Wednesday, April 29, 2009

feminism vs. islam?

I've been reading a few blogs and articles over the past few days, and a lot of them brought up the issue of the so-called contradiction between feminism and Islam. Is there a contradiction? Can a Muslim woman be a feminist, and can a feminist be a Muslim? I'd say yes, since I would describe myself as both.
I think one problem is the negative image feminism has in the Arab/Islamic world. People see it as a Western import that has no place in Islamic culture. It probably brings to mind images of women in short skirts burning bras or women trying to act like men. This is, of course, stereotypical. To me, feminism is simply giving women equal right. EQUAL, not the SAME. No one says that men and women should be doing the same things or playing the same roles, but they should get EQUAL value for what they do, i.e. a woman should be valued for raising children just as much as a man gets valued for being a C.E.O. (provided the woman chose to become a mother).
In this sense of the word feminism, is it really incompatible with Islam? I don't think so. As many scholars have said, the Qur'an out of the 3 holy books gives the most rights to women. The Prophet could probably be described as a feminist, considering that he was pro-women's rights and often spoke out against unnecessary cruelty against women, such as when they were beaten by their husbands. His actions alone were very progressive: he didn't beat his wives, his wives often spoke out against him publicly, and he clearly loved them, especially Aisha. Khadija in particular is a good example of the kind of man the Prophet was: she was older than him, economically independent, and she proposed to him! Can you imagine many Arab men TODAY marrying a woman like that? I definitely can't.
If anything, the Qur'an and the Prophet put forward a case for women's rights that has gradually been diminished over time, with women becoming more and more oppressed across the Islamic world. This is why I'm very interested in the idea of Islamic feminism: the idea that we can get equality for women through Islam, since Islam does advocate that women's rights are important.
It really gets to me when Muslims (especially women) get upset at feminists. Another example of women bringing their own sex down. You can be a Muslim and a feminist: there is no necessary contradiction, unless you have a radical defintion of feminism OR a radical definition of Islam, and since I have neither, I find it easy to be both.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

When I started this blog, I wasn't sure whether it should be a general blog about my life and thoughts, or about a specific topic. After a few posts, I realized I love posting about Islam and specifically about women and Islam. I've been a practicing Muslim since April 2008, and before then the biggest thing that stopped me from becoming a practicing Muslim is the issue of women in Islam. Of course, the bad image Islam has globally is partly a result of racism and ignorance on the part of the West, but it is also due to 1) ignorance of the majority of Muslims, and 2) misinterpretation and abuse of power by those that have the power in Islam.
Anyway, I began reading in depth about the topic, and found a lot of authors who really helped me understand the issue better. Leila Ahmed, Karen Armstrong and Fatima Mernissi especially put a lot of things into perspective regarding the veil, polygamy, divorce and the beating of women. The Qur'an itself also cleared up a lot, naturally. All of this research helped me reach the decision to begin practicing Islam.
Until today, I still have a lot of reservations and questions re. the issue of women and Islam. I am definitely a feminist and I am also definitely a Muslim, and I believe the 2 can be reconciled. However, this takes some work due to the patriarchal societies most Muslims live in. Also, the blurring between religion and culture has contributed to the suffering of many Muslim women unnecessarily.
To conclude, I believe that we can better the status of women by using Islam, the Qur'an, and the example of the Prophet. I am not so sure about the Hadith, since there are many that are responsible for negative treatment of women, and it is important to trace each Hadith back to see whether it is a strong or weak one.
So from now on the blog will mainly be about things I've read/seen/heard/thought about Islam, and probably usually they'll involve women, gender, or feminism. I think writing about these issues will help me order and clarify my own thinking on the subject, and this will help me become a better Muslim and a better feminist.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

my soul is a woman

I was just going through some old notes and I found the notes I'd written down while reading "My Soul is a Woman" by Annemarie Schimmel, considered one of the most important Sufi texts on women and Islam. Schimmel begins by noting that we should not compare gender and women's rights in Islam to those in Christianity or Judaism but rather by itself. I will just note a few of her interesting points:

The noun man can be used to designate any individual who earnestly strives towards God, without reference to a biological gender.

