Previously: Expanding the conversation on feminists of faith.
I’m very pleased to welcome my first interviewee, Nahida of the fatal feminist and California, USA. Nahida’s a Muslim, and something I’ve always deeply admired about her attitude to her faith is her insistence that her feminist approach is a revivalist one – and she has all the theological arguments you could ask for to back it up. She also, according to her post autobiographies, finds the notion of summing up a human being in a few sentences perplexing, so I’ll quote what she wrote there: ‘Nahida sometimes wishes she were a more practical woman, but she is not practical enough to wish it often.’
- Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
- How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
- Have you experienced conflicts between your faith and your feminism? Have you had to make compromises? If so, from where did the pressure come, and was one aspect more difficult to compromise on than another?
- What kinds of responses to your being a feminist of faith have you received? From feminists, your faith community, or others?
- What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
- How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
1. I don’t think I officially called myself a feminist until I was around 14, but I was a feminist long before then; being aware of cultural gender constructions was virtually unavoidable, especially in my schoolwork around the age of 9 when I would grab the opportunity to report on significant women in history because there are so few of them and they intrigued me. History didn’t quite interest me as much as other subjects, and I believed then that this was because I simply didn’t enjoy it as a genre (from a literary perspective) since I enjoyed historical fiction, or that I much preferred to be involved in the processes of analysis and creation. The latter is especially true, but seeing that I was suddenly fascinated upon the introductions of female figures in history who made a difference, I can tentatively conclude that a great deal of it must have been because I could not relate, and felt alienated and even uncomfortable. I didn’t see why I should care about these “brilliant” men from a distant, unattainable past who–quite frankly–had done nothing for me, and whose actions were not commendable to the very least. Not to mention who ruined the story.
Besides, I was much more passionate about the injustices I saw in contemporary life: the incredible and inexcusable double standards, the rigid gender expectations and the hostility when these are not met, and the aggressive almost fearful Othering of women and people of color. It wasn’t until I acutely felt the application of injustice in my religious institution and could not with good conscious ignore how oppressive, unjust, and wrong it was, that I found myself investigating the past (from which Islam derives its fundamental traditions) and discovered that modern narrators are biased against the enormous number of female scholars who had not only existed but had influenced male scholars and historians. Women were constantly in the leadership positions that they are denied today, had extraordinary power, and were closest to the Prophet himself. In fact, Islamic history is women’s history. The religion liberated women beyond what was conceivable, and so it was met with violently reactionary men. And, as the course of history and religion is inclined to go, patriarchy took over and attempted to displace the power of God with itself. There have been oppressive, patriarchal concepts attributed to the Qur’an that are not found within its verses except with some deliberate misconstruing. It’s in this way that I’m a revivalist, not a reformist. “Traditionalists” are not at all traditional.
2. Feminism is an inherent, innate, and intrinsic part of Islam. The Revelation of the Qur’an sparked a feminist movement that was substantiated in its verses and confirmed by God. When women asked that the Qur’an address them, it did. When men were outraged that women not only ceased to be objects of inheritance (for men) but received inheritance, God was firm in the ruling of the Qur’an and the reactionary men were forced to concede. Women were restored the right to vote, and orphan girls the right to stable futures, regardless of the patriarchal men who cried in protest. The revelation of Islam resembles a feminist wave–and it is Islam that inspires that feminist wave. Feminism is therefore as integral to the larger vision of Islam as charity, treating animals with kindness, and freeing the oppressed. In fact it’s a form of jihad–struggle–against the cultural oppression of Muslim women, to reclaim the rights Islam had restored.
