Monday, November 3, 2014

The leaving of calm waters by Metis

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” ― Jane Austen, Persuasion

I do not know when exactly I decided that I didn’t want to be a ‘fine lady’ and left the calm waters, but I think I can estimate a time when the process began. It may also have to do with the fact that I began to appreciate the most common definition of feminism.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Feminism within ‘faiths’ becomes trickier because women of faith want to remain within their particular faith while desiring equality with men in the political, economic, and social areas. However, most faiths are patriarchal because they were started by men before the rise of what we call ‘feminism’ or the desire to be equal to men. Many of such religious systems do not believe in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. These systems promote gender roles and a gender hierarchy that is often very strict and sometimes even harsh.

I was born and raised in quite a traditional Sunni Muslim family. Around the time I was growing up my father found a rekindled interest in Islam and made sure that all his daughters were raised ‘strictly’ as Muslim. My mother, a free-spirited and independent woman, took her independent nature for granted until she fell in love with, and married my father. Thereupon she grew increasingly frustrated with her “wings being constantly clipped.” That frustration set off a chain reaction that resulted in my decision to finally label myself a feminist.

Feminism, in my view, is not an irrational desire to be equal to men. A woman becomes, or realises that she already is, a feminist when she notices how she is constantly pulled down, degraded, or even humiliated for being the wrong sex. It happened to me around the time I turned eight and learned (ironically, through my mother) that she never wanted a daughter and consequently the day of my birth had become “the saddest day” of her life. It took me more than three decades and a Facebook comment from a stranger to finally understand her predicament – the dilemma of a ‘God-fearing woman.’ Her understanding of God is that He is male and Chose to speak only to men. For her, the male sex is already empowered, wise and in control. She wanted to do things in life but fell in love and willingly entered into a marriage that had a definite male head. She prayed to a male God, that male God told her that she must be faithful to one man, and she had to seek permission from that man to do what she wanted – sometimes he permitted her, but mostly she was too ‘wild’ for him to assent to her requests. Growing up without a father and in a family full of independent women (due to their fatherless situation), this became her dilemma. A son she desired but never had would have provided an escape from this cycle of suppression. She would have raised him in a way that she would be in control; he’d be her little knight, her caregiver in old age, her provider – just the way she wanted, without having to ask him for permission to do anything. Or at least that is what she thought. 

I work with feminism within faiths because I have not known a world without faith. Although I often choose to separate feminist activism from spirituality, I fully value the emotions of feminists who want to operate within their faiths. These women need a lot of support, especially those who belong to patriarchal organized religious systems. I work with such feminists and have recently begun to understand that while the respective religious systems support women’s causes, they do not necessarily empower them in the modern sense because these systems were established in another space and time. For example, while my parents’ faith supported my mother as a wife and a mother and gave her some rights, she was never equal in the marriage. The Quran never once tells the believers that the two sexes are equal or same in terms of gender rights on earth. There is, however, ‘equity’ (2:228) and ‘justice’ (4:34) and ‘similarity’ (2:228). Nevertheless, both sexes are completely equal in terms of spirituality and both are promised equal recompense in the Hereafter if they stay on the Right Path, and serve their time on this earth within the gender roles chalked up for them.

There are numerous women within Islam, and other religions as well, who are completely satisfied with this gender role arrangement. Many find such arrangements convenient; some even consider them empowering. But there are also women who desire equality between sexes on this earth to reflect the equality promised in the Hereafter. For many feminists who are Muslim, the main role model is Khadijah (first wife of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad) who married Muhammad before his prophethood and spent 15 years of her total 25 years of marriage to him in pre-Islamic period of Arabia. Khadijah symbolizes not only female empowerment but also complete equality with men. She proposed marriage to Muhammad who was her employee and did not have the means to get married. Therefore, she paid for the wedding and Muhammad moved in with her. She was a woman whom “the apostle never opposed” (Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, p. 313). Most Muslim feminists refer to Khadijah’s example to show that it is possible to demand equality between the sexes within Islam.

