Muslims & Feminism

I have refrained from addressing the issue of feminism & Islam for a long time on this blog, mostly because I feel Muslim discourse on this subject has reached an irrational false détente where you are either pro-feminism and thus a Muslim ‘liberal’, or you are anti-feminist and a ‘toxic Muslim male’. With the added pressure of the culture – Western and global – that is taking over, it seems almost impossible to try and speak objectively about the issue without eliciting an overreaction. Being male makes it even more challenging. But if folks seeking objectivity in the issue do not speak about it, then what good is it to be objective? I’ll probably lose some followers over this article, but whatever.

In this article, I have addressed the general mood of Muslim discourse rather than specific issues, because firstly, I think we are not even ready to talk about them yet on an academic level, and secondly, because I am not an expert in Islamic gender ontology. It’s something I have been meaning to get to, but probably never will except for practical application in my own life.

The Problems

Firstly, let us get the obvious facts out of the way. Many core fundamentals of popular ‘white’ or Western feminism are simply unacceptable in Islam, such as believing that males and females are not biologically or psychologically different. Believing that the Qur’an or Sunnah is misogynistic in any way is kufr. Believing that the Islamic intellectual tradition is misogynistic is incoherent and especially in issues of consensus, a form of harmful innovation in religion.

In theological terms replacing Quranic ontology (e.g. the primacy of tawhid & ubudiyyah) or worldview with any other ontology is a problem. Replacing the foundational epistemology of the Islamic tradition (e.g. the primacy of the Qur’an and Sunnah) with any other epistemology is a problem. Western feminism is like naturalism, liberalism, and communism in that it comes with its own ontological and epistemic frameworks – not to mention that Western feminism is already quite well-grounded in, naturalism and liberalism. Lastly there is the deep interwovenness of feminism with LGBTQ discourse. Feminism and LGBTQ ideas come with their own gender ontology – that biology and psychology do not play a role in maleness and femaleness and all of gender is a social construct. Not only is this contrary to the Qur’an, Sunnah & Islamic tradition, but this is also unscientific. Adopting Western feminism uncritically, without strong grounding in Islamic tradition, and without deep faith and ubudiyyah towards the Creator results in a replacement of Quranic ontology with a distinctly non-Islamic & feminist one.

This is the issue with feminism on a philosophical level. As for manifestations of popular feminism, they can be quite harmful too. Anti-family attitudes & practices, anti-male discourse, dismissing the biological & psychological specifies of males, and creating division and antagonism between males and females in society is a serious problem. You also have the serious issue of Muslims becoming desensitized to LGBTQ discourse as a result and adopting problematic positions on the issue as a result. In today’s culture wars, these effects are becoming noticeable in a wide range of social issues. Within Muslims, for example, they affect marriage, divorce, and other inter-family relations. Just like other features of Western culture, we are constantly bombarded by this style of discourse through the media. Just like everything else in globalized, Western culture, its too easy to become desensitized to it & swallow it all up.

Lastly, and what is not mentioned often enough, is the weaponization of feminism against more conservative or foreign communities & societies, and the exploitation of feminism by those in power. Feminism and LBTQ ideas are not just part of inter-cultural discourse, they are being used for economic and foreign policy interests. Feminism is being used to keep pushing the American myth of freedom and ethical supremacy over other nations, and women are falling right into the trap of capitalists and neo-liberal economists in their persistence to adopt careers for example. The idea of a ‘career’ serving the neo-liberal overlords of the global economy is bad enough for men. The fight of women to have equal rights as men obfuscates the problem of men themselves losing their rights and freedoms to people in positions of power & influence.  

Then there is the backlash to all this. Many men (and some women) have adopted extreme positions in response to the excesses of feminism. Worries about emasculation, the vilification of males and the ontological and epistemic conflicts with Islam have fueled an anti-feminist movement among Muslims and created a new type of sectarianism in the community. Like Sufi-Salafi rifts, deep divisions and ‘othering’ have developed that risk creating a new, permanent source of discord in the Muslim community that will obfuscate often valid differences of textual interpretation. Then there are social effects from this backlash. For example, some Muslim men are putting off not marrying or choosing not to marry altogether because of what they perceive to be unreasonable demands from potential future spouses. Some are buckling down on harmful attitudes and practices with regards to the females in their families.

Understand Before Seeking to be Understood

It is extremely important – especially for men – to understand why feminism is so appealing. Like black people for example, women have legitimate grievances that fuels their attraction to ideas that empower them and address those grievances. Addressing racism, the historical wrongs committed against black people, and the way black people see themselves in society is extremely important because their grievances are very real. Even Imam ibn al-Jawzi understood this when he wrote his book celebrating the scholars from the region of Sudan and Ethiopia. In his own words, he wrote it because of the broken hearts, inferiority complex and self-loathing of black seekers of knowledge he encountered.

