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While I was living in Palestine, I remember sitting in the backseat of a large bus with my aunt discussing local politics one day as we travelled to the old city of Jerusalem. She spent a good portion of the trip bitterly complaining about local imams, who spent most of their lectures in the mosques warning their male congregants that women who didn’t wear hijab would provide the catalyst for the downfall of Palestinian society.
“THAT is what will destroy our society? A woman who refuses to wear a simple scarf on her head? Meanwhile, Israel is demolishing our homes and imprisoning our children, yet the Imams refuse to even acknowledge the political realities we live in, and instead occupy our men’s time with fears of women’s hair, rather than encouraging them to become politically active against the occupation,” she rages.
When it comes to sexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and non-heteronormative sexual identities, I recognize that my religious interpretation of feminism would differ quite wildly from the Islamic feminism of my aunt’s women’s committee, and I accept the existence of both forms as equally valid for their respective contexts.
A married woman from a conservative Sunni family, my aunt was an active member of a local women’s committee group composed of female anti-occupation activists who also advocated for a specific type of feminism which sought equality between the sexes, but an organic form that grew from the grassroots of the Middle East’s various cultural milieus. This feminism outright rejected what the members called “Western feminist colonialism,” and envisioned gender equality as a demand that both men and women receive equal treatment within the framework of whatever cultural foundations undergirded their respective society. If a man committed adultery, for example, his reputation and resultant social ostracism should receive the same severity that a woman would expect to receive for committing the same “crime.” The logic, my aunt explained to me, was that men would be far more reluctant to enforce severe punishments against “sexual deviancy” if they knew they would be required to suffer the same treatment under the same conditions.
“This feminism outright rejected what the members called “Western feminist colonialism,” and envisioned gender equality as a demand that both men and women receive equal treatment within the framework of whatever cultural foundations undergirded their respective society.”
Coupled with advocating for equality in education and employment, the committee also believed women who entered the public sphere as fellow participants in governance would exert more power and influence in enforcing socio-cultural norms, thereby neutralizing the pernicious effect patriarchal power had on women in society. Hijab would be optional, domestic violence would steadily decrease as women gained more economic autonomy, and the sexual morality of men would receive the same level of scrutiny as women, thereby ensuring that honor killings and forced marriages would fade away as an ancient relic.
As a staunch liberal who grew up in a large, conservative Sunni family in the USA, but who was largely influenced by the cosmopolitan leftist circles within Chicago’s academic institutions, I had my personal disagreements with many of the underlying tenets of this feminist philosophy. However, struggling within a paradoxical upbringing myself, I recognized the difficulty of trying to reconcile two very contradictory worlds; for local Palestinian women, they operate under a traditional and conservative culture dominated by patriarchy, but simultaneously have to grapple with the socio-economic and political turbulence wrought by Israeli persecution. How can HALF of Palestine’s population remain passive homemakers while they faced what the Israeli historian Ilanne Pappe calls “incremental genocide” at the hands of a country who is enforcing a brutal military occupation on them? The feminism of my aunt’s women’s committee is a grassroots movement born from the struggles of native Palestinian women who were both Freedom Fighters and housewives, political prisoners and Muslim mothers. The Islam that underlies their vision of gender equality is interpreted within this framework of political resistance in a highly technological world.
“The Islam that underlies their vision of gender equality is interpreted within this framework of political resistance in a highly technological world.”
Further, as an American, I enjoy privileges these women are denied, and as a taxpaying American, many of my privileges are paid for by my participation in a political economy which funds and fuels the very military occupation that oppress these women and forces them to carve out a new social movement that reconciles the occupation with their conservative culture. Recognizing these privileges, as well as the fact that humans don’t grow up in an ideological vacuum where their opinions and worldview are separate from the experiences, culture and socio-economic and political environment they grew up in, I regard my disagreement with the tenets of their feminist philosophy as simply a difference of opinion born from internalizing vastly difference experiences in vastly different societies.
This is not to say I condone any tenet which may demonize non-heteronormativity — but rather, that instead of focusing my energy on righteous moral indignation, I personally prefer channeling that energy into helping create a Palestinian society with the socio-economic and political conditions that are necessary for a widespread critical engagement with cultural norms; progressive change, equality, and tolerance are very rarely wrought in a society struggling with poverty, racial persecution, and societal instability. Rather, internal and relative socio-economic and political stability often breeds socially progressive movements. People tend to become MORE conservative, rather than progressive, when they feel like their world is threatened by an external foreign enemy.
Religion, like all other ideas, opinions, and worldviews that are pervasive in any given society, is mediated through context-specific experiences, cultural, social, and political norms, and our interpersonal relationships. The vast majority of Islamic jurisprudence produced in the last 1400 years was submitted and ratified by human men who interpreted the verses they read through the lens of the society and culture they grew up in, and Muslims often confuse Islamic Sharia with fiqh, as if the two were interchangeable, and fiqh itself as Divine revelation.
“I regard my disagreement with the tenets of their feminist philosophy as simply a difference of opinion born from internalizing vastly difference experiences in vastly different societies.”
