Women, Sexuality and Islam – Final Thoughts

This class has been one of the most challenging, yet most enjoyable classes that I’ve experienced during my time at SNHU.  It has certainly raised far more questions about the topic of Women, Sexuality and Islam than I had prior to starting, but I think in many ways it’s designed to.  This topic is full of biases that come from simply being a part of a different culture than that which is being studied, and while the readings, discussions and papers have certainly served to allow me to see beyond those biases, the questions raised as those biases are stripped off seem far more pressing.  The reading for this final module is perfect, and I’m incredibly grateful that it did not come at any other time through this course.  Is Islam truly to blame for its treatment of women?  Is it a cultural problem?  Is it a reactionary move against Western post-colonialism, or is it in reality a combination of all 3?  Can the veil be empowering to the women who choose to wear it, or can anything that is down because of coercion truly empowering?  None of these questions have easy answers, and it seems that in its desire to demonize and distance itself from Western cultural values and practices, Islam has regressed even further and embraced the often-heavy yolk of fundamentalism.  But Islam is not alone in this regard.  We see a resurgence of fundamentalism in certain aspects of Western cultural traditions as well.  It would seem that in many ways these two clashing and competing cultural norms feed off of each other, and the result is a reactionary culture battle between East and West that serves to further entrench both sides with little progress being made towards equality, egalitarianism and cross-cultural respect.

I mentioned in my initial journal entry that Islam would be deadly to me.  In some regards, that sentiment is still true.  In others, my mind is slowly starting to shift and see Islam as an institution differently.  That’s the point, however – it’s not an institution, not any more than the multitude of Christian sects can be labeled an institution just because they share similar beliefs.  Islam is a belief system comprised of many interpretations, practices and cultural values, much like Christianity in the West is.  To try to characterize it, simplify it or categorize it would be a significant error in judgement that would forbid truly understanding it in any real meaningful way.  While apologists and legal specialists like El Fadel would argue, Islam is meant to be constantly changing and evolving.  The reality on the ground, however, is somewhat different from his idealized perspective.  The truth is that women are treated worse in Islamic cultures and states than they are elsewhere in the world in many meaningful and measurable ways.  That is not to say, though, that Western treatment of women is superior – it certainly has its own faults and a long way to go before it can be recognized as truly equal.  Ultimately the lessons that I’ve learned throughout this course will inform future dialogues I have with people about Islam as a cultural, political and legal system in the efforts to further the cause of fruitful and meaningful discussion rather than arguments and lingering xenophobic ideals.

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Fundamentalism, Islam and Agency

This entire term it seems as though we’ve wrestled and understood writers who view Islam through the lens of colonialism, custom, culture and outside influence when attempting to explain woman’s role within it.  This module, however, we get a different perspective from Haideh Moghissi.  While other writers are content to insist in various ways that Islam’s view on women is inconsistent with the Quran and Muhammed’s original vision for his new religion, Moghissi places the blame for Islam’s greater treatment of women on Islam itself.  I’m incredibly glad that we got to read this perspective for our last term of the course, as I believe it balances all of the other resources we’ve explored and poses the problem from an internal-looking view, rather than the external view we’ve been seeing with few exceptions for the past several weeks.

There is little doubt that the views of women through the lenses of various religions have been less than ideal for centuries.  Women have been the scapegoats for societal ills, anti-female polemics, weaker, less intelligent and sexually dangerous.[1]  It would seem apparent from a comparative study of three of the world’s main religions that women are a powerful and intimidating force to be reckoned with, able to completely control and manipulate the men of society in deity-defying ways, and each religion has adopted different doctrines and practices within society to attempt to control and mitigate those dangers in order to safeguard society at large.  Moghissi demolishes (rather successfully, in my opinion) arguments for the empowering nature of the veil that we studied in our first week of the term, and shows the misogynistic nature of fundamentalist Islam for what it truly is with abrupt, honest and opinionated language that flies in the face of many arguments we’ve encountered throughout our work in this course.   She argues that colonialism cannot accurately take the whole measure of blame for women’s treatment in Islamic cultures, and that deeper, inherent problems must be addressed before true egalitarian change can be recognized and implemented.[2]

