Feminism and religion

Feminism and religion have always had a rocky relationship.  I just read an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua.  She argues that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholar has meant that they do not see the full picture.

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

The consequences of seeing religion in these 2 ways are:

  • the real historical, social, political and ethical importance of a given religious tradition is negated, because secularization is considered to have won over religion in modern societies, even though this secularization has only happened in western Europe (wait, is that what they mean by modern?);
  • many people in different cultures ar deprived of their agency when their religious traditions are considered unchangeable and dialogue/critique inside these religious traditions are ignored;
  • if we see secularization as the inevitable path for everybody in the world, we are not able to understand the complex and often contradictory relationship between women and their religious traditions, identities and beliefs.
A main argument she makes is that religion is important to women. If feminists claim that a choice must be made between feminism and religion, then most women will choose religion. Why must a choice be made anyway? The tension between religion and feminism, in my opinion, stems from the fact that most feminists see religion as fundamentalist and traditional, instead of as diverse and having many interpretations. If we choose to see Islam as what the Taliban were doing, then yes, it contradicts feminism. But why do we see Islam that way? Why don’t we see Islam in reformist movements, progressive movements, Islamic feminist movements? Why are those Muslims not seen as legitimate or “Muslim enough” and someone like al-Qaradawi or Khomenei seen as representing the “true” Islam. What is the true Islam anyway?
A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.
Of course it is important to highlight patriarchal interpretations and applications of the Qur’an. But these are not the ONLY interpretations. By focusing on them, feminists are in fact giving conservatives and fundamentalists more power, since they are ignoring reformist/progressive voices.
Many women feel the need for BOTH a non-sexist interpretation of their religious traditions – and, in fact, try to do so – AND for a feminism which would be less black-and-white and hostile about religion and which would stop seeing women for whom religion is important as the most alienated ones in need of a feminist saviour.
There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.
One of the most empowering ways of coming to terms with my own femininity as well as my own religious views has been the reinterpretation of Islamic texts. Reformist Islam is out there people, and their arguments and interpretations are just as valid as any other forms of Islam. They are ignored for many reasons, including Orientalism (the western need to see Muslims a certain way), geo-political reasons (many countries rely on conservatism to maintain control) and lack of research (more research is focused on conservative Islam than other types; same goes for the media).
A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.
A culture’s religious traditions are its basis for meaning-making (yes, even here in the so-called “secular” and “religion-free” west). If feminism wants to be all-inclusive and effective, it must stop seeing religion as a problem.

11 thoughts on “Feminism and religion

  1. Pingback: Feminism and religion « Cairo, Lusaka, Amsterdam

    1. Hey! I just wrote a new post about feminism, and why I also don’t agree with certain types of feminism.
      I think reformist Islam has a lot of potential. I feel very liberated when I read work by reformists, and it makes me see the extent to which patriarchy has creeped into Islam. I sometimes think twice about some of the arguments they make, but I think this is more because we are taught conservative/traditional Islam is “right” and this closes many of us to alternative interpretations.
      Would love to hear your thoughts on reformist Islam?

  2. Excellent article!

    From my little understanding I think at least Muslim feminists don’t see religion as the problem. They see Muslim interpretations and patriarchy in Muslim societies as the problem. Secular feminists once saw religion as restrictive and problematic but reformist Christianity/Judaism was not available to them perhaps, or maybe their aim was something totally different.

    I sense a certain fear in MFs that I don’t notice in secular feminists. There is a fear of God – afterlife, hell, blasphemy, fellow angry Muslims ready to pounce on any woman who dares to question. Look at Asra Nomani, Irshad Manji and Mona Eltahawy – they have all received death threats for giving voice to their questions. Religion is more important to women and hence these fears are real which would not allow any MF to call religion problematic per se. Whenever I have quoted brave feminist scholars of Islam pointing to a problem area in the religion on my blog I have noticed that people shy away from commenting. It is like many don’t even want to engage in a dialogue where religion may be called problematic. I feel that most alternate methods of dealing with patriarchy like “critically analyzing the power structures of religious communities” or “highlighting patriarchal interpretations and applications of the Qur’an” are a result of such fears.

    1. I think many secular feminists still see religion as a problem.

      “It is like many don’t even want to engage in a dialogue where religion may be called problematic.”

      Yes, I see this among people of many different religions. We are taught not to question religion. We are also taught not to question things like capitalism, secularism, democracy, etc and the fact that these things are not questioned either is also leadings to many social and economic problems.

      We have to question everything.

  3. I loved this article.

    I actually think many new feminists are starting to not see religion as a problem, provided it is not used to enforce restrictions on (all) women. (See for example Feministing.com)

    I consider myself religious/spiritual and feminist.

