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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 12 Nov 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Gender Ideologies in Classical Islamic Law and Its Relationship with ‘Honour’ Killings in Some Muslim Majority Cultures

By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

11 November 2016

The continued practice of so called honour killings in some Muslim majority cultures is extremely alarming. As someone who has been dealing with the issues of Islam and gender form an academic perspective for over a decade I have been trying to understand as to why this practice persists and what kind of mechanisms are at play. As a part of this prolonged engagement with gender issues in Islam  I have come to the conclusion that it is exceedingly important to have an open and honest discussions regarding the following question ( even if I run the risk of uncritically  being accused of ‘Islamophobia’) :

Do gender cosmologies inherent to (neo)-classical Islam in any way contribute to a socio-cultural climate conducive to honour killings in Muslim majority societies which have internalised these cosmologies and which became firmly entrenched over the course of centuries affecting the psyche and the socio-cultural norms of the people concerned?

 I will not answer this questions in a definite manner but will present the following thoughts that will, it is hoped, lead to a more informed discussion on the issue and hopefully a better diagnosis leading to some concrete ways of countering the practice based on a change in a cultural paradigm with respect to gender roles and norms in the relevant contexts.

The recent killing of a high profile Pakistani celebrity Qandeel Baloch in the name of honour has yet again triggered questions regarding the practice of honour killings that regularly take place in some  (non)- Muslim majority cultures and the role of religiously sanctioned gender roles and norms play in them. My recently published article ( available for free download here) titled  The Custom (ʿurf) based assumptions regarding Gender Roles and Norms in the Islamic Tradition: A Critical Examination  critically examines certain custom (ʿurf) based assumptions and theories regarding gender roles and norms that have been incorporated into the Sunni Islamic tradition and law that I believe are relevant to these discussions. The article was written much earlier than when the killing of Qadeel took place.

In the article I argue that the gender roles and norms that inform classical Islamic tradition (including law) are based on what I call the theory of ‘gender oppositionality’ according to which normative masculinity is constructed almost exclusively   in terms of anti-femininity  and vice versa. Furthermore, I argue that this gender oppositionality theory has, in turn, given rise to a number of gender specific rights and responsibilities and has engendered certain normative gender-based roles and norms.  Importantly, I argue that these gender based assumptions have found their expression in virtually all spheres of traditional Muslim societies, both private and public, including the legal, socio-cultural, political, educational, religious, as well as in terms of general conduct and behaviour.

In the article I also explain the hermeneutical mechanisms by which Islamic law conceived of and incorporated  these gender roles and norms into its canon by means of certain conceptualizations and interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna but whose ultimate source were  the prevalent customs (‘urf) of the societies /cultures in which classical Islamic law was forged . Hence, I argue that these gender roles and norms, in contrast to classical Islamic law, are not to be considered as part of universal aspects of the Qur’an and Sunna but merely as customary (‘urfi).

One element of these gender role and norms that classical Islam canonized that has wide-ranging cultural, socio-political, cultural and legal implications is what I call the conceptual linking of the category of women with that of Fitna (sources of socio-moral chaos for men) with that of  tribal honour (ʿird) and male sexual jealousy (Ghairāt) whose assumptions ultimately rest on certain understandings regarding the nature of masculinity and femininity and male and female sexuality in particular.

In this regard, the idea of women’s superior sexual desire (Shahvat) and a particular concept of female ‘modesty’(Hayā’) are employed as the most significant factors (others include lack of rationality, and reduced capacity for spiritual enlightenment/religiosity) determining ‘femininity’ whereas tribal honour (ʿird) and male sexual jealousy (Ghairāt) serve the same purpose in terms of masculinity.  These assumptions regarding this nature of masculinity and femininity, in turn, are used as the basis on which gender segregation, the distinction between the public male sphere and the private female sphere, de facto female public invisibility, the complete veiling of women, the comprehensive guardianship ( traditional understanding of qiwama and wilaya) of men over women  and other ‘modesty laws’ (bashfulness, speaking in soft voice or not speaking at all in public) are all justified and regarded as religiously ideal. They are also used to conceptually link the concept of male/tribal honour with this particular form of ‘modesty laws’ for women. In other words, women bear the brunt of upholding of tribal /family honour and the meaning of honour is heavily invested in the kind of sexual and non-sexual behaviour or even the kind of demeanour that is displayed by their women folk. My argument here is that the life of Qandeel was considered by some of their immediate family (she was killed by her own brother) to be in contravention of these gender norms and honour codes which ultimately led to her death.