The discussion prompt this week asks if there is any point to reading and understanding the work of Mernissi, Abu-Lughod and Ahmed that we’ve been picking apart for the past several weeks.  Ultimately, the answer has to be yes.  The beauty of Moghissi’s work in our last week of the term is to recognize the flip side to the other arguments that we’ve been encountering, and to recognize both the positives and negatives of Islam’s view on and treatment of women in Islam.  To echo El Fadl from the last module, change in Islam – even minor change – must be implemented from within an Islamic framework.  This is a point that Moghissi seems to indirectly echo in her chapters.  Any influence from the Western “other” is simply going to be looked at in much the same way that colonial values were viewed.  It is going to cause fundamentalism to double-down on its positions, leading to even stricter adherence to an ancient and misogynistic interpretation of the Shari’ah which could, in fact, make the plight of women in Muslim societies even worse.  To argue for the base egalitarianism of Islam towards gender, one would need to frame an argument in Islamic context with Islamic language in an Islamic culture to have any hope of success.

Do Muslim women need saving?  Moghissi seems to think that the answer is a tentative yes – but what they need saving from in many ways is themselves and the repressive way in which they’ve been instructed in “correct” Islam which prompts them to behave in a manner consistent of and in deference to Islamic fundamentalism.  They cannot, by contrast, be dragged kicking and screaming into the western values and culture, nor is western culture necessarily superior or goal-worthy.  Instead, encouraging women to study the Quran, the Hadith and the Shari’ah for themselves and to practice it in a manner that they are comfortable with seems to be the best practice in improving their treatment both by outside sources such as the legal system and their families but also by themselves for themselves.

[1] Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, (London:  Zed Books, 1999): 25.

[2] Ibid, 19.

Can Islam Evolve to Accept the LGBTQIA Community

Islam, at least as understood by Western society and culture does not seem particularly accepting of gays and lesbians within the greater Muslim community.  It is surprising to realize, therefore, that the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed have very little – if anything – to say about gays and lesbians, and are entirely silent on the topics of sexual orientation and gay and lesbian relationships.  Islam’s ultimate authority, therefore, unlike the Bible in Christian tradition does not condemn or forbid homosexual unions – unions that were not unheard of in Muhammed’s time.[1]  While it’s true that many predominately Muslim countries proclaim homosexuality as illegal with several even invoking the death penalty for those found guilty, attitudes are perhaps beginning to shift due to the constant and heroic actions of many gay and lesbian Muslims and their allies.[2]

While the Bible condemns homosexual acts and behaviors in both the Old and New Testaments, the Quran is virtually silent on the matter, aside from the familiar story of Lut and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The Prophet Muhammed was also silent on both sexual orientation and homosexual behaviors, although they were certainly practiced throughout his lifetime by those he knew.[3]  By understanding not only where the predominant view of homosexuality in Islam comes from but also the heterosexism inherent in much of Muslim culture, it is possible to trace these attitudes and map out a possible course of action to stop them.  Surprisingly the West has a part to play in Islamic attitudes on sexuality and sexual orientation.[4]  A return to traditionalism and fundamentalism in Islamic culture, jurisprudence and authority, much like its counterpart in Western society, has forced a hardline approach towards homosexual behavior and sexual orientation.[5]  But fundamentalism in much of Muslim society – at least society that is not found in an Islamic or Shari’a state government – has not stemmed the tide of growing awareness and acceptance at a societal level.[6]  In Muslim communities not governed by a state-sanctioned or enforced Shari’a legal code, understandings about homosexuality and sexual orientation have begun to develop as more and more professionals have come out to denounce both reparative therapy and calls for perpetual celibacy for those in the gay community.[7]

State-sanctioned persecution and repression are not the only obstacles to gay and lesbian Muslims, however.  Many members of the gay community are marginalized, stigmatized and disowned by their families or communities upon coming out.[8]  In order for the gay community to gain acceptance in Muslim culture, therefore, it is imperative to not only confront the legal reality facing many members of the gay and lesbian community, but also the social reality inherent in coming out and attempting to live an authentic life.  Many gay and lesbian Muslims mention being disowned, cut off or even facing violent retribution from their family members.[9]  It is unreasonable to assume that should sexual orientation be understood as involuntary and inherent under the law in Muslim countries that it would automatically be accepted on a societal or familial level as well.  Much like the culture in many Western societies where homosexuality is being normalized on a daily basis, individual acceptance varies widely by not only religious norms but cultural ones as well.  Acceptance for the gay community in any societal group is ultimately dependent upon shifts in thinking that cannot happen solely at the state level, but on the individual level as well.

