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The Goatmilk Debates: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism” – Katrina Daly Thompson Against the Motion

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“THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, intellectually stimulating manner.

Each debater makes their opening argument, followed by an optional rebuttal.

The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of the respective arguments.

The motion: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism”

For the motion: Mohamad Tabbaa

Against the motion: Katrina Daly Thompson

Feminism and Islam are compatible

Katrina Daly Thompson

There are two groups who might argue that feminism and Islam are incompatible: Muslims who don’t understand what feminism is, and feminists who don’t understand that Islam is open to interpretation, including feminist interpretations.  I’ll address each of these groups in turn.

Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, don’t understand what feminism is.  They might think it’s a Western idea focused on man-hating, female superiority, or bra burning, but none of that is accurate.  There are three definitions of feminism that inspire me; the first defines feminism as an idea, the second as a movement, and the third as an intellectual approach.

What does feminism mean as an idea? “Feminism,” Cheris Kramerae wrote, “is the radical notion that women are human beings.”[i]  It’s that simple. Feminists argue that human beings should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex or gender. For Muslims, this should be an easy argument to get behind.  After all, the Qur’an tells us,

“Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.”[ii]

In other words, the Qur’an teaches that God treats all human beings equally, whether we are men or women, not differentiating among us by sex or gender but rather by the extent to which we’ve surrendered, believe in God, are devout, truthful, patient, humble, generous, modest, and worshipful.  We are all subject to the same rewards from God.  God, we might say, is a feminist.  The Feminist. 

What is feminism as a political movement?  Feminist linguist Deborah Cameron defined it as a movement to promote the recognition of women’s full humanity.[iii] The feminist movement may have started in the West but there’s nothing inherently Western about believing in women’s humanity; if there were, women would be far better off in the West than we are. And while the movement is woman-made, the idea that women are fully human is an important theme in the Qur’an, so feminism is just a human means for demanding what Allah has already ordained for us. Cameron also writes that this full humanity is different from “equality” and “women’s rights.”

“Equality presupposes a standard to which one is equal: in this case, the implied standard is men. Feminists are ultimately in pursuit of a more radical change, the creation of a world in which one gender does not set the standard of human value.”[iv]

The distinction between “full humanity” and “equality” is an important one, especially for Muslim feminists, since we are often told by non-feminist Muslims that we should be content with “equity” and not fight for “equality.”  We need to stop talking about equality and move on to imagining more radical change.  What would it look like if Muslim spaces were not segregated by gender?  How would discussion of hijab shift if Muslim women weren’t taught to protect themselves from the male gaze?  How does reading the Qur’an without gendered pronouns change the way one imagines God?   These are just a few examples of questions that might help us imagine and enact radical change.  Islam needs feminists who are open to imagining other forms of radical change, within Islam rather than in opposition to it.

Before addressing the third definition of feminism, an intellectual approach, let’s turn to the feminists who believe that Islam and feminism are incompatible.   Some feminists in this camp may not be singling out Islam, but rather have problems with patriarchal religions more generally, and specifically with the idea of “God the Father,” the God of the Old and New Testaments and Western art for the last 600 years.  As Mary Daly wrote in Beyond God the Father,

“If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated.”[v]

Although Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an Abrahamic religion, unlike the religious texts that preceded it the Qur’an does not refer to God as a father.  In fact, for Muslims, God has no gender at all, nor any form that humans can comprehend. The Qur’an tell us,

“There is nothing like unto Him.”[vi]

Don’t be fooled by the use of the masculine pronoun “Him” in that quotation.  Linguists distinguish between natural and grammatical gender, and while the word Allah (God) in Arabic is grammatically masculine, this does not imply that God himself is male or masculine.  In fact, we see throughout the Qur’an that God has both masculine and feminine attributes.  Every chapter of the Qur’an, save one, begins with the blessing, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Compassionate). Both Rahman and Rahim come from the same triconsonantal root r-h-m, which means, among other things, womb.[vii]

Despite the fact that there is no God the Father in the Qur’an, many feminists have some specific problems with Islam.  They may have read a patriarchal translation of the Qur’an—noticing, among other things all the references to God as ‘He’—or have come across some misogynist Muslims. (Who hasn’t?)  More likely they’ve simply heard about abhorrent practices that take place in some parts of the Muslim world—female genital mutilation, honor killings, women being denied their freedom of movement, gay bashing—and assumed that these are representative of Islam.  Although we must acknowledge some Muslims’ (mis)use of Islam to justify these human rights violations, we must not mistake these practices for Islam.  This is not a matter of Western intellectuals pointing out to Muslims elsewhere that they are misrepresenting Islam; there are strong voices and activists throughout the Muslim world who make this point. For example, Sisters in Islam in Malaysia has as its mission “promoting an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state.”[viii]

The reason that it’s important for feminists to engage with the Qur’an rather than to simply dismiss it as a patriarchal text is that, in addition to feminism as an idea and as a movement, feminism is also an intellectual approach:

“Feminism seeks to understand how current relations between men and women are constructed—and we take it that they are constructed, rather than natural—and in the light of this understanding, how they can be changed.”[ix]

This involves both describing the conditions of women’s lives today and in the past, and theorizing (explaining) those conditions, the goals of which ultimately fold back into politics: how can we bring about radical change in those conditions?  An open-minded feminist reading of the Qur’an, like other progressive readings of this sacred text, follows this intellectual approach.  Feminist readings that dismiss the Qur’an as patriarchal out of hand are simply too close to the readings of puritanical or Wahabbi Muslims, who, as Khaled abou el Fadl puts it, “construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading Qur’anic verses in isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were transparent.”[x]   Instead, feminists must distance themselves from these puritans and explore more progressive readings of the Qur’an that interpret the text historically and contextually.

