By Stephen Chavura
It is puzzling why more women aren’t speaking out against the latest slur on feminism: the concept of feminist Islam (“Waleed Aly’s wife Susan Carland defends Islam’s feminist credentials,” The Australian, May 11).
Indeed, if it is the case that feminism and Islam are perfectly consistent, then feminism isn’t exactly the emancipators’ movement that millions have thought it to be for a couple of hundred years now. Or perhaps Islam isn’t the repressive religion we have all thought it was.
Either you are a Muslim or you are a feminist. You cannot be both. Seriously, how can a woman call herself a feminist and believe there are occasions when a husband is perfectly justified in striking his wife from whom he fears disobedience (Koran, Sura 4:34)?
Even the utterly unconvincing attempt of the two Muslim women in a viral video some weeks ago to suggest the Koran was really talking about a symbolic beating is totally out of step with any kind of feminism as we know it today.
Seriously? A husband symbolically beating his disobedient wife with a pencil or piece of cloth as consistent with female empowerment and equality?
Maybe, but only if you are comparing it to the literal meaning of the verse, which clearly licenses a physical beating.
Then there are the myriad social practices around the world in Islamic countries that horribly subordinate women to men or demonise women as mere tempters of men, and who deserve what they get if they tempt a man too far. Certainly many of these practices are generated by cultural conditions other than mere religion, but these cultural conditions evolve in a dialogue with religious tenets and principles.
The stoning of women, female genital mutilation, the insufficiency of a single woman’s testimony in some sharia courts and women being punished as adulterers in cases of rape may not be explicitly commanded in the Islamic scriptures but they have arisen in a cultural context heavily inspired by Islamic teaching regarding the inferiority of women, especially morally.
If we look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 we see that in the overwhelming majority of the lowest (worst) ranking 44 states in terms of women’s rights and equality, Islam is the dominant religion. As the list of 144 climbs up from worst to best the Islamic states become fewer and far between. The World Economic Forum’s report suggests the increased status of Islam in a country correlates inversely with the extent to which women will enjoy equal rights.
It must be admitted that these countries are also very poor, which would hardly be conducive to a wide variety of choice for women in their life pursuits. Nonetheless, countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt are relatively developed and they are among the worst.
Also, not all of the atrocious practices against women in these countries can be explained simply by way of poverty. Poverty is not responsible for the idea that a woman is a prostitute if she cannot produce credible witnesses to her rape. Something else is going on there.
Of course, correlation is not causation but so-called feminist Muslims should not be too surprised if most people — especially their fellow women in the world’s most Muslim countries — are incredulous at their insistence that the concept of Islamic feminism makes any sense.
After all, if, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied insists, Islam is the most feminist religion, then the most Islamic countries also would be showcase nations of women’s rights. Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s list would look very different, and women from around the world would be fleeing for haven to countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where adulteresses can be sentenced to death by stoning. But they do not.
Does this mean that Islam and feminism can never be reconciled? To be honest, only history can tell, and probably stranger things have happened: witness the emergence of religious toleration movements out of Christendom in the 16th and 17th centuries.
But to say that Islam is a feminist religion makes about as much sense as saying that communism is an individualistic ideology.
Perhaps Islam will be corrupted by the West over time, and global expressions of Islam will shift towards more equal modes of gender relations during the next 50 to 100 years.
Or perhaps, as Western traditional social mores regarding the sanctity of life and the good of the traditional family continue to be sacrificed to our god of individualism, Muslims around the world will dig their heels in and feel more confirmed than ever in their traditions. Who knows?
The recent failed attempt by the Greens in NSW to make abortion legal right up to birth will hardly inspire Australian Muslim women with a sense of feminism’s righteousness.
One thing is certain: the notion that Islam and contemporary feminism are mutually compatible and supporting is a greater insult to feminism than any slur the patriarchy could have conjured up. If feminists fail to respond then that in itself will be a sign that feminism has lost a lot of faith in its own cause. Maybe rightly so.
This article first appeared in The Australian and has been republished with permission from the author.