Just to be clear, fiqh is the methodology that was developed by human men to extract interpretations of the Quran and hadiths—men who lived in vastly different cultural, scientific and technological circumstances than we do today. Sharia is the body of Divine Islamic laws themselves. Throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic jurors never agreed on the same form of fiqh, and thereby our understanding of Sharia—the divine and immutable laws—have always differed.
While Sharia itself is considered immutable, the interpretation of Sharia derived from fiqh can and MUST be challenged to help us better understand the Quran and hadiths, lest we run the risk of claiming that a group of human men have the same omniscient power of the divine to deliver immutable decrees.
The vast majority of the cultural understanding of sexuality, premarital sex, and extramarital sex in most Muslim communities is based almost exclusively on the fiqh developed by men writing through the cultural framework of their own respective societies. I’m certainly not claiming these men deliberately “misinterpreted” the Sharia for their own exclusive patriarchal enjoyment, but I am saying that the very essence of human fallibility lies in the inability of our perception and conscious awareness to exist outside the parochial societal frameworks we grew up in, so any interpretation of Sharia will necessarily be mediated through those limitations.
Through this lens, developing a sincere relationship with Allah where you interpret sacred texts with the honest intention of trying to become a moral agent within the specific cultural context of the society you grew up in is a far more honest engagement with spirituality than blindly following the fiqh developed by someone who is also fallible.
When it comes to “illicit sex” in Islam, for example, one English translation of the Quran states:
“Those who commit unlawful sexual intercourse of your women – bring against them four [witnesses] from among you. And if they testify, confine the guilty women to houses until death takes them or Allah ordains for them [another] way. And the two who commit it among you, dishonor them both. But if they repent and correct themselves, leave them alone. Indeed, Allah is ever Accepting of repentance and Merciful.” — Surat an-Nisa, 4:15-16
This is an interesting verse in many ways. What is considered “unlawful” sex by an omnipotent God who reveals a holy book meant for all human beings across space and time, but remains vague on the details of illicit sexuality? If an individual born into a society that permits premarital sex comes across the Quran for the first time, can he or she be blamed for excluding premarital sex from this definition? The Quran doesn’t offer much clarification on specific definitions of “illicit sex,” or “lewd” behavior; most of the clarification on zina, or adultery, is found in the hadiths, which raise their own questions and require a separate article.
For the sake of argument, let’s take the conservative approach and include premarital sex under the umbrella definition of “unlawful sexual intercourse.” This verse not only completely discredits any argument in favor of honor killings, it actually argues that a woman’s sexual behavior is largely a matter between her and Allah. The patriarchal punishment of women’s “unlawful” sexual behavior is abrogated by Allah’s forgiveness. In fact, many verses in the Quran require society to abstain from punishing women in ANY way for engaging in “unlawful sex” if she repents. Repentance is a private, spiritually cathartic exchange between the individual and her creator, an act that cannot be mediated by any governing body or institution and takes priority over a man’s desire to punish her. In addition to that, the “illicit” sexual act she committed must be witnessed by at least four people, an incredibly difficult feat; even three people catching her in the act wouldn’t be enough to warrant punishment.
“A woman’s sexual behavior is not a social and legal spectacle meant for public obsession and consumption.”
The heavy burden of proof required to even merit punishment, combined with the Quran’s command that a woman’s sincere spiritual engagement with God nullifies her punishment, clearly evinces the fact that a woman’s sexual behavior is not a social and legal spectacle meant for public obsession and consumption. And this is based on the conservative interpretation that premarital sex is always “illegal” regardless of context.
I believe the Quran is purposely vague in defining certain legal parameters in order to account for cultural and social variations in the definition across space and time, and even within these variations, the Quran often leans towards forgiveness and repentance over punishment. In the case of the hadiths regarding zina, which are largely contextual, can be argued to be a historical record of 7th century Arabia. The Prophet was working within the socially accepted definitions of illegal sexual intercourse that was largely defined to protect the framework of the nuclear family, a specific familial formation that was crucial to the socio-economic and political cohesion of a tribal society, like the one that dominated 7th century Arabia.
“I believe the Quran is purposely vague in defining certain legal parameters in order to account for cultural and social variations in the definition across space and time.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that many of the specific guidelines allegedly promoted by the Prophet in the hadiths were largely shaped by their lack of technological progress, and that it’s OK for us now to modify some of these guidelines to account for modern scientific breakthroughs and technology. The Prophet also rode horses and drove caravans, but I don’t see Saudi princes cruising around Riyadh in horse-drawn carriages.
My conclusion is that the internal mechanisms that establish any society constantly change with more scientific information garnered, technological innovations achieved, and within new cultural exchanges between different societies. This includes changes in social norms, including sexual mores and the limits of sexual exploration. Our fiqh must evolve to match societal changes. We cannot remain firmly married to the same rules promoted by fallible men in a different cultural context out of a misguided fear we’re not smart enough to accommodate societal changes with our faith in God.