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