We have instances from the Sirah that set a precedent for having the same concern with women. Imam al-Suyuti in his al-Itqan mentions numerous versions of the following narration:

Umm Salamah رضي الله عنها said to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم:

“O Messenger of Allah, I see that Allah mentions men (often) and doesn’t mention women (as often).
“As a result the following 3 verses were revealed:
1. ‘And do not crave what Allah has given some of you over others. Men will be rewarded according to their deeds and women ˹equally˺ according to theirs. Rather, ask Allah for His bounties. Surely Allah has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of all things.’ (4:32)
2. ‘Surely ˹for˺ Muslim men and women, believing men and women, devout men and women, truthful men and women, patient men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, men and women who guard their chastity, and men and women who remember Allah often—for ˹all of˺ them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.’ (33:35)
3. ‘So their Lord responded to them: “I will never deny any of you—male or female—the reward of your deeds. Both are equal in reward. Those who migrated or were expelled from their homes, and were persecuted for My sake and fought and ˹some˺ were martyred—I will certainly forgive their sins and admit them into Gardens under which rivers flow, as a reward from Allah. And with Allah is the finest reward!” (3:195)’

Note in this narration how the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did not put down Umm Salamah or get angry at her for asking such a question. Allah did not send down a condemnation of her for asking special considerations for women, instead He sent down verses that specifically allayed her concerns and made her feel better and heard about women’s representation in the Qur’an. At the same time Allah reminded her about the Islamic differentiation between equity and equality, that men and women are different and shouldn’t wish for what the other has, but at the same time sympathized with her perspective and demonstrated how similar the genders are in many aspects.

Women have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Women in Muslim families, communities and societies suffer gendered humiliation in ways that Muslim men simply do not.

As an Islamic Studies teacher in a school, half of my students are female, and I must counsel them on faith issues as well. Many (not all) of these teenage girls experience profound humiliation because of their gender. They are often told they are inadequate, while their brothers are not. Their brothers are explicitly labelled as heirs to their families’ honour and legacy, while they are only destined for marriage and childbirth. These girls also must experience the khutbahs and halaqahs of clueless Imams for whom religious counsel for women on the minbar is almost entirely about hijab, obeying their husbands and nothing else. If they do try to get some sort of counsel on their concerns, parents, Imams and community members perceive these questions as somehow challenging Islam, waswasah and kufr. I have literally heard the word ‘white meat’ in a khutbah to describe white women. Lopsided attitudes to girls’ Islamic education are also real, whereas the reality is that because of problems like Western feminism, girls’ Islamic education is more important than ever before. In popular media, the woman is often shown to be the helpless, foolish, supporting character, while the male is portrayed as the hero, legend, and saviour. All of this is demeaning and discouraging, and men must understand it for the sake of their womenfolk.

 As a father of girls, myself I have experienced multiple disturbing instances myself of people giving me varying forms of consolation that I do not have a son. It angers me because not only do I love my daughters & not care, but this is an insult to my beloved صلى الله عليه وسلم. Sons in Muslim families are often given more preferential treatment than the girls. My own parents sent me to a much better and more expensive school than my sisters because I was a boy. There are women in my family who have experienced harmful abuse and humiliation at the hands of their ex-husbands and former in-laws, explicitly because they were women.

All this deeply affects the self-worth of Muslim girls & women. They are reminded of it with every negative interaction they have – which for some is daily. There are some female scholars of Islam who have very astutely pointed out that they are ‘female scholars’ first, and scholars of Islam second. They will be called for a talk on ‘Women in Islam’ but no one will recognize that they are more qualified to teach the Islamic sciences as a whole – even more than the local male religious figure – but they are not called on to teach except for that one topic.

It is not surprising that they find some recovery of self-worth in Western feminism. That is after all, what it is designed for. The empowerment provided by Western feminism is immensely powerful, and the Islamically harmless aspects of it are disarming. Basic ideas like support for victims of female domestic violence, addressing inappropriate behaviour towards women, the emphasis on equity and equality between men and women, helping women find a voice and an ear for their concerns, material solutions for women’s needs etc. are all examples of ideas deeply grounded in the Western feminist movement, but have extraordinarily little conflict with Islam. One is easily convinced that Western feminism is not just empowering, but the solution itself! A woman may see so much potential in Western feminism for her self-actualization that its problems are considered irrelevant or insignificant in comparison. She may embrace feminism but still be a deeply religious or intelligent woman. If you are a man reading this, all this may seem strange to you. If you are a woman, all this might sound familiar. If you work in counselling or teaching, you might be sharing my frustration about how so Muslim and wider discourse about gender has become so extreme and antagonistic.

Despite all this, advocates of Western feminism need to also understand the deep problems in Western feminism. Not only does it have the extremely problematic philosophical baggage that I previously mentioned, but much of it is also an extreme response to what I have just mentioned. Destroying the ontological and epistemic foundations of Islam and the Islamic intellectual tradition is the most important example. But beyond that, for example, are some of the responses to demeaning attitudes and practices towards women. It is NOT demeaning attitudes and practices towards men. In popular media for example, It is not uncommon to find instances where the formula of male-centric action movies that debase women has been replaced with female-centric movies that debase men. This is unhealthy and problematic. The solution to female humiliation is not male humiliation. The solution to women being robbed of the opportunity to empowerment is not to rob the male of the opportunity to be empowered. The solution of women being robbed of the opportunity to examine their own femininity without being under the microscope of men is not men being robbed of the opportunity to examine their own masculinity without being under the microscope of women. The solution to exaggerated differences between men and women is not to deny them altogether.

