Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Is Islam a sexist religion?

"Polygamy in Islam: the women victims of multiple marriage" ran a BBC headline last year, condemning the "Islamic" practice.

And polygamy is only the tip of the iceberg. The veil, female circumcision and Islamic child custody laws are just some of the other issues highlighted by critics who describe the faith as mysogynistic. Yet, apologists for Islam have long argued the religion safeguards the rights of women and that the critics misunderstand or misrepresent the issues. So which is it? Is Islam a sexist religion?

Polygamy, though permitted in Islamic law, has been a source of debate within the Muslim community. The Quran makes clear that polygamy is only permissible if the man can treat all the wives equally. Yet many modernists argue that such absolute equity is impossible to achieve, and so such a stipend effectively disallows the practice.

However, according to Islamic scholar Muhammad Metwali Alsharawi, polygamy is often necessary in order to prevent women from remaining unmarried when men are scarce (such as in times of war). He points out that in the Hanbali school of Islam, the bride’s family can forbid a man from taking further wives in the marriage contract if they so please. Other claim the practice protects older or barren wives from divorce while ensuring that a man is able to procreate, and that it can be considered better than the monogamy of the West which leaves "loopholes" for affairs and thus leads to grave social hypocrisy and inequality.

One might argue that the fact that polyandry (women marrying several men) is not permitted is evidence of Islamic patriarchal bias. However, Islamic scholar, Badawi, explained: "in the case of polygamy, the lineal identities of children are not confused...In the case of polyandry, however, only the mother is known for sure. The father could be any of the husbands of the same wife. In addition to lineal identity problems, polyandry raises problems relating to inheritance law. For example, which of the children inherits or shares in the estate of a deceased probable father?"

Sexist? Perhaps you could argue so. Yet it seems rather that polygamy is simply a practice based on practical, if outdated, ideas about societal structures and female autonomy, which seek to protect women. Most Muslim scholars discourage it and in practice it is fairly rare.

Islamic laws on child custody
Islam venerates the mother, as the tradition "verily God has forbidden disobedience to your mother" suggests. Mothers are a crucial first source of religious knowledge for a child; the famous Islamic scholar Sultan Bahu for example, attributed much of his religious knowledge and piety to his mother's influence.

Despite this, custody remains a contentious issue in the religion. While most scholars agree that a child should stay with its mother during the nursing period, what should follow is a matter of considerable debate. Traditions on the issue seem to allow the child to chose between his parents and yet no age is stipulated for this decision and there are fears that the child would tend to simply chose the parent who played with it more. Of the four main “schools” of Islam, Hanafi Muslims say a boy should move to his father aged approximately seven, while a girl should stay until the start of menstruation. Maliki Muslims claim a boy should stay with his mother until puberty and a girl until marriage, the Shafi'i school state a child should chose aged seven or eight and the Hanbalis say a boy should chose aged 7 whereas a girl should always go to the father. Nobody could argue that such a system does not show bias towards the father and yet again, this seems to reflect traditional societal structures, rather than simply the subjugation of women.

Female Circumcision
Female circumcision horrifies most in the West, and yet in fact it seems that it horrifies most Muslims too. Muslim scholars tend to be hostile to it, regarding it as a "cultural phenomenon" rather than an Islamic one, and as the practice generally occurs only in those countries where it was employed before Islam, this seems highly likely.

The use of the veil by Muslim Women
The veil is the iconic image of Islam’s ‘oppression’ of its women. It is banned in schools and public offices in France, and has caused similar controversies in neighboring England, where in 2010 a YouGov poll found that 67% of Brits would ban the burka (the full veil.)

Yet many argue that the West has only itself to blame. Figures such as the British Consul-General of Egypt Lord Cromer (who was also incidentally the head of the anti-suffrage movement in the UK) launched campaigns against the veil in Egypt as a symbol of Islam’s "oppression" of women and its backwardness, converting the veil from a piece of cloth into a symbol of Islamic resistance to Western imperialism. In the eyes of many Muslims the hijab ensures the stability of the family in society and allows women to be judged on the basis of their behavior and intellect, rather than as objects of desire, as in the West.

Opinions on the practice of veiling are extremely varied. The Salafi trend tends to favour the use of the face-veil where the other schools see the covering of the body and hair as sufficient. Modernists have attempted to take a stand against the full face-veil, claiming it is a cultural phenomenon, and modernizing governments such as the Kermalists in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran banned it completely.

