Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Review

Islamic Feminism’s Depressing Future

A review of Women, Faith and Sexism: Fighting Hislam, by Susan Carland. Melbourne University Press (May, 2017) 266 pages.
 

Dr. Susan Carland is an important public figure in the Australian landscape, especially at a time of heightened cultural intolerance. As an academic, a Muslim convert, and the wife of the most widely recognized Muslim in Australia today – journalist and TV presented Waleed Aly – Carland often finds herself in the role of the defender of Islamic faith in Australia. She has personally experienced two different (and currently clashing) cultures closely, has had the privilege of examining them from a social theory perspective, and is blessed with eloquence and charm. Who better to explain what is going on?

On the one hand, we keep hearing about and seeing evidence of the unequal treatment of women within Muslim communities the world over. On the other, we find that Muslim women are among the staunchest defenders of Islamic faith and community. So how are we to reconcile these two realities? And to what extent are regressive practices coded into Islamic religious texts?

Carland’s recently published book Women, Faith and Sexism: Fighting Hislam is an attempt to grapple with these vexing questions – a condensed, reader-friendly version of her Ph.D. thesis on feminism within the West’s Muslim communities. For her thesis, Carland interviewed 23 Muslim women who are fighting sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities in Australia and the United States. These interviewees include theologians, academics, journalists, bloggers, and activists. The book discusses their work, why they felt it was needed, the challenges they face, what role their faith plays in the fight, and who supports them.

The book makes no bones about the fact that sexism and misogyny are rampant within Muslim communities. However, it challenges the notion that Muslim women are simply passive victims. Carland argues that Muslim women are fighting stridently within their communities, but that their fight doesn’t tread the same path as secular Western feminism. Instead, theirs is a feminism born of and rooted in Islam. If anything, Carland argues, Western critics of Islamic practices have only made the work of Muslim feminists more difficult lest they provide fodder for anti-Muslim bigots. While such points are arguably valid from the point of view of Muslim women, they raise larger and more troubling questions for the secular societies in which Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist.

Carland argues that Muslim women’s emancipation cannot be achieved through the rejection of Islam. Any approach that requires them to choose between their Muslim identity and faith and their own empowerment will fail because it asks too much of them. Nearly all the women Carland spoke to look upon religion as an important means of advancing women’s rights. Liberal and reformist female theologians are reinterpreting Qur’anic teachings from a woman’s perspective, and journalists, bloggers, and activists are using these re-interpretations to awaken Muslim women to their rights.

However, this is not just an exercise in pragmatism. The women Carland spoke to reinterpret Qur’anic teachings because they see the current patriarchal interpretations as un-Islamic and a perversion of their faith. They consider it their divine duty to reinstate the egalitarian spirit that many of them feel is inherent in their faith but absent in patriarchal interpretations. It is easy to see that using Islamic teachings to bring about change in patriarchal practices makes sense. To ask women to give up their faith, history, culture, and community and throw themselves into the unknown in pursuit of their rights is a tall order. In fact, as the book says, it can have the opposite effect of hardening the shell of their faith. It is easier for them, instead, to find their rights within their existing religious framework.

But two larger questions arise from this approach.

First, if the teachings of the Qur’an are subject to such widely divergent readings, who is to say that one interpretation is more valid than the next? Or that women will necessarily come up with progressive interpretations of the text? To take one tragi-comic example, Muslim women in the Australian chapter of Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir are suggesting that the Qur’an allows men to hit women so long as it doesn’t hurt. Moreover, novel feminist interpretations may themselves become outdated with time, which means that the issue of women’s rights is simply deferred and not comprehensively addressed.

Perhaps the problem is that, while Carland repeatedly insists in her book that radical new interpretations of the Qur’an are revolutionizing Muslim communities, she doesn’t offer a single example of what these re-interpretations actually constitute in practice. Nor does she reference the specific recommendations of any of the books, blogs, or magazines that she claims are offering radical new feminist interpretations of Qur’anic teachings. So it is left unclear what constitutes ‘equality’ between men and women in the light of these reinterpretations.

The book gives us at least one reason not to take Carland’s understanding of “radical” at face value. Early in the book, she speaks of Aisha, wife of Prophet Mohammed, and her renowned rulings. However, the example she offers of such a ruling is of Aisha criticizing a man for comparing women to animals such a dogs and cats. This is, to put it mildly, a pretty low benchmark for what constitutes a feminist ruling under Qur’anic law.

Second, a desire for religious guidance when considering complex ethical and religious questions such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and even divorce and inheritance is perhaps at least somewhat understandable. But surely straightforward questions such as “Does my husband have the right to hit me?” should not be subject to the convoluted acrobatics of Qur’anic interpretation. Why is it that Muslim women will only believe that a life free from sexual and physical violence is their right if they are able to prove that the Qur’an says so? And what if it doesn’t or they are unable to prove that it does? Across the world, women have arrived at answers to such basic questions independent of religious edicts. Are we to understand that Muslim women are unable to do the same? Apparently so.

