OK. This is gonna be a deep, long, TLDNR post. If you’re after porn, scroll down, hit back and check out the other recent posts.
In the last two days there’s been a bit of a flurry of argument on Twitter about Islam, feminism and racism. Specifically, Kitty Stryker said that Anna Span was being racist for saying “You can’t ignore the correlation between Islamic countries and terrible female rights.”
I asked Kitty why she thought that was racist. She said it was because it made a generalisation about all Muslims. I said I saw it as a criticism of Islam. Since Islam is a philosophy (actually a theology) not a race, it’s not racist to criticise it. Cue general discussion with Kitty and my always-eloquent friend Alexis about the whole topic. Alexis said that Western Imperialism has created an idea of “otherness” when it comes to Muslims and we should take that into account when speaking about Islam. It seems a fair point and yet it feels like an excuse, a get-out-of-jail-free card for Islam. The majority of the world’s Catholics are Latin American and we don’t consider it racist to criticise Catholicism or the impact that religion has had on the lives of women, despite the fact that Western Imperialism had a dreadful effect on South America.
Suffice to say, I feel that allegations of racism when it comes to discussion of religion are a problem because they act as a way of silencing debate. And I believe that religion should absolutely be up for discussion and criticism, especially because I think that it causes a lot of harm in the world. Religion is not a race, it’s a theology. Muslims come in all shapes and colours, just as Christians do. In this, I am playing the ball, not the man.
Kitty said that Anna’s generalisation about “all Islamic countries” was wrong. I asked Kitty to give me an example of an Islamic state or country where the lives of women were equal or better than Western women. I was talking in terms of basic feminist ideals – reproductive choice, education for women, equal legal rights, sexual liberation and equal social status. I don’t have an answer to that one and Kitty didn’t provide one either. Perhaps Turkey, although it is heading towards fundamentalism as time goes on (my Turkish cousin-in-law has told me some rather toe-curling anecdotes of her life there). Certainly Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia are bad news for women. And I don’t think there is any place in the world where Islam is a dominant force where women enjoy the same freedoms that I do right now. That may be due to multiple factors including economic and social ones but I’m sure the influence of Islam doesn’t help because it creates a justification for the oppression of women.
My stance here is an atheist one. I do not believe in any gods and I don’t revere ancient texts as vital guides for life. In my view, many religions inherently oppress women and the monotheistic Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) religions are all sexist from Genesis onwards. God creates Adam as lord of Eve. And then Eve eats the apple, so all women are inferior and guilt-stained. Each monotheism then has differing edicts regarding the treatment of women; suffice to say, none of them direct followers to consider women as equal to men (which, surely, a benevolent and loving God would do?).
For me, that single fact of God-ordained female inferiority is vital in any discussions of feminism and religion. Because I don’t think you can just ignore that. Sure, all three religions are diverse within their own faiths, with differing strains of interpretation, adherence, piety and belief. People follow these faiths for varying reasons; some think it’s the best way to be good and do good in the world, some are true believers, some don’t want to go to hell and some don’t know any different. Some are just along for the ride because it’s cultural or tradition. Nonetheless, subscribing to a religion – saying you are a Muslim, Christian or Jew – means you are agreeing with the basic tenets of that faith. And right there, in the very beginning, one of the first basic tenets is that women are inferior.
On top of that is the fact that all these religions rely on texts that were written hundreds/thousands of years ago by farmers and herders at a time when women’s social status was low. The Quran was written by a shepherd who married a 9 year old girl and proceeded to bring war to all the surrounding tribes, thanks to his idea that a god spoke to him. The Christian Bible is a jumble of writings incorporating ancient Jewish folklore and alleged eyewitness accounts of divinity written 40 years after the event and then fine tuned by religious leaders several hundred years later at the Council of Nicea. Amidst these writings are poetry, useful, positive philosophy and appeals to the Golden Rule (“do unto others”). There’s also a lot of death, violence, racism, sexism and good ol’ homophobia. All have been translated multiple times and are endlessly open to interpretation.
To me, viewing these texts as infallible guides to living a good life in the 21st century is lunacy. We have had the enlightenment since those texts were created. We’ve had the theory of evolution. We’ve had all the various new ideas and philosophies of the last 300 years which has shaped how we view ourselves and what makes for a good person and a good life. To say a dusty old Bronze/Iron/Dark Age book is morally superior to the wealth of secular, rational modern thought doesn’t make sense. Especially when that book goes out of its way to say women are inferior.
And this is why I think religion and feminism are essentially opposing philosophies.
