On feminism, religion and religious women

The debate over the meaning(s) of feminism seems to be an endless one.  A common problem facing any social movement is that of definition: what are the goals we are fighting for, what are our values, and how do we bring about change? Answering these questions in the case of feminism has proven to be more divisive than inclusive, and has alienated many who previously identified as feminists. An important question is whether defining feminism should even be a goal in and of itself? In other words, is the process of defining feminism a process of exclusion?

In this post I want to bring up some of the tension(s) that have often arisen between the feminist project and the issue of religion. Feminism has long had difficulties in engaging with women who are religious. On the one hand, many believe that religion is an inherently oppressive institution, that by nature excludes women and renders them unequal to men. On the other hand, the fact that many women continue to see themselves as both feminist and religious raises important questions about the ways in which feminism has approached the question of religion. Key among these questions is the following: if feminism advocates women having the freedom to make choices (insofar as a choice is ever ‘free’), then what happens when a woman makes a choice that is seen as oppressive? More importantly, who has the right to decide which choices are oppressive and which aren’t?

My aim is not to debate or decide whether religion(s) are patriarchal, or whether they are essentially oppressive to women. My aim is to question the consistently exclusionary approach on the part of mainstream feminism towards women who see themselves as religious. I will focus specifically on the Islamic context because that is what I am most familiar with.

In an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua, it is argued that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholars 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.

One of the main issues is that women are often denied subjectivity when religion is seen as unquestioningly oppressive. Authors such as Saba Mahmood have pointed out that many women choose to be submit themselves to God, and do not see this as a form of oppression. Indeed by deciding for these women that their choice is illegitimate from the perspective of feminism, other women can be said to be exercising oppression over these women.

Nevertheless Mahmood does acknowledge that the women she worked with (Islamist women in Cairo) are choosing to be part of structures that see women as unequal to men. This leads us to the question of choice feminism. It often happens that feminists speak of feminism as being the freedom to choose. But what happens when women choose to be part of structures that see men as superior and thus reproduce gender inequality? These two questions are closely linked to debates about the nature of choice. To clarify, I do not believe ‘free choice’ exists in the sense of making choices outside of power structures or hegemonic systems. However, in today’s world certain “choices” have been designated as feminist, and others as oppressive. The way this designation has happened is closely linked to power relations coming from both patriarchy and feminism, but this is an entirely separate post.

This brings us back to the key problem that confronts feminism: who gets to decide? Our ideas of what are wrong and right; good and bad; or healthy and unhealthy, all come from the ways in which we have been socialized. Although it seems almost natural to accept that certain ways of dressing are demeaning to women (think of the hijab or burqa), the reality is that this dominant worldview can be deconstructed and demolished, once we un-learn what we have been brought up to believe is “truth.”

One of the main arguments in this debate is that religion, in this instance, Islam, is important to many women. While religion itself is a highly contested term, there is little doubt that to many, it provides a spiritual framework with which to view, and experience, the world. This spirituality also serves as a counter-point in a world in which rationality is valued above all other systems of meaning.

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.

This balance is an extremely important aspect in the lives of millions of women, who experience religion as an intrinsic aspect of their everyday lives. The quote also highlights another important point: that feminism needs to listen to the different views of real women. In its battle to become inclusive rather than exclusive, the various feminist projects need to move away from Feminism and try to explore the option of multiple feminisms. In a world as complex as ours, no two realities are the same, which means that every single woman will experience oppression differently. It also means that every single woman will find peace differently.

Another key tension in the feminism vs. religion debate is the question of patriarchal texts. Often feminists who are against Islam tend to focus on patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, and ignore movements that call for more inclusive or feminist readings of these texts. They claim that the religion is patriarchal, no matter what the interpretation. This, however, leads us away from choice feminism and towards a feminism where oppressive structures are decided upon beforehand (but by who?) and are strongly rejected. My issue is not with feminists who engage with these reinterpretations of Islamic texts and then reject them as patriarchal or as not coming up with a new framework of understanding. My issue is with the lack of such engagement on the part of most feminists. In other words, the many attempts to re-interpret Islam on the part of Muslim women are seen as further proof of false consciousness. This is a problematic stance for a movement claiming to take women (and their experiences) seriously.

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.

The view of religious women as brainwashed and passive is, needless to say, problematic. Where is the space for different subjectivities? Where is the space for women who, on a daily basis, choose to be Muslim? When we tell women that Islamic feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an are flawed, wrong, or wishful thinking, then are we simply confirming that the texts belongs to male scholars, and men in general? Are we saying that no matter how hard women try, they can never take back these texts?

(On a side note, after having engaged with a lot (if not most) of the Islamic feminist literature, I was personally not convinced that it manages to completely deconstruct or “reconcile” patriarchal aspects of the Qur’an or Hadith (speaking specifically only about scholars who call themselves Islamic feminists and their work, not about “Islam” generally or any other types of interpretations, nor am I talking about the Qur’an itself). In fact much of it falls into the trap of either over-historicizing problematic surahs/hadith, or over-interpreting them so as to change the meaning completely. That said, there are scholars within Islamic feminism who have instead opted to accept the contradictions within the Islamic texts, and see that the need to “reconcile” doesn’t need to always be central. Kecia Ali is a good example of this.

