Islam and Gender Roles

When I told my sister-in-law that I had converted to Islam, she wondered how I was going to reconcile my feminist principles with my new religion. Believe me, I went into this conversion with my eyes wide open. I know the cultural baggage that is associated with Islam. But one distinction I’ve been careful to make is between the religion itself and the behavior of its adherents. I wouldn’t have become a Muslim if I hadn’t been convinced that Islam is inherently fair and just–not only to men, but also to women.

To understand where Islam is coming from in its treatment of women, you have to first examine the two main attitudes held by the larger society about gender roles. Some people believe that there is no difference at all between the sexes. This is the view of radical feminism. It was extremely popular during the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the ’60s and ’70s. Men and women were seen as interchangeable. One reason feminism gets a bad rap from conservatives and even moderates is because most people think that’s where the feminist movement is coming from today. It isn’t.

However, that doesn’t mean that today’s feminists have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and the other main attitude held by some in our society: which is that the sexes are locked into their gender roles. These people believe, for example, that only a women can properly care for children and support the family emotionally, or that only a man can adequately protect and support the family financially.

There are also two main theories about how men and women get locked into these roles: One is by biological hard-wiring. The other is by socialization (or brain-washing?).

What feminists often overlook is just how many people are comfortable with gender roles. They like knowing where they belong and how they’re supposed to act. Imagine being born into a world where there were absolutely no expectations as to how you were to behave. Feminists see that as a utopia; most people see that as a nightmare. The problems come when an individual doesn’t fit the norms: the homosexual or transgendered person, the effeminate man or masculine woman, the man who isn’t ambitious as well as the woman who is, the woman who doesn’t want children and the man who doesn’t want to play sports.

Once you realize that these exceptions represent millions of people, it is clear that rules of behavior based strictly on one’s gender (i.e., gender roles) can do a lot of damage. And this is where feminism stakes its flag: societal rules should be flexible enough to accommodate all the members of society. It is not so much that feminists are against gender roles per se; it is that they are against gender roles that imprison people, male or female.

Now, where does Islam stand on this continuum? At this point in my life as a Muslim, I can only give my impressions. I would say that Islam believes that there are inherent differences between males and females, but that there are more similarities than there are differences. Men and women stand equal before God. They are equally and individually answerable to Allah for their behavior. It is not how a person fulfills his or her sexual roles that determines how Allah views him or her; it is how faithfully each person lives the life that is set before him or her.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be Muslims who feel that gender roles are sacrosanct. There are Christians and Jews who also feel that way. There are people who aren’t even religious who believe the same. What it does mean is that Muslims believe that Allah understands us better than we understand ourselves. He does not lock us into roles against our will, but He may test us to help us to determine what our roles in life are to be.

I see no contradiction between that and feminist ideology. We may differ, even within the feminist camp, on how we view gender roles, but all of us would agree that we should have the right to live the lives we were meant to live and to live them to the best of our abilities. Some of us may choose a religion to help us to accomplish this. I have chosen Islam.

“A Woman’s Nation”

Maria Shriver
Maria Shriver

Watch out for a joint effort by Maria Shriver and NBC Universal titled “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” It will kick off on October 18th with an appearance by Shriver on Meet the Press. The report is modeled on a study undertaken almost 50 years ago during the administration of John F. Kennedy, Ms. Shriver’s uncle, and led by Eleanor Roosevelt. Other partners include the Center for American Progress, Time magazine, Hewlett-Packard, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

Lauren Zalaznick, the president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment networks, said that NBC would also release results of a complementary study about the consumer behavior of women, which she said would include “eye-opening information” about women’s buying power and its impact on “advertising and the marketplace.”

NBC News is planning to include coverage related to the study over a full week of its evening newscast and three mornings on the “Today” show. Other outlets owned by NBC Universal also will be involved, including the cable channels CNBC and MSNBC, the Spanish-language channel Telemundo and the Web site iVillage.

I just read in the comments on Feministing that 80% of working women are clustered into 20 occupations (out of 420 listed by the Department of Labor), “mostly service industry, mostly low-wage, low-benefits, and low-opportunities for advancement.” So if this study purports to say that women are beginning to play a larger role in the American economy because of the numbers of women working, the impact may not be as great as it seems from just looking at the statistcs. Besides, it’s hard to get accurate numbers about how many women work outside of the home, because the numbers fluctuate so much as women move in and out of the workplace during their child-rearing years.  However, it is now true that more than half of the overall workforce are now women.

This report intends to show how our country’s basic institutions have not yet caught up with this phenomenon. “Over the past generation, a seismic change has occurred in the family role and work life of American women,” Center for American Progress  Senior Economist Heather Boushey said. “Most married-couple families now have two earners, and, compared to a generation ago, many more families today are headed by a single working parent. But our institutions and culture have not fully adapted to this reality. ‘A Woman’s Nation’ will take a hard look at this.”

For a recent Department of Labor report, go here.

For New York Times articles about Maria Shriver, go here.