In the course of the Twitter conversation, I was directed to read the opinions of Muslim feminists. I will say here that my reading of Muslim feminist scholarly work is non-existent so I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies of their arguments. What I was directed to was several articles such as this, this and this.
Muslim feminists have their work cut out for them and I applaud them and want them to succeed. I want women all over the world to enjoy the same legal and social freedoms that I have right now. But I do think their task is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that they are trying to be feminist while remaining within the confines of their religion. It requires them to accept opposing ideas and to perform linguistic balancing acts and artful cognitive dissonance in order to shoehorn secular, 21st century feminism into their particular dusty old holy book. To quote Isobel Coleman in the NPR article:
…If you read the Christian Bible quite literally, that poses challenges for women, and that’s absolutely true of the Quran. There are passages in the Quran that pose challenges for women’s rights within Islam.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still look at the text and contextualize them. What many of the men and women today are trying to do within Islam is argue that times change, and you have to read them differently. You have to think about them in the present, not only in the past, and find new meanings and new ways to circle that square.
Circle the square? Fuck the square! Why not just throw the dusty old book away and stop trying to make feminism a God-ordained thing? Your thinking is coming from a modern day secular source. Stop trying to pretend that it is religious thinking.
Of course, I think I can partially answer my own question there. Islam isn’t too keen on people leaving it. Some scholars maintain that the punishment of apostasy (leaving the faith) is death. So that’s a fairly compelling reason to try to be feminist while still Muslim. Beyond that, it’s a matter of simple strategy to work within Islam as I think you have more chance of convincing people of your ideas if you are coming from the same ideological stance.
And saying fuck the square involves giving up on the idea of God and an eternal afterlife. Lots of people, no matter what religion, don’t want to do that because it’s a big personal decision to make, hence the mental acrobatics.
This is not just criticism of Muslim feminists. There are self-described Christian feminists who are also trying to find ways to make feminism and religion fit together, like those women who argue that women should be allowed to enter the priesthood. I think they are ideologically at the same disadvantage: they are still giving moral authority to a book that tells they they’re inferior (and that they should be silent, what’s more).
Although, interestingly, there are some Christians who are trying to change their definition of feminism so it better aligns with doctrinal beliefs. We see this in the recent shit fight over anti-porn/anti-abortion activist Melinda Tankard Reist, who is suing a blogger for suggesting she was deceptive about her religious motivations. Reist maintains she is a feminist while still adhering to conservative Christian values surrounding sexuality and reproductive choice. This prompted much recent navel-gazing as to the definition of who is feminist, with many maintaining the reproductive choice is the deal-breaker. While I don’t doubt that Melinda Tankard Reist honestly believes she’s improving the lot of women through her brand of feminism, it has actually resulted in harm for women (e.g. via her support of foreign aid assistance that denied contraception and abortion to women in Africa), so I do not agree with her (and I won’t get started on her anti-porn stuff).
An adjunct to that concept of “different feminisms” is the idea that religious women somehow don’t want the same kind of feminism that Western women aspire to. On Twitter Kitty said “many Islamic women’s rights activists don’t identify as feminists, due to perceived goals of feminism.” I find that kind of statement rather problematic because it feels like it’s not being fair to Muslim women. It feels like those “different but equal” arguments that Christian women’s groups love to advocate (especially as they’re saying a woman’s main role is wife and mother). For me, the basic goals of feminism are what I previously listed: equal legal rights, reproductive choice, education for girls and women, sexual liberation and equal social status. Essentially, we’re talking about human rights for all women. I think saying that Muslim women aren’t aiming for – or shouldn’t aim for – those kinds of freedoms because of their religion is pretty damn unfair to those women. And it’s also an indictment of that religion, because it becomes an excuse for a watered-down feminism, or a denial of rights and freedoms to those women.
I’m told that Western feminists are condescending towards Muslim feminists, or dismissive. I’m told we need to listen to what they’re saying, to stop trying to impose our own ideas on them. I agree with the idea that the women on the ground are the ones who know what they’re talking about and are the best ones to deal with their own lives. I think any advances in women’s rights are great and those who work for them, in whatever way, are fighting the good fight. But I am never going to see eye-to-eye with Muslim (or Christian) feminists. Because I think there is a fundamental ideological flaw in their feminism: their continued adherence to religion.
All the subsequent arguments about how religion is diverse, how you can’t make generalisations about the believers, about how a particular interpretation of the scriptures means that it’s not really sexist, or how Islam was a leader in women’s rights in the middle ages… they just feel like window dressing that ignores the fundamental point: God is male. He says women are inferior. He apparently made them that way and they have to do what he says. If you believe that… how do you reconcile also believing that women are equal? I certainly can’t get past it. Which is why I haven’t read any Muslim feminists.
