New Age Islam
Mon Dec 04 2023, 03:45 PM

Islam, Women and Feminism ( 28 Nov 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Islam, Faith and Feminism: Women find equality in religious traditions

By Anna Pratt


Because they say "it's important to hear women's voices," a local group called Feminists in Faith has formed this fall to discover how religion enriches feminism-and vice versa.

The group, which meets at the University of St. Thomas' Luann Dummer Center for Women in St. Paul, has engaged Christian, Jewish and Muslim women trailblazers, including Dr. Corrine Carvalho, Rabbi Amy Eilberg and Dr. Fatma Reda, to lead the discussion.

Touching on everything from the language used to describe God to the ordination of women, they argue that their religions embrace feminism at a basic level, despite the legacy of patriarchy that characterizes each tradition.

One thing the group has set out to do is trace the curvature of feminism, its successes and failures, within each religious community. That line isn't easily drawn, with prevailing thought being tied to the cultural backdrop that is shifting all the time. "As women assert themselves in all walks of life, it is logical that they take a larger and larger role in the faith tradition that nourishes their spirits," said Linda Hulbert, an administrator for the St. Thomas libraries who belongs to the group.

Karen Schierman, associate director at the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish Christian Learning at Saint John's University and St. Thomas, said that part of the group's value is that it instils a deeper appreciation for each faith tradition, regardless of one's own beliefs. Additionally, "It's a place for women to safely express concerns. Within all faith traditions, women seek out women ... They talk about issues of the heart, mothers and daughters and sisterhood. It's important to hear women's voices," she said.

Dr. Fatma Reda:

Different and vocal

Dr. Fatma Reda, a physician who has a graduate degree in religious philosophy, said her feminism is supported by her reading of the Islamic Koran, which she said treats men and women equally. It doesn't condone oppression against women or other minorities. "I've found feminism in Islam. Feminism wasn't new to me. I grew up as a feminist," she said. For starters, the Koran doesn't imply that Eve seduced Adam in the Garden of Eden, like the Bible does. The couple sinned together. Jointly, they asked for forgiveness. That means that there's "no such thing as original sin or women having to pay for [Eve's sin] ... Young women don't grow up feeling that they're tainted," she said.

In the Koran, Reda said, men weren't given authority over women. No one was assigned to comfort the other, she said. They married for the purpose of propagation. And in practice, Muslim women don't change their last names when they get married, as [many] do in Christian circles. A wife is able to retain control of her money.

Other portions of the Koran have been misconstrued, such as the notion of polygamy, which is something that is reserved only for extreme circumstances. It came about as a result of war times, when many young men lost their lives, Reda said. That left an overabundance of widows. "There weren't enough men to go around. Widows with orphans went prostituting." If a man was worried about the plight of the orphans, he was directed to take another wife. So, widows were taken in. "It was an economic thing ... Judaism has a rule that if a man dies, his brother is to marry his widow."

The Koran instructs women to be modest in their dress because female slaves were sold on the basis of breast size while prostitutes profited by exposing their cleavage. The other references to women's appearance has to do with the women prophets who wore a veil to set themselves apart from everyone else. Unlike in Christian and Jewish traditions, anyone can be a religious leader in Islam (called an imam). But just as in Christianity or Judaism, there's a big difference between what the scripture says and how it's put into practice. Many passages have been taken out of context, while historically women have been barred access to the "sources" that would dispel male domination, Reda said.

Like her peers in Feminists in Faith, Reda believes that women's rights intersect with larger social justice issues. "As I get older, I challenge people more. In my culture, older women are more respected because they've acquired something you can't get from the public library or the Internet," she said.

Sometimes her views haven't been popular, especially in Minnesota, where she says the Muslim feminist community is small. Muslims across the state are largely conservative, which she attributes in part to culture shock. Other places, such as California, are more diverse. For that reason, "I have toyed with the idea of leaving Minnesota. At times it has felt suffocating ... it's insulated in a way. ... It's been a challenge for me, being different and being vocal."

Rabbi Amy Eilberg:

A gender-neutral direction

When Amy Eilberg, a co-founder of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in California, was ordained a rabbi in 1985, she made history. Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Conservative movement.

Since then, the number of female rabbis in the movement has grown to 200, which is outpaced by the involvement of those in the Reform and Reconstruction movements. Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly, an international body of Jewish Conservative rabbis, hit a milestone when it appointed its first female director, Julie Schoenfeld. "Women in leadership roles are growing. To some extent, they don't have seniority yet. It's a matter of time," Eilberg said.

As a Jewish feminist, her efforts were once threatening to the establishment. But since that time, hers and others' views about embracing women in leadership roles in the religious community have entered the mainstream. Often, people don't make the connection between her work on healing, spirituality and peace and feminism, but they do "tend to notice that just as I helped break ground for women [in her religious community], I am also exploring new dimensions of Jewish life in other ways."