Gods Among Us

In a post I wrote on 9/25/09, I asked the question, “Can You Be Religious and Feminist?” For those of you who are wondering how I’m going to reconcile my feminist principles with my new-found religion, I want to point out that it isn’t only Islam which presents problems for a feminist. Paul (who wrote much of the New Testament) is considered by many to have been a misogynist. The Judeo-Christian tradition blames Eve for the entrance of sin into the world. A common Jewish prayer thanks God for not making the male petitioner a woman. Men and women in many religions are separated socially and in religious services, presumably because women are too much of a distraction. And these are the milder problems that the major religions have made for women.

In other words, religions have almost always given women a raw deal. But in most cases, the religion itself, when stripped down to its basics, is not anti-female at all. So why do so many religions come down so hard on women?

The answer seems obvious to me: because the men are usually in charge of interpreting what God supposedly means when it comes to women. They assume the role of God in telling women what they are allowed and not allowed to do. When studying the  texts of any religion, people are often surprised at the disconnect between what the texts say and what men teach. Or the way that certain portions which are relatively minor are elevated to major status when they’re taken out of context.

For example, in Islam, both men and women are instructed to dress modestly, but somehow women became the ones who are focused on in this area. In Christianity, the husband is instructed to take care of his wife the way Christ takes care of his Bride, the Church. That’s a pretty tall order. So why are real life wives so shabbily treated in much of the Christian world?

This is why I am a feminist. Because I believe that it is not religion, law, politics, medicine, government, science or business per se that relegates women to the background. It is the men who want to create and hold onto positions of power in each of these fields who make the rules that push women out. The only areas in which women have traditionally had any degree of power are those in which men have no interest: taking care of and teaching young children, cleaning up after others and doing the day-to-day caretaker work for the sick and the elderly. And even then it is often men who own and run the companies they work for.

I don’t mean that men are the bad guys. They are born to take charge and once they have that power, they don’t want to let it go. Not only that, but women can be just as abusive when they have power (think “The Devil Wears Prada). Who is it that said that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Human beings like to become like God. The problem is, when they do, they are much more tyrannical than God would ever be. They scheme and fight to hold onto their status. But God doesn’t have to do such things, by the mere fact that He is God.

Even if you don’t believe in God, it’s not hard to recognize the human impulse to make gods among us. It’s as if we’re comfortable putting anyone and anything up on the pedestal except for the real God. So we worship celebrities and material possessions and fame and money and sometimes our ministers or priests or rabbis or imams or scholars. And instead of listening to and following the real God, we enslave ourselves to the gods we have made.

Freeing women automatically frees all of us from our human masters. As a society’s women go, so goes the society. That’s why it’s so important to see women with the unbiased eye of God and to treat them accordingly. God made all of us and has a vested interest in seeing all of us exercise our free will. When women are all caught up in obeying humans, they lose their potential to be Children of God.

The Happiness Index

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers released a paper in May of this year for the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) about “the paradox of declining female happiness. ” Soon after, op-ed columnist for the New York Times  Ross Douthat wrote a column about the paper titled “Liberated and Unhappy.” And now we have Maureen Dowd, another NYT columnist, weighing in on the same topic in “Blue is the New Black.” (I don’t understand the title, but maybe that’s just me.)

We feminists are used to being blamed for all of society’s ills. In fact, women in general ought to be used to that, especially the ones who are uppity enough to sound off about their complaints. Look at parenting: which parent comes under the most fire when it comes to the success of their children? Apparently all the dad has to do is be there to be effective. (How many times have you heard it said that single-parent–read “mother” –households would be better off if there were a man in the house?) But the mother has to do far more than just be there. And God help her, if she doesn’t fulfill all her roles, she will be blamed for the problems her children have, as well as for all the ills of society.

This could be part of the reason women are unhappy. But does it account for their greater unhappiness which has coincidentally occurred since the feminist revolution? Douthat writes:

“In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”

Dowd goes a step further:

“When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

And yet how many of today’s women would want to trade their lives for the lives their mothers lived? And is it really all the choices that are making women unhappy?

I have compiled what I call “The Happiness Index.” What it does is list several factors that can contribute to a sense of well-being (or the reverse) and asks a woman to rate where she stands on a scale from 1 to 5, or “very unhappy, “unhappy,” “neutral (neither happy or unhappy),” “happy” or “very happy.”

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Now add up your scores. The higher the score, the happier you are (and the lower, the unhappier, of course). Pretty simple.

Blaming–or crediting–the feminist movement alone for your unhappiness or happiness is pointless. It’s not the degree of choice that stresses women out, it’s whether or not they have choices. It’s not what your marital status is that makes you happy or unhappy–it’s how you feel about your status, not to mention the quality of the relationships you do have. In fact, what you make of all these situations is the greatest factor of all.