We must admit that the lack of Father-like God has not prevented Muslims from assuming that it is God’s plan that society be male dominated, as Mary Daly critiqued. Patriarchal Muslims and non-Muslim feminists alike will find plenty of verses in the Qur’an that seem to suggest that God favors men over women.  There are verses, problematic for Muslim feminists, that do seem to differentiate between men and women, giving women a lesser share of inheritance or positioning men as the ‘maintainers’ of women.  How are those ideas compatible with feminism?  Feminist Muslims must not only come to terms with these problematic verses but also use feminism to deconstruct the notion that our religion can be used to oppress us.  We can do this through both understanding the context in which the Qur’an was revealed and by investigating different translations and interpretations of the Qur’an.  Alhamdulillah, Muslim feminism seems to be on the rise and so there is no shortage of feminist interpretations of these verses to aid us in our understanding.  For example, in a comprehensive re-reading and translation of the Qur’anic verse (4:34) that has been interpreted by most translators—not coincidentally, men—as allowing Muslim men to beat their wives, Laleh Bakhtiar shows that the Arabic verb for ‘beat’ actually has numerous other meanings that make more sense in this verse.[xi]  Her research and new translation shows that it is Muslims—intepreters of the Qur’an—who bear the responsibility for misogyny, not the Qur’an itself.   Muslim feminists like Bakhtiar heed Khaled abou el Fadl’s warning that “the reader must take responsibility for the normative values he or she brings to the text,” which “provides possibilities for meaning, not inevitabilities.”[xii]  Non-Muslim feminists who aim to understand Islam must heed the same warning (as, indeed, must non-feminist Muslims).  As feminist Muslim scholar Amina Wadud writes,

“Exclusionary textual readings marginalize women’s full human agency within society.”[xiii]

In this quote, the exclusionary readings Wadud refers to are patriarchal Muslim readings of the Qur’an.  However, I would add that feminists who think that Islam and feminism are incompatible are guilty of the same types of readings, the same marginalization of Muslim women.

The acknowledgement that Islam is open to interpretation and that some acts cannot be justified by Islam even though Muslims perpetrate them pushes us further than mere claims of compatibility between Islam and feminism. Not only are Islam and feminism compatible, even fundamentally linked, but Islam as a lived practice—as a social justice movement—needs feminists. Islam, at its heart, promotes social justice, and the Prophet Mohamed showed us how to turn Qur’anic ideas into a social justice movement, one designed to eliminate not only poverty but also extreme wealth, tribalism, racism, and discrimination against women and girls.  When we see people (including Muslims) that are oppressing others, we must stand up against them and defend the rights of those who are being oppressed. Indeed, the Qur’an commands:

“O YOU who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!”[xiv]

While Muslim feminists value the input of non-Muslim feminists, their lack of a nuanced understanding of our religion often leaves us feeling attacked by our sisters in feminism.  Feminism and Islam both need Muslim feminists—Muslim men and women who believe in the full humanity of women—to fight against gender discrimination within Muslim cultures and spaces.  When feminist demands—such as ending gender segregation in mosques—seem to conflict with the long-standing practices of orthodox Muslims, we need a space for open discussion and debate where feminist viewpoints and interpretations can be heard.  Claiming that feminism and Islam are incompatible leaves both feminists and Muslims without the means to fight against the injustices that threaten Muslim women the world over.

Katrina Daly Thompson is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at UCLA, where she does research on the discourse of Muslim women on the Swahili coast.  She has been a Muslim since 2009, and a feminist for her entire life.  She recently founded a blog called Occupy the Patriarchy, which provides a forum for the voices of Muslim women, feminists, and allies.


[i] Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler, A Feminist Dictionary (London: Pandora Press, 1985).

[ii] Muhammad Asad, trans., The message of the Qurʼan (Bitton  England: Book Foundation, 2003), 33:55.

[iii] Deborah Cameron, Feminism and linguistic theory, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 4.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Mary Daly, Beyond God the father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation, vol. 350 (Beacon Press, 1985), 13.

[vi] Asad, The message of the Qurʼan, 42:11.

[vii] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: a prophet for our time (Eminent Lives, 2006), 60.

[viii] “Sisters In Islam”, http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/.

[ix] Cameron, Feminism and linguistic theory, 4.

[x] Khaled Abou El Fadl, “The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” in The Place of Tolerance in Islam, ed. Khaled Abou el Fadl, Joshua Cohen, and Ian Lague (Beacon Press, 2002), 15.

