The Goatmilk Debates: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism” – Response by Mohamad Tabbaa
“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”
Here is Mohamad Tabbaa with his response:
Islam and Feminism are incompatible – response
Let me begin by apologising. A sincere, heartfelt apology to all. I am most sorry. I apologise from the depth of my heart for being on the wrong side of feminism. I feel as though I have blasphemed. Lord forgive me. I have indeed sinned.
Or so one might assume by reading some of the responses to my original article. It appears as though disagreeing with a feminist opinion is tantamount not only to misogyny, but in some instances to blasphemy itself. The responses I have come across so far have been interesting to say the least. They have ranged from genuine and interesting, to outright absurd (apparently God does actually have a gender: female. Who knew?). Seeing as there was no official response to the debate, I thought it necessary to address some of the questions/concerns which various people have raised, and attempt to provide some clarification and response on my part. I will try to address those which I feel warrant a response, but I will also highlight some of the more absurd claims in order that readers are aware of a range of views within this debate.
However, before proceeding, I wish to make a clarification. Some respondents (without having ever met me) have felt it necessary to attack me personally and make accusations against my personhood, perhaps in an attempt to reduce my credibility in the eyes of the reader. To this end I have been labelled with a number of traits, each as delightful as the next. There is no need for anyone to engage in such accusations, particularly as they know very little about me. Rather, I am most happy to help out in this regard, and will gladly take this task upon myself. Without a doubt, I am a patronising sexist misogynist; I am an arrogant worthless bastard; I am a fundamentalist wahhabist dog; and I am intellectually lazy and a fraud (I am also quite short, in case that helps). I am a male.
Happy? Great. Now that we’re in agreement as to my inherent evilness (or perhaps, maleness), can we please proceed to the actual argument itself and stop fixating on individuals? Thanks.
There were two disturbing trends prevalent in many of the responses to the original article. The first, very disappointing, trend was that many people, in attempting to refute my argument, ironically fell right into the contradictions which were highlighted in the article. Such responses usually began along the lines of, ‘the author is wrong because he doesn’t understand that feminism is xyz, while Islam is open to interpretations’. I don’t feel that such arguments warrant a response, at least until they can demonstrate why and how feminism can be pinned down to one ‘authentic’ meaning (feminism is), but Islam cannot (Islam is open to interpretations). Similarly, others took the Orientalist path by arguing that, ‘the reason Islam needs feminism is because the Muslim world is backward and the western world is advanced”. Again, I don’t think there is a need to address such claims.
The second disturbing trend was that none of the responses I have come across so far have actually addressed the key argument/concern of the first article. As mentioned previously, the original article was “not really about Islam and feminism per se; … [but more] to do with epistemology”. To date, none of the responses have tackled the debate from this epistemological standpoint. Instead, many have simply discussed how some of the concerns of feminism might overlap with some of the concerns of Islam; something which was already acknowledged in the first article. I will return to this core question later on.
Now to the responses/questions themselves.
1- “The recent empowerment of women is itself a proof that Islam is feminist”
No, this is not a joke. Apparently it’s a very real idea found in certain feminist literature. Where to begin? Well, for starters, if the recent ‘empowerment of women’ is testament to Islam being feminist, then surely, by the same logic, the empowerment of ‘patriarchal men’ for 1000 years prior to this would prove that Islam is patriarchal, no? But this idea also poses numerous other problems. Does the previous empowerment of Nazis also prove that Islam is Nazi? Or does the current empowerment of liberal capitalism (which is what many feminists are actually fighting) prove that Islam is liberal and capitalist? Why not? Are we to believe that God empowered women because He favours feminism, but empowered Nazis for some other, unknown reason? Also, who defines ‘empowerment’ in the first place? Does this empowerment need to reach government, or is it enough that it’s a powerful idea? Do we judge its impact globally, or can we localise it? What happens when two opposing groups are empowered at the same time, do we get two ‘authentic’ Islams? I’m sure you get my point. Besides, the idea that authentic interpretation should reside in the hands of the powerful – precisely due to their power – is quite traumatic.
