By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
04 August 2016
Women in the Quran—An Emancipatory Reading
Author: Asma Lamrabet
Publisher: Square View (UK)
Islam, Muslims and women—this is a subject of a huge number of writings that reflect diverse, mutually-contradictory positions. This book is a welcome contribution to the corpus of writings on the issue. Lamrabet, a Muslim woman pathologist based in Morocco, provides a detailed account of women mentioned in the Quran to highlight the issue of women and gender relations in Islam.
At the same time as Lamrabet stresses the fundamental equality and dignity that the Quran provides women and critiques critics of Islam for providing a skewed image of women in Islam, she recognises that patriarchy is deep-rooted in many Muslim societies and even in Muslim discourses about Islam, through which women are sought to be suppressed. “For a long time,” she rues, “the question of the status of Muslim women has been taken hostage between two extreme interpretations: a very rigid conservative Islamic approach and a Western, Islamophobic and ethnocentric approach.”
Both these approaches feed on each other. Lamrabet explains that “the discourse of the veiled, oppressed and reclusive Muslim woman” serves as “an alibi” for “political attitudes” of Western “cultural domination”, in line with the notion of the West’s ‘civilising mission”. While critical of Western notions of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’, which is used to justify Western domination over Muslim societies, Lamrabet also recognises “a culture of oppression of women in Muslim lands”, often in the name of Islam, or what she elsewhere describes as “this culture of demeaning women which continues to plague our Muslim societies.” “Between these two diametrically opposed visions,” she points out, “the Muslim woman ultimately remains a prisoner, despite herself, of a discourse which in both cases denies her person, her aspirations and her will [...] Between a frozen Islamic thought which assiduously ring-fences women’s issues and a Western ideology which takes pleasure from denigrating Islam through those same issues, one struggles to think of a third way, through which Muslim women can emerge from this ideological impasse.”
This "third way" lies in distinguishing between dominant Muslim discourses about Islam that are deeply patriarchal, on the one hand, and Islam itself, on the other, a task that Lamrabet handles with great dexterity. She shows what she calls the “real contradiction which exists between the spiritual message of the Qur’an and the lived reality of Muslims” that results in patriarchal readings of the Qur’an. She highlights the fact of human interpretations of Islam bearing the imprint of the geopolitical and socio-cultural contexts in which they are produced. This suggests the critical need for Islamic thought to “evolve, in order to redefine itself, to be rethought”.
Lamrabet notes that this reform is indeed happening “despite an overall chaotic general assessment in the Muslim world’ as a number of Muslim scholars, including believing Muslim women, “contest, in particular, a classical analysis which stipulates that the inequality between men and women and its corollary of discriminatory measures are an inherent part of the sacred text by demonstrating that, in fact, it is certain biased readings, bolstered by patriarchal customs, which have rather legitimated these same inequalities.” These alternate interpretations of the Qur’an, she says, are “adapted to our context and to a human reality which never ceases to evolve.”
Critiquing the tendency to remain content with scriptural exegesis compiled centuries ago and which, concerning women, often reflect a “distressing literalism”, Lamrabet underscores the need to distinguish between what is from the Qur’an from what is from the domain of subjective, human interpretation of it. She notes that nothing in the Qur’an can justify any discrimination against women. Advocating the importance of reading the Qur’an from a “feminine perspective”, she calls for a “true dynamic of liberation from within the Islamic sphere, in the sense of raising the status of Muslim women” that would allow “the development of a true autonomy and an alternate Islamic feminine identity with the totality of its rights and responsibilities”, enabling Muslim women to “define themselves as active partners in the process of reform and religious reinterpretation”. This isn’t, she clarifies, an attempt to promote a women-only hermeneutic that would exclude centuries of classical exegetical tradition. Rather, she says, it is about deconstructing “an entire patriarchal model of reading which relegates women to a corner of Islamic history, in order to return women a part of their amputated memory”.
Much of the book is devoted to reflection on references in the Qur’an to particular women, such as Mary, Hagar and Sarah, Zulaykha, the mother of Moses, and Asiah (wife of Pharaoh), highlighting the positive, respectful attitude of the Qur’an towards women. These references highlight these women’s independence, spiritual worth, and other lofty qualities. Lamrabet also discusses issues such as polygamy, women’s testimony, and inheritance rights and so on that are mentioned in the Quran and that have been taken by both patriarchal-minded Muslim exegetes as well as critics of Islam to indicate women’s subordination to men. She provides alternate, women-friendly, context-sensitive readings of these while unpacking patriarchal interpretations thereof.
Lamrabet concludes that Islam gave rise to “a movement of women’s liberation” that “shook the social sphere of the time, which was essentially grounded in a merciless patriarchal system.” It encouraged women to speak for themselves as they entered the social sphere and sought their rights that tribal tradition had denied them. However, later patriarchal misinterpretations of the Qur’an led to the erroneous impression of it being a patriarchal text, she notes.
Yet, she stresses, “Nothing could be more false than this assertion”, since “from the beginning of revelation, on the contrary, Islam fought against patriarchal traditions and customs”. Hence, she writes, “One can even assert that the Qur’an is an anti-patriarchal text since, in numerous verses, one finds a critique and even a categorical rejection of the main manifestations of patriarchal culture.”
A wonderful, must-read book!
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