And then there’s the question of the effect feminism itself has had on all of these areas. To what degree can you blame feminism for your looks, how you’re aging and and your health? Does feminism aid or hinder your parenting or relationship skills? Has feminism made your economic situation better or worse (or are there other factors that have contributed to your economic stability or instability? If you are divorced, has feminism given you more power in the negotiations? Do you think you would have gotten that promotion, salary, admission or career without feminism? Has feminism made it more or less likely that you will be stuck in a low-paying job? Would you have had enough courage to ask for sexual satisfaction or to seek out birth control if this were the ’50s?

I deplore knee-jerk reactions in either direction when it comes to the debate about what feminism has done for women–and men–in our society. What is really called for is a thoughtful consideration of all the factors that can influence happiness levels. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing, but important enough to be mentioned in our constitution along with life and liberty. What part does feminism play in your life satisfaction? Only you can decide.

A New Journey

Ellen_Keim_2I’ve meant to write about Christian Feminism, or Christianity and Feminism, but never got around to it. Now I find that I have a different focus in my life: I recently converted to Islam.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped being a feminist–far from it. I can understand that assumption, though. Being a feminist when you are also religious can be a challenge no matter what the religion, but let’s face it, the stereotype is that Islam is particularly oppressive to women.

I’m not going to make this blog an apologetic for Islam; that’s my personal baggage and I don’t intend to shove it down anyone’s throat. (Much like I didn’t push my Christian beliefs.) At the same time, I can’t very well ignore my interests. I will have posts from time to time that deal with what’s happening in the Islamic world. I will undoubtedly want to air out my own struggles with what it means to be a feminist and a Muslim. But I will also continue to explore what it means to be a feminist, period, no matter how you worship, vote and live.

That’s because I believe that being a feminist is one of those qualities that lies at the core of your identity. I can no more stop being a feminist than I can stop being a woman. Not because I think that women are always being screwed over, but because I think that it is a woman’s responsibility to make herself as strong as possible. For that matter, it’s a man’s responsibility to do the same, but because men and women have different issues, I think it’s important to keep their struggles separate to some extent.

However, I will say that becoming a Muslim has opened me up more to the struggles of all people, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, sick and well, of whatever (or no) religious or political persuasion, of any nationality or ethnicity. I don’t know if it will change what I write about or how I write. But I will never stop writing; it’s my way of discovering what is important.

Can You Be Religious and Feminist?

I’ve avoided writing specifically about feminism and religion, partly because religion is such a complicated, and a touchy, subject. Not all religions are created equal. Some have millions of adherents, some only a few. Some have played central roles in historical events, some have remained obscure. And nearly all have had some impact on the way women are treated in society.

It is a common perception that feminism and religion just don’t mix, that it is impossible to be religious and a feminist. The fact that most religions follow a patriarchal pattern (probably because they spring out of patriarchal societies and are designed to perpetuate them) makes them natural adversaries for feminists.  But if you examine the major religions, you’ll see that the religions themselves are not the real culprits. It is the men who interpret the religions who twist their teachings on women into misogynistic nightmares.

This means that the religious woman must realize who her real enemies are: not the gods, but the males who attempt to shape them into their own image. I realize that this sounds like male-bashing, but in fact, it’s common sense. If women had the power to call the shots, would they have instituted some of the rules and traditions or perpetuated the attitudes that make them “second-class” citizens?

So what is a feminist to do? Does she have to give up her religious beliefs? The problem with that is, people have spiritual needs that no amount of political or philosophical posturing can erase. Although some belief systems may seem to be almost religious in their zeal, if they are not addressing the possibility of the existence of God, they are not religions. (By this definition, atheism is a religious belief and feminism isn’t.)

However, non-religious belief systems like communism or feminism can seem like religions. They become world-views through which their adherents come to understand human nature, and even, at times, God.  It is important to keep religious beliefs separate from political or sociological ones. For example, being a Christian doesn’t require that you be a capitalist any more than the reverse is true.

At the same time, if you are religious and hold non-religious views about human nature, you are going to have to reconcile them at some point. Or at least attempt to do so. It’s not intellectually or spiritually honest to say that you’re religious and a feminist without attempting to determine how the one affects the other. In most cases you will find that they’re not incompatible.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sticky questions that need to be resolved. More often than not you’ll find the answers in a study of the religion itself. How and when were its scriptures written? What were the backgrounds of its eminent leaders? What was the historical context within which the religion was shaped? What was the psychological makeup of its key proponents?

I’m not trying to say that the scriptures themselves are erroneous or misleading. What I am trying to say is that the way the scriptures are interpreted and codified are inevitably filtered through the experiences of the men who control it. It’s important to separate the words of your God from the words of men. Dare, even, to come up with your own interpretations, not to make up your own version of your religion, but to help you to understand it better.

Men are not gods (contrary to some people’s beliefs). They should be listening to their God, not expounding their own views on how to treat half of His creation. Women have as much right to examine and interpret scripture and establish religious traditions as men do. But they also have as much responsibility to do it fairly. Arguing about God’s intentions is as fruitless as ants arguing about humans’ intentions. We need to find our place in relation to God, not His in relation to ours.

And that’s how you can be religious and feminist. By not putting your human beliefs above your belief in God, yes, but also by using what God has given you to understand them in the context of your religion.