Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Islamic feminism, Patriarchy and Qur’an: A Brief Outline of Current Debates

The viability of the concept of Islamic feminism has an element of  contestedness in terms of its compatibility with the Islamic tradition and its fountainheads. One central component of the possibility of Islamic feminism pertains to the idea of whether or not Islam’s primary source of normative teachings, the Qur’an (or more precisely the nature of Qur’anic revelation) can be reconciled with the modern ideas and concepts that come under the umbrella of feminism/gender equality/ anti-patriarchy. In this section, we outline the most recent debates surrounding this question between what can be termed ‘radical’Muslim feminists and Muslim ‘feminists’.
A recent overview of the literature, on theorizing about Islamic feminism, written primarily by Muslim women in the non-Islamicate context, suggests that “a carefully articulated and tentative convergence of the two (i.e. Islam and feminism) intellectual traditions” is both possible and potentially beneficial because such a convergence has “the potential to advance Muslim women’s struggles for equality.”[1] However, this view is contested by a number of contemporary Muslim radical feminist scholars such as  Ali, Chaudhry[2] and Hidayatullah[3] whose works have highlighted, if not re-affirmed,[4] the difficulties and ‘feminist impasses” in espousing gender egalitarian and/or feminist interpretations of Islam in general  and the Qurʾān in particular.
Hidayatullah, following in the footsteps of Ali,[5] critically examined the central presuppositions upon which feminist interpretation of the Qurʾān advocating gender equality was based in the 1990s and 2000s. Reflecting on her book she concludes as follows:

 In the process of writing my book, I came to the difficult conclusion that the contemporary expectations for gender equality at the heart of the feminist exegetical project perhaps cannot ultimately be reconciled with the Qurʾānic text. A claim to the contrary is often based on distortions of the text and anachronistic positions.[6]

The reasons for this diagnosis is that despite the existence of what she terms ‘mutuality verses’ ( e.g. 4:1; 30:21; 9:71; 33:35) which  are agreeable to our contemporary understandings of gender justice there exist in the Qurʾān  ‘hierarchy verses’ ( such as  2:223; 2:228; 4:34)  that “ endorse male  control over women and presume hierarchical male-female relations”[7] and hence perhaps present an insurmountable obstacle for the project of Islamic feminism/ gender egaliterianism. Hidayatullah considers that the manner in which the Muslim feminist interpreters have hermeneutically attempted to deal with these hierarchy verses on basis of various hermeneutical principles[8], in end effect, amount to nothing more than apologetics. Hidayatullah also argues that we must accept the ‘hierarchy verses’ as “real elements”[9] of the Qurʾān and come to terms with what this means for the Qurʾānic feminist project. Hence, she concludes that the Muslim feminist attempts to find support for gender equality in the Qurʾān  have been inadequate (since these inequalities are ontological rather than functional) and have resulted in kind of ‘text fundamentalism’ which ascribes to text the meaning that the text itself. This ‘text fundamentalism’ adds Hidayatullah is also contradictory to the kind of hermeneutics the Muslim feminist theologians subscribe to in the first place. As a result, Hidayatullah opines that the manner in which Muslim feminists have interpreted the text has marginalized the importance of extra-textual hermeneutical principles in their overall hermeneutical models which in actual fact hold a better promise for their ultimate aim.[10]

The work of Hidayatullah has sparked a robust debate between radical feminists and feminists. The latter include scholars such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, whose views are criticised by Hidayatullah. These scholars argue that the Qur’an is not inherently a patriarchal text and that it can sustain women emancipatory/women inclusive readings /interpretations and consider it their aim to restore the Qur’anic basis of sexual equality in Islam by freeing the Qur’an from the patriarchal nature of its classical, some modern exegesis and the scepticism of radical Muslim feminists. In the words of Barlas:

Azizah al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, amina wadud, and I had sought to recuperate teachings that affirm the ontological and moral/ethical equality of women and men. Our intent was to show that the Qur an’s position on women cannot be delimited to the “anti-women” verses, which we had also reread as a way to illustrate that meaning is contingent on our own interpretive methods and choices… wadud and I had made two points about the Qur an and patriarchy. She had argued that it “remains neutral” toward patriarchy,[11] whereas I held that its rejections of the patriarchal imaginary of God as father/male, and the fact that it makes no mention of sex or gender inequalities, signal an antipatriarchal episteme.[12]

