Women, Islam, and the Paternalism of White Feminists

The following article is part of an independent study intended to examine and deconstruct the biases of the author (and undoubtedly many others) towards the practices within “Islam”. The quotations there acknowledge that such an umbrella term was made prominent by Westerners (i.e. non- practitioners) and is often mistakenly used to group many ideologies under one category, to the detriment of acknowledging the many differences between them. I will continue to use the term Islam to highlight the fact that this article may need to be subjected to further scrutiny to acknowledge that the assessments contained within do not apply universally to any group of people or ideologies. Aside from casting a negative light on a religion, my biases present the additional risk of stigmatizing the people who participate in it, and it is for that reason most of all that I am writing this article.

It should be understood in advance that I am writing as someone who is mostly secular in orientation, and a skeptic who feels a need to challenge anything that would be claimed as “truth”. That being the case, I must also put my own orientation to the test, to be willing to abandon my preconceptions about religion – particularly that it is necessarily any more misguided than scientism or any other secular schools of thought. It should also be noted that where I have any grievances towards Islam, it is not due to any exaltation of Western ideals. Instead my biases come out of my own personal ideals – such as a strong sense of justice – which while certainly shaded by Western ideology often fall outside of that context. That is to say, I am not making any qualitative comparisons between “Islam” and “the West”, because I am equally inclined to subject both to indictment.

So it must be said that my bias did not emerge out of some self-fulfilling prophecy that there was anything inherently wrong with Islam, as is often the case where the self must find fault with the “other” to maintain its integrity. Instead it emerged where Islam came into ideological conflict with my own ideals. Therefore Islam can easily be “redeemed” if by further examination I find that my preconceptions on the whole are incorrect. With all of this in mind, one of the few points of contention that I have with Islam is what I have perceived to be a great inequality between genders. I acknowledge right from the start that this preconception is based on the absolute minimum of information about Islam, some of it drawn from sensationalist pop-journalism, the rest from my own conjecture based on what I’ve observed. Focusing on two particular situations that appear to demonstrate gender inequality, I will gather more information, and attempt to either affirm or refute my preconceptions.

The first issue to be discussed is the practice of hijab – the concealment of women to varying degrees behind special types of clothing. My first “understanding” of this practice was that it was to hide women from the eyes of men who were not their husbands or family, to prevent any sort of infidelity. Implicit within the practice seemed to me to be this idea that if women dared to reveal their physical merits they would be advanced upon like meat for the wolves. More importantly, it seemed to imply that women did not have within themselves the fortitude to stave off these unwelcome advances, that due to some inherent absence of morality they would succumb to base desires.

In this way it seemed to me that Muslim men were “protecting” their women – not with regards to their honor or peace of mind – but as property. My preconceptions are strongly rooted in my own culture’s history of gender inequality and the resistance to it that has emerged and become prominent since the 1920s. It is because I have grown up in this climate of resistance, and because of my aforementioned sense of justice, that I have become suspicious of anything that can be perceived as gender-based oppression.

However, based on a few personal accounts from Muslim women that I’ve encountered, and a few articles I’ve read, I learned that there are a few reasons why these women choose hijab of their own free will. The first is that the women want to avoid the ogling of men and to be perceived with regard to their internal merits, as opposed to their physical characteristics. While this sounds practical, it still seemed to me to be somehow rooted in gender suppression. In her essay, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Yousra Y. Fazili gives an account of her life as a Muslim woman in America, and her decisions at different times in her life to wear or not wear hijab. In response to the practice of desexualization, she states:

Muslim women must be modest and unalluring so they are not seen as sex objects; This reasoning takes all responsibility away from men and places it on women. Men are not taught to have self-control, but women are repeatedly instructed to dress and behave modestly so as not to arouse a man. 1

If these values – for a woman to obscure her sexuality – have been built into Islam as a cultural mechanism, then it could still have a basis in the men’s imperative to control them. After all, the practice seems to have originated when the Prophet wanted to bar other men from flirting with his wives. Was this idea truly the result of divine revelation from Allah to Muhammad the Prophet, or of Muhammad the man protecting what he saw as belonging exclusively to him? Foremost of all things that make me skeptical towards messiahs or prophets is their humanness, which means that they are – divine purpose notwithstanding – fallible and can have their judgment affected by selfish whims.