  4. I believe the Abrahamic religions are incompatible with feminism because none of them believe in goddesses. Yahweh and Allah are both men. Single dads, if you will. The Abrahamic religions are all patriarchal, they were all created by men, for men.

    There are plenty of references in the Qu’ran and the Hadith which not only condone, but encourage, men to beat their wives.

    Do you think Muhammed was a feminist? Muhammed had about ten wives, and he beat them.



    Any religion which wants to empower women must surely celebrate femininity by honoring a goddess instead of a god.

    1. I really don’t see the point of discussing these things with you, since, once again, I don’t agree with your sources, and I’m SURE you won’t agree with mine.

      1. You don’t agree with the Qu’ran and the Hadith?

        Qur’an (4:34) – “Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.”

        Qur’an (38:44) – “And take in your hand a green branch and beat her with it, and do not break your oath…”

        Muslim (4:2127) – Muhammad struck his favorite wife, Aisha, in the chest one evening when she left the house without his permission. Aisha narrates, “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain.”

        Muslim (9:3506) – Muhammad’s father-in-laws (Abu Bakr and Umar) amused him by slapping his wives (Aisha and Hafsa) for annoying him. According to the Hadith, the prophet of Islam laughed upon hearing this.

        Bukhari (72:715) – A woman came to Muhammad and begged her to stop her husband from beating her. Her skin was bruised so badly that she it is described as being “greener” than the green veil she was wearing. Muhammad did not admonish her husband, but instead ordered her to return to him and submit to his sexual desires.

        Bukhari (72:715) – “Aisha said, ‘I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women'”

        Ishaq 969 – A married woman should be “put in a separate room and beaten lightly” if she “acts in a sexual manner toward others.”

        Abu Dawud (2126) – “A man from the Ansar called Basrah said: ‘I married a virgin woman in her veil. When I entered upon her, I found her pregnant. (I mentioned this to the Prophet).’ The Prophet said: ‘She will get the dower, for you made her vagina lawful for you. The child will be your slave. When she has begotten (a child), flog her'”

        Abu Dawud (2142) – “The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”

        Abu Dawud (2141) – “Iyas bin ‘Abd Allah bin Abi Dhubab reported the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) as saying: Do not beat Allah’s handmaidens, but when ‘Umar came to the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) and said: Women have become emboldened towards their husbands, he (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them.”

        Regardless of the issue of Domestic Violence, I think my main point still stands. Any religion compatible with feminism must surely have a goddess rather than a god.

      2. Again, there is too much diversity and too many translations/interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith for me to take this comment seriously. Also, coming from someone who posted this on their blog (on the topic of adult babies):

        “Cultural Marxism encourages White Men to act like infantile pussies that obey the establishment. Luckily, women are refusing to breed with self hating Whites who act like adult babies, “diversity” advocates and male feminists. The sooner we cull this from the gene pool, the better.”

  5. “Again, there is too much diversity and too many translations/interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith for me to take this comment seriously.”

    Okay, which is your preferred translation of the Qu’ran and the Hadith? You point me to the “correct” one, and that’s the one I’ll use.

    There’s got to be some common source for Islam to even exist. Every time I say something from the Qu’ran that you don’t like, you’re going to dismiss it by saying “Oh, but that’s a different translation”. How are you so sure YOUR translation/interpretation is the correct one?

    If the Qu’ran is so wildly vague and ambiguous where you can just pick and choose what parts you’ll follow and what parts you’ll ignore, then what’s the point of it? You might as well just make up your own religion.

    Is Dr. Ahmad Shafaat a good translator?

    Tafseer of Surah an-Nisa, Ayah 34
    By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
    (1984, Revised 2000)
    “Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) leave them alone in beds (and last) beat or separate them (from you). But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. (4:34)

    What about Quran.com?

    Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

    Every English translation I can find uses a word like “beat” or “strike”. You tell me where these expert translators are going wrong.

    Take the Qu’ran challenge:

    And are you going to answer my point about goddesses? Why would any self-respecting feminist want to follow an Abrahamic religion, which totally ignores the goddess? No matter how you want to put a feminist spin on it, Islam is hardly a feminist-friendly religion. Muhammed had ten wives. Why not the other way around? Why wasn’t the Qu’ran written by a woman with ten husbands? Why isn’t Allah a female goddess?

    Why would an Egyptian feminist worship Allah, when she can worship Isis?

    Oh. . . sorry, I forgot. There is widespread oppression of non-Muslims in Egypt, much of it state-sanctioned.





    Also, the comment about adult babies bears no relevance to this discussion that I can see. If you want to start up a post about the Adult Baby, then go for it. Otherwise, this is merely an Ad Hominem attack, which is a fallacious debating tactic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s