But such arguments are not that simple since most of Quranic law regarding gender roles was revealed and written down in Medina after Khadijah’s death. There are numerous Islamic feminist scholars who make arguments in favour of gender equality (in this world) by reinterpreting the Quranic law. One of the pioneers is Dr. Amina Wadud for whom I have deep respect. I acknowledge that neo Islamic/Muslim Feminism would have never even properly started if Dr. Wadud had not attempted to ‘reread the Sacred Text from a woman's perspective.’ The book gave many Islamic feminists the hope and encouragement to reinterpret the Quran from a Muslim woman’s perspective. Thousands of Muslim and Islamic feminists use these feminist interpretations to claim that “Islam elevates the status of women.” These feminists compare the exploited status of women in Arabia before Islam with the “elevated” status post-Islam in Medina. Ironically though, they ignore to note that Khadijah grew up and lived fifty five years of her life in pre-Islamic Arabia. I want to use this example to point out that Arabia of that time was not anymore monolithic than it is today. The ‘status of women’ varied from city to city and from one tribe to another. There were patriarchal tribes and matriarchal tribes. There were patrilineal lineages and there were matrilineal lineages. There were tribes that killed their baby daughters and there were tribes that trusted their daughters with the Keys to the Kaaba. There were fathers who sold off their daughters and then there were women who proposed to men they wanted to marry. There were fathers who left nothing for their daughters and then there were daughters who received generous inheritance from their fathers, like Khadijah. There were women who were not allowed to divorce and there were women who divorced their husbands at will and arbitrarily. Some tribes had polygynous men, while in others women married multiple times. Islam brought one law. It tried to strike a balance through ‘equity’ by creating gender roles. This Law gave many women rights they had never experienced before in their tribes, but it also took away some rights that other women had enjoyed. Fourteen hundred years later, feminists are asking for rights that were done away with initially like equality in divorce, inheritance, scholarship, profession, and marriage to name a few.

Many other feminists who are Muslim generally separate spirituality from social activism. Such feminists believe that Quran “contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos” however, it “far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be” (Farid Esack). I believe that Esack could have appreciated that human or gender rights are socially constructed and hence are always time-bound. Many apologists and critics alike fail to either notice or acknowledge this. I want to end this piece by sharing a question I was recently asked on Facebook. Someone asked if “Islam oppresses women.” This is a very complicated question. First of all, what is Islam? Islam is neither monolithic nor an ideology that can be defined simply. Every Muslim has their own Islam. Some Muslim men do oppress women but that does not mean that Islam, as a supposed monolithic religion, oppresses women or that even these men’s Islam teaches oppression of women. Second, times have changed and some of the 7th Century laws laid down about women are many times not applicable today. For example, in a world where many women work and support their parents in old age it is hardly fair to allot a lesser share in inheritance to them. Or for instance we cannot stop a Muslim female astronaut from going into space without a mahram (male)! Similarly in the modern world it is simply not suitable to require the witnesses of two women to equal that of one man. And most modern women would not accept disciplining of any form from their husbands. These laws were perfectly fine 1400 years ago, but they may seem oppressive today. Muslims who are feminists utilize different methods to make feminism work within their practice of Islam from reinterpreting Islamic texts to subscribing to secular feminism. What works for me personally is acknowledging that we don’t live in the Arabia of the 7th Century, separating ‘social law’ from ‘religious law’, and separating spirituality from feminism. It is the only way I have found to make my feminism compatible with my faith. 

by Metis, a selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Celeste Gurevich, Whatever Works Contributor

Whatever Works is a unique collection of writing by feminists of diverse faiths from around the world. This anthology combines personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking conversations among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays a key role in defining and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself. This book shares the stories of highly diverse women with the hope that we can find collective solutions to the global problems that plague women and girls living under patriarchy.
Available late March - pre-order here.
Metis is a wife, mother, academic, and a writer on topics related to Religion and Feminism.

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