In support of her argument, Carland quotes the American scholar Kecia Ali saying that, for most Muslims, “whether a particular belief or practice is acceptable” depends on “whether or not it is legitimately ‘Islamic'” This, she says, is true of Muslims everywhere, irrespective of whether they consider themselves moderate or fundamentalist, progressive or conservative. “Even many of those who do not base their personal conduct or ideals on normative Islam believe, as a matter of strategy, that in order for social change to achieve wide acceptance among Muslims they must be convincingly presented as compatible with Islam.”

So where does that leave non-Muslims anxious to promote a universalist understanding of women’s rights? These include government spokespersons, electoral representatives, and other community members and activists, to mention but a few. It seems they have two options. They can either leave all feminist activism to Muslim theologians and clerics in the hope that they will do the job for them. Or they can educate themselves in the countless Qur’anic interpretations, select an interpretation that most suits the argument they want to make, and enter into a theological debate with conservatives and fundamentalists in the hope that their case will eventually prevail. And for what? To convince Muslims on issues that most of us have established are matters of natural justice.

This goes to the heart of the discomfort many non-Muslims feel when confronted by Islamic cultures. They wonder whether a conversation is possible with Muslim communities when, no matter how objectively rational or valid a point may be, it is held to have no legitimacy unless it can be substantiated by the Qur’an and its myriad interpretations.

Carland says Muslim feminists in the West find themselves in a double bind. Speaking out against what they see as injustices within the community provides ‘Islamophobes’ with ammunition. This makes them the objects of resentment within their own communities and, consequently, makes their reformist task harder. So, when non-Muslims engage with Muslim women, the interviewees say they are unable to speak their minds. The parameters of discussion, they felt, were set by the prejudices and preoccupations of the majority and not by what is relevant to Muslims and their communities.

This is indeed a tough a position to be in. And, as Carland points out, it is made harder by the fact that often it is Muslim women, easily identifiable through their Hijabs and burqas, who face the brunt of anti-Muslim abuse (often in form of physical or verbal abuse on streets). So in speaking out, Muslim women have to accept that they risk, at least in the short term, making their own lives and the lives of their Muslim sisters more insecure. Nevertheless, most interviewees said they do continue to speak out as they have decided that this is more important than concerns about community image or anti-Muslim prejudice. For this courageous commitment to principle, they deserve our respect. But Carland doesn’t make clear how she thinks non-Muslims in the West should engage with Muslims with respect to regressive beliefs and practices.

Sexism and misogyny are universal problems. However, the nature and extent of these problems within Muslim communities is particularly severe. No other community in the West focuses with quite the same intensity on what women wear, how they ought to conduct themselves in public and private, or insist on the complete separation of male and female spaces. For perspective, consider an instance described by Carland herself in which the women’s prayer room in a Washington DC mosque would be chained from the outside while women prayed inside. How do we discuss such practices without drawing attention to their peculiarly pernicious quality? And how exactly are non-Muslims to respond to the fact that Muslim men and women require the minutiae of their lives to be guided by labyrinthine Islamic edicts? It may suit Muslim men and women but it also renders the community opaque to non-Muslims and cultural opacity will always provoke fear in outsiders.

Carland argues that sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities must not be an excuse for prejudice on the part of non-Muslims. But she also insists that any discussion of these issues with Muslims must be filtered through an Islamic religious lens. So, non-Muslims can neither have a positive dialogue about women’s rights on an equal footing with Muslims unless it is done from a theological perspective, nor can they allow religious opacity to colour their engagement with and understanding of Muslim communities. This raises the bar for any meaningful dialogue so high that it will inevitably result in failure and increased distrust on both sides. No wonder Muslims and non-Muslims both feel suffocated by the interaction.

If we follow Carland’s argument to its logical conclusion, the only option we are left with is for Muslims and non-Muslims to ignore each other until Muslims find an interpretation of the Qur’an that meets secular standards in matters of gender and family. In the meantime, everyone must keep up a tight smile when we encounter one another in public and privately hope that our lives don’t intersect through love, romance, marriage, or our children. That sounds like a depressing future.

 

Chetna Prakash is an Australian writer of Indian background. She holds a Masters in Journalism and Media within Globalisation. More of her writing can be found hereYou can follow her on Twitter @mumbai2melby

Filed under: Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Review

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Chetna is an Australian writer of Indian background. She holds a Masters in Journalism and Media within Globalisation. More of her writing can be found here: http://thebigsmoke.com.au/author/chetnaprakash/

43 Comments

  1. Bahuleya Minyakka says

    Play the waiting game, I think this was the point put forward as a”solution” by Tariq Ramadan in a debate with Douglas Murray. Murray’s reply was, how long do we have to wait for, while the killings continue?

