This isn’t a comprehensive essay that will break down the many strands of feminism. It’s a long and complex discourse that will take more than one article to explain. At least for those who honestly wish to understand feminism for what it is.
This essay is simply to highlight the common issues and misunderstandings in the discussions regarding feminism between Muslims.
Is feminism compatible with Islam?
Feminism as a whole? No. When it comes to issues like leadership there is no dispute regarding the fact that only men can be appointed as leaders or the state positions related to governance. Every strand of feminism will frame this as an issue of inequality. (1)
With that said, there are certain facets of feminism that overlaps with certain aspects of Islam vis-a-vis rights of women. The common ground isn’t in Aqeedah. But rather the issues they attempt to address.
Islam and feminism both address issues like female infanticide, abuse of the male authority(without delving into deconstruction and emancipation), imposing man-made traditions as religious laws, etc. All of which are prevalent issues in Muslim lands.
Islam and feminism overlap in the sense that they both challenge these issues.
And Muslims who claim to be feminists use this commonality as a basis to form their own brand of feminism. How much is the liberal epistemology is retrofitted into this variant of feminism depends on which epistemic foundation the individual lends his or her worldview from.
But where Islam and feminism differ is, Islam takes Wahy(or reasoning based on Wahy) as the source of the solutions while feminism historically took Liberalism or other forms of human-based ideologies as the basis of their solutions. Feminism used human “rationality” to determine what justice is.
The epistemic premise of feminism has its issues in the sense that it doesn’t offer any inherent solutions. Originally it started out as seeking rights afforded to men that were denied from women. Feminists traditionally shape their political discourses regarding the possible solutions to the “patriarchy” by borrowing elements from other philosophies and/or ideologies. And that is how the feminist tradition evolved into the several variations that we see today.
Self-identified Muslim feminists look towards the Quran and Sunnah for solutions(Amina Wadud is not one of them).
Muslims or those who claim to be Orthodox/Traditional Muslims, in their hurried and vehement assertion that feminism is incompatible with Islam are simply being disingenuous, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They are not really helping the discourse with their lazy reading of the issue.
The issue with the common criticisms of feminism among Muslims.
Silly and overblown statements like “feminism can lead to kufr or apostasy” are very weak rebuttals. And frankly speaking, it is the weakest form of argument.
Because there are many other subjects besides feminism that can apparently “lead to kufr/apostasy”. Philosophy based on logic, skeptic epistemology, and evolutionary science are some subjects which apostates regularly cite as one of the major reasons for their apostasy. Scientism is one of the worldviews of the scientists and if we are to apply the logic that the lazy critics of feminists use in their rebuttals, we can say that science leads to kufr. Same with the subject of philosophy. Even now Muslims in the subcontinent and the middle-east reduce Islamic philosophers to the Mu’tazila sect and state outright that Philosophy is haram.
None of the above-stated reasons for apostasy is factually correct. What leads to a person abandoning his Deen i.e. apostasy can be a variety of factors. But that is another discussion.
We have had instances where traditional scholars were resoundingly refuted and humiliated in debates against the scientists. But that didn’t cause a massive wave of apostasy like it did after the death of Prophet Muhammad(ﷺ).
What does that mean then?
It means that ideological precepts or rational arguments don’t really form the basis of someone’s worldview and interests. Rational arguments and ideological precepts are used to justify worldviews and pursuit of interests. The apostates will keep looking for reasons to justify their apostasy and Muslims will keep looking for reasons to hold on to their faith or strengthen it. Humans are more emotional than rational. Faith is something that is innate and very personal. It is based on something intangible. And guidance is the Qadr of Allah.
“Verily, you (O Muhammad) guide not whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He knows best those who are the guided.”
The crux of the matter feminism doesn’t define political systems or economic structures or religious doctrines. It simply analyzes power relations(and abuse) between genders. A tool just like skepticism, pragmatism, or rationalism is. These tools don’t define worldviews but are used to critique or justify worldviews.
Most of the time I find the critics of feminism and their harsh attitude towards Muslims who claim to be feminists disingenuous because frankly, their appeals to traditionalism are selective. There are men who vehemently dismiss feminism as antithetical to Islam but they have absolutely no problem with Nationalism or Democracy. They dismiss the notions of having a Caliphate or a centralized Islamic polity as idealistic and ridiculous.
It doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. The arguments they present are disingenuous, ignorant and shows a severe lacking in empathy.
To start with they don’t understand the circumstances in which feminism was formed. In the 1900s, the western society deprived their women of access to education, employment opportunities, and even their self-agency. Women were regarded as markedly inferior.
The same men who made the lives of their women miserable had also established colonies in the Muslim lands and these perspectives have infiltrated our psyche and continue to influence us to this day. Whether it is resorting to selective appeals to tradition as an excuse to justify oppression of women. Or little to no opposition to the sexualization of women and commoditization of their bodies as a means of monetary pursuits. Not to mention the abuse and sexual harassment our women endure on a regular basis.
The mildest but most offensive form of toxic behavior is making jokes about women belonging in the kitchen or the only “job” they are fit for is to raise children. Insults and mockery, now in the form of memes towards women are brushed off as light-hearted jokes.