This is not to say that Muhammad was not justified in not wanting other men to flirt with his wives, but to place it within the context of divine revelation and thereby make it applicable to women universally is where I’d say he went wrong. If the Qur’an truly was divinely inspired, then Muhammad should have known how to separate his own personal worldly concerns from those things that belonged in the holy text. And if there is even the remote possibility that the Prophet is fallible, then all other Muslim men can certainly be held to account, that is, they can be examined for their true reasons for wanting their women to cover. It sounds all well and good for women in the Islamic tradition to be taught to downplay their sexuality, and make it a matter of personal pride for them, while it also conveniently serves as a covert method of control for men.

The second reason I discovered that women themselves have adopted the practice of hijab is self- identification as a Muslim. With regards to self-identification through hijab, Fazili states:

“…I feel fundamentally Muslim, before I identify myself with a gender, a nationality, or an ethnicity. In fact, the love of Islam…grew to a point where I began to wear hijab – not because my parents forced it upon me, but because I saw it as a means to declare and claim a uniquely Muslim American identity.” 2

I can find no fault at all with this reasoning. In fact, I find it refreshing where people express their own unique cultural identities here in the United States, a place where we are indoctrinated with the delusion of the melting pot, and where so many disavow their heritage for the privileges that come with assimilation. I particularly advocate such actions for Muslims in post-9/11 America, for the added purpose of standing defiant in the face of growing prejudice. However, I should point out here that it never was necessarily the practice of hijab itself that spawned my grievances, but that it was reserved only for women. Muslim identity, as Fazili says, goes beyond gender or ethnicity, and therefore any practice exercising it should be conducted without regard to whether a practitioner is male or female.

For this reason I feel that there is one very simple thing that could be done which would reconcile the apparent gender-segregation of hijab with all of the ideals of humility and self-identification that it claims to represent. Cover the men as well. The argument could be (and has been) made that men – greatly more so than women – place a visual criteria on their choice of mate. By contrast, women are said to be more “emotional” or even “cerebral” in their decision making process, even to the point of ignoring physical chemistry. Personally I think this a complete fallacy, contingent upon the cultural paradigm that women must preserve their sanctity through desexualization or at least sexual reservation.

This paradigm itself stems from male dominance, because implicit within these ideals of chastity are that the woman can – and should – unbridle her sexuality wholeheartedly once she is married. Only once she has a man to officially “give herself” to, then she can finally become a sexual being. What a farce. Women can, should, and do engage their sexuality at any time they please – this freedom still allowing room for reservation and humility within or without the confines of religion. This also means acknowledging and accepting the role that physical chemistry plays in who they choose as a partner.

I understand that this point of view puts me completely at odds with more “traditional” schools of thought – in Islam, in the West, and in many other places. So I will concede for those who do not subscribe to my ideals of liberal sexuality that they may also choose to maintain the sanctification paradigm. For in a situation where all things are equal, there is nothing inherently wrong with sexual reservation. Sexual liberation, after all, does not necessitate wanton sexual activity.

For the case of Islam, the covering of the man would serve a more symbolic than practical purpose. Even if we say that women are not prone to ogling and therefore men do not need to cover, then they should cover just as a statement of gender equity. If hijab were adopted by men it would instantly and completely destroy the possibility of anyone using the practice as a platform from which to attack Islam on the grounds of gender inequality. There is absolutely no argument against male covering that would not be explicitly segregationist.

At this point, I still have yet to reconcile the purported ideals of gender equity in Islam with the real-life practices of the religion. It is here, then, that I must reiterate my earlier assertion that there really is no such thing as “Islam”, and that the many ideals and practices that fall under that umbrella are widely varying. This variation is due to the fact that the Qur’an has been subject to numerous interpretations with regards to many different issues – not the least of which is how it addresses the equality of the sexes.

