By Sarah Huxtable Mohr
27 March 2019
The F-word: feminism. I was raised a feminist by a mother who was a feminist. I was also raised in a white family, in a predominantly white neighbourhood, as a Christian. My mother is a feminist, my sister is a feminist, my father is a feminist, and if you’re not a feminist, you can’t be friends with us. My father goes to church, and will only refer to God with her /Her pronouns. We believe in women’s rights, the empowerment of women and girls, and the importance of creating a world where women’s voices and bodies are honoured and respected.
As a Christian, I hammered out how to reconcile sexism in the Bible with my feminist values as a child, particularly the concept that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, or that women shouldn’t speak in church. See 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
At a young age, I read the book, Sexism and God Talk, authored by famous feminist liberation theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. I was instantly captivated, and totally embraced her famous statement, “The critical principal of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive.” So re-interpreting women’s role in society, church, and the world, was second nature to me by the time I read the Quran.
You cannot imagine my surprise when I read the Quran and discovered the radical inclusivity of the Quran’s ayahs on women. So many of them named men and women equally, and so many stated the complete equality of women with men.
One of the most famous verses in the Quran states the full equality of women so clearly, “O humanity, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into races and tribes, so that you may identify one another. Surely the noblest of you, in Allah’s sight, is the one who is most pious of you. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Surah Al Hujurat 49:13). Nothing about being made from a rib; just that we are from a man and a woman and our value is our piety.
It was so far beyond what was in the Bible, that I leaped to embrace what I saw to be a tradition that affirmed the full humanity of women.
This leads me to my main point for this article. I believe Muslims are way ahead of the Western world in respect to women’s rights for a fundamental reason. In European and North American feminism, women have been arguing for centuries that women are equally HUMAN, and not intrinsically inferior. Feminists in the European tradition start their arguments with trying to make the point that women have the same humanity as men. White European feminism begins with, and is founded upon the argument that women have value before God the same way men do because according the European Christian tradition, men stand between women and God, mediating salvation, and possessing greater HUMANITY than women. This has never been the case in Islam. Women weren’t biologically, and thus inherently and intrinsically inferior to men; women were just different.
This critique of Western European feminism is universal amongst educated Muslim feminists. We don’t have the same starting place. Muslim women’s feminism revolves around the functional role of women in society and women’s rights in society, not on arguing that women have intrinsic value because the fact that women have value was never questioned in Islam. It’s all over the Quran, and you can’t miss it.
There is a famous statement by European feminists that “biology is not destiny” in response to Freud’s famous statement that “biology is destiny.” And really, for Western feminists, this argument that women’s fate in society should not be determined by our biological sex is central to Western feminism. Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Mary Wollenstonecroft, Virginia Woolf; all of these women spent a considerable amount of time and energy arguing against the patriarchal and sexist standard that women’s biology determines her destiny as a child-bearing, subordinate, passive, and fundamentally inferior being who should be limited in her life choices and options.
I’m still a feminist, granted a more intersectional feminism now that I have been a Muslim for almost 20 years. It still astounds me that European feminists feel that it is possible to condescend Muslim women like we could potentially come up to their level and join their fight. We don’t need to join their fight to some extent, because their starting place was never a battleground that was in question for us.
The fight for functional rights for Muslim women is very similar to the fight for functional rights amongst non-Muslim women. It is a fact that the United States is one of very few countries that have not ratified the Universal Declaration of Women’s Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In fact, of the 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified CEDAW. The United States is among seven countries that have not — along with the Pacific Island nations of Tonga and Palua, Iran, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have both ratified CEDAW.
Where then is the justification for the prevailing notion that all or most Muslims oppress women in ways that surpass women’s oppression in the U.S.? Where then lie the roots of the Orientalist notion that Muslim women should be grateful for any aid in liberating us from sexist oppression courtesy of Western feminism?
Islam and feminism are a natural fit in the sense that Muslims believe based on our tradition in women’s rights. Instead of deluding themselves into thinking that traditional European feminists can dominate this discourse as well, let’s be clear that this is not the case. To feminists from the European tradition, for Women’s History Month, you could take our lead, the lead of our Holy Book, and the lead of our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), and be way ahead of where you started.