As more and more courageous members of the LGBTQIA community step forwards and identify themselves in predominately Muslim communities, the louder their collective voices will become, and the more normalized homosexuality will be.  Although the voices of fundamentalism may be loud, they are gradually being outdone by voices of compassion, science, reason and counter-apologetics.  The conversations within family groups, cultural groups and societal groups are beginning to shift more towards acceptance and tolerance around the world, and the Islamic world [10]at large is not immune from the change.  Although it seems unlikely in the current divisive and cultural climate, the winds of tolerance are sweeping through the Muslim world one voice at a time, and it seems evident from similar trends that Muslim jurisprudence will find a way to accept sexual orientation eventually in much the same way as the United States has.  Though those critical and opposed to equality may never completely fade, new generations are lending their voices to the change on a daily basis, often putting their lives on the line in the process.  Ultimately this will result in the ability of Islam to respect the differences of their gay and lesbian members, and welcome them into the fold of Islam.  When asking if Islam can evolve to accept their LGBTQIA members, the answer has to be yes because, in reality, it is already in process.  Although progress is slow, the change has already begun.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

AbuKhalil, Asad.  “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization.”  The Arab Studies Journal 1, no. 2 (1993): 32-34, 48.

 

Helie, Anissa.  “Holy Hatred.”  Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 120-124.

 

Jahangir, Junaid B & Hussein Abdul-latif.  “Investigating the Islamic Perspective on Homosexuality.”  Journal of Homosexuality 63, no. 7 (2016): 925-954.

 

Kugle, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle.  Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims.  New York: NYU Press, 2014.

[1] Anissa Helie, “Holy Hatred,” Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 121.

[2] Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 22.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] As’ad AbuKhalil, “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization,” The Arab Studies Journal 1, no. 2 (1993): 33.

[5] Ibid, 33.

[6] Kugle, 22.

[7] Junaid B Jahangir & Hussein Abdul-latif, “Investigating the Islamic Perspective on Homosexuality,” Journal of Homosexuality 63, no. 7 (2016): 934.

[8] Helie, 121.

[9] Kule, 38.

[10] Jahangir & Abdul-latif, 935.

Authority, Responsibility and the Law

If there is one thing that the reading this weak made abundantly clear is the element of personal responsibility in the Islamic world.  I find the idea admirable in a way.  In so much of culture of the United States that I see and experience (especially these days) there is a tendency to try to shift blame to someone – anyone else – and not take any level of personal responsibility for your own words, actions and beliefs.  To be fair, the United States has always been a litigious society, just ask the Pilgrims.  But I digress.  The simple base knowledge that each individual Muslim is responsible to God for all of their actions regardless of their education, beliefs or knowledge levels means that diligently seeking the truth, seeking out those more educated and aware than yourself and making sure that you are reasonably well informed on God’s will and expectations becomes critical.[1]  I also found it particularly interesting that in Islamic thought, God judges a person not necessarily on their conclusions or the end result of their search for the Divine will but rather on their efforts.[2]

Although the reading was difficult to follow at times and was highly technical and informative, the concepts of authority verses authoritarianism were also particularly interesting.  Since there is no “church” in Islam, and no central authority or religious leadership that could be compared to the Pope in the Catholic faith, understanding the will of God and accepting that will and “submitting” – literally the meaning of the world Islam – to that will becomes the product of individual search.[3] Since it is not possible for every Muslim to become an expert on Islamic jurisprudence, they rely on various jurist schools within Islamic tradition, though these jurists themselves are not in a position of authority with an expectation of obedience without question.[4]  Although debated and somewhat curtailed, questioning is actually a foundational principle of Islam, and choosing a jurist school to follow is completely up to the individual.[5]

While Shari’a should necessarily be evolving, changeable and informed by the culture and the people of various generations, it seems to have become more fixed and unchangeable.  I see this as an indication of power struggles within Islam itself and the desire to exert authority over Muslim people, not necessarily keeping the fundamental teachings, beliefs and practices of Muhammed himself or his vision for Islam going past his death. For women specifically, this manifests in a male-dominated society and cultural practices that in many ways keep them from the equality that was perhaps Muhammed’s original intent.

