Islam and Gender Roles

When I told my sister-in-law that I had converted to Islam, she wondered how I was going to reconcile my feminist principles with my new religion. Believe me, I went into this conversion with my eyes wide open. I know the cultural baggage that is associated with Islam. But one distinction I’ve been careful to make is between the religion itself and the behavior of its adherents. I wouldn’t have become a Muslim if I hadn’t been convinced that Islam is inherently fair and just–not only to men, but also to women.

To understand where Islam is coming from in its treatment of women, you have to first examine the two main attitudes held by the larger society about gender roles. Some people believe that there is no difference at all between the sexes. This is the view of radical feminism. It was extremely popular during the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the ’60s and ’70s. Men and women were seen as interchangeable. One reason feminism gets a bad rap from conservatives and even moderates is because most people think that’s where the feminist movement is coming from today. It isn’t.

However, that doesn’t mean that today’s feminists have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and the other main attitude held by some in our society: which is that the sexes are locked into their gender roles. These people believe, for example, that only a women can properly care for children and support the family emotionally, or that only a man can adequately protect and support the family financially.

There are also two main theories about how men and women get locked into these roles: One is by biological hard-wiring. The other is by socialization (or brain-washing?).

What feminists often overlook is just how many people are comfortable with gender roles. They like knowing where they belong and how they’re supposed to act. Imagine being born into a world where there were absolutely no expectations as to how you were to behave. Feminists see that as a utopia; most people see that as a nightmare. The problems come when an individual doesn’t fit the norms: the homosexual or transgendered person, the effeminate man or masculine woman, the man who isn’t ambitious as well as the woman who is, the woman who doesn’t want children and the man who doesn’t want to play sports.

Once you realize that these exceptions represent millions of people, it is clear that rules of behavior based strictly on one’s gender (i.e., gender roles) can do a lot of damage. And this is where feminism stakes its flag: societal rules should be flexible enough to accommodate all the members of society. It is not so much that feminists are against gender roles per se; it is that they are against gender roles that imprison people, male or female.

Now, where does Islam stand on this continuum? At this point in my life as a Muslim, I can only give my impressions. I would say that Islam believes that there are inherent differences between males and females, but that there are more similarities than there are differences. Men and women stand equal before God. They are equally and individually answerable to Allah for their behavior. It is not how a person fulfills his or her sexual roles that determines how Allah views him or her; it is how faithfully each person lives the life that is set before him or her.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be Muslims who feel that gender roles are sacrosanct. There are Christians and Jews who also feel that way. There are people who aren’t even religious who believe the same. What it does mean is that Muslims believe that Allah understands us better than we understand ourselves. He does not lock us into roles against our will, but He may test us to help us to determine what our roles in life are to be.

I see no contradiction between that and feminist ideology. We may differ, even within the feminist camp, on how we view gender roles, but all of us would agree that we should have the right to live the lives we were meant to live and to live them to the best of our abilities. Some of us may choose a religion to help us to accomplish this. I have chosen Islam.

Gods Among Us

In a post I wrote on the 9/25/09, I asked the question, “Can You Be Religious and Feminist?” For those of you who are wondering how I’m going to reconcile my feminist principles with my new-found religion, I want to point out that it isn’t only Islam which presents problems for a feminist. Paul (who wrote much of the New Testament) is considered by many to have been a misogynist. The Judeo-Christian tradition blames Eve for the entrance of sin into the world. A common Jewish prayer thanks God for not making the male petitioner a woman. Men and women in many religions are separated socially and in religious services, presumably because women are too much of a distraction. And these are the milder problems that the major religions have made for women.

In other words, religions have almost always given women a raw deal. But in most cases, the religion itself, when stripped down to its basics, is not anti-female at all. So why do so many religions come down so hard on women?

The answer seems obvious to me: because the men are usually in charge of interpreting what God supposedly means when it comes to women. They assume the role of God in telling women what they are allowed and not allowed to do. When studying theĀ  texts of any religion, people are often surprised at the disconnect between what the texts say and what men teach. Or the way that certain portions which are relatively minor are elevated to major status when they’re taken out of context.

For example, in Islam, both men and women are instructed to dress modestly, but somehow women became the ones who are focused on in this area. In Christianity, the husband is instructed to take care of his wife the way Christ takes care of his Bride, the Church. That’s a pretty tall order. So why are real life wives so shabbily treated in much of the Christian world?

This is why I am a feminist. Because I believe that it is not religion, law, politics, medicine, government, science or business per se that relegates women to the background. It is the men who want to create and hold onto positions of power in each of these fields who make the rules that push women out. The only areas in which women have traditionally had any degree of power are those in which men have no interest: taking care of and teaching young children, cleaning up after others and doing the day-to-day caretaker work for the sick and the elderly. And even then it is often men who own and run the companies they work for.

I don’t mean that men are the bad guys. They are born to take charge and once they have it, they don’t want to let it go. Not only that, but women can be just as abusive when they have power (think “The Devil Wears Prada). Who is it that said that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Human beings like to become like God. The problem is, when they do, they are much more tyrannical than God would ever be. They scheme and fight to hold onto their status. But God doesn’t have to do such things, by the mere fact that He is God.

Even if you don’t believe in God, it’s not hard to recognize the human impulse to make gods among us. It’s as if we’re comfortable putting anyone and anything up on the pedestal except for the real God. So we worship celebrities and material possessions and fame and money and sometimes our ministers or priests or rabbis or imams or scholars. And instead of listening to and following the real God, we enslave ourselves to the gods we have made.

Freeing women automatically frees all of us from our human masters. As a society’s women go, so goes the society. That’s why it’s so important to see women with the unbiased eye of God and to treat them accordingly. God made all of us and has a vested interest in seeing all of us exercise our free will. When women are all caught up in obeying humans, they lose their potential to be Children of God.