How we were sold on patriarchal religion—reason #59

Because we knew it all. After having read a few pamphlets, and heard a few inspiring (and carefully vague) talks on “the status of woman in Islam” (as such talks were often entitled back in the early ’80’s).

Let me back up a bit here. Several weeks ago, I received a comment that weirded me out because it could have been written by me years ago.

It was a rather unnerving experience, but also an instructive one.

Hajar writes:

“I am a convert, who recently moved from Western Europe to Egypt. I hear all the time that women are oppressed here and controled by men. I however don’t see this in my daily life here. Women work, they are doctors, lawyers, scientists, pharmacists etc.
I also dont know any hadeeth that are demeaning to women, actually i know many that show that men should treat women well.
As always, one must differentiate between tradition and religion. The traditions are stuck to cultures, the religion is what the religious books (bible, quran) say. traditions can change as the people change, religion, like God is constant.
I am sure that every man who abuses a woman, inside himself he knows that what he is doing is wrong, he is just too selfish to stop. All persons (with a few exceptions) are born with the knowledge or intuition of what is right and wrong.
What are the parts of quran or the trusted hadeeth that are demeaning to women according to you all???”


Yes, well. That does pretty much summarize my initial response to the situation faced by Muslim women in the various Muslim countries that I ended up in years ago: Like, wow! They’re not all locked up at home! They have access to higher education! They work at professional jobs! Take that, western media! And man—the feminists from those countries are sell-outs. I mean, here they are complaining about all the problems that women have, but it clearly isn’t all that bad.

Because my initial impressions, as a newcomer, were of course far more accurate than those of feminist activists who had been born and raised there.

And this comment also summarizes my initial response to any suggestion that any hadiths are degrading to women. Of course the authentic hadith couldn’t possibly be degrading. If a hadith was degrading, then it must not be authentic. (What a circular argument—but I didn’t notice that at the time.)

And of course, any oppressive practice must be due to “culture” and not “religion.” As if anyone anywhere is ever culture-free, much less able to interpret the Qur’an, the Hadith or fiqh while standing beyond culture.

Thing is, I never thought to ask questions that went beyond surface appearances. Questions such as: What is oppression, exactly? What is male control? What circumstances and conditions enable girls and women to resist oppression? To gain autonomy? Is it possible for someone to be highly privileged in one or more aspects of their life, and at the same time be significantly limited in other ways, to the extent that they could be said to be oppressed?? Does the law here compel parents to send their daughters as well as their sons to school? If so, for how many years? Is the law enforced? Do girls receive an equal education, or do they often have to make do with substandard facilities and teachers? What sorts of choices can girls and women make about their lives, their bodies, their futures?

We thought we knew it all because we had been educated to think so. Growing up in white, small-town ’70’s North America, our education simply assumed that “our ways” were the best and most self-evidently rational ways. Period.

Converting to Islam didn’t magically erase our ethnocentrism. Our certainty that white, North American middle-class ways were self-evidently the best had been turned upside down, but our reflexive and unexamined impulse to pass judgment on everything, even when we knew next to nothing about it was still quite intact. Reinforced by the apologetic Islamist pamphlets that we read and talks that we heard.

And we were young and idealistic. We didn’t have that much patience for nuance, for complexity, or for human frailty. We wanted straightforward answers.

And so, we didn’t see the intrinsically patriarchal nature of a statement such as “I know many [hadith] that say treat women well.” It did not occur to us to think that the men who were equating hadiths calling upon men to be kind to their wives or daughters, or to honor their mothers with some sort of liberation for women or protection of their rights were in fact based on the assumption that males have power, while females are in the end dependent. “Good” women could hope to be put on pedestals at the discretion of the males in their lives.

We had been told—and we were eager to believe—that Islam (as interpreted by conservatives) could build a god-fearing society, in which everyone had their just rights. Presumably, the reason why women didn’t have their rights in our own conservative Muslim communities in North America was because we were a geographically dispersed minority. We seized on the few role-models of career women or politicians or political activists in hijab in Muslim countries that we had access to in those pre-internet days.

It was all about us, really… which is another post.


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  1. #1 by mary on December 12, 2012 - 12:49 pm

    We perceive and understand everything through the prism of our own experiences and preconceptions, which of course include culture. Of course, we cannot understand Islam any other way, nor can anyone else. I was thinking of this “chicken and the egg” thing – is it culture that colors our understanding of Islam, or is it Islam that has created the culture?

    As a westerner I always thought the former, at least until I came to live in a “Muslim country.” This is what has further distanced me from traditional Islam, this whole concept of women being singled out as persons to be nice to, because it indicates our intrinsic inferiority within this culture. It’s all so one-sided – men, being the privileged ones, also have the “responsibility” not to abuse their position of privilege, but in fact there is little they do which is actually perceived to be abuse. They make more money, are paid better because they have families to support. They are allowed to marry up to four women because they’ve been cursed with a sexuality that demands multiple partners but they are forbidden to have sex outside the “lawful” confines of Islamic marriage; they have superior rational and critical thinking, and so they are responsible to make all the important decisions in the lives of whoever lives under their patriarchal care. And women’s lives are actually trivialized; I recently had a conversation with a western convert here who boasted to me that she had a job, but she can spend her money on “whatever tickles my fancy,” and that she can stop working and stay home if she wants to. I thought, you have been infantilized and you don’t even know it. You have been removed from the adult world of responsibility and autonomy and have been effectively disempowered, and this has been done so effectively that you don’t even see it. How does the society itself take women seriously when the ones who are working are doing it for shopping money? Is this not degrading, this false freedom, this trivializing of female life?

    • #2 by xcwn on December 12, 2012 - 3:53 pm

      Mary—Your point about infantilization is spot on. Yes, absolutely. We were taught to see that theoretical responsibility of the husband’s to provide (which often didn’t work out quite like that in reality…) as “liberation”, as meaning that we Muslim women had been given rights that even feminists ought to envy.
      Post coming on….

    • #3 by A on December 17, 2012 - 7:15 pm

      I love your comment, Mary; it speaks my feelings and unarticulated thoughts.

  2. #4 by luckyfatima on December 12, 2012 - 4:58 pm

    Really spot on.

  3. #5 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:42 pm

    “I am sure that every man who abuses a woman, inside himself he knows that what he is doing is wrong, he is just too selfish to stop.”

    I used to believe that, too. But the problem is that many men who abuse their wives honestly believe that it’s not wrong, or even think it is their right to do so.

  4. #6 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:47 pm

    I remember reading books and articles about the “Ideal Muslimah” and so on, and even when reading them as a teenager, I thought: “No one is ever going to be able to live up to this ideal.”

    Now, years later, I enjoy reading books about the real lived lifes of Muslim women (By, for instance, Samina Ali, Leila Aboulela, Leila Ahmed, Alifa Rifaat etc.) and it’s such a relief to find out that no, Muslim women aren’t perfect, we don’t have to be and I don’t have to be. Thank God. 🙂

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