[1] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name, (London: United One World, 2001), 58.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 43.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid, 58.

Islam’s Relation to Culture

As our readings throughout this course became more and more advanced, they combined into a functional understanding of what Islam is – as well as what Islam isn’t.  I think it’s absolutely certain that Islam exists apart from the collection of Muslims who practice it.  Religions have come and gone throughout history, but the memory of them lingers even when their followers no longer exist.  Almost everyone can name at least one Greek or Roman god, even though the practice of those ancient religions have faded into obscurity.  As religions stop being practiced, they start being viewed through the lens of mythology rather than practiced religions, but nevertheless the memory of them persists.

That being said, I also believe that Islam is as much a product of the multiple cultures where it is practiced as it is about a particular holy text or collection of beliefs.  We saw this in our readings from the very beginning of the term, and it has held true throughout all 6 weeks so far.  It started in regards to the veil as we read in our very first module, expressed and argued by Abu-Lughod and its place in culture and society in Muslim communities it became obvious that the practices of Islam vary by culture, region and people.[1]  It continued through the aftermath of Muhammed’s death and the influence of both his male and female followers in Module 3.[2]  How women are viewed under the veil of Islam varies greatly by culture, locale and attitudes of those enmeshed in those societies.

This module as we look at both gendered reactions towards death and female genital mutilation, we are faced with a lot of cultural norms that are abhorrent to us in Western society that are practiced by Muslims in Africa, instead of the Middle East.  Although FGM is not a tradition exclusive or even originating within Islam, it is one that is practiced widely in various areas.  Understanding the practice is difficult, since no one really knows who started it or why, but understanding various positive reactions and implications associated with it starts to shed light on the tradition.[3]  In my opinion, this is yet another example to follow many others in previous modules of culture influencing Islam, and Islam both condemning and supporting cultural norms in a specific society.[4]

In closing, I think it may be possible in some instances to separate Islam from the cultures it is practiced in, but doing so would be tedious and difficult.  Islam, like many other religions practiced around the world, seems deeply connected to various cultures and societal norms in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

[1] Lila Aabu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 784.

[2] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminists Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1991): 70.

[3] Kathryn M Yount, “Symbolic Gender Politics, Religious Group Identity and the Decline in Female Genital Cutting in Minya, Egypt,” Social Forces 82, no. 3 (2004): 1063.

[4] Ibid, 1083.

Islam in the Modern World

While this week’s reading may initially seem to be more progressive than a lot of the conservative ideology previously covered in other resources this term, I do not agree that it can actually be labeled as progressive.  It is certainly not a shift towards more liberal interpretations of the Quran, the Hadiths or centuries worth of clerical jurisprudence.  Instead, I see the surprising stance presented this module about both artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery as merely loopholes through which to shove previously established dogmas and understandings.  To frame my meaning in terms of a much more familiar (to most of us) religious context, we see a lot of progressive branches of Christianity attempting to fundamentally change and challenge various verses and doctrines found within the Bible, admitting in many cases that previous understandings were incorrect, and often acknowledging the harm those misunderstandings have caused others.  That is not, however, what we see happening in Islam, contrary to what Abdullahi An-Naim advoctates for in his essay, calling on the need for understandings of Shari’a law to be fluid.[1]

In Islam, we see scholars finding loopholes around firmly entrenched interpretations and understandings in light of increased knowledge, technology and science.  We don’t see them admitting to misinterpretation or error, merely finding ways around precedent as in the case of transsexualism and the fact that it is accepted in Iran specifically because the Quran does not directly address it.[2] While it was surprising for me to learn about not only the legality of sex reassignment surgery in Iran, its frequency and also its relatively early inception compared to other nations, the logic behind it was heartbreaking.  While there are no doubt legitimate transsexuals in Iran that have benefitted from this policy, there is equally no doubt that a large number of people who would identify as gay or lesbian have opted for the label of transsexual in a desperate attempt to escape both the social stigma of homosexuality and its potentially lethal criminal consequences.[3]  In a culture and society where being gay is not only deeply shameful to the individual and their family but also illegal, seeking escape by a willingness to be certified as transsexual is a desperate bid for even a small portion of individual freedom, expression and potential safety – although safety is far from guaranteed.[4]  While difficult to say it is striking how many similarities there could potentially be between Iran and the United States in terms of the stigmatization of gender bias in the case of MtF transsexuals verses FtMs.  Safety is hardly guaranteed even here, and it is far more socially acceptable to be a FtM transsexual than the other way around – a clear example of how much further our society has to go to truly embrace notions of gender equality and a distancing of stigmatism based solely on gender bias.

