the_quran_and_muslim_women_reading_patriarchy,_reading_liberation

The_quran_and_muslim_women_reading_patriarchy,_reading_liberation

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Unformatted text preview: .0 CHAPTER 1 The Qur’e‘m and Muslim Women Reading Patriarchy, Reading Liberation It was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls. The Qur’an (3o:9)‘ This work reflects my ongoing engagement with two questions that have both theoretical significance and real-life consequences for Muslims, espe— cially women: First, does Islam’s Scripture, the Qur’an, teach or condone sexuaLmeqiEli_ty_orngr§_ssion? Is it, as critics allege, a patria'rhch'al‘and even sexist and misogynistic text? Intimater related to that question is the sec- ond: Does the Qur’an permit and encourage liberation for women? When I ask whether the Qur’an is a patriarchal or misogynistic text, I am asking whether it represents God as Father/male or teaches that God has a special relationship with males or that males embody divine attributes and that women are by nature weak, unclean, or sinful. Further, does it teach that rule by the father/ husband is divinely ordained and an earthly continuation of God’s Rule, as religious and traditional2 patriarchies claim? Alternatively, does the Qur’an advocate gender differentiation, dualisms, or inequality on the-basisof sexual {biological} differences between women and men—fin bihéfwbids, does it privilege men over women in their biologi— cialvcfiapacity as males, or treat man as the Self (normative) and woman as the Other, or view women and men as binary opposites, as modern patriarchal theories of sexual differentiation and inequality do? When I ask whether we can read the Qur’an for liberation, I am asking whether its teachings about God as weii as about human creation, ontology, sexuality, and marital relationships challenge sexual inequality and patrie archy. Alternatively, do the teachings ofthe Qur’an allow us to theorize the equality, sameness, similarity, or equivalence, as the context demands, of women and men? It is obvious that much is at stake for Muslims in hoW we answer these questions, especially in view of the increasing levels of violence against women in many states from Afghanistan to Algeria today. What is less obvi- ous—given the widespread tendency to blame Islam for oppressing Mus- lims rather than blaming Muslims for misreading Islam 3 — is the possibility that we can answer the first set of questions % is the Qur’an a patriarchal or misogynistic text—in the negative, while we answer the secondfican the Qur’an be a source for women’s liberation — in the affirmative. Using an in- terpretive methodology, or hermeneutics,4 derived from the Qur’an, as well as two definitions ofpagigrchy (as a tradition of father—rule, and as a politics of gender inequality based in theories of sexual differentiation),S I hope to show not only that the Quf’an’s epistemology is inherently antipatriarchal but that it also allows us to theorize the radical equality of the sexes. This book, then, is as much a critique of sexual/textual6 oppression in Muslim societies as it is a concerted attempt to recover what Leila Ahmed (1992) calls the “stubbornly egalitarian" voice of Islam and to locate it as a legitimate countervoice to the authoritarian voice of Islam about which we hear so much these days, especially in the Western media. If, as Ahmed says, these “fundamentallydifierent [slams" arise in differen t readings, then it is imperative to challenge ahthoritarian and patriarchal readings of Islam that are profoundly affecting the liVes and future of Muslim women. This is not to say, however, that sexual inequality and discrimination are a function merely of misogynistic readings of Islam, or that one can explain the status of Muslim women “solely in terms of the Qur’an and/or other Islamic sources all too often taken out of context” (El—Sohl and Mabro 1994, i). As many recent studies reveal, women’s status and roles in Muslim soci~ r eties, as well as patriarchal structures and gender relationships, are a func~ tion of multiple factors, most of which have nothing to do with religion. '- The history of Western civilization should tell us that there is nothing in- nater Islamic about misogyny, inequality, or patriarchy. And yet, all three often are justified by Muslim states and clerics in the name of Islam. This recourse to sacred knowledge — or, more accurately, knowledge that claims to derive from religion — to justify sexual oppression, and the resulting mis- association of the sacred with misogyny, motivates my ovim engagement with Qur’anic hermeneutics and, I believe, renders such an engagement im- perative, even unavoidable, to all projects of Muslim women’s (and men’s) liberation. Even though a Qur’anic hermeneutics cannot by itself put an end 3. “Believing Women" in Islam to