Nevertheless, despite disagreeing with the conclusions of much of the work within Islamic feminism, I do think it is an extremely important project, and a good example of trying to challenge knowledge production and meaning making within a confined space. Traditional Arab male interpretations have reigned supreme for centuries and this elite group of interpreters have managed to construct “Islamic ideals” that have not sat well with many Muslims. Simply the idea of a feminist interpretation of Islam is already a challenge to this, and in some ways an attempt to imagine a different reality, which in my opinion is an exercise of power.)

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.

The answers to all of the questions I’ve asked aren’t likely to fall on either side of a binary. Religion is too diverse and complicated to be seen as either oppressive or liberatory. Whose religion, which interpretation, which individual and to what end? The same can be said of feminism: it is not, and should not be monolithic. Given its history of exclusion, one would expect the feminist project to be more wary about rejecting the experiences of millions of women.

On the other hand, the question of who decides what continues to be pertinent to feminism. One could argue that everything is imposed, and that imposing the idea that religion is oppressive on women is just another type of imposition that in the end is more beneficial for those women. After all, we all have our ideas of what a better world consists of, and what type of feminism is “right” or more just. In other words, we all have specific subjectivities that we want to spread. It isn’t just about living the way I want to live. If I say that I want to fight patriarchy, then that implicitly involves changing the views and lives of other people. But who is to say that me changing these views is better than those views continuing? Who is to say that me telling other women that you can’t be a feminist and religious is better than these women believing they can be religious feminists?

This goes back to the old debate about whether different subejctivities can co-exist or whether people who are sure their subjectivity is more beneficial should impose it on others. Another way of looking at it is to assume that subjectivities are always imposed, so why not attempt to impose a more just one? But who defines justice? Back to square to one!

In conclusion, I would argue that my issue is not so much with the need for feminist projects to accept Islamic feminism or Islam in general, or to refrain from critiquing what they see as systems that perpetuate patriarchy. Rather my issue is with the lack of willingness to even engage women who identify as religious, and to pre-judge them as suffering from false consciousness. The process of critical engagement is what has been lacking from feminism since its inception. Through such a process (and I don’t mean dialogue in a liberal sense), power relations inherent to feminist movements will become more visible and can thus be challenged more openly.

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5 thoughts on “On feminism, religion and religious women

  1. Religion might in fact be a very powerful impetus for feminism. Many of the early women’s rights’ campaigners in the 1800s were devout evangelicals; they felt that God had instructed that they be given the same political rights. Although I don’t know of a religion that embraces women as decent human beings, I would encourage moderates to interpret their beliefs in more progressive directions.

    1. I think it’s important to at least have that conversation, since so many women think that religion does embrace women as decent human beings. And you’re totally right, often women have fought for more rights based on religious interpretations.

    2. Tec15

      What patronizing nonsense. How big of you, an inherently objective, enlightened observer to hope that the “moderates” can get over their backward, savage ways and become more “progressive”. (Apparently you can only be “progressive” if you shed more and more of your religion. Also is the patronizing epithet “moderate” ever applied to atheists and non-religious people? “Oh, he is a moderate atheist who rejects the Eurosupremacist bigotry of the likes of Dawkins. He is not like the rest of ‘them’, he is one of the ‘good ones’, honest!”)
      If there is a conversation to be had it is certainly not with neocon concern trolls like you. Stick to Iraq war and War on Terror apologism in your blog.

      Now as to the topic at hand, sadly I don’t see any scope for improvement anytime soon. Even feminist spaces ostensibly for Muslim women like WLUML view everything through a traditional Western feminist prism and are deeply imbibed with hostility to religion and religious women, to the extent that they are far more comfortable with Western Islamophobes like Caroline Fourest than with actual practicing Muslim women. The institutional direction of the vast majority of feminist orgs is similar and not bloody likely to change anytime soon.

  2. Excellent post! You’ve voiced a lot of the frustrations I’ve felt towards feminism. I find it hard to identify as a ‘feminist’ because, at the end of the day, there’s this unspoken expectation that you have to choose either your religion or your conviction of women’s rights.
    I sincerely don’t believe that the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t wanna sound like the apologists that say this ad naseum, but Islam *did* give women rights at a time when they had none. And like the issue of banning slavery, I believe the process was expected to develop as society became more comfortable with the idea.
    When you look at Muslim societies today, it’s clear that there’s cultural impediments towards progress, which is often blamed on religion. I think it’s important to distinguish between the two.

  3. Mr. Asshole

    Erm miss…. *raises hand* why must women movements across the globe be anchored to western notions of equality anyway? Are terms like patriarchy even useful at all in describing the way genders relate, and how people see they should relate, in other societies where social relations can be very different? If an ‘indigenous’ woman’s movement were to emerge in a time before European hegemony, untouched by various articulations of feminism, would they argue for equality? How might they envision the ideal way society should be from their perspective? Maybe they might think the problem lies elsewhere? Maybe difference is the ideal and a respect for female spaces is the problem? Or maybe the need for women to be better recognised in Fiqh? Or maybe all of the above. Ok fine, bit of a silly bunch of overly hypothetical ‘fancy word’ questions to ask. But again, why the need for all peoples across the globe to be fixed to a western gender outlook (?) or outlooks developed primarily by western Femimists?

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