“It’s either you’re a Muslim or you’re a feminist. You can’t be both.” Scholars have given this verdict a countless number of times in Muslim circles and halaqas. This is one recurrent line that has eaten deep into my conscience over the years. I consistently fight a battle of the soul not to jeopardize my faith while nurturing the seeds of feminism that have been planted in me for as long as I can no longer recall. But as I continue to learn more about the Din and the role of women in an ideal Islamic society versus the reality of living cultural Islam which many societies have subconsciously fallen into, I ask myself whether there can actually be a whole new perspective to the verdict concerning the compatibility of Feminism and Islam.
Over a century ago, particularly in France and the Netherlands, the feminist movement began. The word feminism is believed to have been coined by a French philosopher, Charles Fourier. It was identified to be “a set of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, cultural, personal and social rights for women” (Beasley Chris, 1999).
The reality of modern feminism is a great opposition to any social roles being determined by gender. It’s a clamor for gender equality notwithstanding clear and unambiguous anatomical differences. Feminists deny any in-built biological differences between men and women which makes the former the breadwinner and sole head of the family and the latter, the housewife and mother. It calls for an abolition of institutional marriage and the traditional family system while advocating unfettered female sexual freedom. Unfortunately, the Muslim world is not left out. A great number of Muslim women have joined the feminist bandwagon, playing active roles in furthering its movement. But then, how practicable and realizable is this? And how compatible is this with Islam?
Equality versus Equity
To analyse this clearly, one has to be able to define the concept of equality. The word ‘equality’ connotes having the same quantity, rights, treatment, measure, or value equal to all others in a specific group. It is an equation in which the quantities on each side of an equal sign are the same. Considering the obvious anatomical differences between the two genders, the idea of gender equality remains vague.
And the male is not like the female. [Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:36]
The Quran acknowledges and affirms that there is no physical and anatomical equality between the two genders. Thus, there is not a single verse in the Quran that enjoins equality between the two genders. There are only verses that command equity and justice amongst men and women.
…But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then marry (only one) … [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:3]
Unlike equality, equity implies actions, treatment of others, or a general condition characterized by justice, fairness, and impartiality. This, and not equality is what Islam calls for. By calling for equality between the two sexes, we may then be considering the possibility and potential for men to carry the burden of pregnancy, bear the pains of childbirth and breastfeed their children or for men to naturally experience menarche and menopause. It may also be a call for women to practice polyandry and be able to impregnate the opposite gender. This is absolutely not consistent with our intellect.
Do Muslim Women Have Rights?
It is important to delve into the pre–Islamic history of women and the position they held all over the world, including the Arab world. Thousands of years ago, women were seen as beings without souls of their own and were therefore treated as such. The female child was buried alive because it was a very shameful thing to have one. Women had no rights to inheritance and were in fact, something to be inherited especially by the sons of their deceased husbands. Women had no right to own properties as they themselves were seen as objects of possession. Women had no rights to be educated as they were not seen to possess souls. Women had no voice of their own; no say in their own affairs, let alone the affairs of their households or even their societies. They even had no rights to enter into any contract. And the list goes on.
Islam came to elevate the status of womanhood by giving women natural and divine inalienable rights such as the right to life, the right to education, the right to freedom of expression, the right to decide who to marry, when to be married and to stipulate the terms of the marriage contract, the right to divorce, the right to custody of children, the right to just and equitable treatment, the right to own properties and dispose of them, the right to enter into business contracts, the right to financial independence, the right to work within the bounds of the Shari’ah, the right to inheritance to mention but a few. In terms of worship and good deeds, men and women have equal rewards with Allah; none is rewarded more than the other. All these are just a pointer to the fact that by virtue of being Muslim women, we get a fair enough deal guaranteed by Allah Himself. No other religion has safeguarded the rights of women as Islam has done. Our rights are divine, not man made. And they are already established in the Shari’ah. Muslim women therefore do not need to assert new rights.
When God-Given Rights are Denied
But what happens when despite possessing all the divine rights that Allah has granted Muslim women, most women still find themselves caught in the web of culturally tainted practices of Islam where they are stripped off every single right they possess. Are Muslim women allowed to stand up for their divine human rights? If yes, does this make them feminists?
The answer to this question is quite elusive. The oppression of Muslim women especially in Muslim countries has opened a path for an intellectual discourse on the legality or otherwise of this menace. Unfortunately, the discourse is often accusatory; blaming Islam for the abuse, injustice and oppression of Muslim women when in fact it is some so – called Muslim men who are so embroiled in ignorance and extremism that intertwine their wrong cultural concepts of Islam and the consequential evil actions with false fatwas to justify them. For what in the name of Islam can justify domestic violence or a refusal to educate a girl child?
All around the world, Muslim women have been found to endure injustices that make them question the basis for such injustices, whether the Quran permits it and what kind of justice the Quran grants them. As a consequence, more and more Muslim women are striving to learn more about the Din and about their divine rights too. They are more than happy to be called rights activists rather than feminists. However, it has become a norm for so called Muslim men who do not believe that women have any of these rights to label pro – active Muslim women as feminists who have gone out of the fold of Islam. The word ‘feminist’ as it relates to Muslim women may therefore not connote the modern feminist movement. Rather, it is now generally used to refer to Muslim women who assert their God – given rights under the Shari’ah.
Oh! My servants, I have made oppression unlawful for me and unlawful for you, so do not commit oppression against one another. (Qudsi Hadith, Muslim)
In Islam, we have been urged not to oppress and not to be oppressed. So it will certainly not be wrong for a Muslim woman to stand up and assert that she has the right to be educated or to own properties or to choose whom to be married to. And if she does and ends up being labeled a feminist, does this really make her a feminist even if she gladly accepts the label?