‘Does Islam oppress its women?’ This question was posed by Rajnaara Akhtar, a former student of human rights at Nottingham and Chair of Project Hijab, to a lecture theatre full of students at Islam Awareness Week. For five days scholars, theologians, economists and public speakers addressed many of the misconceptions and popular media myths that have beleaguered Islam and hindered understanding among non-Muslims. Most interesting to this feminist and student of culture were discussions of the issues surrounding gender by Muslim scholars and students.
The oppression of women by Islamic societies and communities was one of the main themes of the week, and for good reason. There has been much controversy over the link between Islamic culture and the practices of wearing hijab, forced marriage and domestic abuse in Europe, particularly in culturally pluralistic cities like Nottingham. Addressing these topics is an important step towards interfaith and intercultural dialogue about the rights and status of women on campus.
Akhtar focused on a positive reading of the Koran, listing a number of instances in which Islam was ahead of its time with respect to women’s rights. It made official the right of a woman to own property, choose her marriage partner and request a divorce. This was echoed by eminent scholar Dr Jamal Badawi who, in response to a query about why women receive less inheritance than their male relatives, listed all the ways in which other Islamic laws actually benefit women at the expense of men: women, unlike men, are not required to share their income with their spouse; they are entitled to child support if divorced, and are even entitled to demand a wage for their domestic duties in their marriage contract.
The fact that the Koran gave women the right to negotiate their own marriages at all was revolutionary in a historical context in which women were unequivocally considered the property of men. It was thus the contention of Akhtar and Badawi that it is not Islam but certain Muslims who oppress women, drawing justification from a mixture of cultural, political and social contextual practices and texts but certainly not from a correct reading of the Koran. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of religion rarely make the news.
It is definitely important to distinguish between cultural practices and Islamic principles. The contested relationship between Islam and female genital mutilation is a clear indication of how complex this can be, and also of the urgent need for Muslims to make these distinctions – there is something at stake for women, and it’s not just the international reputation of Islam.
But the oppression of women is not always physically mutilating. There are other less obvious ways in which it is enacted, most of which passes as neutral, ‘common sense’ knowledge about women. We’re naturally more emotional, aren’t we? And isn’t motherhood our primary role in life? The language of nature permeated most discussion of gender during the week. Islam can be sweet and gentle like a woman, one speaker informed us, but also strong like a man. Another made reference to the supposed natural closeness of a woman to her child, which justifies the lack of shared child-rearing responsibilities among Muslim couples.
It would be difficult to reconcile these claims with much second-wave and post-feminism, which emphasizes the deconstruction of stereotypical views of femininity and womanliness. Take, for example, Akhtar’s response to a particularly thorny question about the passage in the Koran that claims a woman’s testimony is worth half of a mans. Revealing a slight rupture in her wholehearted praise of Islam, her brief response made recourse to women’s menstrual cycle and the idea that women are more emotional therefore less objective than men. I heard this view defended after the lecture in conversation between two girls, who stated that they really believed women were ‘naturally’ more emotional than men. This kind of biological essentialism in the social sciences is considered hopelessly archaic and, more importantly, empirically unsubstantiated. But in religion (Islam is certainly not anomalous in this respect) ideas about men and women’s ‘natural’ countenances and roles prevail.
Also exemplary is the rhetoric surrounding defences of hijab (head cover and modest dress for women). This was addressed by most speakers and the consensus was that hijab is not designed to make women invisible, nor is it intended to symbolise their inferior status. Rather, it protects women from the lascivious glances of men who are, apparently, naturally prone to inappropriate sexual feelings when faced with immodest women. Hijab, therefore, can be read as a way of preventing the sexual objectification of women. Importantly, this wasn’t just the theoretical justification of theologians and scholars; the girls I spoke to backed it up by describing their use of the hijab as positive and empowering. Most made reference to ‘modesty’ which, interestingly, also seems to underpin other laws; women are not to sing in a mixed audience for example, and refrain from affectionate physical contact with men.
I found that the concept of modesty was being used to invoke wider ideas about what is good and moral behaviour for women and about how we discipline and monitor ourselves. This sounds relatively harmless. After all, who would criticize a woman for being mindful of flirting or for avoiding the sexual attention of men? The problem I think is that justifications for hijab and for modest behaviour in general give no consideration of how concepts like modesty can, and have, been used to oppress women. It assumes that modesty is a kind of moral absolute and ‘natural’ good behaviour: women who refuse to adhere to its governing principles are seen as deviant, pathological, destructive. This is central to prescriptions of behaviour in other religions too, such as the Tznius laws of conduct in Orthodox Judaism. Modesty is also related to a plethora of other supposed feminine virtues such as innocence and purity. Even now, when we see girls dressed immodestly we often link it to immorality.
But this is an entirely constructed way of looking at things. Is women’s sexuality really so frighteningly potent that it could cause complete moral and social collapse? If all women wore hijab would instances of rape decline? Would non-Muslims be better, more moral people if we were more modest? Or is modesty part of a regulating discourse about the appropriate behaviour and conduct of women that is all the more powerful because women themselves support it? This is not to say that wearing hijab is wrong or that women are duped into oppressing themselves – after all feminism emphasizes choice. But it should always be a well-informed choice.
It is up to Muslim people to interrogate these issues for themselves. Islam itself is inanimate – it cannot ‘teach’; Muslims teach. In a similar vein Islam doesn’t ‘mean’ anything – Muslims make meaning out of its texts. And these texts can take on a plurality of contested meanings in different contexts. Young Muslim women today can be the source of new meanings.
So does Islam oppress its women? This question doesn’t get us very far. Every social or cultural structure has at different times, in different ways, oppressed women. Science historically cast us as intellectually and physically inferior to men; saw hysteria and emotion as peculiarly female pathologies; regulated and dominated our reproductive processes. Christianity placed the burden of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden firmly on our shoulders and then ‘punished’ us with menstruation and childbearing. But this oppression is usually not constitutional. It is not enacted as a deliberate practice, but lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. We might be able to stop female genital mutilation in the next ten years, but in over a century we haven’t been able to prevent stereotypical beliefs about women and men chaining us to prescriptive roles and behaviour. Rather than singling out Islam, we should look at how it is entangled with these other discourses about gender and sexuality, and seek to challenge them rather than dismiss the oppression of women as fundamentally Islamic, thereby finding a safe distance from which to judge.