Finally, it was a remark by Morgan Clarke that caught my attention this week to wrap up a particularly difficult (for me personally as a gay non-believer in the United States) module.  He argues that no one can truly be called a liberal when they truly believe that God has set forth a standard which defines unequivocally the right way to live, but then goes on to highlight the importance of continuing to readjust the understanding of that standard.  If that readjustment or “evolution” of beliefs does not occur, the core belief will cease being relevant within the context of our ever-changing modern world.[5]

[1] Abdullahi An-Na’im, “the Dichotomy Between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” in Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 58.

[2] Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. ¾ (2008), 27.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Morgan Clarke, “Children of the Revolution: ‘Ali Khamene’I’s ‘Liberal” Views on in vitro Fertilization,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 34, no. 3 (2007): 302.

Women, Islam and the Law

As I look back on the combined readings that we’ve had so far throughout this class, I’m struck by the simple idea that Islam – at least at a fundamental level – has the potential for gender equality, yet also has the potential for misogyny.  The readings this week seem to point to one of the reasons why the history of Islam has focused on the latter, rather than the former option by narrowing the scope to a single passage in the Quran and how it was interpreted by Medieval Muslim scholars, opinions that have been carried forward in many instances to the present day.  It could be argued, successfully most likely, that Islam at its core – at least in written form through the Quran – is less inherently misogynistic than either Judaism or Christianity.  In Judaism, women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers or husbands, with many laws put in place to limit their rights.  Christianity marked the apostle Paul making it clear that women were not allowed to have authority over men or even speak in public in Church.  The issue I had with the reading this week was that policies/practices of misogyny in Islam, although not inherent in Muhammed’s message, combined with tribalistic ideals of the culture and time in which it was formed, and those ideas became the predominant view from the 7th century onward, and are still prevalent today.

Fadel raises some interesting points in his article, although it focuses on a very limited time and place.  He does do a good job of extricating medieval ideals and principles and carrying them forward into the present when contrasting with the writings of other writers we’ve encountered thus far this term.  Although the Quranic verse 2:282 Fadel bases his article on initially seems undeniably discriminatory, the way Fadel uses medieval Islamic scholars to shine a light on the intent and justification behind the verse is incredibly enlightening.[1]   Had Islamic thought truly believed the word of a woman was inferior to that of a man, as Fadel points out, they would hardly be reliable sources of Hadith and other legal positions.[2]  The fact that Aisha not only narrated Hadith as well as gave commentary and opinion on legal matters and disputes speaks volumes on the nature of early Islamic thought, and seems to directly contradict the verse being examined.[3]  Regardless of the reasons given in the commentary about the verse by medieval Islamic jurists, both carry further implications – whether avoiding non-compliance by adding the testimony of a man for corroboration or simply keeping the women within the home in the private sphere, both answers add a layer to the relation of women inside the Islamic world.[4]  The separation of the private and public spheres in gender relations within Islam are both fascinating and foreign to me, as is the relationship between political speech and narration.  The distinctions, however, deepen my understanding of Islam as it exists within the modern world.

 

The key point of Fadel’s article, however, that really drove his arguments home for me was his acknowledgement of Ahmed, who we read in a previous module.  Yes, there are two inherent voices within Islam in relation to gender and gender relations.[5]  But as Fadel rightly points out in response, these voices are not a modern feminist invention or revelation – they have always been in existence and opposed throughout the history of Islam, and will most likely continue to be until a shift in general consensus can be obtained.[6]  The key to this facet of the argument rests in Fadel’s suggestion that “Muslim modernism in general, and Muslim feminism in particular, might profit from exploiting problems and tensions that have long been recognized to exist within Islamic law” rather than pursuing a “new” approach to jurisprudence.[7]

[1] Mohammed Fadel, “Two Women, One Man: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in Medieval Sunni Legal Thought,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, no. 2 (1997): 187.

[2] Ibid, 192.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 193.

[5] Ibid, 200.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.