patriarchal, authoritarian, and undemocratic regimes and practices, it nonetheless remains crucial for various reasons. First, hermeneutic and existential questions are ineluctably connected. As the concept of sexual/ textual oppression suggests, there is a relationship between what we'read texts to be saying and how we think about and treat real women. '1 his in— sight, though associated with feminists because of their work on reading and representation, is at the core of revelation albeit in the form of the re- verse premise: that there is a relationship between reading (sacred texts) and liberation. If this were not the case, there would be little point in God’s communicating Iwith us in order to reform us. Accordingly, if we wish to ensure Muslim women their rights, we not only need to contest readings of the Qur’an that justify the abuse and degradation of women, we also need to establish the legitimacy of liberatory readings. Even if such readings do not succeed in effecting a radical change in Muslim societies, it is safe to say that no meaningful change can occur in these societies that does not derive its legitimacy from the Qur’an’s teachings, a lesson secular Muslims everywhere are having to learn to their own detriment. - However, even though Muslim women directly experience the conse- quences of oppressive misreadings of religious texts, few question their legitimacy and fewer still have explored the liberatory aspects of the Qur’an’s teachings.7 Yet, without doing so. they cannot contest the assoc1a- tion, falsely constructed by misreading Scripture, between the sacred and sexual oppression. This association serves as the strongest argument for inequality and discrimination among Muslims since many people either have not read the Qur’an or accept its patriarchal exegeSis unquestioningly. However, as numerous Scholars have pointed out, inequality and discrimi— nation derive not from the teachings of the Qur’an but from the secondary religious texts, the Tafstr (Qur’anic exegesis) and the Ahadith (s. hadnh) (narratives purportedly detailing the life and praxis of the Prophet Muham- mad). As such, by returning to a fresh and immediate interpretation of the Holy Book, and by taking a new and critical look at the Hadithsein other words, by engaging in creative ijtihads—modern Islamic authority could very well reform and renew the position of Islam on the issue of the status of women. (Stowasser 1984, 38) A reinterpretation of the Scripture is particularly important because the Qur’an’s teachings provide Muslims with role models for both women and The Qur'an and Muslim Women 3 \e men. Since different readings of the Qur’an (and of other texts) can yield what are for women “fundamentally different Islams,” it becomes crucial for them “to reinvestigate the normative religious texts” and even to become specialists in the sacred text, as Fatima Mernissi (1986) urges. Finally, as theorists argue in other contexts, there is “no practice with- out a theory,” 1° and Muslims have yet to derive a theory of equality from the Qur’an. This is partly because, as Fazlur Rahnian (1982, 2) points out, Muslims have yet to resolve “basic questions of method and hermeneutics.” Every new reading of the Qur’an, by helping to resolve these basic ques— tions of hermeneutics, can also help to generate such a theory. That is why critiquing the methods by which Muslims produce religious meaning and rereading the Qur’an for liberation are crucial for ensuring sexual equality. In attempting to do both here, I concentrate on recovering the liberating and egalitarian voice of Islam that is rarely heard today but which we are most in need of hearing. In the rest of the chapter, regarding the reading of the Qur’an; how Muslims read sexual inequality and patriarchy into it; how we can read the Qur’an for liberation; my epis- temology and methodology; and, finally, the plan of this book. I explain my arguments I. Reading the Qur’an Those who read Islam as a misogynistic and “uncompromising and overtly paternalistic” religion (Hussain 1994, 118) point both to the Qur’an’s alleged advocacy of sexual inequality and to the long history of discrimination against women in most Muslim societies. My purpose here is not to deny that the Qur’au can be read in patriarchal modes (as privileging males), that oppressive practices in many Muslim societies often stem from an ungritical adherence to what are assumed to be Islamic norms and strictures, or that the images of “the woman" in the Muslim unconscious are indeed misogy- nistic.” Nor do I deny that "the enveloping maleness” ‘2 of Muslim religious text engenders grave problems for women, as does the legalization of sexual inequality by classical Muslim law, the Shari‘ah. Rather, I argue that descrip- tions of Islam as a religious patriarchy that allegedly has “God on its side” 13 confuse the Qur’an with