No the prophets were not feminists: but that doesn’t mean modern believers aren’t

Religious women can find wisdom and reflection in traditional texts: but we should question them

I know several women who feverently believe that the Prophet Mohammed was a feminist. As a religiously Jewish woman, I’ve never heard anyone of my own faith declare that Moses or Abraham were feminist, so this is always a bit of a surprise to me. I mean, obviously none of the above were. Right?

Liberated?

I’ve read the Torah, the Quran and the Bible pretty vigorously both as a student, a believer and activist. There is absolutely no question that there is oppression, patriarchy and misogyny in absolutely all of them. People are jerks to their wives, nasty to their daughters and the laws around property and inheritance are horrible. Yes in all of them. I’m surprised that’s still controversial to say. But again and again, I bump into women (usually Muslim or Christian) who insist that their prophets liberated women and made them equal. Have they read their holy books? Of course. So how can they come to this conclusion?

I should say that I am religious. I believe in God, I am spiritually Jewish, I attend synagogue when I can and I do find a lot of wisdom and discussion within the Torah. Judaism is a bit different from the other Abrahamic religions in that women tend to crop up a lot- Rachel, Leah, Esther, Sarah and Rebecca all come up a great deal and centre in many texts. Islam and Christianity also feature a few women- Khadijah and Mary Magdelene are probably the most well known- but because Judaism is so community and family focused, women are drilled into almost every ethical and social discussion.

This is good and bad. Obviously it pushes femininity into the dialogue of faith, but in a patriarchal system this means there are also a lot of pretty outdated and controlling ideas around womanhood. Later religions also inherit some of these ideas, but the hellenic and Saudi influences tend to make the dialogue more masculine driven- that is focused on masculinity by masculinity. I’m not saying any of this is bad. It is simply who was writing and discussing cosmology at the time. In the ancient greek and Islamic worlds, it was a largely male dominated scholarly and philosophical sphere. What do you expect? Culture underlines so much of faith and the ways our mind interpret reality. Denying it is silly, however true you believe your holy books to be.

The Torah, unlike the Quran and Bible, is a collection of books discussing faith. Some of it is understood as the literal word of God (ten commandments, most obviously), some of it is more philosophical and even historical. Bits question God and the nature of God- Hosea for example does a lot of complaining- and other bits simply document the history of the Jewish people as they believed it had happened.

Very orthodox Jews spend their whole lives studying the Torah. It’s not something you can simply refer to as the absolute truth, it is seeped in tradition and interpretation. In my synagogue, for example, we discuss and even criticise parts of the Torah (there is a cycle of the books, and different passages are read and discussed at different parts of the year). That is part of worship. Shabbat is the day of rest and reflection, and coming together and discussing the Torah between different people, backgrounds and genders is part of celebrating out faith and blessings.

A woman can stand before men on a holy day and criticise and discuss what a passage means to her. That’s pretty feminist to me, even though the original passage might mean something horribly misogynist. So although the literal words and teachings of the prophets might not be feminist- I have yet to meet a single Jewish woman who thinks Abraham was the first Germaine Greer- I do feel women benefit from thinking and progressing on their identity and faith.

So while it maybe easy for a secular person to dismiss a Muslim or Jewish woman’s belief that her faith is feminist simply by reading her holy book, please try to understand there are cultural, theological and cosmological learnings around those ideas that are not so literal. It might sound silly to you or me when a woman says Mohammed was a feminist, when we know of Sharia law and some the things he did to the women he captured, but in her context and discussion, he did start a lot of changing attitudes towards women that are important to her and her community today. It’s ridiculous to hold the original texts up to the same feminist high ground as today- they were written thousands of years ago. But when I read Esther’s bravery, or Leah’s determination, I see a lot of very strong and powerful women behind the mist of patriarchy.

So did God get it wrong? Why would he write such texts? Again, it depends how you read your holy book. Is it something to think about, reflect on, discuss, provoke and encourage you to be the best person you can be, or is it a Yellow Pages to look up a number for a moral on? Step one is reading. Step two is understanding. Step three is going that extra mile and reflecting on how you can use the knowledge and thoughts of the past to live in the light.

I don’t believe it is true that my religion was founded on feminist principles anymore than Islam or Christianity.

But I do believe I can still find the knowledge and strength in it to be the feminist I want to be and believe God wants me to be today.

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