Ezra Andres-Tysch: Qur’anic Feminism

powerful Muslim women

When western critics of Islam attempt to pass Islam and the Islamic world off as inferior to Christianity and the world under Christianities sphere,  one of the most common accusations against Islam is that it is a religion filled with misogyny and that there is a more objectionable level misogyny in the basis for Islam, the Qur’anic texts. Of course, Islam and Islamic nations are not perfect, and unfortunately like the rest of the world for the majority of human history, women are definitely mistreated by society. However there are Qur’anic interpretations which provide feminist’s with ways of reconciling potentially anti-feminist pieces of text with feminist conceptions of gender equality.

Perhaps the most damning text against an egalitarian Islam is found in verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, it states “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given one the more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in absence what God would have them guard. As to those women whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, beat them; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means”  

This verse, upon first reflection, is an obvious example of gross misogyny. Not only does the verse dictate the natural superiority of men over women, but commands its readers to actively engage in violence against women. Rachel Scott argues however that this interpretation of Qur’anic text is wrong. She instead proposed that the phrase “beat them” should rather be translated as “go away from [them]” (Rachel Scott, A Contextual Approach to Women’s Rights in the Qur’an: Readings of 4:34, 63)

Fatima Mernissi instead of trying to reinterpret the qur’anic text, slams early Islamic jurists, accusing them of doctoring the hadith in order to impose their conceptions of gender and oppress women. Mernisssi accuses the aforementioned jurists of using the Hadith as a tool to maintain the status quo, by continuing the subjugation of women in Islam. She also accuses later interpreters of the text of failing to criticize these texts or view them from other perspectives because the prejudiced beliefs coincided with their own opinions on gender inequality.

Other critics take into account the historic background in which the Qur’an was first interpreted. When understanding early Islamic society one must consider the conditions in which the early followers of Islam were subject to. In the harsh environment and the geopolitical uncertainty of Arabia at the time, survival not guaranteed the same way that it is today. In order to survive every member of a community had to fulfill the role which they were tasked with. Because the role of women was the raising of children and maintenance of the home, critical roles in the survival of the family and community. While this may have been taken to mean that a woman’s role is inferior, it can also mean that the woman’s role at the time was by necessity different from men’s and seeing as how their roles differ, it may make sense to require different moral obligations of different people. As Barbara Stowasser, noted Qur’anic scholar and author of the essay, “Gender Issues and Contemporary Qur’an Interpretation,” explains, “The husband’s qiwamah over his wife consists not of acts of tyranny but of guidance toward righteous behavior, education, domestic efficiency, houseboundness, and fiscal responsibility to his budgetary guidelines.” (Stowasser, 35) This shows that while perhaps paternalistic, the intent of the man’s control is not the subjugation of women but rather that the role women played in society required assistance.

Modesty is also an important factor when it comes to gender in Islam. In Islam women are held to a higher level of physical modesty than men. Women are instructed to wear a hijab as to ensure they are not viewed immodestly by men. Men however are not held to this standard and are permitted a much more lax dress code. This double standard is incredibly obvious and for many people looking at islam from afar this could be considered sexist. When asking a friend of mine from Pakistan whether she views the hijab as a symbol of oppression she adamantly defended the choice to wear the Hijab citing the choice to wear the headscarf as not an obligation of modesty for the betterment of others but rather a chance to improve oneself through modesty.

When looking at feminism and misogyny in Islam it is Important to recognize that the religion was founded in a time and place that was filled with ideas of gender that are today antiquated. When creating a religion in a flawed society the flaws of a society will permeate into the religion. Most religions that have lasted hundreds or thousands of years when followed religiously will unfortunately perpetuate the less than ideal aspects of that society. What is important is how we continue to shape our ethical and religious systems to continuously improve the structures we participate in and constantly strive to rid ourselves and our community from oppressive ideologies.