Thursday, May 21, 2009

Islamic Feminism

A commentary in one of yesterday's local newspapers (link available in the title above) discusses the difference in treatment of women in the Quran and in practice in Muslim societies. The author, Amal Mohammed Al Malki, teaches English at the Qatar branch of Carnegie Mellon. There is a very strong voice of women in this region that is barely noticed in Western press. And as we move to remove stereotypical assumptions of others, commentaries like this are instructive.

The commentary is preceded by a reminder of the early elevation of women's rights in Muslim societies:

Those who study the Quran know that Islam elevated the rights of women beyond anything known in the pre-Islamic world. Muslim women were granted rights in the 7th century, such as property ownership, inheritance and divorce, not granted to European women until the 19th century.

The author opens by presenting the strong dichotomy often apparent in the treatment of women in Muslim societies.
How is it that Islam seems capable of undermining women and promoting them at the same time? Anyone attempting to take stock of the position of women in the Muslim world cannot help but be confused. One finds stories in the media all the time about injustices committed against Muslim women, such as “honour” killings, child marriage and unequal legal judgments in matters of divorce, custody and inheritance.

On the other hand, one also comes across stories about the remarkable strides made by Muslim women in education, career development and political activism in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Morocco and Turkey.

How can we make sense of such a dichotomous picture?

The answer is simple: by distinguishing the religion of Islam from the Muslims who practice it.

The article suggests that there are two main norms being challenged: the patriarchal cultural customs mistaken for Islamic teaching and patriarchal interpretations of certain Quran verses.

Arifa Mazhar, manager of gender issues for the Pakistan-based Sungi Development Foundation, which attempts to mobilise marginalised local communities on behalf of their own development, declared at the International Congress on Islamic Feminism in Barcelona in 2008: “Instead of debating Islam, we should be debating culture and its impact ... There are a lot of social taboos and tribal traditions that oppress women, and they have little to do with Islam.”

The article concludes
Rooted in Islam and the Quranic spirit of equity, Islamic feminism provides a credible political voice for women. It gives women’s organisations, women’s rights advocates and gender scholars in the Muslim world legitimate grounds for action while fulfilling their religious obligations.