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Unveiling ‘Islamic Feminism’: The Nomenclature Of The Absurd

By Abhiruchi Ranjan and Chitra Adkar:

What do postcolonial feminists and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have in common?

As provocative, oversimplified, naive and possibly stupid as this question may sound, one cannot deny the similarities they share with regard to their reactions towards western feminism.

The RSS would probably reject western feminism (or feminism), while postcolonial feminists would call for a ‘decolonising’ project, proposing that a different kind of feminism would arise from the third world. Why can’t the latter also be considered ‘feminism’ itself?

Feminism is not the ‘ladies compartment’ of all other ideologies – that is, a later addition at the end of the train of ideologies to accommodate womenfolk. Nor is it a reservation of seats within the existing ideological compartments to recognise women within the status quo.

Feminism is an independent thought and praxis of women’s unqualified and inalienable equal rights. The representation of and participation in a politics by more number of women, or a particular politics taking stock of lived experiences of women as part of their politics, makes it ‘pro-women’, not ‘pro-feminism’ or ‘feminist’.

“Using a prefix before the term ‘feminism’distorts its very essence: the equality of women as a self-evident fact.”

Any terminology which prefixes qualifiers, effectively distorts and dilutes the kernel of feminism: the equality of women as a self-evident fact. Nothing could be more self-contradictory than the terms ‘Hindu feminism’ or ‘Islamic feminism’. Durga Vahini’s recruitment of women from low-income Hindu families to physically and ideologically empower them to confront the enemy of the community is not feminism. It is simply the participation of more number of women in a political space. While the leftist and liberal sections share a consensus over the bogus claims of Hindu chauvinism towards feminism, the same are upheld, celebrated and defended when it comes to ‘Islamic feminism’.

All fixations with prefixing qualifiers to feminism are as absurd and politically empty as the phrase ‘femi-nazi’ – a combination of two unrelated words implying a non-existing social reality of extremity of thought/action, used to shame and silence the feminists.

Consider the prefixes attributed to the ‘waves’ in feminism – they are nothing but a classification based on temporal advancement of the movement and the tenets abstracted from each period. It would be absurd if one claims he or she is a ‘first-wave’ feminist in the year 2017. After all, any engagement with feminism in the present day would require a person to locate their politics with regard to a range of issues apart from the suffragette – from the equal rights of sex-workers to protection from violation and rape, right to dignity and equal opportunity for the transgenders, sexual freedoms for the homosexuals and a whole host of such issues.

A similar case in point would be the use of the flawed and misleading term, ‘upper caste feminist’, which describes an individual who refuses to address the caste issue within patriarchy. A person who refuses to recognise the caste issue is not advocating equality for all women, and hence, is not a feminist. The term ‘upper caste feminist’ is an oxymoron and should be seen as Brahmanism masquerading as feminism. It is nothing but a regressive, misogynistic attempt to vilify the feminist movement.

Speaking of oxymorons, the vindication of ‘Islamic feminism’ as an ideology for the empowerment of believers of the Islamic faith is as convoluted as the notion of a ‘burger pizza’. Everyone is free to believe in their versions of ‘heard voices’ and ‘imaginary friends’, but they cannot whip up a ‘fantasy meal’ out of their choicest beliefs!

If a faith propounds that women constitute the majority inhabitants of hell, it is for the believer to argue for a better place for women in the afterlife. As feminists, they will not fight for the equal rights of non-virgins in heaven, but question and oppose the very faith which propounds the idea of virgin women as rewards for virtue in good men.

“Feminism doesn’t entail ‘choosing’ to discriminate against Muslim men for ‘love jihad’ or accusing Hindi women of ‘Islamophobia’, by citing blasphemy.”

Feminism as a politics of ‘equal choice’ for women does not mean the ‘choice’ to discriminate against a Muslim man through the idea of ‘love jihad’. ‘Freedom of choice’ does not mean the ‘choice’ to slut-shame another woman for cultural deviation. Nor does it mean accusing Hindu women of ‘Islamophobia’ under the logic of blasphemy. ‘Freedom of choice’ in feminism means ‘choice’ as an ‘expression of equality’, not patriarchy.

According to Margot Badran, Islamic feminism is “a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm.” It is important to ask what’s ‘Islamic’ about a certain brand of feminism? Or does the word ‘Islamic’ merely signify the participation of women who are Muslim? Furthermore, would this group of feminists have a take on everything ‘Islamic’? And an even more crucial question arises here: if ‘Islamic feminism’ is a ‘tactical use of Islamic arguments’ (in the words of Mir-Hosseini), is it not important to own up to it?

The intersection between a set of all things Islamic and all things feminist is not a sufficient condition for the suffix of feminism. Women’s engagement with the interpretation of Islamic texts and their participation in Islamic power structures is ‘reformism’ – which does not imply feminism, by default. The participation and representation of women is not a sufficient condition to qualify a particular brand of politics as feminist – especially when it involves inherently patriarchal institutions and structures of religion.

The question of participation of Hindu women in religious institutions as preachers, television evangelists and in committees and trusts, is merely identitarian. Unless the essentially patriarchal nature of religion is questioned, this participation is a co-option or simply religious reformism.

Feminism is not a swachhta (purification) mission meant to wipe the dirt off the churches, temples and mosques. It is a deluge that washes away all that is sacred and turns it into sawdust. Anybody who wants to search for the ‘key of faith’ in the ‘quicksand’ of reform can do so – but not by clutching at feminism. Can Muslim women claim an equal right to representation and interpretation of their faith? Most certainly! Can they claim this right as feminists? Most certainly not!