The mother motif is important in Islam: "Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mothers."

There is no conception of original sin as being passed on by biological gender. Leila Ahmed mentions this too in Women, Gender and Islam, and I read it myself in the Qur'an: God does not solely blame Eve but rather Adam and Eve.

Khadija: she proposed to him, she was older than him, she was economically independent, she consoled him after first revelation and convinced him it was divine.

The Prophet (pbuh) set examples through his numerous marriages: he married a widow, a divorcee, a slave, etc. Yet today in most Arab/Muslim countries, divorcees for example are looked down upon and shunned (divorced women that is).

"The best among you is he who treats his wife most kindly." (Prophet, pbuh).

"A male lion is a lion. Is that to say that a female lion is not a lion as well?" Turkish proverb quoted in book.

It is undeniable that in Islam much suffering has fallen to the lot of women because simle Qur'anic precepts have been interpreted more and more narrowly over the course of time. Customs lacking Qur'anic foundation have become increasingly rigid. Ridigity has taken on almost canonical charachter.

Most of the book deals with women in Sufi history and tradition, but it does give a lot of background info on women in Islam in general. Definitely worth skimming through.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

leila ahmed's islam

Leila Ahmed is one of my favourite feminists and authors. I initially discovered her when I became interested in women and Islam, and decided that I wanted to do my MA on that topic. She's written one of the most definitive books on the subject called "Women and Gender in Islam". I borrowed her autobiography from a friend recently ("A Border Passage") and absolutely loved what she wrote on Islam (excerpts are in italics):

Now, after a lifetime of meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find that this Islam is one of the common varieties of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly pays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. Islam as a broad ethos and ethical code and as a way of understanding and reflecting on the meaning of one's life and of human life more generally.

I completely agree with seeing Islam as not only about the ritual and formal practice (praying, fasting etc) but also about the spirit and broad message, which most Muslims these days seem to be ignoring. If you're a judgmental, malicious person, will praying 5 times a day completely make up for that?

Ahmed goes on to distinguish between aural and oral Islam, and textual Islam, saying that textual Islam has been developed by a minority of men who over the centuries have come to wield enormous power. This type of Islam is men's Islam, according to her.

The Islam that developed in this textual heritage is very like the medieval Latinate textual heritage of Christianity. It is as abstruse and obscure and as dominated by medieval and exclusively male views of the world as are those Latin texts. Imagine believing that those medieval Christian texts represent today the only true and acceptable interpretation of Christianity. But that is exactly what the sheikhs and ayatollahs propound and this is where things stand now in much of the Muslim world: most of the classic Islamic texts that still determine Muslim law in out day date from medieval times.

Aurally what remains when you listen to the Qur'an over a life-time are its most recurring themes, ideas, words, and permeating spirit: mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, charity. And yet it is exactly those recurring themes and this permeating spirit that are for the most part left out of the medieval texts or smothered and buried under a welter of obscure "learning". One would scarcely believe, reading and hearing the laws these texts have yielded, particularly when it comes to women, that the words "justice", "fairness", "compassion", "truth" ever even occur in the Qur'an.

Again, this goes back to the point of the spirit of Islam, which tends to get ignored. The Qur'an is a very positive text, and yet centuries of male misinterpretation has left Islam with a very negative image. Personally, this negative image of Islam is what made me think twice about becoming an active Muslim. It was only when I read the Qur'an and some other texts that I realized how badly Islam has been projected by Muslims themselves.

Leila Ahmed goes on,

I am sure then, that my foremother's lack of respect for the authority of sheikhs was not coincidental. Generations of astute, thoughtful women, listening to the Qur'an, understood perfectly well its essential themes and its faith. And looking around them, they understood perfectly well, too, what a travesty man had made of it.

