What drives the gender critique of religion in general and Islam in particular, and what are its aims? Haifaa Jawad, honorary senior lecturer in the department of theology and religion at the University of Birmingham, UK, discusses this with Renovatio’s digital editor, Faatimah Knight. They discuss the current discourse around gender and religion, the tensions that exist between traditional and reformist views on the topic, whether these views are reconcilable, and how the Qur’an might be read to derive a view of gender that shows parity. Their conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Faatimah Knight: I want to begin with a general question about the current discourse regarding gender and religion: Is it a discourse, broadly speaking, about the tension between a traditional view and a reformist view, or is it more complex than that?
Haifaa Jawad: I think it is a bit more complex than a simple tension between the two. Unfortunately, due to established negative views about religiosity, some so-called reformists or modernists do not listen to theological reasoning. One can argue that since the advent of the Enlightenment, right throughout the emergence of modernism and postmodernism, religion has come under heavy assault from newer ideologies that represent a worldview alien to the traditional concept of religion. These ideologies, aimed primarily at deconstructing religion, were first incubated and nurtured in the West, and then spread gradually to the rest of the globe, including the Muslim world, threatening not only traditional institutions, such as family, community, and society, but also faith itself. Hence, within the context of the West, there is no longer an issue of conflict discourse between the traditionalist and reformist views. Religion in the West can no longer compete with the secular trends that are dominating the scene, except in a few corners. Within Islam, this is not so much the case. Why? Because Islam as a traditional faith is still prominent and has an essential bearing on Muslim lives. However, there are segments in most Muslim countries actively engaged in reforming Islamic principles to suit modern secular Western life. They have not succeeded yet, but certainly they are pushing Muslim society toward their goals. Every time I visit a Muslim country, I can see the secular trends infiltrating deeper and deeper into people’s way of life, which is of course a sad reality.
FK: Feminist responses to religion in general, and Islam specifically, are abundant. In your view, what is driving this field of critique, and are some of those motivations valid or understandable?
HJ: We can say that most of the negative views seem to be coming from a basic misunderstanding of theological arguments. I think feminists, especially Western feminists, see religion in general as their enemy, and they have singled out Islam as patriarchal and anti-women. Hence, in dealing with the subject, the emphasis has always been on anthropocentrism. Little has been done to understand the teachings of Islam on gender relations on its own terms. These critics seem unable or unwilling to understand the philosophy of Islam regarding women’s rights and the relationship between men and women in society.
Further, they seem to believe that Islam oppresses women in a way significantly worse than the ways women of other faiths and cultures are treated. Their tone underpins a sense of the superiority of Western culture and the inferiority of Muslim culture. They encourage and applaud the so-called secular Muslim feminists who have managed to get rid of their religious heritage and offer them platforms to express their views. Western feminists accuse women who disagree with them of caving in to patriarchy and working against those struggling to advance gender rights.