Muslim women and misogyny

Does Islam play a role in widespread misogyny in Muslim societies?





In truth, I will not lose anything you do, men or women who you are, since one comes from the other… (Koran, III,195)

Machismo and the violation of women’s rights, affect all human societies and cultures. Discrimination, oppression and violence against women are still in all societies, whatever their religions, social and political systems. The world is hierarchically structured in a solid patriarchal system. The domination of men over women is the rule, even if the ways and manifestations of the abuse are different, in the human groups and geopolitical areas. It is dramatically and urgent problem even in Muslim majority societies and we need to deeping understand its causes, in order to struggle the phenomenon. In Africa and Asia, continents where Islam is prevalent, the status of women presents serious problems and also in the diasporic Muslim communities.  in the West ,in Europe too, there are evident complications about the condition of women and gender relations . In many African and Asian countries there is a lack of freedom and general recognition of rights, due to authoritarian regimes, and in these situations women and minors are undoubtedly the weakest and most abused groups. But even in Western communities these problems persist, in democratic systems too, and in this case we have to deal with a deeply rooted cultural system. The current protests in Iran, against the regime of the Islamic Shiite republic, have at their core the violated rights of women and their freedom. This is, in my opinion, the big news of the Iranian protests. Women’s rights are not secondary to economic issues – food and labor – as in the past, now they are the priority. The situation of women is an urgency, not only in these countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, which are borderline cases, but more generally in Muslim majority societies. These are still immersed in a strongly patriarchal system, and are not secularized societies, so religion still plays a fundamental role in society.

When we talk about women in Muslim religious communities , we’re  addressing a complex problem: reasoning about past and present, patriarchy and political power, popular culture and religious authorities are interrelated. Certainly we must remember the heterogeneity of the situations, in the various contexts of Islam is present. This religion is present  worldwide with many nuances: about women conditions, we can see extreme injustices and excellences. Difficult, there is no doubt about this, but clarity can be shed by studying history – and above all the history of women – and the scriptures, starting with the Koran. On and off over the centuries, and with great differences from place to place, Muslim women have not found it easy to find their place in the community of faith and knowledge , as in society. We can say that in Islam – understood as the Koran, and authentic Sunna – human beings are equal and responsible before God for their actions. There is no difference between a man and a woman in terms of humanity and in their relationship with God. Fundamental rights and freedoms in Islam, the dignity of a person belongs to every human being. Consequently, there is no discrimination between women and men in the right to maintain and develop their material and spiritual existence, freedom of conscience, religious belief and thought. Everyone has the right to be treated with equality and justice before the law, to protect their dignity and reputation, property and life; everyone has the right to marry and raise a family, to have their privacy and security protected. In the Medina community, women had civil and political rights, their vote was worth that of a man and they had political responsibilities, public administration and government positions, made pacts and participated in wars. Despite this, the ruling system has always restricted women, and the same has happened in Islamic history. A large part of the discussions related to women’s rights in Islam is about women’s participation in social life, their working life and in society at large, including political and religious leadership. We are well aware that it is not enough to understand what the Koran says, or to rely on what in the past – first of all at the time of the revelation – women have seen rights recognized before ignored. Religious culture is a constantly evolving historical and cultural fact and it is necessary to grasp this complexity. Fourteen centuries of Islamic history have seen female figures of great prominence, in religion, science and politics. Excellencies, of course, but a minority in a world where power and knowledge were – and are – the prerogative of men. These female figures, well known but not highlighted by the most authoritative authors and popularizers, have a lot to teach us and to tell us about  the role of women in religious communities and another closely connected theme, that of interpretation Islamic texts and historical sources. If we knew better – through a reconstruction of biographies and works – the learned Muslims who over the centuries have grappled with the study of Koranic sciences and jurisprudence, we could certainly obtain a different look at Islam and the history of Muslims, which would help us- great difficulty of Muslim communities today – to be contemporary. Although Islamic sapiential history is mostly dominated by male authors, in fact we have knowledge of numerous sages who contributed to the development of jurisprudence, medicine, Koranic sciences and other disciplines, not least poetry, very important in the world Islamic Arabic. In this regard, the recent work in Arabic by Mohammad Akram is very important , a 40 volume biographical dictionary which traces short biographies of Muslim women who have studied and taught the science of hadith. The substantial work, of which only the introduction into English has been translated, provides material for further research, limited to biographical notes, and at the same time shows the central role played by women in preserving the prophetic Sunna, the main guide for understanding the Koran and for the development of jurisprudence. From the historical sources cited by Akram , some well-known such as Ibnu Saad’s Tabaqat we know that at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and in the following centuries women regularly attended the main mosques and madrasas and taught there, traveled extensively for their studies, transmitted and interpreted the hadith, issued fatwas (juridical opinions). Some of the most authoritative scholars have cited women among their teachers. These sages enjoyed considerable public authority in society, not exceptionally, but as a norm. The enormous body of information examined in Akram ‘s book is essential for understanding the role of women in Islamic society, their past achievements and future potential. So far it has been so dispersed that it can be ignored. The dictionary will greatly facilitate further study, contextualization and analysis.