While much of her work isn't as controversial as it once was, some still see her as a radical. Others call her a pioneer. No matter what, "Being a feminist is integrally connected to my spiritual life because being a woman is how I observe the world," Eilberg said. Eilberg said the feminist community within her religion isn't as apparent as it was in the '70s and '80s, when she frequently sat on panels dealing with the subject, but that women rabbis continue to get together. Additionally, there are forums for Jewish feminist writing, while many synagogues host women's programs. In general, "As the years have passed, the threshold work has been done ... in theology, it happens more in writing, in what people talk about and teach," she said.

For example, new prayer books and other religious texts that acknowledge the female experience have come out in the last decade. Rituals that speak to key moments in women's lives, such as pregnancy, have been developed. Additionally, evocative imagery is moving in a gender-neutral direction. "We're backing away from the use of the word 'lord' and other hierarchical language that evokes that men are above and women are below," such as 'father,' meaning God. At one time, "Only men's voices were heard. Now women's voices can add a commentary." Likewise, she thought some Christian women "are being encouraged to dare to imagine that God looks like them. God's love and acceptance for them is as complete [as it is for men] and they speak to God in their own unique voice."

Nevertheless, women continue to be underrepresented in Jewish organizations. They have a harder time securing prestigious positions, and are cast in certain roles, with an emphasis on the "primacy of relationships, cooperation among people, nurturing the needs of others ... there's transformation because more women are stepping into it with that orientation of heart," Eilberg said.

Whether it's Judaism, Christianity or Islam, Eilberg believes the issues remain the same, although she admittedly has less of a handle on the issues facing Muslims. "Social justice activists work to counteract people's resistance to change, challenging sexism, which means getting "equal pay for equal work, insisting on full respect for women clergy."

Dr. Corrine Carvalho:

The dirty word

Dr. Corrine Carvalho, an associate professor in the theology department at St. Thomas who also heads the Luann Dummer Center, said feminism is "part of the Christian vocation, true to scripture." Years after the feminist movement of the '70s, however, it's still a point of contention: "I'm shocked at how many people are asking, can you be a feminist and a Christian? It happens less among theologians and many ordained people, but it's not getting to the pew. I don't know if that's the case just in Christianity or not. It's part and parcel of feminism becoming a dirty word," she said.

Her students don't want to be labeled feminists, something that's tied to the argument that feminism goes against Christianity, Carvalho said. "Certainly there have been feminists who view Christianity as so inherently patriarchal that it should be rejected or completely reconfigured," she said.

Those who define feminism that way "naturally conclude that I must be hostile to Christianity." Beyond that, however, "it is difficult for me to say how I'm viewed by 'my religious community' since even the question of how my community is would be variable. Do you mean religious authority figures within my particular denomination? Do you mean a general cultural view of people in my denomination? Do you mean Christian women? Christian men? It would be hard for me to say."

In so far as her faith and feminism goes, "I couldn't leave either aside. Both are essential components of my identity," said Carvalho, a lifelong feminist. "I can't imagine a God for whom women would be unequal to men. There's no room for superiority or inferiority. If there were no God, it would be easier to argue that men are better. You throw in universal justice and it's harder to make that argument."

Within Catholicism, there are those who agree with Carvalho and those who don't. Some advocate for women priests while others who fight for women's rights don't consider themselves feminists. One ongoing debate centers on the question of whether there's an essential feminist nature, with camps on both sides. "It's a gender issue," she said.

Online resources

Christians for Biblical Equity, a non-profit organization that supports gender equity: www.cbeinter

Mount Saint Agnes, a theological center for women that promotes equality for women in churches: Women Priests, which works for the ordination of female priests:

Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), a feminist educational and advocacy center:

Jewish Women's Archive, which documents Jewish women's lives in North America:


On Being a Jewish Feminist edited by Susannah Heschel

Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, Volume 1, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible

Liberating Tradition by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson

Feminism and Islam by Mai Yamani

The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissie



Leaders’ fury over arrest of 76 Muslim women

By Patrick Beja, Nov 25, 2008

Muslim leaders have criticised the arrest of 76 women at a guesthouse in Nairobi.

The women were held at the weekend following claims that a human trafficking syndicate was about to take them to Saudi Arabia.

Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) Organising Secretary Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa, who received the women in Mombasa, yesterday said the raid amounted to harassment.

"The women explained their mission at the guest house yet were arrested and locked them up. We ask the Commissioner of Police to take action," Khalifa said.


He said the country had not generated enough jobs and the Government should help those seeking employment abroad.

One of the women, Ms Fatuma Mohamed, said the women were seeking travel documents to work in Saudi Arabia as housemaids.

She said she had acted as an agent for Olymptic Manpower Supplies, which sends Kenyans to work in Saudi Arabia.