This attitude stems from the often cited myth which is, women are not “bread earners” and are simply “home-makers”.
For most our history, our societies were agrarian. And women played active roles within their communities in the process of harvesting crops which was a major contribution to the household income and shaped the state/imperial policies.
So where does this myth of women are only homemakers come from? Certainly not from the Islamic tradition.
In Islamic societies, men and women worked in harmony.
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (Al- Quran, 9:71)
In an Islamic home, there is a husband and a wife. A father and a mother. And their children need the presence and guidance of both. Men and women in Islamic societies contributed both at work-spaces and household chores. Even now women in the lower class and rural areas contribute significantly to the household income and economy despite reported cases of income inequality. (2) (3)
As things stand today, both men and women have to work to meet ends. This didn’t arise due to feminism. But an ever-growing class inequality and currency depreciation. Sure, advocating for women to “work together with men” is a feminist response. Whether that response is correct or not can be debated. But the problem of women needing to work extra hours at the “expense of their families” didn’t arise from feminism.
This situation arose because of the economy that is shaped by the Oligarchs and Corporations. What is actually breaking the “nuclear family” is the socio-political order that is brought about by Capitalism and Democracy.
People who carelessly claim that woman are fit for only “home-making” not only ignore the majority of women throughout our history but are denying the self-agency and voice of an entire class of women who spend their days breaking their backs to make the bare minimum.
And to exacerbate these issues we have these so-called Imams who never step out of the Masjid acting like armchair critics. They never discuss the issue. All they do is talk about ritualistic practices at every single gathering to the same audiences all year long. And add in the nonsense story about saints and we have a class of traditionalists who spend their days doing literally nothing to address the problems of society. Almost none of them ever dares to ask the difficult questions. Almost none of them dares to think beyond the scope of what they are trained to do by these so-called Islamic organizations.
So who will our women turn to then? Who will they seek help from?
Islam has a solution. But unless the so-called bearers of tradition actually make an attempt to implement the solution or even call for its implementation, you will have more and more of our women seeking foreign frameworks and ideologies to solve their problems.
And the solution to above problems can only be achieved by uprooting the systems that enable the goons of the Oligarchs to bully the masses. And these systems have to be uprooted completely and comprehensively. Not by simply “refuting” feminism.
This is not to say that the concerns of Muslims regarding feminism are baseless or unfounded. Feminists are known to espouse disturbing opinions.(4)
There are situations where we can see the outburst of violence from the Radical third wave feminists(or feminazis as people like to call them) against anyone who does not agree with their opinion. Or the fact that “homemakers” or “housewives” are often mocked by them for not being feminist enough.
The nuclear family(father mother and children) is not an exclusively Islamic concept. It is well practiced and preached within the Christian traditions and some forms of secular traditions which do include feminism.
Muslims should understand that feminism is not some divine revelation that is defined by a Prophet. It is not monolithic. It is an ever-changing and evolving discourse.
Can feminism be made compatible with Islam? Sure it can be. If enough Muslims can gain certified authority on the field of feminism and have feminist academics accept the Islamic epistemology, which is, the rights of men and women are defined by Allah’s Wahi, not the State or Man, as a valid basis of Islamic feminism, then sure. You can have your official brand of Islamic feminism just like there is a brand of Islamic Philosophy. Despite the fact that in the past, the pursuit of Philosophy has lead rise to controversial and borderline heretical if not outright, sects like the Mu’tazila who espoused many controversial and often un-Islamic views.
The question that arises is, is going through all that process to make Islam and Feminism compatible worth it? That is up to the Muslims who are concerned with this topic to decide.
As it stands, disagreements and doubts can possibly take shape during the discussion regarding the compatibility of Islam and Feminism. Especially for the instances in the Shariah where Men and Women are treated differently with a markedly specified role for each gender. Like Jihad, Leadership and Judiciary(In State matters).
But dismissing feminism with silly one-liners like “it can lead to kufr” is lazy. And more often than not the people who cite these arguments do not show as much vigor or energy in their opposition to oppressive states, systems, and rulers. And beyond making silly memes they do next to nothing to address the issues and difficulties that our women face. They simply privilege themselves with the selective use of traditionalism.
And if they honestly care about our sisters and don’t want them to fall “into the trap of feminism”, they need to realize that it is not feminism that is breaking apart our society or breeding degeneracy. But a world order defined by an ideology that is much broader than feminism.
Feminism is a response to that ideology. Whether that response is compatible with Islam can be and definitely should be debated.
Yes, we should be wary of the opportunists and weak-willed Muslims who uses liberal activism as the basis of their politics for their own ends rather than the cause of Islam. But we have these kinds of politicians and Muslims everywhere across the spectrum of liberalism and conservatism. Starting from the so-called upholders of tradition like Erdogan to progressives like Amina Wadud.
But that doesn’t mean that we simply lower the bar of our discourses against feminism by accepting cheap criticisms. If we are to contribute to the discourse meaningfully, if we are to warn sisters of the questionable epistemes of feminism, it has to be done in an intellectually honest way where there is no compromise in academic rigor.
Thank you for reading.