2- “A person can be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time”
Of course they can. Just as a person can be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time, or a heterosexual and homosexual at the same time. Us humans are quite unique in our ability to live out contradictions without the need to reconcile between them. But that is not the point. The focus of the discussion here is not on individuals and their discrepancies. Rather, the debate is about whether the two theories of Islam and feminism can be coherently reconciled. I argue that they cannot. Islam is a divinely inspired religion, whereas feminism is not. Feminism, therefore, by its nature as a human creation, must be open to multiple interpretations and definitions. Nobody can claim to represent the ‘true, objective’ feminism, as objectivity can only be attributed to a higher being. While this is all well and good for feminism in a secular context, exporting such a belief into the religious sphere would then conflict with the religious notion of a higher being and hence an objective truth. Therefore, in its essence, the attempt to merge Islam with feminism is an attempt to merge the epistemologies of ‘multiple truth’ and ‘objective truth’ into one. I’m sure all will agree that this is impossible.
However, I would argue that it is in fact worse and more contradictory than this. It is not an equal merger being advocated; it is the merging of Islam into feminism, which means, in the case of epistemology, dropping the Islamic epistemology (of objective truth) for the feminist epistemology of multiple truths. It is, therefore, the attempt to superimpose the feminist epistemology onto the Islamic discourse; or, again, to kill the Islamic God.
3- “What’s wrong with interpreting the Quran/Islam to suit feminist goals and values?”
Although it may sound noble and innocent, there are a number of problems with this approach. The first is that, attempting to interpret Islam according to feminist values is to place feminism at the centre rather than Islam, thereby raising feminism above Islam. Islam is therefore used as a means by which to gain the ultimate goal of feminism; as if feminism itself is the religion and Islam the human-made idea. We need to ask how it might be justified to place feminist goals at the centre of a religious discourse, seeing as feminism was born of a secular and largely anti-religious trajectory. This is why the first article suggests that an ‘investigative’ approach is required. Such an approach seeks out the message of the Quran (and then accepts that), rather than trying to transplant one’s own views onto Islam, which arrogantly assumes that we already know what is right, and that it’s now merely a process of selectively quoting convenient passages. An approach of humility is required, which accepts that God knows what is right and wrong, and that we are here first and foremost to learn rather than to teach. After all, the word Muslim means ‘one who submits’.
Then there are the inevitable consequences of such an attempt, some of which were mentioned in the original article. For example, if we agree that reinterpreting Islam to suit feminist values is fine, the surely reinterpreting Islam to fit misogynist values is just as fine, or reinterpreting Islam to fit white-supremacist values is also fine. Where – and most importantly, how- could we draw the line if we agree that Islam is open to interpretations which so obviously go against many of its clearest texts? The other obvious consequence, which is the key concern yet to be addressed, is that opening up Islam to unrestrained interpretation would most definitely entail a denial of an objective Islamic truth – of God’s truth. This is quite a predicament; if we deny the existence of an objective truth, we essentially kill God, as He becomes entirely irrelevant, as does the concept of religion itself; if, however, we accept the belief in an objective truth (as is sensible in religious discussions), how do we go about discovering this truth, and how do we claim that this truth is actually none other than feminism itself? What if we discovered that this truth was actually not in line with feminism; that it was ‘unfeminist’? Would we drop our feminist beliefs as a result, or would we instead insist that we must be right for some mysterious reason? Besides, suggesting that there must be a feminist Islam in order to approach women’s issues suggests that there is a lack in Islam towards such issues, and also reduces Islam to a cultural category.
4- “Are you saying that Islam is not open to interpretation?”
In short, no. Islam is obviously open to interpretation, and we all know that a multitude of interpretations do already exist. However, that is not the point being argued. What is being argued is that interpretations of Islam exist within a discursive tradition with methodological tools, which makes the tradition both dynamic and restrained. All interpretations of Islam must be subject to certain guidelines and restrictions; they must be restrained in order for Islam to retain any semblance of meaning. The question, then, is what are these restrictions, and from where do they derive? My contention is that such restrictions are already largely in place within the Islamic discourse, and they are based around a number of different factors, including Quran, Hadith, Athar, linguistics, scholarly consensus, historical context and a number of others. Through such a tradition, and utilising such tools, women’s (and men’s, lest we forget) issues are dealt with.
The problem lies in the fact that feminism, despite its variations, has its own methodologies and discursive boundaries. These are obviously not the same as the Islamic ones, and so the two quite often come into conflict. This is why the two cannot be coherently merged. Therefore, if feminists would like to do away with these Islamic parameters and replace them with modern ones, including feminism and secularism, a justification for such a practice – which goes against 1400 years of scholarship – is required. Alternatively, if feminists wish to include feminism as one such parameter, again, a justification for this is required, particularly given feminism’s strong links to secularism and postmodernist thought.