Women in Islam have, it can be said, even more rights than men. Why then do most sheikhs and Muslims in general treat (or at least see) women as second-class citizens? Why marriage laws that put the minimum age at 9? Why are outdated practices that need to be changed still widespread? Why are honour killings and female circumcision still attributed to Islam? We cannot deny that women in Muslim countries tend to have less rights than non-Muslim countries. However, this is not due to ISLAM. It is due to centuries of misinterpretation and centuries of misrule across the Arab and Islamic world.

To finish off, a quote from the lovely Rumi:

If a day won't come
when the monuments of institutionalized religion are in ruin
...then, my beloved,
then we are really in trouble.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


So I haven't posted for a while because my laptop crashed last week and I finally managed to get it fixed (here in Cairo multiply all times given to you by 2). So when the technician at Tradeline told me he'd fix the laptop in 2 hours, it took 5. I ended up losing a lot of my work, which I know need to do again. It was so mind-numbingly boring the first time, don't know how I'm going to get through it this time.
Anyway. I hope this is the end of a bad luck spree I've been having. Everything seems to be going wrong and it's really getting annoying. I did some soul searching to see if this was karma for something I've done recently but I can't figure out what for.

I just finished reading 2 amazing books I recommend: The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Border Passage (autobiography by Leila Ahmed, one of my favourite feminist writers). I will be posting more about her soon as she's said some things about Islam that have really influenced me.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Since the disastrous war on Gaza at the end of last year, I've been thinking a lot about the Palestinian situation, which is surely one of the most controversial political issues of our time. I can barely read any books/articles on the topic because they are just too painful: the bias towards Israel is pretty widespread (except in the Arab world) and I feel it's pointless to read "analyses" that don't really take the Palestinians into account (we don't even call it Palestine anymore, it's supposedly the "West Bank" and "Gaza", although in a few decades those will probably be gone too).

I guess what really confuses me is people who don't think the Palestinians have a right to be angry. Yes, the lands belonged to the Jews a long time ago, but in the 1950s, they belonged to the Palestinians (although at the time the British had colonized them). So what gave England the right to cut the country in half and give it to the Zionists? (It is important to note that the Zionists were not really that religious; they wanted Israel for political and historical reasons; NOT for religious reasons, or a "return-to-the-holy-land").

Fine. So the Palestinians lost half their country. No one in the Arab world was willing to accept that in the 50s, but in the 70s and 80s, they realized Israel was there to stay. Then the settlements began. The best land, the best water, the best everything went to these Israelis who decided they HAD to live in the Palestinian territories. The Green Line was forgotten, and the Palestinians ignored. Roadblocks, checkpoints, identity cards multiplied. Arrests, torture etc intensified. Palestinian resistance was stepped up. All for a few hundred Jewish families who decided the Israeli half wasn't good enough: they wanted ALL of Palestine.

Of course, the Palestinians haven't been angels, but it is important to look at their resistance in the context of the miserable existence they lead: they are OCCUPIED, they are second-class citizens in their OWN COUNTRY; they have to pass checkpoints to get to hospitals, to work, to school. Yes, they throw rocks. But Israel responds with state-of-the art bombs supplied by America. Yes, there are suicide-bombings. But they feel they have no other way of resisting this terible status-quo.

APARTHEID ANYONE? Can someone please tell me the difference between South Africa under Apartheid, and Palestine/Israel today? There is none.

Another thing I don't understand is the unwavering support Israel has from Americans and the American gov't. Yes, the Israeli/Jewish lobby is powerful, but powerful enough to convince millions of Americans that Palestinians do not deserve any part of Palestine? It's sickening to see the portrayal of the Palestine/Israel conflict on most American news channels/shows/newspapers. Where is all this bias from?
Then again, it was the American government that stood by the Apartheid government almost until the end.

Not that we Arabs are innocent in all of this either. Arab countries and Arabs have done almost nothing to help the Palestinian cause. It has been used as an excuse for many things, but since the 1980s it is as if the Arabs have just given up on Palestine.

I highly recommend the book "The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy", by two Harvard professors. They got attacked relentlessly by many Americans, but the book is brilliant.