Then there are the social manifestations of this extreme response. Western feminism has created a culture war and backlash for reasons that should not be ignored. Men who have been abused in the divorce process and robbed of the right to spend time with their children is becoming an all-too-common reality. Men can also be victims of domestic violence but ignored. Men also face immense pressure from society and politics already, on top of the pressure to conform to an overburdening assault from Western feminism. Yes, those who have harmful attitudes and practices must be addressed. But if you are going to use a sledgehammer to reform attitudes and behaviors in society, expect an equal and opposite reaction. Within the Muslim community, if you are going to advocate for an approach that has serious problems in how compatible it is with Islam, expect there to be alarm.

I myself have made serious mistakes in this regard. As I began to understand the grievances of the girls I was teaching, I began to buckle down on the boys in my classes instead and became more condescending about their immaturity, and I quickly realized that I was harming my rapport with my male students. I had missed the mark in understanding them. Only recently after going through the books of Dr. Leonard Sax have, I realized the immense harm that feminization of gender discourse has had on boys. I have begun to understand more deeply how both boys and girls, men and women have their own specific grievances and needs. Due to my lack of experience with boys in my personal life (despite male friends), I had not understood males for who they were. That learning experience was very enlightening & liberating because I was able to apply it to myself as well.

Both movements: the extremes of Western feminism, and the extremes of the backlash against it, are very harmful. Muslims are caught up in both ends of it, and to make things worse, it has become a religious debate. It has become a point of departure to assign a certain party as truer to Islam, and the other as being an innovation or harmful. You are forced to pick a side, and your faith is the main thing at stake.

The Way Forward

Here is the gist: we are not going to fix the problems I have discussed above if we adopt the problematic approach of either Western feminism or the backlash to it. We are inviting the deep division and discord of American society into our own societies. Muslims must remove themselves from these culture wars. Our attachment to American religious figures (as these culture wars are deeply American in root, cause, and nature) is critical to acknowledge. Much of the influence from these culture wars is coming from there.

If you are concerned about Western feminism and its encroachment into Muslim minds, then the solution is not to dismiss the real concerns of women and antagonize them. If you are concerned about the mistreatment of women and their role in Muslim communities and the Islamic tradition, the solution is not to adopt a harmful, extreme ideology that is foreign in history and construct to Islam and the Islamic tradition. Men need to listen to women and women need to listen to men. Much like marriage, there needs to be some compromise and sacrifice on each side for the common good.

What should we be doing instead? In theory, Western feminism does have some constructive ideas. The problem with acknowledging an ‘Islamic feminism’ is that it is too easy to construct that upon Western feminism and validate its more problematic aspects. Like many other theological issues Muslims face today, the solution is to approach the issue starting with the Islamic tradition and encapsulating it within it, cautiously, methodically, and faithfully fine-tuning the tradition as we go along. I have seen some female scholars like Dr. Tamara Gray and others suggest a concept of ‘Islamic femininity’ instead, to distance it from Western feminism and start anew.

Relatively little work has been done in outlining a philosophically and sociologically deep gender ontology that takes the Qur’an and Islamic intellectual tradition as its ontological and epistemic basis. Most of what I have seen is the partial or complete imposition of Western feminist ontology and epistemology onto the Qur’an, Sunnah or Islamic tradition. It speaks volumes that despite this being such a controversial, debated and discussed topic in Muslim circles, that our academic work in this department is sparse. Simply saying ‘feminism is haram’ or quoting verses here and there is not a scholarly approach, and neither is it going to effectively address any issues. Not only have we absorbed ourselves into the American culture wars, but we have also done it blindly and in the darkness. We are trying to address the issue, but we don’t have the tools or ideas to do so. To demonstrate this, ask any of the critics or supporters of Western feminism in the Muslim world to define masculinity or femininity, or even better to provide a theoretical framework for each. Some will not be able to respond. They do not even know what they are fighting for or against. Some will respond, but with incomplete thoughts and ideas (such as myself). The rare few have more complete understandings. Rarest of all is to find someone working on establishing a truly Islamic gender ontology.

I wrote this article to try and alleviate some of the infighting and tension that has crept into Muslim discourse the past few years based on these issues. I do not think it will do much, as our ummah is destined to differ among each other and further destroy our unity until the events of the last days. Perhaps I am wrong in my analysis, but I think I have spoken to how most Muslims feel about these discussions. Regardless, I will not pretend that I know what everyone thinks, so these are my own current conclusions after silently observing all these conversations, arguments and now sectarian-like conflicts.

For a more scholarly response with more examples, refer to:

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