence that “Islam” degrades women by demanding this or that has no relation to what I’m saying. First, I don’t agree with your reading of the hijab; I do, however, know they modesty expectations and standards are gendered, and I critique them often. It’s also one of the things I hint to above when saying that our criticism of what Muslims think is “Islam” (when it’s actually men’s opinions) is viewed as agreements with Islamophobia and/or inviting it.

      And I *absolutely absolutely* disagree with you that we can’t “speak of women’s rights in the Islamic community without mentioning this.” Actually, WHAT?! I’m so sick of ppl talking abt the hijab, especially non-Muslins doing it. Like, what do *you* know about being a Muslim woman? Screw this orientalist BS.

      Why are you surprised, basically, that a Muslim feminist who’s tired of especially orientalist, colonialist, and Islamophobic attempts to insist that the head-covering can mean only one thing (which is oppression, apparently)–or tired of ppl talking about the hijab, period–would not include anything hijab-related in this post?

      You definitely missed the point here.


    • Thank you for your response Orbala! Okay in hindsight, my comment does look inflamed and off-topic. I do not mean Islam, the religion itself, that direct Muslim women to this, but the sexist rants of Muslims men. The Qur’an itself, is silent on the matter of covering the hair and piety dependent on body showing/covering (I actually find the Quran quite feminist on the matter). I am quite daft and did not catch your hint in your article, however, I do think it’s important that we do identify it is men’s opinion that has been dictating this oppression and that if we were to speak about Muslim men’s sexist opinions then that of the Hijab must be included. Because when Muslim men (or any Muslim women under their influence) mention wearing hijab it is in direct relation that we must cover in order to be pious. We must cover to worship, we must cover because those body parts are hinted as indecent to show in front of men who are not related to us, or indecent to show when praying to God himself. I believe you yourself wrote a post about this as well and the judgement when it comes to Muslim women who do not cover (ie compared to unwrapped lolipops). It is not per say covering hair that is degrading, but the mentalities and reasons behind why we MUST wear it. So for us to talk about the different contentions of male oppression within the Islamic community like domestic violence and male guardianship, I cannot help but think that the forcing/coercing/brainwashing of women to wear the hijab strictly because of the sexual objectification of women’s body to the point where a woman is looked down upon because of what is shown is imperative.

      It may be from my own solipsistic experience, but being a Muslim woman who chose to take off the hijab and be judged for it as if I’m sinning or not pious enough to that of a covered woman is preposterous and deeply rooted in misogyny and body-shaming that is prevalent in not only Muslim communities but American societies as well. Yes, when non-Muslim, white Americans bring it up I know that it is colonialist and foreign-policy propaganda racism/cherrypicking/ actually showing no good-intentions, but when you’re a Muslim who has been through these experiences and notices that those experiences are largely shaped by the predominant thought of Islamic discussion based on female covering, then yes, I would think I can state that. Not only me, but others as well. A Sober Second Look is a great blog that discusses similar experiences as well that fall right under the sphere of Muslim men dictating why and what we wear. It is a blatant form of oppression and it is so personal because it is essentially your body getting in the way of worship. The God-given body i have is too sinful to be shown in public or when I am performing salat to my creator or when I am at a funeral that it must be covered. How is that not sexist and a product of misogynist thought? Since a little girl and you’re told that showing your hair in front of men is haram? Or that in order to reach a certain degree of piety that you must cover must of your body? How can we speak of women’s rights in Islam when this is not in fact mentioned? That was my point because it’s so evident that women cannot speak of religious matters without having their qualifications questioned on the basis of their hair. That is degrading, and one of the biggest points of our rights and beings as Muslims. I’m not some American trying to pit the fall of Muslims on scarves, I’m trying to state that this is a big problem within our community and to not address it is not right because it affects all Muslim women. That mentality really does and it’s insufferable to go through it and try to be a good Muslim at the same time without that nagging thought in your head.

      Again, I don’t see head-covering as degrading, but the popular reasons that Muslims propagate it are. I am not tired of talking about hijab, and I never will be until this sexism stops. It’s unfair to us, it’s damaging to us as women, that we are constantly held under the judgment of fabric over us. That our own iman is based on it. It is perfectly feminist and non-colonialist/orientalist/islamaphobic for Muslim women who are tired of being subjected to this to speak out about it as an issue to us. It is fine to label it as one of the forms of sexist oppression because that’s what it exists when the topic befalls to where a woman’s piety and virtue is dependent on it and so many hadiths and current beliefs fall on this. It is such a big issue to me personally that I will call it out when we speak about women’s rights in Islam and it’s a HUGE double standard within our community. And I think to say that this as just some western propaganda is marginalizing actual womens experiences that have gone through the stressful and iman-robbing lectures that we all fall under what we wear…….

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your clarification. Yes, the gendered interpretations of modesty and piety are something that I’ve addressed in other posts and that I’m against and believe they need to be addressed more widely. Still, it’s not as huge a deal as you posit it to be. It’s important, it needs to be talked about *in certain ways*, but it’s not something that needs to be talked about in every discussion on women’s rights.


  3. I would disagree as women are forced to wear it in certain countries and face violence if they don’t. They aren’t allowed to worship in mosques without wearing it so I see it just as damaging as a barrier in a mosque between men and women. It is male ownership over female bodies so it’s just as important when comparing seeking male-relative permission to travel. When it comes to Muslim women’s rights (or any women rights for that matter) it’s not a debate about what’s more of a bigger deal than the other contention. It’s about identifying ALL injustices for women and striving to resolve them and holding them at equal weight because at the end of the day it’s a a form of oppression. I do not think we need to tiptoe around these subjects or be especially sensitive because again, it’s a form of oppression that has a more oppressive thought-process. For women to be judged and deemed worthy on their body is the striking similarity in rape culture mentality. Of course this should be mentioned in every women’s rights discussion.
    Hearing this relegation from a Muslim feminist herself on the physical and mental policing of women’s body is depressing enough. “It’s not a huge deal as you posit to be”. This is the utter product of Muslims making hijab such a sacred issue and embedding it in our minds so that anyone who criticizes its enforcement is suddenly looked down upon or shelved to the side. Depressed, but can’t say I’m surprised.


    • I appreciate your insight, but I absolutely disagree about your projection of the hijab “issue.” I understand you find it depressing that not every feminist thinks it should be approached as you suggest it be, but I’m perfectly okay disagreeing here. Because I’m beyond frustrated and sickened by everyone’s obsession with the hijab, whether it is to dehumanize and infantalize Muslim women who wear the hijab or to demand that all Muslim women wear it because it’s the only way a woman can display her Muslim identity or be pious or some other ridiculous patriarchal nonsense like that. This obsession *has got* to stop.


  4. Pingback: Islamic feminism and the fear of inciting Islamophobia - Muslim World Today

  5. Pingback: on mosques excluding women from Eid prayer | Freedom from the Forbidden

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