With regards to hijab, there seems to be no consensus on whether or not it must be practiced at all, and great variation as to what degree it is practiced (i.e. hair covering, face-veiling, full head- to-toe dress). My argument, therefore, is not directed at “Islam” as an all-encompassing ideology and practice, but reserved for those who would enforce the practice of hijab as a religious or cultural mandate. For these people – if they would also argue against the suggestion of male covering – the practice is nothing more than gender suppression, any claims of a moral or spiritual ideal little more than a pretext.

I spent a good amount of time addressing the issue of hijab, not because it is the primary example of gender inequality in Islam, but because it is the most visible. If it were the only point of contention, then the implementation of male covering or the subjectivity of the practice between individual traditions would leave the argument with a very weak foundation. If it turns out that my other arguments are equally challengeable or that other seemingly unequal practices are as amenable to change and variation as hijab, then I will have little choice but to abandon my preconceptions.

The second circumstance in which I perceive gender inequality is the diminished role for women in the sociopolitical sphere. That is, it seems to be true that men are mostly the ones making the decisions that govern the greater society. They are the imams, the jurists, the caliphs, and the members of the ulama who interpret the Qur’an in order to establish Islamic law. If we are to understand Islamic society as indivisible between religion and politics, then it would seem that there is something inherent within Islam that dictates that men occupy the positions of greatest power. However, this interpretation of the facts may be based on a Western understanding of an individual’s relationship to society.

In contemporary Western society – particularly in America – there is a spirit of individualism that has come to supersede any tradition of family or community. This ideal of individualism and independent thought can at least be traced back as far as the very pretexts on which the country (and the colonies before it) was established. There was an emphasis on the right to think freely – i.e. differently from the perceived establishment – that rose necessarily in resistance to religious persecution. This individualism has become so accentuated as to cause a breakdown in social institutions such as ideological communities and even the family. The large families of old have been replaced by “nuclear families” – one or two parents with very few children who are almost completely separated from the greater family by both physical and emotional distance. This individualism also creates a distinct separation between the “self” and the “other”, and makes us highly inclined to find reasons to maintain that separation. It is through this lens that we view the rest of the world – and of particular importance to this article – how we view the so-called Islamic world.

The spirit of individualism in the West also creates a distinction between many socio-cultural phenomena that elsewhere blend into one another more fluidly along a continuum. There is a division in the West between the individual and the family, and an even stronger division between the family and the local community, as many of us don’t even bother to know our immediate neighbors. There is a stronger division still, between each individual and the greater society. Our individualism has left us with this sense that we are accountable only to ourselves, that we do not have to bend to cultural pressures, that we can engage society exclusively at the times and places we wish, while disregarding it otherwise.

This is most likely a consequence of there being so many distinctly different cultures co-existing within a relatively small space – a phenomenon that does not exist on the same scale anywhere else in the world. People do all sorts of different things that others may disapprove of – on an individual level or as a group sharing a certain set of cultural norms – but those others are not likely to take the offending individual to account. They may speak of it with disdainful whispers and contemptuous gazes, but keep their comments mostly to themselves or their groups. And in an atmosphere where we stress “tolerance” – a necessity where we exist in such close proximity to so many very different kinds of people – we are able to associate our many differences with cultural discrepancies. The fact that there are different cultures, and that we must be tolerant, almost become a license for people to do anything carte blanche. In the end we are accountable only to ourselves on one end and the government on the other, should our actions go so far as to present a threat to others.

This kind of cultural unaccountability does not exist in Islamic societies. There is a meshing of the individual with the family, the family with the local society, the local society with the greater society, and finally the greater society with the perceived “global community” or umma. People are accountable for their actions on every level of this system, with the Qur’an and Hadith running through it as the central current.

In many cultures throughout the world, women are relegated to the role of domestic custodian. This phenomenon is not unique to the West, or to the Middle East, or to the Far East. It seems to be true globally. The reasons for this are manifold. There is the obvious fact of patriarchy – that has shaped the dynamic between men and women virtually worldwide. Then there is the pseudo-psychological explanation that women are more “nurturing”, and therefore “better suited” to take care of children and see to the emotional well-being of the family. In actuality, there is nothing physically inherent in women that make them any more nurturing; this paradigm has arisen out of cultural norms.