When we learn history, and we look at our societies today, we must ask us  a question: Does Islam play a role in widespread misogyny in Muslim societies? Does it come in some way from his texts, or from the subsequent sapiential elaboration, from the religion that developed following the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad and in the following centuries? Why are Islamic societies so slow in acknowledging the demands of women’s movements, which also have a long history – in arabic countries especially in Near East – more than two centuries?

These questions are crucial for Muslim women. Understanding the basis of religious sexism and deconstructing it, is necessary; because religion is a very important factor in Muslim countries. The Koran is a text – for Muslims a revealed text – of the seventh century, and interpreted over the centuries by men – the vast majority – who had their own conception of law and justice, different from the contemporary one. Although some cultural aspects have not been attempted with a clear or gradual prohibition – such as the consumption of alcohol, which was gradually discouraged up to the total prohibition – for many customs the Koran has foreseen an abandonment through a different education and some practices. An example is the use of slavery, which is no longer accepted today – although it survives in different forms – which the Koran has not prohibited, but has discouraged by inviting on many occasions to free the slaves, even as expiation. Even in gender relations, the pedagogical character of many verses that enjoin men to treat their wives well is evident, and Muhammad’s preaching is full of such recommendations. The current debate about gender issues in the Koran and especially women’s rights is based on the concept of equality and human dignity. The issue is whether the Koran grants equal status to men and women, equal dignity and substantial equality. The concept of equality can be articulated in ontological, ethical and social terms. Upstream of this reflection it is good to remember that equality is a relatively recent concern among scholars of the Koran, not being a theme in ancient times. It was present a discussion about women and their rights in the past too, but not in the same terms as there is today. As throughout Islamic sapiential history, there has always been great heterogeneity in the interpretation of the Qur’an, and the issue of gender is no exception. Pre -modern interpreters (all male scholars) never questioned that the text granted more rights and more responsibilities to men. They believe that man was “by nature” more appropriate to fulfill particular responsibilities and to enjoy certain privileges. This did not raise concerns regarding women: the concern of exegetes in the pre-modern period, and of jurists, was to ensure that both men and women were treated fairly, according to the standards established by the various schools of Islamic law.

In the past, however, justice was not associated with equality. Ancient Islamic societies were hierarchical and people were distinguished as free or slave, Muslim or non-Muslim, male or female, rich or poor. Like hierarchies, the notion of fair or unfair treatment has also changed in modern times, and especially since the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes equal dignity for all individuals as human, associating justice with equality. For many contemporary Muslim men and women, the question posed – whether the Qur’an treats men and women as equal – is of paramount importance due to the standard conception set out above. On the basis of a universalist conception of rights, if the Koran supported inequality, it would consequently also support injustice; if it were proved whether it is egalitarian, then it would also be right. Most scholars today support the concepts of equals and inequalities for the Qur’an, with different orientations and goals. But it is not correct, in my opinion,  try to defend a rigid position – equality against inequality – since the concept of equality as we understand it today is not prevalent in the text, rather those of justice and equity.