 Let me be clear that I am not arguing that classical Islamic law is per se directly responsible or sanctions her death it clearly does not. I am , however, arguing that as long as the kind of religiously ideal masculinity and femininity concepts explained above prevail in (non)-Muslim cultures (honour killings do take place outside of Muslim majority cultures too but share the same kind of gender cosmologies) they will continue to provide a fertile ground for the continued occurrence of honour killings. Classical Islamic law pertaining to gender roles and norms contributes to this because it in many ways devalues the category of women by conceptually linking women in specific ways to or consider them as a category to belong to:

  1. the realm of ‘irreligious’ sexual passion, shame, domesticity and hyper-sexuality which conceptually links the concept of Fitna (voracious female sexuality that seriously threatens the socio-moral fiber of the Muslim public sphere whose social/civilisational consequences can be catastrophical) ,family honour ('ird) and women's ‘Awra. On the other hand men are considered as the bearers of religious knowledge and are charged with duty (read privilege)  to manage the public life (both of these male activities are valued much more highly by society).

  2. a category of people who are deficient in rationality (ability to possess ra’y or sound rational judgment) and ‘religiosity’(hence it is not surprising to read opinions of classical Islamic scholars  forbidding women from learning the art of writing  )

  3. a category of people who are in constant need of male supervision, ‘guidance’, control and disciplining (traditional concepts of qiwama and wilaya);

  4. a source of male/family/tribal honour (‘ird)

  5.  unreasonable forms of male jealousy and even in some cases as sources of impurity and superstition (as documented by scholars such as Fatna Sabbah, Sa’diyya Shaikh and others that I cite in my article.)

  6. in some cases there is a belief that women have been created for ( the pleasure) men

  7.  the belief that the majority of people in hell will be women

  8.  in some cases wife's disobedience of the husband who is a scholar is also referred to as Kufr. 

    It is my contention that the above gender based assumptions can have a combined effect that can form a very potent mixture that dictates the life of women in patriarchal societies in its every imaginable segment and over which they have minimal autonomy. Women’s refusal to submit to them could have serious consequences including serious beatings as for example demonstrated by the scholarship on domestic violence and the Islamic tradition. In addition, these assumptions in the least greatly devalue women’s lives.

    As noted above, in the article I also argue that the particular ideas regarding the nature of gender roles and norms that inform classical Islamic law can be challenged by rethinking how gender related  ‘urf  based assumptions were incorporated into it and by developing alternative Qur’an-Sunna hermeneutics which, apart from others,  recognize that socio-legal injunctions in the Qur’an and hadith are customary (’urfi) and not immutable (ta’abudi) in nature.

    The views which express that ‘Islam’ has absolutely nothing to do with honour killings, while certainly welcome, but do not critically engage with the above gender ideologies in my view are not effective in tackling the issue.  Let us keep in mind that it is very difficult to distinguish cultural from religious norms so any argument which simplistically suggests that they can be disentangled easily without deconstructing the gender assumption outlined above is from a theoretical perspective at best unhelpful and at worst complicit in perpetuating these assumptions.

    For honour killings to be effectively countered in the long term we need a paradigm shift in the above outlined gender ideologies and the assumptions that inform them. This paradigm shift must be fully affirmative of women’s autonomy, agency and equal moral worth.  Apart from recognizing the customary nature of the relevant fiqh categories and the many interpretational assumptions   which cannonised them, we also need educational programs (especially but not only in traditionalist minded madrasas)  which promote women’s full autonomy, agency and equal moral worth as  expressions of  values that are more faithful to normative Islamic teachings than those inherent to classical Islam . This will be a long and uphill battle as the gender ideologies inherent in classical Islam are firmly entrenched in the psyche and cultural norms of some segments of Muslim majority cultures and are associated with normative Islamic norms. 

    Adis Duderija is a Visiting Senior lecturer at the university Malaya. His academic and non-academic works can be read here: He blogs at: Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Islamic Hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue.


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