Interpreting a religious text in new ways doesn’t make one a feminist

‘Islamic feminists’ like Amina Wadud focus on the exegesis of Quran while arguing that it is not the text, but its patriarchal interpretation which renders Muslim women unequal in society. In, “Islam Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis”, Wadud argues that patriarchy is ‘un-Islamic’ or a form of shirk, which is a violation of the Islamic requirement that god is supreme.

Many others like Asra Nomani see Islamic feminism as a means of ‘sanitising’ the Quran, in the larger project of countering extremism. If textual criticism and lexical-syntactical interpretations of religious texts (as part of religious reform) is the believer’s path to ‘social harmony’ or an ‘Islamic feminist’s’ strategic need, then it is the duty of all rationalists and feminists to question and expose these ill-founded, erroneous and unethical self-ascriptions of feminism in academics, politics and activism.

The possibility of a ‘feminist interpretation of religious texts’ is a false notion, a misleading argument and a logical fallacy. Chosen parts or select verses of any text (and not just holy books) are most likely to contain a ‘message of goodness’.

The major problem with citing these in arguments and research methodologies is: A ‘message of social goodness’ found in a select portion of a text, may possibly be in stark contradiction to the overall message that the text conveys. For example, “The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people” is the ‘selective goodness’ in the extremely cruel “Mein Kampf”.

“The ‘selective goodness’ of the Manusmriti does not overshadow the essentially misogynistic nature of its verses.”

Thus, the goodness of some sections or of a text do not offset the poisonous idea, meaning or message contained in another section or contained in the totality of the text. Manusmriti (2/2:13) states: “vabhāva eṣa nārīṇāṃ narāṇāmiha dūṣaṇam,ato’rthānna pramādyanti pramadāsu vipaścitaḥ”, which can be translated as, “It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.” Evidently, this is a deeply misogynistic verse, and it is not offset by the message of “yatr naryasto pojyantay, ramantay tatr devta (where women are provided a place of honour, gods are pleased and reside in those households)” in the same text.

The ‘good’ parts or seemingly progressive portions do not counter the totality of any holy book or exalted text. The flow, continuity and placement of each verse, together, affirms, validates and reiterates the ‘divine phenomenon’. The larger meaning and connotations of a holy text are autonomous and separate from those contained in the individual parts.

It is a flawed argument to cite a ‘presence of goodness’ as a proof of ‘feminist ethic’. There is a marked difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘feminist ethic’. While a ‘good ethic’ is essentially a source of harmony and balance, a ‘progressive, feminist ethic’ often follows a path of disharmony and breaks away from the norms, to bring about creative destruction and positive changes.

Consider the Surah An-Nisa (4:34) in the Quran, which is roughly translated as: “But those (wives) from whom you fear arrogance – (first) advise them; (then if they persist), forsake them in bed; and (finally), strike them.”

The meaning assigned to the interpretations of the third step of reprimanding the rebellious woman in this verse, ranges from ‘beating’, ‘striking’, to various softer variations like ‘tapping’ and ‘petting’.

Neil Macfarquhar goes a step further in an attempt to sync the Quran with the ethics of the modern age in her New York Times article, “New Translation Prompts Debate on Islamic Verse”. She offers a new lexical translation of the word daraba ( the new meaning being ‘to go away’), to attribute a progressive meaning to the Quranic verse.

Even if we were to accept this interpretation of the verse, it does betray a certain ‘logical progression’ in the severity of chastisement for the erring wife. The third step makes sense only if ‘go away’ means severing ties with the transgressing woman. No matter how you interpret the third stage in the step-wise indictment of a rebellious Muslim woman – whether as a form of physical reprimand or as a severing of ties – it continues to be a demeaning, disempowering ‘infantilisation’ of the Muslim woman, which completely undermines her agency and the self-evident truth of her gendered equality.

“60% men violently dominate their wives.”

The study, “Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India”, by the UNFPA and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) revealed that 60% men use violence to dominate their wives. In a country where emotional, physical and sexual abuse and violence is a commonly-accepted norm and a routine occurrence, ‘to go away’, is an apologia for the status quo, at best – and a vindication of a violent, wife-battering socio-cultural complex, at its worst.

Likewise, the term ‘Hindu feminism’ is wantonly added to any and every apologia for Hinduism. To chant ‘Radhe Krishna’ or ‘Sita-Ram’ is not ‘Hindu feminism’ or even feminism – leave alone paying respect to Hindu women!

The accommodation of inherently contradictory ideas for reforms (like the accommodation of the idea of caste hierarchy as a ‘benign division of labour’ in the service of the utopia of Ram rajya, which was endorsed by Gandhi); is nothing more than a well-articulated and well-conceived lie. Similarly, ‘burger pizza feminism’ accommodates inherently contradictory things endorsed by the cultural relativists, apologists and believers and uses ‘feminism’ as the ‘handmaiden of religious belief’.

Feminists are not facilitators. They are rationalists who question all belief – even those of the Islamic feminists who seek to revise Islam to make it less patriarchal.

Only those texts and translations, which envision a radical break with the patriarchal powers, can become the basis of fighting gendered slavery and oppression. Texts which treat women as ‘objects owned by men’, cannot be the basis for a feminist politics or ideology.

The Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention,1848 set the following benchmark for feminism: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” And this self-evident fact doesn’t need any further interpretation to be understood, upheld and fought for!

The authors can be found here.


Image used for representative purposes only

Image Source: Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images