There is also the biological explanation that since only women can get pregnant, and since pregnancy physically inhibits them from engaging in the more strenuous tasks often associated with men, it is only “natural” that they should remain close to the homestead and tend to the work there. While the vein of feminism running through Western societies would tell us to reject this idea, it is sensible and practical. Yet we must diverge from this way of thinking in our realization that women are not obligated to bear children, and some women are physically incapable of doing so. Therefore any cultural norms – whether practical or “moral” – that have arisen out of the fact of pregnancy cannot be said to be applicable universally to women.

The spirit of individualism that has emerged in Western society, and at the expense of the sense of family or community, does not exist in Middle Eastern societies, or by extension, societies that have taken on those values by way of Islam. The family is the fundamental unit of Islamic society, not the individual. That change in emphasis requires a change in how we perceive the roles of women in society. Where individualism is a dominant current, as it is in the West, we see a focus on the individual strength and independence of the modern woman. She exists for herself, not for the sake of any man, or out of any obligation (biological or cultural) that she produce or maintain a family. If she takes a husband and together they choose to raise a family, then her role as a mother is in some way mutually exclusive from her position as a woman in society. This distinction does not seem to exist at all in Islamic societies.

Where women do not seem to have as much of a voice in the public society, they have a stronger voice at home, as the homestead is their domain. Muslim women do not see this as a burden or an infringement upon their freedom or independence. It is not a role that they have fallen into as an “unfortunate” consequence of being the child-bearing sex, but a role that they have taken on with pride. In Islamic culture, where the family is the first level of accountability – before external social pressures or the political system – and where the demarcation of these “levels” is not so distinct, the woman – as custodian and governor of the household – can be seen as having a great deal of overall power and authority.

In conclusion, by examining the dynamics of Islamic society – and attempting to do so not through the lens of Western sensibilities – we can certainly illuminate the role of women within that society. Understanding that women’s roles in Islamic society are simply much different than they are in the West does not mean that there are not still many instances of inequality. What it does mean is that those things that we perceive to be examples of gender inequality due to our Western understanding of people (i.e. women’s) relationship to society may not be examples of anything of the sort.

Gender inequality, even where it takes on a distinctly “Islamic” character, is not specific to Islam as a religion, or Muslim society. Rather, it is a consequence of patriarchy – a phenomenon that knows no religious or cultural boundaries. How patriarchy manifests in any given society, the ways that people – particularly women – respond to it, are simply different. We must be careful not to presume that these differences are qualitative. Just because women are responding differently, and because they understand their relationship to the greater society differently, does not mean that they are any less active in their stance against inequality.

In the end, whatever women’s roles may be – in Islamic society or elsewhere – if they are truly content within their livelihoods, then who are we to judge their status? It may be that the need for people in the West to argue for Muslim women’s equality is merely a projection of their own need for equality here. The remnants of gender inequality that still exist within Western society are no longer so overtly manifest. Instead, they are of the more deeply rooted and institutionalized variety, the kind that would require a complete deconstruction and ground-zero renovation of our entire social structure to eliminate.

For this reason, I think that perhaps the Western feminism movement has reached a dead end, at least in the sense of affecting any immediate and obvious change to the female-male social dynamic. This may be why the Western woman – and by extension the justice-minded Western male – feels the need to carry on the fight elsewhere, and needs to see that the fight is actually making a difference. That this interventionist drive may stem from American imperialism is yet another possibility, but unfortunately it is a topic that exceeds the scope of this article. Still, it could be said that just as we overstepped our bounds the moment U.S. and British troops moved into Iraq, our Western feminism may have stepped too far outside its ideological boundaries in even thinking that Muslim women need or want its intervention.

1 2Fazili, Yousra Y – from Living Islam Out Loud ©Beacon Press 2005.
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