How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:
- Being an advocate for women.
- Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
- Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
- Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
- Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.
The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.
I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)
The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)
When I was considering becoming a Muslim, one of the things that attracted me to Islam was the fact that Muslims do not blame Eve for the entrance of evil into the world. Nor do they believe that people are inherently evil. Women suffer in childbirth because it is a part of life, period. There’s no special interpretation behind it. And although God did create Eve out of Adam, it was not because He saw her as inferior, but to signify that the two sexes are a part of each other.
While it’s true that Islam as it is often practiced tends to reinforce patriarchy, I believe that’s more a cultural thing than a religious requirement. All religions are at least partly the creation of the people (usually men) who make the rules. Therefore, most religions are patriarchal. But where Islam differs is in the view that men and women are held equally accountable to God. A woman can’t hide behind her husband. She can’t give up her responsibility to God by letting her husband take all the responsibility on his shoulders. Just as much is expected of women as of men, at least according to the Qur’an. (The Sunnah—the purported actions and words of Mohammad—is a different story, but then, again, it was compiled by men who were products of patriarchy.)
The fourth criterion I use to support my stance as a Muslim feminist (or feminist Muslim, take your pick) is that I do believe that there are inherent differences between men and women. However, I also believe that a lot of differences are exaggerated by society, for instance, the idea that women can’t take on “tough” jobs or that men can’t take on “soft” jobs. Muslims believe that God created men and women with complementary natures. They are not carbon copies of one another. There are many things that a man can do as well as a woman and vice versa, but men and women also have biological influences that make it easier for them to fulfill their respective gender roles. Women tend to be more empathic and relationship-oriented, for instance, while men are more suited to be the protectors of their wives and families.
I don’t think there are hard and fast rules about which sex can do what, but I do think that men and women are fundamentally different. They communicate differently, handle conflict differently, and comfort and discipline children differently. Where one is strong the other might be weak, but by combining their natures into a working unit, they create a satisfactory whole.
As for number five, because I don’t believe that all differences are innate or biologically determined, I think it is foolish to assign duties and attribute personality traits to people based on their sex. There are too many men and women who “act like” the opposite sex for me to feel confident saying “All men are like this” or “All women are like that.”
I don’t think these criteria disqualify me as a Muslim or a feminist. In fact, I believe that my faith in God and my insistence on justice for women are perfectly consistent with one another.
What is your position on sex roles in Islam? Or on the role of religion in sexual equality?