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Is religion compatible with feminism?

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JUNE 26, 2015

In my experience with Islam, the hardest part for me was trying to reconcile my feminism with my faith. Growing up, I adhered to two seemingly contradictory beliefs: I was an outspoken feminist who wanted complete equality for everyone, and I was also a practicing Muslim. Over the years, these two sides constantly fought and tried to gain dominance.

I’ve been a feminist since I was 10, and although I’m still trying to consolidate my personal definition of feminism, I’m adamant that women gain total equality. Even though I could not personally reconcile religion and feminism, I don’t necessarily consider Islam — or any other religion — to be mutually exclusive of feminism.

Considering how religion — with so many people turning to it for comfort and guidance — plays such an important role in society, it’s important that religion treat women as complete equals. While religion offers time-honored wisdom and advice, it also needs to evolve to meet the needs of the time. It shouldn’t be used to hinder feminism or gay rights.

Because feminism, like religion, is not “one size fits all” and because many feminists have different opinions, I think it’s best if I explain what feminism means to me. I simply want all people — regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race — to have the same rights and opportunities. I also don’t like restrictive gender roles: Women can be engineers and business owners, while there is nothing wrong with a man taking on a more nurturing role.

In many ways, Islam was extremely progressive for its time. This religion was revealed when Saudi Arabia was in the age of jahiliyyah, or ignorance, and was steeped in sexist ideologies. Islam gave women the right to work and own property 1,400 years ago — rights that Western women got in the 19th century. Islam also treated women as people and not as commodities, as was custom at that time. Problems such as female infanticide were prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia, but Islam condemned these practices and established daughters as equally important as sons. The Prophet’s favorite wife, Aisha, also played a critical role in spreading Islamic knowledge and narrating the Prophet’s sayings to other scholars.

Many Muslims also view the Prophet Muhammad as a pioneering feminist who fought for women’s rights and elevated their position in society. The Quran and the hadith, or Prophet’s sayings, portray him as being gentle and compassionate. He also didn’t consider chores to be just women’s work and would help out in the household.

While Islam and the Prophet have given women many rights, I still feel that there are many areas where these rights aren’t enough, especially according to today’s standards. Islam is extremely progressive when seen in the context of seventh century Arabia, but we are no longer in that age. Religion is still very restrictive when it comes to gay rights; topics such as abortion; total equality, such as having female imams; and flexible gender roles.

Feminist scholars of Islam, such as Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi, offer more liberal interpretations of the Quran, but their arguments can be quite selective. Wadud, for example, insists that Muslim women can lead prayer, even though there are hadith that advise against it.

The Quran offers some contradictory messages when it comes to women’s rights. Some verses insist that men and women are completely equal, but other verses state that “men are the protectors and maintainers of women” (Surah An-Nisa: 34) and that “men have a degree over women” (Surah Al-Baqarah: 228).

Religion might treat men and women equally, but it adheres to the “equal but different” mentality. In terms of capabilities, I don’t think men and women are inherently different, although society socializes them to adopt different roles.

Islam places great value on a woman’s role as a mother and nurturer, while it portrays the father as the protector and provider. While taking Islamic classes and reading countless books on how the ideal Muslim woman should act, I found that many statements encouraged women to be obedient, dutiful wives who beautified themselves for only their husbands.

What made me really furious, though, was the description of Hoor al-Ayn, or the virgins promised to men, that are described in the Quran as being fair, firm-breasted and untouched. This makes me feel that God primarily caters to men’s desires and treats women as sex objects.

Still, I feel that Islam represents women better than the other monotheistic religions do. For example, unlike Christianity, Islam doesn’t blame Eve for the fall of man and instead holds Adam and Eve equally accountable.

I know many feminists who are also extremely religious. While I couldn’t reconcile my beliefs, other feminists still look to their faith for comfort and strength, which is admirable.

It’s important for people to discover what their religion says about individual rights and to understand why religion states what it does. Often, people mistake cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation, for religious laws, and these practices, along with patriarchal interpretations, make religion appear more sexist than it actually is.

Open discussion and liberal interpretations, as well as understanding scripture in its historical context, can help reform religion so that it is better suited for modern society.

Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].

JUNE 28, 2015