For me, atheism comes first. You say no to the mean old man that is God/Allah/Jehovah. You deny the moral authority of the dusty old books. And then you can build from there.
In the course of last night’s conversation, we all ended up agreeing that the more religion becomes involved in government, the worse the outcomes for women. This isn’t just Islam we’re talking about, but all organised religion. It’s a very strong argument for secular government and keeping religious beliefs purely in the personal sphere.
I found myself expanding the idea into a larger hypothesis. That as religiosity increases, women’s rights and opportunities decrease. The more religious and pious people are, the worse it is for women. Hence the dreadful way women are treated in every monotheistic fundamentalist sect (like this, for example).
I can’t point to any particular study to back that notion (it’s only a hypothesis) although a quick search on Google reveals numerous discussions about it. In a general way, you could perhaps point to European countries like Denmark and Sweden where low levels of religious belief are correlated with high standards of living and social and legal equality for women (although, yes, there are exceptions in some aspects of law e.g. the Swedish sex work laws. But I’m looking at the bigger picture here).
I think if you apply this idea to the issue of women’s rights in Islam, the reason that women are worse off under Islam (or it seems that way) is because that religion requires a higher level of piety in every day life. It’s not just going to church on Sundays, which is the relatively relaxed, stand-offish version of Christianity common in Western countries. Islam is often embedded within daily living and culture and it informs ways of thinking and living in a very specific way. If God is telling you what to eat, what to wear, how to behave, who you can fuck and what you, as a woman, can’t do, and you are implementing that into every aspect of your daily life, it has a pretty big impact. And I think it’s then harder to incorporate secular ideas like feminism into that way of living.
To counter this argument, you could perhaps point to Turkey, which has very high levels of belief in God and was, until recently, the only “Islamic” democracy in the world. Yet Turkey was established as a rigidly secular democratic state in the 1920s and it could be argued that that secularism and its encouragement away from extremism has helped. And Turkish women still face numerous social restrictions.
It’s only a hypothesis, as I said. A vague idea. But I wonder if it holds true.
One of the questions that has been asked is whether I think things can get better for women in Islamic countries. I do. I honestly believe that a move to secularism is the best answer. And the more people abandon religion, the better.
This is all speculation and vague rantings, of course. Just ideas that popped up at 3am after late night discussions on Twitter. This post has not been exhaustively researched and it is all just my opinion, formed through the prism of my atheism. In the end, I don’t believe in any gods, I don’t acknowledge the moral authority of any holy book and on a basic level, I disagree with people who do.
So. Writing this has taken up almost my whole day when I should have been reviewing porn. I feel hesitant to post it because I can see it will probably start a shitstorm of abuse and I don’t want to deal with that, especially given that I”m now behind in my work. Yet I waded into this discussion because I saw debate being silenced. These things should be talked about and I wanted to expand on my thoughts in a way that Twitter wouldn’t allow. If you disagree with me, that’s OK. If you think I have made errors, by all means point it out politely and I’ll do my best to listen.
Perhaps it’s time to post and be damned. Yes, that’s just a little atheist joke.
Couple of links:
Amy Clare says it all much better than I in this post Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion.
An Unquiet Mind discusses Religion vs Gender Equality & Feminism. It also discusses Hinduism, which I don’t address here, mainly because my knowledge of that religion isn’t great.
EDIT 23 Feb. During the Twitter conversations it seemed that people were quite keen to defend Islam. One friend still sees the good in in despite leaving it and suffering personal harm because of it. What I want to know is: what benefits does Islam offer women? It’s a serious question. I’d like to know if there’s anything about it that is good for women.
EDIT 29 Feb. The SMH has just published this first-person piece about a queer woman who has reconciled her desire to be Muslim with her sexuality. It’s interesting reading and I’m glad that she has found a way to reconcile her philosophies in order to create her own personal happiness. She’s done this by “circling the square” as mentioned above – by choosing to interpret her religion so that it is accepting of homosexuality. She’s done this because she felt that being a Muslim was an important part of her life and she didn’t want to remove herself from it.
I think to “circle the square” you’ve essentially got to embrace a more vague “Golden Rule, love and compassion” philosophy and stick Allah’s (or Jesus’ or Jehovah’s) name on it. Mental acrobatics. Still, it’s her life, not mine. The other good thing here is that perhaps she and her queer group will encourage more tolerance within the Islamic community, which is always a good thing.