Barlas goes on to explain how her efforts (and that of wadud), have been, in Barlas’ view unjustifiably/unreasonably/erroneously problematized as “dishonest”[13] and “manipulating” the “incurably patriarchal” Qur’anic texts by radical Muslim feminists.[14] Furthermore, Barlas argues that her critics are not only “disinterested in a liberatory hermeneutics of the Qur’an but some also now question its sacrality and want Muslims to stop treating it as a sacred text that has a sanctified relationship to God.”[15] She describes such as intellectual attitude as  “anti-theological, anti-hermeneutical, and anti-women.” Ultimately, Barlas argues that, this criticism of her liberatory hermeneutics is misleading for it not only rejects the possibility of non-patriarchal interpretations but that it privileges, if not conflates, the patriarchal Islamic tradition ( including its patriarchal interpretation of the Qur’an)  with the Qur’an itself.
Wadud , generally agreeing with Barlas’ comments above,  considers the ‘feminist critique” of Hidayatullah and Ali as  amounting  to not much more than “making patriarchal readings divine”[16] and whose project is summed by the view that  “ either we liberate women from every utterance in the Qur’an or we throw out the sacred aspect of the text altogether.”[17] Wadud goes on to argue that such an approach misses an important point namely that  “As soon as we acknowledge that none can know fully what Allah meant, then the door is open to both patriarchal and feminist egalitarian readings.” Furthermore, wadud maintains that interpreters of the Qur’an need

 to maintain both a critical response to and a faithful reverence within the tension of the simultaneity. This is where the text’s sublime ambiguity becomes the primary
means for liberation from literal readings of certain passages—to instead read
through the texts, to its context and back again to its pretext, in order to help
reveal how it might best be applied to our contexts.[18]

Hidayatullah has responded to this critique by arguing that it is not her perspective that
“the Qur’an is an intractably patriarchal text” but that there is a kind of methodological impass between patriarchal and non-patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and that
she remains “ unconvinced that we can find clear support in the text itself for privileging either set of meanings over the other”.[19] To Hidayatullah this implies that it is not possible to “definitely establish” the idea or that she is “radically uncertain” that the Qur’anic text can “cohere with contemporary values of male-female equality” as the works of scholars like Barlas suggest. Affirming that, as a Muslim, she shares with  scholars such as Barlas and wadud the premise that the God of the Qur’an is Just  and the Qur’an is the sacred revelation of God , for Hidayatullah’ the fundamental question of (non)-patriarchal nature of the Qur’an (or the God of the Qur’an) is theological and not  a hermeneutical one. This leads her to the idea that the differences between her views and that of those whom she critiques ultimately lie at the level of how they respectively understand the very nature of the concept of sacred revelation and what makes it so.[20]
K. Ali’s views concur with Hidayatullah’s overall assessment sketched above. In this context Ali argues that what she terms “pro-woman, pro-justice, or gender-egalitarian interpretations of the Qur’an’” such as those of Barlas ultimately not only “fail to confront squarely the difficulties inherent in interpreting” verses that assert or accept male dominance but also do not provide satisfactory account at the theological level, about the very existence of such verses in the Qur’an. As such Ali is of the view that the scholarship of scholars such as Barlas exaggerates Qur’an’s supposed egalitarian and anti-patriarchal credentials even if it can sustain such interpretations.

The above outline provides us with the general insight into the nature of disagreements pertaining to the hermeneutical and theological possibilities of Islamic feminism.

[1] See Fatima Seedat, “When Islam and Feminism Converge,” Muslim World 103, (3, 2013): 404-420.
[2] Ayesha S.Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic tradition: Ethics, Law and the Muslim Discourse on Gender ( Oxford University Press,2014).
[3] Aysha A. Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Qurʾān  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[4] Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist reflections on Qurʾān , adīth, and jurisprudence
(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Aysha A. Hidayatullah, “Feminist Interpretation of the Qurʾān  in a Comparative Feminist Setting”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 30 (Fall 2014) : 115-129, 117-118.
[7] Ibid,p.118.
[8] Such as prioritization of ‘mutuality’  over hierarchy verses , the idea that the alleged dissonance between the two types of verses is a product of our own contemporary egalitarian ethics rather something inherent to the Qurʾān  and  the idea of moral trajectories in the text which are nothing else than the   projection of contemporary gender ideals into the Qurʾān ic text. Ibid,p.119-120.
[9] Ibid,p.120.
[10] Ibid,p.121-122.
[11] Amina Wadud, Qur an and Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9.
[12] Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 32.2 (2016), 111–121,111.
[13] i.e. in applying modern concepts such as gender egalitarianism to premodern, non-gender egalitarian text of the Qur’an)  
[14] Ayesha Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Qur an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xx., 142
[15] Ibid,p.112.
[16] Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 32.2 (2016), 130–134,130.
[17] Ibid,p.132.
[18] P,132.
[19] Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 32.2 (2016), 134–138, p.135-136
[20] Ibid,137.

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