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.