[xi] Laleh Bakhtiar, “Introduction,” in The Sublime Quran (Kazi Publications, 2007), xxv-l.

[xii] Abou El Fadl, “The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” 22.

[xiii] Amina Wadud, “Beyond Interpretation,” in The Place of Tolerance in Islam, ed. Khaled Abou el Fadl, Joshua Cohen, and Ian Lague (Beacon Press, 2002), 57.

[xiv] Asad, The message of the Qurʼan, 4:135.

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14 Responses

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  1. great post! I really enjoyed it, Katrina!

    susanne430

    December 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm

  2. I really enjoyed this Katrina! You have broken down the argument so well into sections that are easy to understand. I like philosophy but I think it is important to realise that sometimes it is as basic as this: an ancient religion *can* be compatible with a modern concept. Yet, I think feminism is not a modern construct at all; it is just that now women have gained the voice to spread feminism. Feminism is in it’s basic form an opposition to patriarchy so if anyone argues that Islam is incompatible with feminism then it means they believe that Islam is patriarchal in essence. However, Muslims who are also feminist are not against Islam or its teachings but against the patriarchal interpretations of the religion by various social groups. I think you make that very clear.

    Bravo!

    Metis

    December 13, 2011 at 5:54 am

  3. I think your article completely destroys the underlying principle that as a Muslim, you must believe that Islam is the whole truth and has been perfected by the Oneness of Allah, the Most High. We are nothing compared to the Greatness of Allah so to feel that there needs to be a “radical change” to what He has given us just doesn’t make sense.
    Muslim spaces are segregated out of respect for each of the sexes and to remove even the smallest signs of fitna and sin. The hijab is to encourage modesty for BOTH sexes and both sexes must cover up and behave in particular ways. But you already knew all this. I am sure you have the best of intentions, but instead of trying to change/reform/progress Islam, you need to go back to Islam, and understand and appreciate the value in all that Allah SWT has ordained.

    Lisa

    December 14, 2011 at 7:59 am

    • Lisa, I hope my article completely destroys the underlying principle that Islam is the whole truth and has been perfected by Allah. Because while I would agree with that statement with regard to islam (surrender to Allah, as the word is actually used in the Qur’an), Islam as the organized religion that we know today is not, in most communities, the islam that God ordained in the Qur’an nor does it live up to the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim spaces are segregated because Muslim men decided that’s how they should be. Hijab puts the onus of modesty on women, and is not commanded in the Qur’an. I have no intention of reforming islam, but rather to live out my islam in the 21st century as a feminist.

      Katrina Daly Thompson

      December 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm

      • So the problem is Muslim communities not adhering to Islam.. in every era and time in history there will always be people that follow the Quran and sunnah properly, and others who don’t. So the problem is the people, individuals, not Islam itself. The Prophet didn’t change the message when people still refused to follow him, rather he stuck to it, regardless of what century we’re in, it is all the same jahiliyyah.
        If I wanted to build a mosque I would want it segregated for the reasons I already mentioned (what is the issue anyway?), and the hijab is not commanded in the Qur’an? when did being modest become ‘onus’?
        A Muslim is inherently ‘feminist’, an ‘environmentalist’, a ‘human rights advocate’, a ‘philanthropist’. All the good that has been written up as ideologies can already be found in Islam. So live out your Islam in the 21st century as a Muslim :)

        Lisa

        December 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  4. Great piece sister. Despite the challenges faced Muslim feminists, it is important to continue the work.

    Eren Arruna Cervantes

    December 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm

  5. An excellent article. My only suggestion is that we should learn from our Jewish sisters to reclaim our God-given rights from misogynist men who wish to “protect” women and thereby deny us our responsibilities to God, community, family, and self.

    JDay

    December 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  6. [...] for me somewhere in between. Muslim feminists have tirelessly repeated themselves in saying that their stance is based on the premise that the Quran addresses men and women equally. I, of course hold that stance. And I also greatly admire the conscious efforts undertaken to talk [...]

  7. [...] against the motion, Katrina Daly Thompson took the position that there are some Muslims who simply don’t understand [...]

  8. Congratulations Katrina! You’ve won the debate with you objectivity and clear arguments. Bravo!!!

    The Opinionista

    February 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  9. Great Katrina!! you did job with evidences and logic. No religion should be believed blindly as many muslims are doing that. You did a good research and proved your stance. I am very much impressed. You are right, a lot has to be done in this regard. May God help you.

    SAFI

    February 19, 2012 at 5:08 am

  10. Katrina;
    I think you statement that you want to live out YOUR Islam in the 21st century pretty much says it all. It is your Islam that you are living, not the one that is acceptable by the creator of the heavens and the earth and all between. And that is exactly the problem. Of course women are ordered to cover themselves and guard their modesty in Qur’an. There are also not explicit instructions about how to make prayer in the Qur’an. Does that mean that the manner to making the five daily prayers is also open to interpretation?
    Do what you want to do. The only one who has to stand up for your actions is you. Just leave Islam out of it.

    fatimah Abdus-Samad

    April 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm


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