Culture, religion and women

A wise young woman recently said to me that the thought that religion can’t be removed from its original culture brings peace to her. To her religions boil down to cultural interpretations of socio-political systems that aim to reform societies according to what is deemed as divinely sanctioned morality.

After this brief communication with her, a few other instances and the comments on the last post made me think about how much Muslim women fight, not with their religion, but with the Arabic culture. What is religion? Is it a way of life or is it an awareness and acknowledgment of the Creator of this world? I think the purely spiritual aim of any religion is to acknowledge God whereas the local culture dictates ways in which that religion is exercised.

I live in an Arab country where any progressiveness in religion is not only frowned upon but is also banned by the government. Whatever progressiveness in religion  is introduced is done tactfully by the government. For me, like for many other Muslim women living in the ME and South Asia, Islamic Feminism as well as Progressive Islam are concepts that are much harder to pursue than for Muslim women living in the liberal parts of the world. I do think that both Islamic Feminism and Progressive Islam are steps towards liberalism and I don’t use that term in a negative manner. If we were to use the terms loosely, liberalism is more tolerant as opposed to traditionalism. But many women who live in oppressive (another loosely used term) societies may not even have heard about Islamic feminism. Indeed when I talk to my students about my research they look at me as if I am talking about atomic science!

So what I have been thinking is, one, Muslim feminists shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Islam because most are only fighting against cultural injustices; two, many women living in non-Western parts of the world have no idea what their feminist sisters are trying to achieve for them; and three, we should accept that culture is a non-static entity.

Regarding the last point – my housekeeper complained to me that her niece who is also a domestic helper had “dared” to throw crushed garlic in the kitchen sink which was discovered by her employer who slapped her thrice on her back for being so callous. Several text messages later between the aunt and her niece, my housekeeper decided that she had to call the police. What she didn’t realise until she called the recruitment agency who dismissed the case as “minor misunderstanding” is that in the Arabic culture beating someone is really not a big issue until it is done publicly in which case it becomes a social punitive measure. I mentioned this cultural trait briefly in this comment.  

When Islam began to spread in Arabia, beating someone violently was something that was starting to be frowned upon because it was evidently distasteful and hurtful for the victim. Thus we have ahadith that teach that beating a wife like a slave and then sleeping with her is unpleasant or that one must not beat their slave like an animal.

Because  Muslims believe that  Quran is true and valid for all people of all times and because wife beating is culturally so abhorrent to many of us today, we can’t imagine a religious culture of another time and another system to have ever tolerated it. This gives rise to the need for reinterpretation often urging alternative meanings through the social lens of modern Western ethics. But we forget that that culture of the past tolerated many other social habits that we find distasteful today and which we explain away without resorting to denial like child marriage, ghazwat (raids), and sex with female slaves and war captives.

When I tried to explain my thoughts in the past on prevalent culture and Islam (in a less diplomatic way!), many readers were shocked. I am not saying that Quran should not be reinterpreted nor am I saying that we shouldn’t use modern ethics to lead our lives but I am trying to look for a middle path between accepting that Islam grew out of a culture which today is not the culture of all Muslims and trying to live as an observant Muslim in today’s society. I welcome your thoughts on this.

  • Do you think that my thoughts on this subject are valid?
  • Do you think it is fair to expect early Muslims to have lived by our modern standards?
  • How do you think modern Muslims, especially the women, can understand religious culture and divine commands regarding piety – for example, do you believe that hijab makes a woman a better Muslim or do you think it was a socio-cultural requirement of the early Muslim society?

The semantic strength of a fabric

My interest in the “Hijab” has never been a religious one. I don’t argue that a headscarf should be worn or should not be worn. It is not my concern what others do. I have always been more interested in finding out the history and development of hijab.

