Two Pillars of Patriarchy in Muslim Contexts: Gender Oppositionality Thesis and the Concept of Patriarchal Honour
The prevalence of patriarchal values and systems in the Muslim majority societies and cultures, both in the past and the present, have been identified and discussed from various perspectives, including the anthropological, sociological, cultural, political, legal, religious/theological, and historical by a number of scholars such as S. Joseph, D. Kandiyoti, K.Ali, A.Barlas, Z.M. Hosseini, L. Ahmed and N. Keddie to name the most prominent few. As someone who has been following academic debates on gender and religion for close to two decades (and publishing on them for over a decade), especially in relation to the Islamic tradition I have come to the conclusion that there are two theories/ concepts in particular in which patriarchal worldview is rooted in Muslim contexts . These are:
1. the theory of ‘gender oppositionality’ and
2. the concept of patriarchal honour.
In my considered view, it is these two concepts and the various assumptions that underpin them, that are responsible for the construction of beliefs, values and practices that have resulted in various forms of exploitative and highly asymmetrical power relationship in general and systematic marginalisation of women’s rights, experiences and voices in the construction of (religious) knowledge and the formation of (religious) ethics in particular. The aim of this short piece of writing is to explain the ‘logic’ behind these concepts.
Patriarchy and the Thesis of Gender Oppositionality:
Let us now move onto discussing the first pillar of patriarchal worldview, namely the concept of gender oppositionality commonly and erroneously referred to as gender complementarity. By this phrase, I wish to convey the idea that in (neo)-traditional (Islamic) religious discourses the construction of normative masculinity is almost exclusively done in terms of anti-femininity and vice versa. This ‘‘gender oppositionality’’ theory has given rise to a number of androcentric, if not outright misogynistic, beliefs and practices encoded in the very nature of gender roles and norms it endorses. Specifically, on the one hand, the theory of gender oppositionality conceptually links masculinity with the idea of religious knowledge and interpretative authority, spirituality, authority in both the public ( i.e. political authority) and domestic realms ( familial authority) , unreasonable levels of sexual jealousy and even ontological and biological superiority. On the other hand, according to this theory of gender oppositionality, femininity is conceptually linked with various kinds of lacks and imperfections/defects may they be in the realm of religious authority and spirituality, rationality or any forms of power and authority. Moreover, femininity is strongly associated with an aggressive, extremely powerful and voracious sexuality that ought to be constantly supervised and tightly controlled through practices such as veiling/seclusion of women and strict gender segregation. Femininity, and female sexuality in particular is also viewed as a site of male honor (see below for more). Hence, it is also associated with particular, and by all means in the view of this author, burdensome and ethically ugly, conceptualizations of female modesty and shame that reduce women and their bodies to mere objects of male sexual pleasure (although the proponents of these practices claim to the contrary). Femininity is also, at times, conceptually associated with ontological and biological inferiority which are, needless to say, extremely women demeaning. These gender cosmologies are then employed ( alongside particular methods of scriptural reasoning that inhere in traditionalist approaches to the interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna) as the basis of engendering gender specific (religious) laws, practices, ethics and even systems of morality with considerable asymmetries between genders in terms of their rights and responsibilities greatly restricting women’s autonomy and agency. In fact, subscription to such a gender cosmology renders much of women’s agency/autonomy under the control of their male kin.
Another pillar of patriarchy is the concept of patriarchal honour that we alluded to in the previous section. The basic premise of this concept of honour is that the honour of the family patriarch resides in the behaviour of his women-folk, especially the behaviour that can be construed as being sexual in nature. Having conceptually invested in this link between male honour and female behaviour, especially the aggressive and powerful nature of female sexuality, societies in which patriarchal honour codes are prevalent strongly regulate this female sexuality through several socio-spatial mechanisms such as veiling/seclusion of women and strict gender segregation. The regulation of female sexuality can also take place through practices such as female genital cutting whose major rationale is the ‘reduction’ of female sexual pleasure as a means of preserving their ‘modesty’ and bringing their voracious sexual appetite under control, all in the name of safeguarding of patriarchal honour.
The practice of honor killings is also based on the same logic of patriarchal honor. A paradigmatic example of an honour killing is the killing of a young woman by her bother or male cousin who is considered to have breached societal moral codes by engaging in behaviours, usually construed as being sexual in nature, that compromise the honour of the family patriarch. It is the most extreme and most violent form of honour based violence through the ‘regulation’ of female behaviour/sexuality as often the only means of recovering/re-deeming lost patriarchal honour.
How can we go beyond these two pillars informing the patriarchal worldview in Muslim contexts? Obviously, in addition to developing different methodologies of conceptualising and interpreting Islamic normative texts , the answer to this question would be in:
1. engendering alternative conceptualisations of gender cosmologies based on reciprocal and non-hierarchical relationships such as those advocated by the global NGO Musawah,
2. rethinking the very nature and the conceptual relationship between masculinity and femininity where masculinity and femininity are not considered as binary opposites; and
3. reconceptualization of the concept of honour itself that conceptually delinks the honour of men from the sexual or sexually perceived behaviour of their women-folk.
There are a number of scholars working in the field of gender and Islam today, some of which have been named above, who have over the last two-three decades already made important theoretical interventions in this respect. I hope their voices will be amplified and eventually extinguish the still dominant voices of patriarchy, especially in Muslim majority contexts.