A Feminist Interpretation of Islam

by SC

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As western nations become more multicultural, there has been a growing debate of how the west should juggle its existing values with the ideals held by Muslims, particularly ones coming from the Middle East and Africa. The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason by Ayaan Hirsi Ali fiercely criticises Islam for its inability and unwillingness to adapt to modern (western) values, but also for its treatment and attitudes towards their women.

Ali who labels herself a feminist and an advocate for the freedom of speech, portrays Islam as an ideology which is unwilling and unable to change to its attachment towards its scriptures and the figure of Mohammad. In the chapter The Virgin’s Cage, Ali argues that the Qur’an’s insistence upon women and their sexual purity is a pillar of the systemic oppression which has prevented the sexual liberation of Muslim women. Ali draws a connection between quotes in the Qur’an like “Those who guard their private parts… will inherit al-Firdaus.” (23:5-11) and practices such as marrying off a (female) rape victim to her rapist in order to maintain the family’s honour by insisting she lost her virginity with her husband (p. 20). Interestingly, the book fails to mention how many passages regarding virginity are directed at both sexes, and what she seems to be criticising is merely the patriarchal values in nations which also has embraced Islam. For Ali, it seems Islam as a faith is not only responsible for its dogma but how different societies attempt to implement it; the two aspects of faith and culture are indistinguishable.

This obsession with virginity and purity has, in Ali’s view, created a polarising culture of shame and one of honour. Ali comments about practices such as Muslim women spreading rumours about their peers to taint their name due to the stigma of premarital sex (p. 20). Quotes in the Qur’an like “… that [women] should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.” (24:30-1), inherently portrays female sexuality as something dangerous and alluring, whilst never fully criticising men for displaying their beauty and body to the same extent. Ali considers this desire to curtail female beauty not only as sexist but contributing to a culture where women are the recipient of all blame and sexual responsibility, whilst Muslim men are rarely taught that they are also responsible for their actions (p. 21). Ali further argues that this lack of understanding between the sexes combined with the oppression of female sexual agency in everyday life is responsible for the over representation of “Muslim men in prisons and Muslim women in shelters” (p. 18).

Furthermore Ali believes this focus upon female virginity is an accomplice in the cycle of entrenched poverty and instability which traps many Muslim families. The groom must penetrate the hymen of his wife to consummate the marriage, producing bloodied bed sheets for all to see. Ali adopts a feminist point of view on this act, seeing the importance of this ritual as a possible justification for rape. She writes “a Muslim marriage begins … [with] an act of force. It is in this atmosphere of mistrust that the next generation of children is born and brought up” (p. 24). Whilst I believe Ali to be justified in her reaction to this practice, I do find it unfair that she associates this tradition only with Islam as there are many Pacific-Islander cultures with similar rituals.

Since Islam has not undergone anything resembling the western Enlightenment period, many Muslim communities have not been able to fully separate law and Islam; also known as Sharia. Ali constantly warns that it is crucial that the Islamic world produces a thinker like Voltaire in order to challenge the repressive system of thoughts which places religion and tradition over human rights and science. In the chapter A Need for Self Reflection Within Islam, Ali discusses the cultural pedestal that Mohammad and the Qur’an is placed upon in a lot of Muslim communities. This prevents even the most liberal Muslims from reforming the doctrines into something more moderate and reflective of 21st century western beliefs. Ali believes the inability for these communities to distinguish between the Qur’an and law is the many reason why gender inequality is so ingrained within the Islamic communities and why the Islamic world lags behind in not just human rights, but economically and creatively (p. 152).

In the same chapter, Ali writes that “… Critical appreciation will have to come from within [Islam]” (p. 153). However, for Ali, there seems to be an expectation of the west to paternalistically lead the Muslim communities towards modernity. The Caged Virgin states many times that it is under the banner of misguided multiculturalism that the west refuses to challenge practices like female genital mutilation found in Muslim households. Ali berates these western liberals who supposedly champion ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘equality’ as selfish and obsessed with their image. By removing the incentive for Muslims to assimilate and by allowing Muslims to import their culture unchecked (for the sake of diversity), these liberals have commended the most vulnerable; the Muslim women, to a life under the patriarchy (pg 40-41).

