My Views On Feminism and Islam

How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:

  1. Being an advocate for women.
  2. Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
  3. Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
  4. Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
  5. Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.

The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address  the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.

I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)

The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)

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Muslim Feminism: Women At Prayer

Photo by Reuters

The main question I’ve been asked since I became a Muslim has been, “How do you reconcile being a Muslim with being a feminist?” The answer is complex and I won’t go into all of it today. But one part of the answer is that any woman can be a feminist, if being one means that you want to see women find self-fulfillment on whatever path they choose to travel. That doesn’t mean that every journey is easy. Certainly if you come from a culture where women have been traditionally marginalized and you want to continue to be a part of that culture, you’re going to find the going tough. Does that mean that you shouldn’t try? No, but it might mean that you have to weigh your options carefully and be sure of your convictions before you proceed. [quote]

I decided to write about this today because of an article by Tracy Clark-Flory I ran across on Salon.com in its Broadsheet department: “Muslims protest sexism with prayer.” In it Clark-Flory recounts the story of Muslim women who dared to pray on the main floor of a mosque in Washington, D.C. Why is that a big deal? For one thing, they were praying with the men and not behind a partition in an area reserved for women. For another thing, they risked arrest to do so. I would say that this is Muslim feminism in action, whether or not these women would identify themselves as feminists.

Segregation during prayer

What is my take on their actions? While I haven’t prayed often in a mosque (yet), when I have, I’ve been relegated to the women’s room along with the other women. The main negative feeling I had was irritation, because it was sometimes hard to hear what was being said on the main floor (which of course is the men’s area) and as a result, it was also hard to feel that I was a part of what was going on, which after all, is supposed to be a communal act of prayer. At the same time, it didn’t bother me all that much because of the feeling of sisterhood I had from being there with the other women. Not to mention that I was more intent on getting my own prayers right than on where I was praying.

Women are too noisy

One Muslim man once told me that women make too much noise during prayer and that’s one reason why men don’t want them praying in the same room. But maybe women tend to be noisy because they don’t take what they’re doing as seriously as the men do, exactly because the men don’t take what the women do as seriously. What does it really matter if the women make a little noise if they’re not even supposed to be there? (There are a few mosques that don’t allow women to even enter the building.) Then there is the problem of children who are of course with the women (at least until the boys are considered old enough to pray with the men). Children tend to be noisy, too, but the men don’t have to and don’t want to deal with that. They don’t want anything to distract them from their prayers.

Women are distractions

Women are also considered to be distractions because they might cause the men to think impure thoughts when they’re supposed to be praying. I get that. Women can be distracted by men as well. If the goal is total concentration, then there is something to be said for the separation of the sexes during prayer. Having said that, I don’t see why adults can’t be trusted to try harder to keep their minds on Allah instead of on each other. Then again, one of the things that attracted me to Islam is that it is so pragmatic about human nature. We do tend to get distracted, pretty easily as a matter of fact. So why make it harder for us to concentrate?

I’m still a feminist, so now I’m a Muslim feminist. That doesn’t mean that I advocate crashing the men’s prayers. I don’t think at all badly of women who sincerely feel that their spiritual lives are made fuller by being able to pray in the main hall of the mosque. I may be one of them someday. But for now I’m content to follow my path to spiritual fulfillment. And to concentrate on my prayers, without distractions.