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.

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