"I worked in Saudi Arabia myself and those we send have to be upright and of good health. We were in Nairobi to process the travel documents," she said.

Mohamed led the group back home after they were released from Central Police Station in Nairobi on Monday.

She vowed to return to Nairobi to process the travel documents.

Another woman, Ms Mariam Hussein Omar, complained that they were bundled in four vehicles after the raid and thrown in a crowed cell.


"We were comfortable at the lodge, but hell broke loose when police raided it," she said.

Ms Halimishi Bakari, 25, said some neighbours had been recruited by the company.

"We got shocked when police surrounded us and put us in a single room at the lodge, accusing us of prostitution. We were in Nairobi to get passports to travel to Saudi Arabia," she said.

Ms Halima Idd accused police of sabotaging their efforts to seek employment in Saudi Arabia.

She claimed May Kenyan men were working there as drivers and cooks.

They urged the Government to facilitate those seeking employment in other countries, saying they needed to support their families.



Westerners Welcome Harems

By Daniel Pipes

Jerusalem Post

November 26, 2008


A Scottish judge recently bent the law to benefit a polygamous household. The case involved a Muslim male who drove 64 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone - usually grounds for an automatic loss of one's driving license. The defendant's lawyer explained his client's need to speed: "He has one wife in Motherwell and another in Glasgow and sleeps with one one night and stays with the other the next on an alternate basis. Without his driving licence he would be unable to do this on a regular basis." Sympathetic to the polygamist's plight, the judge permitted him to retain his license.


Monogamy, this ruling suggests, long a foundation of Western civilization, is silently eroding under the challenge of Islamic law. Should current trends continue, polygamy could soon be commonplace.


Since the 1950s, Muslim populations have grown in Western Europe and

North America via immigration and conversion; with their presence has grown the Islamic form of polygamy (one man married to more than one woman). Estimates find 2,000 or more British polygamous men, 14,000 or

15,000-20,000 harems in Italy, 30,000 harems in France, and 50,000 to 100,000 polygamists in the United States.


Some imams openly acknowledge conducting polygamous marriage ceremonies:

Khalil Chami reports that he is asked almost weekly to conduct such ceremonies in Sydney. Aly Hindy reports having "blessed" more than 30 such nuptials in Toronto.


Social acceptance is also growing. Academics justify it, while politicians blithely meet with polygamists or declare that Westerners should "find a way to live with it" and journalists describe polygamy with empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Islamists argue polygamy's virtues and call for its official recognition.


Polygamy has made key legal advances in 2008. (For fuller details, see my blog, "Harems Accepted in the West.") At least six Western jurisdictions now permit harems on the condition that these were contracted in jurisdictions where polygamy is legal, including India and Muslim-majority countries from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to Morocco.


United Kingdom: Bigamy is punishable by up to seven years in jail but the law recognizes harems already formed in polygamy-tolerant countries.

The Department of Work and Pensions pays couples up to £92.80 (US$140) a week in social benefits, and each multiculturally-named "additional spouse" receives £33.65. The Treasury states that "Where a man and a woman are married under a law which permits polygamy, and either of them has an additional spouse, the Tax Credits (Polygamous Marriages) Regulations 2003 allow them to claim tax credits as a polygamous unit." Additionally, harems may be eligible for additional housing benefits to reflect their need for larger properties.


The Netherlands: The Dutch justice minister, Ernst Hirsch Ballin, has announced that polygamous Muslim marriages should not be dealt with through the legal system but via dialogue.


Belgium: The Constitutional Court took steps to ease the reunification of harems formed outside the country.


Italy: A court in Bologna allowed a Muslim male immigrant to bring the mothers of his two children into the country on the grounds that the polygamous marriages had been legally contracted.


Australia: The Australian newspaper reports "it is illegal to enter into a polygamous marriage. But the federal government, like Britain, recognises relationships that have been legally recognised overseas, including polygamous marriages. This allows second wives and children to claim welfare and benefits."


Ontario, Canada: Canadian law calls for polygamy to be punished by a prison term but the Ontario Family Law Act accepts "a marriage that is actually or potentially polygamous, if it was celebrated in a jurisdiction whose system of law recognizes it as valid."


Thus, for the cost of two airplane tickets, Muslims potentially can evade Western laws. (One wonders when Mormons will also wake to this gambit.) Rare countries (such as Ireland) still reject harems; generally, as David Rusin of Islamist Watch notes, "governments tend to look the other way as the conjugal mores of seventh-century Arabia take root in our backyards."


At a time when Western marriage norms are already under challenge, Muslims are testing legal loopholes and even seeking taxpayer support for multiple brides. This development has vast significance: just as the concept of one man, one woman marriage has shaped the West's economic, cultural, and political development, the advance of Islamic law (Shari'a) will  profoundly change life as we know it.