About 3 months ago, I was asked to participate in a debate on patriarchy and feminism at a local masjid. A month or so after the date was set and announced on social media, the event was abruptly canceled for reasons that were never made clear to me.
I’ll be honest: This was not the first time that something like this had happened and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I am not going to speculate as to why this particular masjid canceled this particular event. I don’t even know who was responsible for canceling the event or exactly why he/she/they did so.
In preparing for the debate, I put together some brief notes on the basic thrust of my position (below). Obviously, it is a position some find deeply offensive — offensive enough to censor. But I think it is high time we ask these important questions even though, for whatever reason, they are considered politically incorrect. I think we should be able to debate ideas in a respectful and academic fashion, especially ideas that have such a HUGE influence on the Muslim community and the Muslim mind and are the source of much doubt.
Unfortunately, there are those who don’t want to see such a conversation happen and will shout down anyone who tries.
In any case, what I had planned to do was defend my position using a wide range of arguments and evidences from historical and philosophical material as well as the work of feminists themselves. I also had arguments lined up in defense of classical scholars that Muslim feminists have viciously attacked over the years. I hope this material will be put out in the near future — inshaAllah I’ll post bits and pieces on my Facebook page as well.
There is a common perspective that has grown increasingly more influential since the dawn of “second wave” feminism that one of the primary power dynamics within every society — in addition to the dynamics between different socio-economic classes, races, tribal affiliations, etc. — is the power dynamics between the genders. Just like different political factions and classes are vying for power in every society, so are the genders, men against women. All societies experience a power differential in this regard, and universally it has been the case that men dominate women — this is patriarchy. In our times, this domination is not necessarily overt such that men are consciously dominating women, though in some instances, that may be true as well. Rather, we have inherited a patriarchal system with ossified power structures that continue to subjugate women. It is our moral duty, argue feminists, to fight against these patriarchal structures. All of this applies in spades to Islamic history. Here feminists will have some disagreements. The default feminist position as represented by their leading scholars is that all religion is inherently patriarchal and therefore oppressive to women. Muslim feminists take issue with this and claim, to the contrary, that God is not patriarchal and does not desire to subjugate women to men. Rather, God’s revealed religion, Islam, is fully egalitarian and it is only a patriarchal reading of that religion by men which gives us rules and customs that oppress Muslim women. From this point, different Muslim feminists draw the line in different places. Are the rules of polygyny, say, part of true Islam or are they patriarchal accretions? Some say yes, some say no. Are certain hadith on women true Islam or just patriarchal fabrications? Are certain classical scholars opining on women presenting an honest, valid understanding of true Islam, or is it just a patriarchal bias coloring their views? There are over a hundred “controversial” examples of where, from the perspective of your average modern non-Muslim feminist, Islam oppresses, or at least disenfranchises women. And different Muslim feminists will take different strategies in countering that perspective in defending the notion that true Islam is egalitarian.
My view is that the entire feminist project, whether of the secular or Muslim variety, is misguided. In reality, there are major conceptual and evidential problems with the entire notion of societal conflict based on gender. The idea that men have constructed and maintained a universal structure, namely patriarchy, to systematically take advantage of women and prioritize men’s interests over women’s is not substantiated by historical facts or theoretical scrutiny. InshaAllah I will be presenting and nuancing these considerations at the event and hopefully responding fruitfully to the oft-cited arguments to the contrary.
As far as what is at stake in this conversation, these are some of the main questions that come to my mind. What are the theological implications of understanding 1400 years of the Muslim scholarly tradition as being by and large immersed in and, to at least some extent, guided by patriarchal oppression? What are the ontological implications of claiming that every society past and present suffered from patriarchy, i.e., what does this mean for human nature and, by extension, God Himself, who created that human nature and that human history? Is patriarchy an adequate or accurate explanation of the problems Muslim societies face with regard to gender relations, domestic abuse, etc. (i.e., problems that I do not deny exist)?
It is worth repeating that I do not deny that some men abuse and unjustly treat some women, past and present. We are all agreed on that piece of data, but is that data evidence of patriarchy?
There are strong reasons to think not. For example, there are also many instances of some women abusing and unjustly treating some men. In fact, in some categories, the statistics show the abuse to be comparable or even that women are more frequently the culprits. Additionally, much of the data that is cited to bolster the patriarchy thesis ought not be considered evidence at all. Muslims should know this better than most. The hijab is often cited as proof-positive that Islam is patriarchal. But many Muslim feminists would object to that, arguing that, despite appearances, the institution of hijab has nothing to do with men controlling women — in fact, just the opposite, hijab empowers women, etc., etc. So in this case, as far as even the Muslim feminists are concerned, whether the hijab is even a data point of man-on-woman abuse let alone a data point which bolsters the patriarchy thesis, is in dispute. The same objections can be raised with respect to many of the other alleged data points feminists cite.