The Problem with Making Islam “Feminist”

In the midst of so much Islamophobia and the alt-right mission to dehumanize and marginalize Muslim communities, there’s been a significant upsurge in attempts to whitewash and water down Islam to make it more “acceptable”, and to portray it as “progressive”. Granted, white supremacists do not slander Islam in an attempt to promote any kind of intellectual discourse or reform. The only vision the likes of Breitbart have is to further their own ugly agendas, only caring about the plight of Muslim women when it can be distorted to fit their own orientalist views. The image of the brown barbarian who savages women and subjugates them to slavery within the home is easy to stomach, a convenient scapegoat for every occasion.

Every attempt to portray Islam as a “feminist” religion demonstrates not only a weak, rudimentary understanding of Islam, but also of feminism. On the most basic level, what we need to understand is that Islam is a patriarchal religion. The head of the family is always a male and there are numerous examples from the Quran and the Hadith which speak of the necessity of submission to male authority. Men are taught that it is their duty to “look after” women, and women are taught to serve their fathers, brothers, and husbands. The wife must take his bursts of rage without talking back, stay dolled up for her husband’s pleasure solely, and the onus is on her to “care for him like a mother”, as if he is an overgrown child, incapable of taking care of his own needs. Even the most progressive of Muslims concede to these teachings being a part of Islam. When feminism, as a movement, aims to dismantle the patriarchal social system we live in, it seems dubious to try to fit in an Abrahamic religion (all of which are inherently patriarchal, not just Islam).

And this is the least dubious claim made by modern Muslim feminists and their apologists.

In an article written for the Huffington Post, it is stated that Muhammad was “history’s first feminist”, carrying on the olden tradition of honouring men for doing the absolute bare minimum. In many cases, Muhammad didn’t even fulfill that bare minimum. By what standard of morality can marriage to a pre-pubescent girl be justified? There are many defenses for the marriage to Aisha, but absolutely none of them offer any logically sound argument that proves marriage was absolutely vital. Even if we suppose that Aisha was in her late teens and the claim that she was nine years old was a ‘misinterpretation’, as many Muslims claim, there is still something troubling about a girl who has not even fully developed mentally and physically to be wedded to a man decades her senior. If the purpose of his marriage to Aisha was so that she could later narrate Hadith and serve as a teacher and expert on Islam, an apprenticeship of sorts could also have been a viable option. Marriage alone was certainly not the only way.

The rights that Muhammad supposedly granted to women seem to be centered around the claim that before Islam, women did not have rights at all. A question I’d like to pose to Muslims who believe this is: if this were truly the case, how would it have been possible for a woman like Khadija, a successful businesswoman hailed as an example of a “Muslim feminist”, to thrive in such a society? Should she not have been ostracized for being a widow, and barred from working at all? Before the advent of Islam, women played many roles in society. In her work, Women and Gender in Islam, Leila Ahmed explains:

“Jahilia women were priests, soothsayers, prophets, participants in warfare, and nurses on the battlefield. They were fearlessly outspoken, defiant critics of men; authors of satirical verse aimed at formidable male opponents; keepers, in some unclear capacity, of the keys of the holiest shrine in Mecca; rebels and leaders of rebellions that included men; and individuals who initiated and terminated marriages at will, protested the limits Islam imposed on that freedom, and mingled freely with the men of their society until Islam banned such interaction”

As this article elaborates, the status of women depended on the tribe they belonged to, and in many cases women were far more empowered before Islam than after. Every woman of the Jahiliyyah era did not have the same experience.

For all of its “feminism”, Islam still allows concubinage and the enslavement of women. It still does not grant women the right to divorce their husbands, the wife has to ask her husband to divorce her, or to grant her the right to divorce before marriage. Women still do not receive inheritance equal to that of their brothers, and this is justified by the claim that women “have no financial responsibilities”. While that may be true for a married woman, where does that leave women who choose not to marry and do not have a husband to look after them? And even if a woman does get married, why should financial dependence be encouraged? How does that elevate anyone but the man in this situation, in terms of power dynamics within a relationship?

The most hotly debated issue regarding the rights of women in Islam for years has been the hijab. There is a huge problem with the way “humility” and “modesty” as concepts are gendered. While some women may be ‘liberated’ by the hijab, it is also important to take into account how the hijab can still be used as a tool to police the expression of women and to limit their presence in public space. The hijab may be “a matter of choice” — which in itself is a fairly debatable statement — but it still has far-reaching consequences.

When Muslims are defending a religion that claims that it is the only moral code to be followed till the Day of Judgement, they cannot claim that Muhammad “had to find a compromise”. If Muhammad could be so uncompromising on idol worship, on premarital sex, and on drinking alcohol, there was no reason for him to be so relenting on the issue of the rights of women. A religion that is supposed to serve as a code for life both in the past and future should not need historical contextualization to justify it. It should be universal and it should speak for itself. So to claim that Muhammad marrying Aisha was due to the “traditions of their era” is a faulty justification. If Muhammad was an example to be followed for eternity, he should not be bound by “traditions”. A religion which is to be followed till the end of time cannot claim to be only understood in a specific context.

Keep in mind that realities will remain realities, whether you and I accept them or not. Tangible action does not happen by ignoring the situation at hand. Muslims have the option to either stick their heads under the ground and continue reiterating that their religion is “perfect” and does not need change, or they can accept its flaws and work towards reform. That’s a decision for them to make.

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