There is a clear value in Scripture: human beings have a single origin and are made of the same matter: humans are equal in dignity, regardless of gender, physical appearance and other differences, both biological and cultural.

God gave human (insan) his perfect form and breathed into him His spirit ( ruh ) .

Yet Islam is often considered a misogynistic religion, and the condition of women in many Muslim-majority countries could confirm this; but we know that in many other countries -not muslim- of the world the condition of women is not easy, and phenomena such as domestic violence , feminicide, and gender discrimination are widespread everywhere, with different levels of severity.

Also in Europe in the past women had decidedly fewer rights than men, and feminism has made important achievements in the recent past. The struggles for emancipation in the West have allowed women to enjoy rights previously denied to them, such as education, access to professions and the vote, for example. Even in Muslim-majority countries these movements have achieved great results in the last two centuries, even if they are not comparable to the West, in democratic countries. while European and American  women fought for their rights, Muslim countries suffered colonial occupation, followed by authoritarian and military regimes, obstacles to adequate human development, and to the protection of human rights, still very weak. Women are the weakest part of societies in developing countries and in the injured Arabic world. The difficult condition of women is often attributed to religion, to Muslim culture, and  the media underlined the link between Islamic religious culture and patriarchy. But we know the Islamic history: after the  Koran in Arabic area, rights previously denied to women were recognized, such as voting, divorce, inheritance, many centuries before their recognition in Europe. It is necessary that women apply themselves to theology and have the courage to underline the inconsistencies of a part of the Sunna with the Koranic texts. Not a simple work, since the collection of prophetic sayings is the only written source considered by Sunni Muslims, together with the Koran, as part of the Sharia. If the Koran however, together with the ahadīth  qudsi (revelated from God) are revealed directly by God, the Sunna was transmitted orally by people contemporary to the Prophet and subsequently in the first centuries of the Islamic era, collected in volumes and cataloged according to reliability criteria. Despite human production, it is considered by Sunni Muslims as a source of Sharia,  because the Prophet was inspired by God in his actions and words. So in the Quranic exhortation:

Obey God and obey the Messenger (Kuran, IV,59)

The Sunna has a central role in providing a moral example and ethical guidance. It serves to explain the Koran, especially to clarify some verses ,for which it is necessary to know the context of the revelation, and refers to the life and teaching of the Prophet.

As we will see from the Koran emerges a reading of humanity, of the animals and inanimate world too, based on harmony and devotion,  mercy and respect. Even the relationship between genders does not show – if the revelation is contextualized – particular problematic aspects, indeed as Muslim feminists have underlined since the 19th century, the message of equal dignity of all human beings is evident and revolutionary. The same cannot be said for the Sunna, where there are many prophetic sayings – or presumed sayings – which are sometimes in contradiction with the Koranic spirit.

In the ahadith collections there are many false texts: they are collected and classified as weak, but still used: also texts that major hadith scholars (Muslim, Bukhary, for example) have considered authentic but  today they are unacceptable and contrary to the Koranic message.

These texts, with the reinforcement of scholarly interpretations, have provided a legitimation for patriarchal violence through religion by seemingly inextricably linking Islam with contempt for women and their subordination over the centuries.

Sunna and the condition of women: a problem to face

This is not a small problem. The Sunna has – for Sunni Muslims,  the majority – an importance comparable to the Koran . A  critical of the Sunna is a cause of conflict. However, it is clear that we need a space for debate, to address the issue. The theme of the status of women is a good start for breaking this taboo. As  feminist and muslim, I believe there is an urgent necessity to rethink the authority of the hadith. I  know this is the task for hadith experts ( muhaddithin ), but  over the centuries, a big and important philological work has been done extensively, and we have sufficiently authoritative material to do now a reflection about.

