Read Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam Online

Authors: Amina Wadud

Tags: #Religion, #Islam, #General, #Social Science, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Women's Studies, #Sexuality & Gender Studies, #Islamic Studies

Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam (8 page)

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
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For example, I once attended a
halqah
, a religious study circle, in a local mosque. The
halqah
is a confessional community function geared to the

level of general membership

and

hardly the place to offer or expect

challenging ideas about Islamic Studies or reform. This can sometimes be frustrating, but even after completing my Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, I would occasionally attend these as part of my need for community life. That day the topic was Muslim family life. Generally, this means telling women and men their rightful place in traditional patriarchal family. Although perhaps unintended by the (male) instructor, I learned something else. For while the speaker started by stating “men and women are equal in Islam,” he followed with a Qur’anic quote, “and the rights due to women are similar to the rights against them with regard to
ma‘ruf
[a well-known or established idea of justice] but men have a degree over them” (2:228). Normally, I am opposed to the use of this second half of the verse without the context of the whole verse, because it is not a universal discussion but rather a particular discussion related to the institution of divorce.

As confirmed in Islamic law, divorce is clearly unequal between women and men. Men have the unilateral right of repudiation while women can

only obtain divorce after the intervention of the courts. I have argued elsewhere
15
that this inequality reflects the circumstances of subjugation within marriage that existed at the time of the revelation. A woman would

never have any hope of divorce, besides the one initiated by the husband, unless she had the court guarantee the protection of her choice.
16
It remains, however, that men have a degree of advantage over women: they

need only say “I divorce you” to initiate the termination of the marriage contracted, agreed upon by the husband and wife, and witnessed by honorable members of the community. They also have the circumstantial advantage as well as physical power to force women to break the
‘iddah
, a required three-month waiting period of sexual abstinence which, at the time

of revelation, was the only means to determine paternity

if a divorced

woman entered another marriage. Still, the verse announces that rights against women are the same as the rights owed to them, specifically with regard to
ma‘ruf
.

On the day of the
halqah
, I did not object to the omission of the full text. The fine slice of Muslim double-talk consciously disturbed me over male– female equality. Double-talk refers to multivalent linguistic obscurities in meaning. Language can be intentionally ambiguous. One can use rhetoric to manipulate double or variant meanings. While “double-talk” demon- strates the power of language to yield multiple meanings, it can be

What’s in a Name?
25

intentionally evoked as a powerful mechanism of interpretation. Take the opening statement, “women and men are equal,” and add the quoted verse “men have a degree over them.” Visualize a vertical line between two spheres. Man, in the upper sphere, is
said
to be equal to woman, located in the lower sphere,
only
as a matter of linguistic ambiguity or double-talk. The line of relationship between the man’s upper location and the woman’s lower is held in place only if there is no potential of actual reciprocity. The relationship is static and prevents equality. The positions are not inter- changeable. If for any reason, theoretical or practical, a woman is located in the upper sphere, the male hierarchy actually intended by this rhetoric is disrupted, as is the line that connects them. This may be one reason why equality talk seems threatening to many Muslim men. Their statement “women and men are equal” is linguistically unexamined. Despite how grand the statement sounds, some men are insulted by talk of women’s parity with men because the words are meaningless against actual practice. Men have to give up something in order for women to be on the same plane they consider themselves to occupy. The relationship that is maintained between women and men is paired, but not reciprocal.

Here was an incentive to search for horizontal reciprocity. When women and men share perhaps distinct yet
horizontal
spheres, then the exchange of one for the other does not upset any hierarchy, because none exists. What is more, the following illustration of horizontal equality allows and also presumes mutual input, significance, and dynamism. The female is in the lower place on a direct line to the male both to facilitate and to be the foundation upon which male dominance stands. It is not reciprocally dynamic. It is Muslim male double-talk to reflect and maintain male legit- imacy and hierarchical privilege over women. Woman is not to man as man is to woman.

Too much double-talk occurs to counter articulations of genuine equality between women and men. Another encounter with this linguistic double- talk occurred in a response given by a neo-conservative Pakistani professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia regarding the election of Benazhir Bhutto as a female prime minister of Pakistan. He calmly pointed out that “Men and women are equal in Islam. Islam has nothing against anyone becoming a leader. Whether they are 5 feet tall and weigh 95 pounds, or 6 feet 4 weighing 200 pounds. Whether they are male or female, if they are capable of being leaders, they can lead.
Women simply cannot lead
.” Did I miss something here, Aristotle? Here are two syllogisms to help illustrate the points:

26 inside the gender jihad

A B

All men are humans. All humans can be leaders. Ahmad is a man. Women are human.

Ahmad is a human. Women cannot be leaders.

Column B is obviously not a correct syllogism. It is double-talk, dependent upon the syllogism in column A, which is only technically correct
as articulated. The fact that Fatima, for example, is also human but not a

man is hidden in the first syllogism. To ascribe

humanity

to a man

overlooks women’s humanity. Both syllogisms stand upon a fundamental logical error. The double-talk discourse housed within the rhetoric of human equality disguises the intention of legitimate exclusion or inconsis- tencies that keep women inferior. As housed this way, however, a woman’s objection would seem both irrational and un-Islamic.

