Islam vs. Feminism

This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019

One of the most difficult topics for Muslim feminists is the lack of support they get from mainstream Muslims. Many Muslim men are completely opposed to the idea of feminism, and many Muslim women are afraid of it being un-Islamic and having to choose one over the other.
Young girls and boys at school in Afghanistan. (Pixabay)
First of all, let me make it clear that this is a blog post about my personal opinion and not an academic article, so please don’t ask me for sources. If you are interested you will surely find everything you need online.
For the most part, Muslims don’t seem to be willing to understand feminism and why it is needed, and so they do what all educated adults do – they, uhm, make fun of it.
Usually, it’s conservative Muslim men who talk about how Islam and feminism are incompatible concepts that cannot be reconciled. Unfortunately, as a result, many Muslims tend to spread lies about feminism rather than dealing with the ills within the Muslim community.
The main argument of anti-feminist Muslims seems to be that men and women are not equal, as feminists believe. At the core of this argument lies a complete misunderstanding of the word “equal.” “Equal” does not mean “identical.” Take it back to math class, and you will remember equations such as “2+3 = x” (I know, they were never actually that simple.). I think we all know that there is a difference between “2+3” or “5” or “x.” They have the same value, but they are not identical. You can come up with endless equations for the same value, and yet they will all be different. What stays the same is their value. (Basically, anti-feminism defeats the entire purpose of algebra, take that!) So while men and women are not the same, and we know they have different biological traits, their value is the same. Just as much as all individuals are different, but they sure as hell are equal. And as much as reactionary Muslims would like to deny the equality between men and women, the Qur’an actually says the following:

For Muslim men and women,- for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise,- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward (33:35, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali).

We know that this verse was revealed after a Umm Salamah, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, asked him why the Qur’an only addressed men. Let’s put this into perspective: More than 1400 years ago, an Arab woman complained because the language of the Qur’an did not specifically include women, and afterwards a verse was revealed to clarify, once and for all, that the Qur’an is directed at men and women equally. And they are still trying to tell us that Islam and feminism are not compatible.
As someone who has studied Islamic Studies and has, therefore, spent years reading ancient and modern Islamic legal, religious, and historical texts I can only shake my head in disbelief when Muslims claim that we don’t need feminism and that it is un-Islamic.
Conservative Muslims tend to believe that a woman’s primary role in this world is that of wife and mother. Obviously, this goes completely against feminist ideals. But guess what, it also goes against actual Islamic history: Khadijah, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, commonly known as the “mother of believers,” was a wife and mother but also a successful merchant. If you want to tell me that a woman who was married three times and had children with each of her husbands, more than 1400 years ago in Arabia, but who also owned a bigger caravan than all other merchants of her tribe combined, saw her primary role as wife and mother, try something better. Let’s not forget that Muhammad actually worked for Khadijah, so instead of this being a story about a wife obedient to her husband we know that Muhammad had to follow Khadijah’s orders at work because she was his boss – and he never had an issue with that.
Or let’s talk about military and political participation. Muhammad’s wife A’ishah who was known as the most educated woman of her time delivered speeches in public and actively led an army in battle – and she never had any children. So who is telling Muslim women to sit at home, be obedient, and wait for their brothers, fathers, or husbands to protect them?
There is, simply put, no basis for trying to argue that the role of women in Islam is to cook, clean, and have babies. The reactionary idea of conservatives that Islam wants women to stay at home and raise a family has absolutely no grounds in actual Islamic history. You can quote as many sayings as you wish, the fact remains that one of Muhammad’s wives was a wealthy divorced businesswoman with several children from three different men, and another one of his wives was an extremely educated political and military leader who never had children. The patriarchal realities of Arab society have made it unavoidable that Islam was interpreted in a patriarchal manner. However, even if you follow a patriarchal interpretation of the Qur’an you cannot change these historical facts. And as long as Muslim men try to keep women confined to the kitchen or “feminine” occupations, such as nurse and teacher we do need Muslim feminism because Muslim women need to learn that it is not our religion that discriminates against us but the men who don’t want to give up their privileges.

At the core of Muslim anti-feminism are two major things:
– the fear of Muslim men of losing their power over Muslim women, and
– the Muslim inferiority complex with regards to the Western world, as a result of which all things Western are vilified (except for technology, because we like our technology).

The latter point argues that since all things “Western” are foreign to Islam, so are all things that were invented in the West, no matter whether or not they are useful. These people forget that most Muslims are not Arabs and that there is no obligation for Muslims to follow the cultural norms of the Arabian peninsula. When my ancestors became Muslim centuries ago they didn’t stop speaking their language or following their traditions, and they certainly did not become Arabs. Muslims have been a very diverse group since the early days of Islam, and Western ideas and traditions can find just as much space in Islam as other traditions have.

This is not to say that mainstream feminism doesn’t fail to include minorities, such as Muslim women, or women of color. That is precisely why Muslim feminists (conservative or progressive) have created their own spaces, from Facebook pages to actual mosques. It’s unfortunate, that we are being marginalized by Western feminists, as well as Muslim anti-feminists.

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