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.

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