Like the man from the
halqah
who began speaking about male–female equality only to follow it with “men have a degree over women,” there is no simple mechanism to correct the self-contradiction. It’s a set-up. While actual inequality cannot be corrected by language alone, at least examining the language used to create imbalance is useful in proposing a theory to create and sustain balance. The following theoretical question motivated my search: how can relations between women and men be maintained along a horizontal axis of equality and reciprocity?

Only a few of the most arrogant Muslim men would openly express their underlying belief that men are and must remain superior to women. Instead it is more common to contribute to the victimization of women and other men by the ambiguity of double-talk. In the end, it is also intended to impress upon the woman that if she is truly Muslim, she must remain satisfied with her rightful status – even if actually second-class. The use of the word “equal” in accordance with a definition that keeps men superior simultaneously confirms male superiority and silences analysis and opposition.

“Islam” among neo-traditionalists, neo-conservatives, extremists, and some Islamists
17
is selective use of primary sources and the Muslim intel- lectual legacy for the purpose of exclusion. Islamist discussion of the

vertical rhetoric of equality extensively employs the word complementarity. Each person, male or female, plays significant yet gender-specific roles. All roles are necessary and good; however, their distinctions must remain beneficial to each other only within the stasis of particular determinations of “natural complementarity.” This is tantamount to saying that women’s

What’s in a Name?
27

roles complement men’s nature. This is not only harmonious and organic, such thinking asserts, it is divine. But such complementarity has an unequal power dimension. A woman can complement a man like a tie complements a suit. The relative value of men’s roles and women’s roles in this fixed system says nothing about values attributed to those roles in the larger context of gender relations in family, community, and ultimately in geo- politics. It rhetorically and actually constructs an unequal relationship which, if disrupted, destroys something inherent to “Islam.” Thus com- plementarity discourse is a direct by-product of double-talk. While positively stressing relationships, it keeps their inequality central, by evalu- ating each player on a separate and unequal standard, leaving the relative power and privilege to men and male roles. It further concludes with the consequence and significance of the relationship as a whole by establishing it as fundamental to family bonds and community continuity. Particular roles played by members in the family are unevaluated, especially women’s morally voluntary contributions as nurturers and care-takers. Women continue with the double burden of supporting men’s autonomy as a means for honor in the patriarchal family.
18

No matter how Islam is defined, its foundation is
tawhid
. More than mere monotheism, the many nuances of
tawhid
have been and continue to be subjects of Islamic discourses.
19
In unique ways, many modern

Muslim thinkers have also contributed toward a greater understanding of the significance of
tawhid
as a major cornerstone of Islamic reform.
20
Yet all articulations point toward the same essence.
Tawhid
is the operating

principle of equilibrium and cosmic harmony. It operates between the

metaphysical and physical realities of

the created

universe, as well as

within them both. On a theological level,
tawhid
relates to the transcendent and yet immanent divinity or ultimate reality, the “unicity” of Allah. Allah is not only one and unique, Allah is uniform, and unites existing multi- plicities or seeming dualities in both the corporeal and the metaphysical realm.

As an ethical term,
tawhid
relates to relationships and developments within the social and political realm, emphasizing the unity of all human creatures beneath one Creator. If experienced as a reality in everyday Islamic terms, humanity would be a single global community without distinction for reasons of race, class, gender, religious tradition, national origin, sexual orientation or other arbitrary, voluntary, and involuntary

aspects of

human

distinction. Their only distinction would be on the

basis

of
taqwa
(49:13).
Taqwa
is moral consciousness, not accessible to

28 inside the gender jihad

external human judgment, although I will show that external results or consequences are palpable.

Because of
tawhid
,
Islam exists along the lines of the irrefutable and unconditional notion of Allah’s oneness. Indeed the Qur’an states unequiv- ocally that
all
sins can be forgiven, except
shirk
(the opposite of
tawhid
) (4:116). God is not only one. God is indivisible. By means of indivisibility God acts upon all creation to bring peace, harmony, and unity. That which emanates from Allah participates in this unity. Ultimate separation between creature (self) and Creator (Allah) is an illusion. Separation between one person and another is literal, but metaphorically or internally an illusion, causing prejudice. Allah is one and in our true state of surrender we are all at one with Allah. Obviously, human preoccupation with their materiality keeps them from realizing, acting upon, and constructing systems to reflect their essential unity. In actuality, there is no basis for schism in the duality of “self” and “other,” since ontologically they are co-dependent according to the statement, “
min kulli shay’ khalaqnaa zawjayn

(and from all things we have created the pair) (51:49). The one cannot exist without the other, since both were integral to this Qur’anic cosmology.

Thus, the overarching concept
tawhid
, or the unicity of Allah, forms a trajectory organizing Islamic social, economic, moral, spiritual, and political systems. All are under a single divine reality. Indeed, all of nature is interconnected under the rubric of
tawhid
. At the transcendent level Allah is the tension that holds the opposites in juxtaposition. Opposites are the illusion of separation between self and other.

Other ways of emphasizing this mutual existence include the golden rule of reciprocity,
21
which has been articulated in all religious and moral

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
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