Despite this an increasing number of educated women are choosing to reveil. If this choice is made by a woman herself, independent of pressures from husband or family, then it is difficult to see how the practice can be seen as any more patriarchal than the efforts made by male-dominated modernising movements to ban it.

The Quran
"I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam because I was able to think of the highest power as one completely without sex or race and thus completely unpatriarchal.’- Sautaz Aziz

The Muslim God found in the Qur’an is above gender. Although the term huwa (He) is used to describe Him, it is also used to refer to genderless, inanimate objects. The various names used to describe God in Islam include both attributes we might associate with masculinity and ones more commonly associated with femininity. The Qur’anic God therefore exists in stark contrast the Biblical God, who is regularly described as "the Father" and whose manifestation on Earth was ostensibly masculine. "To call God the Father is the call fathers God," says feminist theologian Mary Daly. Patriarchy is enshrined in Christianity and Judaism in a way that in Islam it simply is not.

Spiritual equality between the genders in Islam
As well as having a deity who is genderless, Islam is clear on the spiritual equality of men and women. The Qur’an refers to "men who surrender to Allah and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe...Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward", which casts no doubt on women's equality in terms of reaching God.

Likewise, as Saadia Chishti wrote in Female Spirituality in Islam, "once a woman strives in the spiritual life she is able to gain access to all the possibilities of the Islamic tradition and to become, like man, the vicegerent of God." In Sufism women can even become saints and a great many did, as the book A'lam al-nisa' fi 'alam al-'arab wa'l-islam by 'Umar Rida Khalar clearly documents. However, Chishti also asserts that "men and women can approach the divine only by remaining faithful to their respective forms created by the creator and the duties assigned to them by Him as their Master". Patriarchy takes root in the roles prescribed to the sexes then, even if God has made men and women equal. 

Female characters of Islamic tradition
The female figures in the Qur’an and Islamic traditions to a large extent form the religious base for most perceptions of the female gender and its role in society and thus offer us another interesting perspective on the issue of sexism.

Many Islamic traditions testify to the fact that "God brought Eve out of Adam's crooked rib" and understandably, many have taken this to be a sexist statement. 13th century Sufi Ibn Arabi however, used the same traditions to argue the sacredness of sexuality and of the woman’s role; Eve is like a branch to which Adam is the root - the branch longs for the root, since it represents her origin, but the root’s existence is only for the sake of the branch. The implications of this are clear; men and women are seen to be of equal import but serve different roles.

While Eve is clearly "derivative" of Adam (her name is also absent from the Qur'an itself), she is not blamed in the Quran for the fall of man, as she is in both Judaism and Christianity. In the Quran, Satan either whispers in just Adam's ear or the ears of both Adam and Eve and so they share the blame for eating from the forbidden tree. Also in the Quranic account, Eve clearly acts with free will and independent thought (she eats the fruit of her own initiative, not that of her husband) thereby further demonstrating women's autonomy in terms of religion

The other women to appear in the Quran include examples of female piety and worth, as well as stories which act as warnings of sinful behaviour. Mary is said in the Qur’an to be an "example to the righteous" whose obedience, devotion and modesty are factors to be emulated by Muslim women. The chapter of the Quran named after Mary is extremely popular, believed among some women to confer special blessings. The stories of Lot and Noah’s wives are uncomplicatedly negative and were read in the past as warnings about the sinful, and thus inferior, nature of women. Yet generally, the stories have also come to be seen as warnings to sinners in general, the fact that they are women not being of specific importance, and it goes without saying of course, that the Qur’an has its fair share of male sinners too.

Meanwhile more positive images of women function as role models for many Muslim women, along with many traditions of the wives of the prophet of Islam. Muhammad’s wife Aisha led an army in war. Another wife, Khadija, was an astute businesswoman and close to the Prophet, and the pious female characters in the Qur’an chose to maintain their faith in God even when their husbands and those around them rejected it.

It goes without saying that the question of whether Islam can be considered sexist is extremely difficult to answer since neither "gender" nor "Islam" mean one thing to all people. Ideas about women in Islam have been blighted with bad press and a fair dose of Islamophobia, and yet in many ways Islam is patriarchal, as the Quranic claim "men have a rank above women" testifies. Yet in other ways, almost always overlooked by the outside world, the Quran goes further than either of the other two monotheisms towards equality of the sexes; God is genderless and his worshipers equal before him. It is this that leads some Muslim women to push for what they call "Islamic Feminism"; complete gender equality in a completely Islamic context. @LydiaGreen17

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