As my final paper for World Religions, I wrote a Christian-Muslim dialogue on the possibility of Islamic Feminism. I’m actually really proud of it. Dialogues are fun to write. Anyway, it’s worth posting to my blog. It’s pretty long, so how about just the first part to kick things off?
A side note before I post: habibi is an Arabic term of endearment. It’s a widely flexible word: you could use it in a note to your girlfriend or when you call the pizza guy, but it denotes a certain level of familiarity regardless of who you’re speaking with.
Both of the speakers in the dialogue are women.
Part 1 begins after the jump:
Safiya, a Christian convert from Islam, is speaking with Ahlam, a Muslim.
Safiya: Oh, habibi, you have every right to be concerned about sexism in Muslim culture. It’s everywhere. Burqas, polygamy, forced marriages—and that’s not the worst of it. Just yesterday I was reading about honor-killings in Saudi Arabia, how a woman was raped by her brother, then killed by her father in order to preserve the family’s honor. That should be unacceptable in the twenty-first century, yet the Saudi government, though it has enacted laws against honor-killing, does little to nothing to enforce these laws. I could say more. Sexism is one of the reasons I left Islam. And I understand why you’ve taken to calling yourself a Muslim feminist, reading all of this literature and everything—but habibi, I’m just not sure that you can be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time.
Ahlam: What do you mean?
Safiya: Well, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms, don’t you think?
Ahlam: No, I don’t think so at all. Certainly we have far to go, as Muslims, before we can achieve the equality been men and women that the Qur’an prescribes.
Safiya: The Qur’an prescribes that? Where?
Ahlam: OK, look. Whenever the Qur’an speaks of gender relations and sin, it always speaks of both men and women on equal terms. Like in Sura 24: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that will make for greater purity for them, and God is well acquainted with all they do, And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze—
Safiya: “—and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what usually appears of them.” I remember that very well. But that isn’t exactly a prescription for equality, is it?
Ahlam: Not quite, I’ll admit. Here’s a better example: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.” My point is, whenever the Qur’an speaks of gender and creation, it neither creates nor endorses patriarchy, but speaks equally of both women and men—something you cannot claim of your own Scriptures. The work we need to do now is stripping away the patriarchy that has been laid upon Qur’an over the years by shari’a and other religious teachings, which have imposed a cultural patriarchy on the original equality of Qur’anic teaching.
Safiya: We can deal with the Bible soon enough. But habibi, we both know that you can’t simply pull out the stuff you like from the Qur’an and ignore what you don’t want to deal with. There’s more to that sura than I think you’d like to admit. After all, isn’t that the same sura that says—if I may—“men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property. So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.” Scourge them. Ahlam, if that isn’t a blatant endorsement of patriarchy, then I’m not sure what is. There’s just no way around it.
Ahlam: I hear what you’re saying, habibi. But don’t you think some of that can be explained culturally? The Qur’an was revealed in seventh-century Arabian culture, not 21st-century America. What do you expect? As modern readers, we are permitted to relativize certain texts in favor of more egalitarian texts.
Safiya: But Ahlam—I’m not sure you can do that and remain a believing Muslim. This is the Holy Qur’an, after all, the final revelation of Allah to the Prophet Muhammad—may peace be upon him. It is the very seal of his prophethood. How can there be contradictions in a book authored by Allah Himself? Does Allah speak falsehood?
Safiya: And these are the very words of Allah, are they not?
Ahlam: Of course. Any pious Muslim would say the same.
Safiya: Then you, habibi, have quite the task in front of you. For however much the Qur’an may imply, in certain sections, equality between the sexes, in practice it advocates nothing of the sort. Banishing us to beds apart? Scourging us if we don’t obey? That’s far from equality.
Ahlam: But certainly, the teachings of the Qur’an concerning women were very progressive for its time.
Safiya: Certainly. But we’re talking about the final disclosure of Allah, here, not just a general moral or ethical progression. If Allah commands that disobedient women be beaten—well, there’s really no arguing with Allah. Though you can claim that the Qur’an assumes a sort of equality between men and women at the beginning of Creation—that is, a hierarchy is never set up explicitly—don’t the more obviously misogynistic texts of the Qur’an override that assumption? I understand that you have been encouraged by the egalitarian possibility behind some Qur’anic texts, but for me at least, this possibility is eliminated by the sections of the Qur’an which mandate the oppression of women by men. The Qur’an is bound to its culture of origin because it mandates its culture of origin. It’s one of the reasons I left Islam.
UPDATE: Part II begins here.