What we need now is a new, contemporary look at this part of the Sunna – the ahadiths about women – which has the courage to purify from weak, false, incongruous texts and to reject anything that is not compatible with the message of equality and  mercy in the Koran. To do this, it is not necessary to be a hadith scholar ; to change the approach, we need courageous and honest intellectuals who  compare the Koran and hadith, denouncing the unjust practices of Muslims regarding women and gender issues. The human rights and human development of Muslim women – and of Muslim society as a whole – will not progress until the hadith will be reexamined with a new approach within the Islamic framework, shifting the discourse of understanding Islam from dogma to a rational worldview, while being religious. Many ancient scholars, even in the Islamic West – Ibn Rushd for example – paved the way for us.

Furthermore, it is necessary the involvement of women-jurists, theologians, philosophers-who assert their authority and an exegetical and practical leadership within Muslim societies. Therefore, not only theory but activist intellectuals ,who encourage Muslim women to defend their rights by changing their vision of religion starting from the understanding of the Sunnah and its repercussions on their lives.

The Islamic Heritage  is very rich in contributions that can be recovered and incorporated into this renewal . We have centuries of study spent cataloging the hadith – for the authentication and reliability of the narrators – but it is time to work about the contents of these narrations, and on their confirmation by the Koran. For a just society, inspired by the Koran in its ideals of freedom and human dignity, starting with those who are oppressed today.

Starting in the 19th century and especially in the 20th century, Arab feminist movements began to investigate the role of Islam in the disadvantaged condition of women, and many Muslim intellectuals raised the problem of interpreting texts.

Since ancient times there have been women who have played leading roles in Islamic sciences, but have not had the power to assert their own vision. Starting in the 19th century and especially in the 20th century, Arab feminist movements began to investigate the role of Islam in the disadvantaged condition of women, and many Muslim intellectuals raised the problem of interpreting texts. As for the ahadith , we recall the work of Fatema Mernissi , who analyzed the role of the prophetic tradition and of the popular culture that elaborated it, and the often dramatic consequences in women’s lives. But the work of the many scholars who are dealing with these issues today does not affect the policies in Muslim countries, which are still run by men. The same goes for religious communities, where the leadership is still male. Furthermore, in the chaos that many countries have been experiencing for decades, political groups that use religious arguments in their power struggle are waging a real war against women by using Koranic texts and verses out of their context and abusing the narratives reported by the Prophet, which, as we have seen, are contaminated by false or unreliable texts. It is necessary for women to assume a role in the field of Islamic theology and political thought, and also for the creation of spaces for female religious leadership in communities, to re-establish balance and social justice. Some experiences in the United States, such as the Women Mosque of Los Angeles, and other experiences in Northern Europe and Indonesia, have paved the way. It will not be the male theologians – with few exceptions – who will oppose the current situation, and who will put human dignity and justice – Koranic principles – in first place. This means a loss of consensus, and then of power. Women must produce religious culture by themselves and open spaces of freedom, without expecting anything from the patriarchs.

Since the last century, feminist exegetes have studied these questions in depth, but even in the past, in ancient exegesis, there have been opinions more favorable to women. The work of exegesis with attention to gender must be done and a history of women must be developed. I would add that the translations of the Koran available to us are not gender sensitive and this is a source of concern. knowing that the translation is an interpretation, I must say that the Italian versions reflect the common feeling. As a believer and a feminist, I believe that if Muslims pray with certain words, which they believe are revealed by God and are immutable – the Koran is recited only in Arabic – it would be good to dwell on all the words that indicate people, believers and human beings and are translated into the masculine – man, men – perpetrating a sexist vision of religion that has led to the disappearance of women, excluding them starting from words.

What we don’t name doesn’t exist. The language builds and delimits our world. To exist, women must rediscover themselves in the Koran and re-establish the dialogue with God that too many centuries of male reading have interrupted. We must retracing the history of Muslim women who have read, taught and interpreted the Koran, who have been jurists, imams , doctors and political leaders, a female history of the Umma that is so significant but forgotten. It can be a viaticum for a contemporary umma more aware, inclusive and merciful.

“O my servants, verily I have forbidden injustice to myself and have made it forbidden among you. So do not be unjust to one another” (Hadith Qudsi)


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