Ali advocates for the adoption of affirmative/ preventative action when it comes to her fight against Islamic practices, especially female genital mutilation. Insisting that families migrating from ‘high risk’ areas, where this practice is still common, should have their daughters checked annually for signs of mutilation (p. 122). This position clearly puts Ali as a defender of the female body against unwarranted harm and her stance against female mutilation is understandable. Whilst I believe Ali has the best intentions and I think that such a policy can help (thankfully) reduce the continuation of these practices in the west, it unfortunately presents the entire Islamic global community as barbaric. By associating this issue with Islam, Ali also unfairly criticises many nations like Indonesia and Iran, where this practice is generally unheard of.

A running motif through her book is that Islam needs to mirror how the western nations treat Christianity; something of personal devotion which does not extend into secular and public life. For Ali, it seems that Islam needs to be almost entirely rewritten and reinterpreted for it to move away from its current manifestation; one which empowers the male and alienates the female. This idea that Islam is unsalvageable appears to even permeate her language, where she seems to use the word the word ‘Muslim’ to describe someone from a certain cultural heritage instead of someone who is an adherent to Islam.

This is stated most strikingly in the quote “[An] analysis of Islam and many Islamic dogmas… Would give Muslims a chance to end individual oppression and… [for] men, women and homosexuals [to be] treated as equals” (Ali, p. 135). In the eyes of Ali, she sees a direct connection between the teachings of the faith and the physical consequences within the Islamic world. The Caged Virgin presents Islam as the root of most, if not all of the issues of the Muslim community; since the Qur’an is held as the highest pinnacle of knowledge. This unchallenged respect for the text has stifled the ability for Muslims to be self-critical about their society, Ali cities the obstacles she has faced as evidence of this.

The biggest strength about Ali’s book; The Caged Virgin is also its biggest flaw paradoxically. Ali’s book paints a very simplistic picture concerning the entire Muslim population. However her unwillingness to differentiate between Muslim societies such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia does hurt the validity of her points as it seems a majority of her issues concern patriarchal values found within Africa and the Middle East. However, at the same time, by not distinguishing between Muslims, she boldly demands that all Muslims critically analyse the human rights issues which seem to more frequently appear within their communities.

Continuing this criticism, one instance where I believed Ali failed to accurately distinguish between Islam and culture, is when she talks about marriage in the chapter What Went Wrong? Ali describes the expectations of Muslim women to only marry within the ‘clan’, reflective of their insular upbringing (p. 50). However, the Qur’an is quite liberal on divorce and explicitly describes marriage as a willing contract between two willing participants, whilst actually giving women some economic and social benefits. In sura 65, the Qur’an states that “when you [Muslims] divorce women, … Do not turn them out of their [husbands’] houses.” Thus what Ali is describing seems to be more reflective of the bastardisation of Islamic beliefs rather than something sexist stemming from the Qur’an.

Saliem Fakir (2007, p. 333) in a rebuttal to Ali’s book argues that Ali’s inability to distinguish between “archaic patriarchal traditions… and Islam… is the biggest weakness in her thesis.” Ann Snitow (2006) further criticises Ali’s broad generalisations by stating that Ali is “so worried about imposing sameness on ‘the other’ that she misses cross cultural similarities” (p. 107).

Whilst I do agree that Ali does unfairly question the entire Muslim population with her words, I do think Fakir is also over simplistic in his assertion that the holy texts have no relationship to some of the sexist practices in Muslim communities. Quotes in the Hadith such as “I looked into Hell and found that the majority of its dwellers were women.” can be powerful justifications of certain beliefs. Ultimately, this is what Ali is fighting against, the manipulation of Islam to justify the ingrained prejudices within patriarchal societies. I believe The Caged Virgin was a legitimately an honest attempt to combat the issues women face in some Islamic nations and it does call out many appalling practices. But with its simplistic depictions, it begs the question how thin the line is between critical analyse and Islamophobia within The Caged Virgin.