The call for Islam to be open to unrestrained interpretation, which is required to validate a ‘feminist Islam’, seeks to do away with these parameters, as there is no possibility of a feminist reading of Islam with such boundaries in place. However, it is precisely these boundaries which help dictate what can be considered an ‘Islamically valid’ opinion from one that is not. If such boundaries were not in place, there would be absolutely nothing to stop a person from coming out and stating that ‘Islam is about the belief in 7 gods’. The only way to denounce such an opinion as unIslamic is to first accept the parameters present within the Islamic discourse. In this case, one could easily refer to a verse in the Quran (i.e. use the Quranic parameter) to dismiss such a claim as clearly unIslamic. In the case of feminism, without the above parameters, one could easily argue that female infanticide is Islamically valid, and (if interpretations were unrestrained), such an opinion could not be denounced as Islamically ‘wrong’.
5- “Does that mean that Islam is anti-woman?”
Arguing that Islam and feminism are incompatible does not in any way make a statement about the position of women in Islam. Despite the claims of some, feminism does not have a monopoly over the discourse surrounding women. Opposing feminism in no way amounts to opposing women or women’s rights, and it is disingenuous to conflate the two. My point in raising this issue is not to argue that the oppression of women does not exist or does not need to be addressed, nor is it to deny that we, as Muslims, have real issues to contend with. Likewise, critiquing feminism does not discount its merits, such as its anti-colonial and anti-racist currents.
Rather, my main point is that we, as Muslims, do not need feminism in order to approach such issues and have such conversations. The point I’m trying to convey is that the attempt to merge Islam into feminism is an attempt to colonise the Islamic discourse/space, and ultimately to colonise Islamic/Muslim voices. It is to highlight the epistemological violence which would result from such a merger. Islam already has within its paradigm the language and tools with which to deal with women’s issues. We don’t need feminism to ‘save’ Islam. Couple this with the fact that Islam is divine while feminism is not, and the following questions arise: given that Islam has such tools, why would we choose to constrain our parameters by adopting feminism, and all the constraints and baggage that come with it (including the name itself)? Why is there this idea that one can only approach women’s issues via the use of ‘feminism’? Why must we adopt a secular philosophy – which does not even recognise God in the first instance – in order to interpret religious texts? It is simply a call to at least resist the colonisation of our thoughts, after many of our countries (and bodies) have already been colonised.
Finally, I was made aware of certain responses made by the team at Muslimah Media Watch. I have to admit that I was quite excited at the prospect of a decent, mature and challenging engagement on the topic. However, I was soon disappointed upon reading the responses, which seemed to lack any real breadth, and importantly did not address the key issues raised. Instead, a number of judgements were made regarding my intentions, as well as some very blatant misquotes attributed to me, which is unfortunate (and somewhat immature). However, amongst the responses, one particularly struck me as quite odd, which was written by Nicole. As I understood it, Nicole was essentially arguing that, as a male, I had no right to be commenting on such issues, and that she was in fact offended by my very act of speaking as a male. Amongst other things, Nicole accused me of putting forward a male-biased view of Islam (‘Hislam’), and eventually dismissed my argument entirely on the following basis: “Oh yeah, because he is a Muslim man, and that’s enough”.
So, apparently my gender disqualifies me from an opinion. Therefore, I would like to ask Nicole some questions, as (being the feeble-minded male that I am) I am somewhat confused: if, based on my gender, I am espousing ‘Hislam’, are you then in return espousing ‘Herslam’ (and I stop to wonder what exactly a trans-gendered person would espouse)? Or are you somehow more neutral than I? If I underwent a sex-change and reposted the same article, would it then be considered valid? Or is there a biological difference between males and females that transcends genitalia? I’d be interested in hearing about this difference, please. If men can be feminists, why then can we not also be anti-feminists? And, most importantly, why are you judging my opinion based solely on my (constructed) gender identity? Is this gender-discrimination not the very injustice which so many feminists seek to eliminate? So how is this discrimination unjustifiable against females, but justifiable against males? Please find it in your heart to look past my condescending sexist misogynist ignorance and enlighten me with a (‘female’) perspective. Thank you.
So, to reiterate my final points, this discussion is not about the definition(s) of feminism, the position of women in Islam, or even the position of feminism in secular discourses. This discussion is primarily about epistemology, colonialism and consistency. And to minimise the possibility of misunderstanding, let me re-emphasise that I am simply advocating the radical notion that Islam is from God, and therefore does not need to be replaced.