3. There are not as many conflicts between my faith and feminism as there are between the followers of my faith and feminism. The institutionalized practical application of Islam neglects to remain faithful to the Quranic assertion that men and women are intrinsically equal in the moral sphere established by God through deliberate failure to practice this equality in the legal and social spheres controlled by men. This is a terrible hypocrisy and a purposeful failure to integrate Islamic beliefs into institutional Islamic practices. Women are pushed behind barriers (an aberration that did not exist during the beginning of Islam) where they cannot easily participate or speak (though they would engage freely in the past, defiantly arguing whenever a male religious figure deterred from Quranic teachings in his lectures and successfully proving him wrong) and women are not allowed to lead all sexes in prayer (though the Prophet appointed Umm Waraqa to lead to when he was alive.) Men make excuses for these modern aberrations (ie the younger men were away at war when she led prayer and so she was only leading women and older men) and consequently tighten the constraints for their already rigid masculinity in order to further secure unlawful power over women. I’ve definitely been faced with having to pick and choose my battles (more Muslims are open to ending gender segregation than “allowing” women to lead prayers), though these compromises are made in the legal and social realms of patriarchal men, not in the spiritual and moral realm of God, which the legal and social realms should incorporate to truly practice Islam.
Men have deceitfully fought to replace God with themselves by appointing themselves as intermediates between women and God, but this is what we were essentially warned about in the Qur’an itself. (3:78) It’s Satanic, in the way that Satan became jealous of Adam’s closeness with God and believed himself to be superior because he was created out of fire and not earth. Men follow Satan in turn when they believe themselves to be superior to women because of biological differences and erect barriers (physical or metaphorical) out of jealousy of women’s closeness with God.
4. From the Muslim community one of the most common responses is that Islam does not “need” feminist exegesis, because the Qur’an itself liberates women on its own. This is an age-old patriarchal strategy: men who are sexist bigots are unwilling to credit women with any hard-earned, rightful entitlement when we have secured our God-given rights. They will claim instead that (fine!) women deserve these rights, but not because of feminism, but instead because of the institutions created by men. While Islam is from God, men exploit the perception that religion is a patriarchal institution to pull the credit back toward themselves when women are victorious, allowing them to state that it is not feminist exegesis that liberated women but that it was their own patriarchal process by which sound exegesis is validated.
From the feminist community there is an unfortunate reinforcement of this process of discreditation by surrendering to the perception that religion is inherently patriarchal at the roots, thus denying religious women their birthright. Religion is an institution that needs to be reclaimed like any other (medicine, education, etc.) and the most hurtful and enraging response is when we are accused of agreeing to oppression (victim-blaming) or of being brainwashed/indoctrinated and needing to be saved (imperialist mentality) or worse yet–asked why we don’t just leave. It’s our birthright, our identity, and most importantly our truth as spiritual belief about the universe/existence and therefore an intimate part of us that makes us who we are, and to deny it from us is anti-feminist. With all that, “I’m not sure what you’re doing, but I support you” is relieving, because it at least partially restores the sense of solidarity that you really need.
5. These attitudes are a major part of the challenges: many feminists seem unaware that religions are sprung at the height of oppression to liberate those who oppressed. This was true even for Christianity, whose practicers were first the poor. The Catholic Church used to allow abortion. It is after religions have developed with patriarchy that gatekeepers are introduced as mediators between women and God, or the oppressed and God, that oppression is perpetuated. The purpose of religion is liberation and compassion and equality, and it has been stolen from us. This is something of which feminists are unaware that patriarchal men are all too aware–that is why they fear us. They fear we will reclaim our God-given rights and dismantle their unearned blasphemous privileges by revealing their hierarchal sins. The challenge is to realize this.
6. I’m very glad you’ve asked this question–I believe it is the most important one, as the process of reviving and restoring women’s rights. All religions have things called usable resources. These can be religious texts and traditions that promote equality. Usually they’re interpreted by men who misconstrue them. They will accuse feminist interpretations of bias (as though a tradition of only men isn’t biased–of course not, because men are the default) but by abandoning institutions that seek to displace God and by creating places of worship that reestablish the true egalitarian interpretations of religion and restore its original purpose of justice, the patriarchal institutions will naturally become obsolete. They will perish because falsehood by its nature perishes. And usable resources are the means, because religion in its nature and purpose is just.