I believe completely that the last 1,400 years of scholarship has been dominated by men. It’s indisputable. And while it may sound like some seedy “conspiracy theory,” there is also ample evidence illustrating that pro-female interpretations and male interpretations favouring prophetic and Qur’anic expectations of equity are largely drowned out.
Misogynist interpretations came to the fore not necessarily because they were the most correct, the closest to how Islam was practiced by the Prophet, or what God really wanted to say – but are most likely the result of whoever had the strongest army. There were hundreds of legal schools within the first few centuries of Islam. Hundreds. All died out through lack of popularity or persecution by the Caliph of the day who was usually more concerned with his political aspirations than religious goals.
Finding a variety of scholarly opinions and debates on women and women’s roles in Islam is nothing new. This is why Muslim feminists are needed today to call people out on their misogyny and for believers in “Islamic feminism” to do more than just acknowledge that things have vastly changed from what God and the Prophet intended.
Shunning Muslim feminists because Feminism is somehow based upon a foreign, Western or secular philosophy that threatens to change Islam from within, belittles the capabilities that women have to interpret their religion for themselves. It also blatantly ignores the vast Muslim tradition of adapting “foreign” ideologies into how Islam is understood, interpreted and even practiced. From Greek philosophy and Marxism, to organ donation and gender reassignment, Muslim beliefs are constantly changing and adapting to contemporary social change and influence.
This for me, points to the wonderfully flexible, eternal nature of the religion.
If male scholars can interpret the Qur’an in light of popular culture or changes in medical advances, why can’t women be given a chance to voice their interpretations on topics that matter to us or allow people to shed light on the historical interpretations that empower women’s status?
Muslim feminists like Amina Wadud, Fatema Mernissi and Khaled Abou El Fadl are among today’s champions – going back to the historical sources, contextualising Qur’anic verses, prophetic traditions, and wading through the centuries of scholastic debate relating to women’s supposed duty to husbands, sexual practices, obsession with dress, women’s public participation, or female spirituality – in order to address the misuse of these sources in justifying everything from FGM to women’s biological and intellectual frailties.
This is something that very few Islamic scholars, who are apparently dedicated to helping women embrace their religiously-granted rights, may be willing to do. And when they do go back and really grapple with the sources to reveal “shocking” truths about the actual role of women, it’s couched in politically safe language of: “Well sure women can lead prayer. But the community isn’t ready for such a radical change. It would cause fitnah or discord in the community, so it’s best to remain silent on this matter for now and raise it when we’re all a little more mature.”
Now, a woman may feel absolute spiritual and personal fulfillment when praying behind a barrier and see no discernible inequalities between her position and that of the imam leading prayer. There’s an institution near me which teaches a woman’s worth is glorified when she is hidden, that her husband has physical, monetary and intellectual advantages over her, and that achieving spiritual fulfillment is empowered only through motherhood. Attending one of these sessions is like gathering at any feminist rally. While they exclude many within the Muslim community, these women feel liberated, proud, and strong and see themselves completely in these particular interpretations of the sacred texts.
I am not so naive to think that either side of the spectrum never causes harm to the other. But creating a space for these voices to air their concerns and find validity is an important step.
The Qur’an is filled with examples of strong women. Muslim heroes like A’isha and Umm Salama kept the Prophet and his Companions in check. The early Muslim women demanded answers to questions pertinent to them. They demanded a presence in the Qur’an. And God answered them (33:35). That’s power.
Saying that women, any woman, is incapable of interpreting the Qur’an or demanding justice from God herself completely removes this power.
Of course Islam has within it the language and tools to deal with “women’s issues.” But we are continually left with serious situations where religion is justified in the oppression of women. That’s why we need Muslim feminists and their allies to help guide this language and tools toward empowerment and social justice for all.