a specific reading of it, ignoring that all texts, in- cluding the Qur’an, can be read in multiple modes, including egalitarian ones. Moreover, patriarchal readings of Islam collapse the Qur’an with its exegesis (Divine Discourse ‘4 with “its earthly realization” 15); God with the languages used to speak about God (the Signified with the signifier); and 4 "Believing Women" in Islam normative Islam with historical Islam.16 Thus, Islam and Muslims are con- fused on the one hand, and texts, cultures, and histories are collapsed'on the other. My purpose is both to critique the methods by which Muslims generate patriarchal readings of the Qur’an and to recover the egalitarian aspects of Qur’anic epistemology. I do this on the ham of two claims, whose substantiation provides the subject matter of the two parts of this book. My first and relatively simple claim is that, insofar as all texts are poly- semic, they are open to variant readings.IWe cannot therefore look to a text alone to explain why people have read it in a particular mode or why they tend to favor one reading of it over another. This is especially true of a sacred text like the Qur’an which “has been ripped from its historical, linguistic, literary, and psychological contexts and then been continually recontextu- alized in various cultures and according to the ideological needs of various actors" (Arkoun 1994, 5). We need, therefore, to examine who has read the Qur’an historically, how they have read it—that is, how they have chosen to define the epistemology and methodology of meaning, hence certain ways of knowing (the realm of hermeneutics) — and the extratextual contexts in which they have read it. In particular, we need to examine the roles Mus- lim interpretive communities and states (the realm of sexual p0lll’ICS)h1r; shaping religious knowledge and authority in ways that enabled patriarc a readings of the Qur’an. I address these issues, which impinge on the p0wer and politics of reading itself, in Part I of the book. I t If emphasizing the Qur’an’s textual polysemy allows me to arguqiagains interpretive reductionism, however, it merely reiterates modern. de nitrous of the text and also a well—known historical fact; it says nothing specific about the Qur’an itself. And I do want to make a more specific, if also more controversial, claim (in dialogue with recent Muslim and feminist scholar-f ship) ” which is that the Qur’an is egalitarian and antipatriarchai. Thisfitli course, is a harder claim to establish for at least two reasons. First, w i e there is no universally shared definition of sexual equality, there IS. a pervaaf sive (and oftentimes perverse) tendency to,view differences as eVitdenceu:l inequality. In light of this View, the Qur’an s different‘treatment‘o qu '- and men with respect to certain issues (marriage, divorce, givmg o evi dence, etc.) is seen as manifest proof of its antiiequality stance and its paLri- archal nature. However, I argue against this view on the grounds botclliitf at (as many feminists themselves now admit) treating women ant:l met:re :1 tit: ently does not always amount to treating. them unequally, Eur oesd g them identically necessarily mean treating them equally. Secon , as my The Qur'in and Muslim Women 5 W, ,- ieading will Show. the Qur'ans ditierent treatment of women and men is not based in claims about either sexual ditlerence or sameness that theories ot‘sexual inequality and oppression make. Another dilliculty with claiming that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti— patriarchal is that some ofits teachings, especially those dealing with polyg- ynyand “trite beating,” suggest otherwise, as does the fact that the Qor’an recognizes men as the locus of power and authority in actually existing patriarchies. However, recognizing the existenceof a patriarchy, or address— ing one, is not the same as advocating it. Moreover, the Qur’an’s provisions about polygyny, “wife beating,” and so forthkwhich have been open to serious misinterpretation—were in the nature of restrictions, not a license. ' llowevert we can only address these types of issues if, in addition to ques- tioning the textual strategies Muslims have used to read the Qur’an, we also keep in mind the historical context of its revelation in a seventh—century {Arab} trihal patriarchy (much like the Taliban in Afghanistan today).19 Contextualizing the Qur’an's teachings (i.e., explaining them with refer~ ence to the immediate audience and social conditions to which they were addressed), shows that, far from being oppressive, they were profoundly egalitarian; it depends on how we position the Qur'an and also ourselves visea-vis it historically. Sound: .— “Believing Women” in Islam Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an by Asma Barlas llnwexstw r-P 'i'exas Prams RGQZ ...
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