More than two years ago there was some good quality discussion on Muslimah Media Watch regarding “why the scarf gets talked about to the extent that it does”. Krista refers to Faisal al Yafai’s article on Guardian’s Comment that argues that by focusing on the veil we miss out on the bigger picture. Krista also proposes that there is

a resistance to admit that the victories of women’s movements in the west, although significant, remain incomplete; many of today’s feminists often seem to prefer to identify oppression elsewhere, rather than to admit that their own society still constrains them in so many ways. The headscarf ends up fitting well into this framework, since it is seen largely as affecting “other” women in “other” places, leaving western women to continue to see themselves as emancipated.

You can read the other comments and go to al-Yafai’s article from MMW here; I will only share with you my opinion here:

Hijab as a headcovering or even as a face veil has always been there in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. When one looks at hijab: which may be 1) a headscarf for some, 2) a face veil for a few, 3) or simply a loose, long dress for yet others, from this historical perspective then things change. Just like not-so-well-off Jewish women were culturally and socially not allowed to cover their faces, in early Islam slave women were not allowed to wear clothes that resembled their masters’. They were also not allowed to cover their heads in prayer even if they were Muslim. While today we may think that women who wear it are oppressed, in ancient Arabia it was women who were not allowed to wear it that were oppressed.

This is not saying that a headcovering has nothing to do with Islam. I personally think that hijab is a social requirement in Islam directly linked not to piety but to social arrangement of a given society. For example, I must wear a headscarf in societies where I will stick out like a sore thumb if my head is uncovered or where a social arrangement can turn awkward or dangerous for me if my head is uncovered. But one thing is certain to me that in Islam no matter which country a woman is in she has to cover her skin completely with loose garments so as not to seek attention. That is very sensible and safe.

There are many women who wear a headcovering on their own but I believe that hijab is not a personal choice. It is a religious choice. When a woman decides (through her own personal study) that it is required by God then there is no question of personal choice left for her. She must cover her head (or even her face if she thinks niqaab is compulsory) just like she must pray five times a day.

When Yafi thinks that Western feminists are obsessed by the veil, he may be right. And when Rawi says that we are using the agent as the oppressor, he may be right too. But this “visible fabric” has always been used to differentiate between women from different social, cultural and religious classes. Hijab has always been an issue with women. In the past it was an issue for slave women or women from poor families. It was used by early Muslims to differentiate between free and slave women. Clothes have always been known to carry that indicative significance. In ancient Greek and Roman societies women from prominent families wore very elaborate gowns and those who held religious offices wore expensive fabric. The fabric has that semantic strength.

What do you think?

Some guidelines for the Conference

Date of the Online Islamic Feminism Conference (OIFC): March 27, 2011

Deadline for submitting papers: March 23, 2011

Paper format:

  • Between 2000 and 2500 words
  • Font – Times New Roman, size 12
  • Paragraphs justified – headings will help

Suggested topics:

  • Marriage and divorce laws
  • Dowry
  • Polygamy
  • Child rearing in Muslim families
  • Inheritance laws
  • Menstruation and worship
  • Clothing of Muslim women and men
  • Women in leadership roles and politics
  • Women as witnesses in the court of law
  • Education of Muslim women
  • Gender and God
  • History of Islamic feminist movement
  • Men and women in the eyes of God Vs in society

Once you have written your essay, please alert me via this page and I’ll email you so you can send me your attachment. If you want to include a photo or any other image/audio-video link, you are most welcome to include it.

Any questions?


Online Islamic Feminism Conference

I want to host a small-scale Online Islamic Feminism Conference (OIF) on Metis next month. I was thinking that interested writers from you write individual essays on Islam, women and Islamic feminism and on a set date we publish them all on Metis with a special page linking to all the essays. It could lead to some great discussion and we could later even try and publish the revised essays as a volume so each of us can have a publication to our credit.

What do you think? I know that some of you are already working on presentations and discussions and you could just write that up for Metis. Do you think a month is enough to prepare a 1500-2000 word essay to be published here? I was thinking of hosting the conference in March so that I have enough time to publicise the event.

Thoughts? And please raise your hand too if you want to publish in the conference. Thank you so much in advance for all your help and support.