    • Susan is actually aware of what she is proposing actually means for non-Muslims. I think it didn’t occur to her. She basically presents the most convenient option she could think for her own community and that is why it is bound to fail.

        • Bahuleya Minyakka says

          Unless, it could be that she is aware of what it entails, and that she may in fact be malicious in intent? Her husband seems to echo the obfuscation tactics of H.U.T or the Muslim Brotherhood, so I wonder if it’s possible we are being too generous to Carland?

          • Despite my sceptical review, I don’t think that Susan or Waleed or Muslims and non-Muslims act out of malice or intent to harm. What I do think is that identity politics and post modernism has done away with the need to look at any other perspective but yours, and that is what is play out here.

  2. Islamophobia is irrational fear of Islam. In common practice the definition is changed to irrational fear leading to prejudice. Note that the possibility of a rational fear is dismissed prior.

    Islam supports treating women as less than men. One can equivocate or reinterpret, but there isn’t room for logic in any other conclusion.

    The conflict arises in a specific cultural subset that defines Islamophobia as wrong and feminism right. Again note that opposition or fear of Islam is defined as illogical fear; there is no opportunity to suggest that rational fear could exist. This particular subset is not concerned with cognitive dissonance.

    Carland, on the other hand, is concerned and rather than come to the self-evident conclusion of their incompatibility, she makes irrational arguments.

    Her irrational positions led to irrational arguments.

    This is all too human. We have parts of our self-identity that we are attached and cannot let go of even when faced with evidence.

    Carland’s logic development is further hampered by the cultural barriers. She is supported by the condemnation of Islamophobia and the support of feminism.

    Let us walk this through.

    If a man hits a man, this is generally legally criminal.
    If a man fears being struck by a man, this isn’t called manophobia.

    If a man hits a woman, this does not change….unless Islam.
    If I fear a man will hit my daughter since he believes he has the right, I’m not evil….unless Islam.
    If I condemn a world view that intrinsically places women as less than men, I’m good…unless Islam.

    Fearing the spread of Islam is not the same as supporting mistreatment of Muslims. Fear of the effects of Islam, is not necessarily, irrational.

    Accusing someone of ‘-phobia’, is the socially acceptable way for educated society to use the schoolyard insult of yesteryear, ‘yellow’.

    • My disappointment with the book was that Susan doesn’t actually discuss expansively what these supposed feminist reinterpretations of Islam actually constitute in practice anywhere in the book. Her PhD research methodology constituted meeting a few women, she had heard or knew, who were challenging sexism and misogyny in Islam, then ask their recommendations on who else she should speak to, and accordingly approach them. Naturally, she ended up with a homogenous set of women who all support each other stance. Then she presents their arguments to suggest this is a movement. Also, she doesn’t actually present anything to show that the effectiveness of these movements – zilch. We are just asked to accept her claims that these movements are on the cusp of taking Muslim communities by storm.

      That Monash University accepted this methodology and conclusions doesn’t make me think very highly of the university or her supervisors.

  3. nicky says

    “…until Muslims find an interpretation of the Qur’an that meets secular standards in matters of gender and family. ” That will take a long wait, but arguably not impossible.
    However, what is not said, they do not only have to find this elusive interpretation, but it has to be accepted by a great majority of Muslims. “depressing” indeed (I like Prakash’s understated ways of putting things), because it is as probable to come as the second coming or giving “Mein Kampf” a ‘semitophilic’ interpretation
    Let us be frank, it is difficult to deny that the only (well, most at least) liberated Islamic women are those who have left the Faith.
    *[ I know, I know, the same goes for ‘many a Christian woman’, but first we are not discussing Christianity here, and secondly the Christian faith, especially the NT, is more amenable to women’s liberation than the Trilogy, it definitely gives more to go on, and thirdly, contrary to Islam, so many, if not most -especially in Western Europe- ‘Christians’ are only that in name].

    • As I write in above comment, Susan used flawed methodology for her PhD research. She basically started by meeting Islamic feminists she knew and heard of, and then asked them to suggest other women she should speak to. Accordingly she approached them. She didn’t decide to interview Muslim women based on the effectiveness of their approaches – are they actually yielding results. Naturally she ended up with a homogenous set of women, and then found no conflict in their stand. How would she?

      She doesn’t actually discuss the content of the blogs/books/reinterpretations or the effectiveness of their stand in actually yielding results. Even theoretically she never actually pits Islamic feminism and western feminism that eschewed religion to argue that feminism doesn’t need to eschew religion in order to succeed – it could have all well been done within a religious framework.

      I am not sure how this PhD got accepted.

      • nicky says

        First, Chetna, what I omitted: a great post, incisive but civil.
        How did it get accepted? I bet you a bottle of dry red it was made at a ‘- – – studies’ department. They do these things on a regular basis.

        • Thanks for acknowledging the civilness. Discussions on Islam so quickly degenerate into a snark fest that it becomes easy to accuse one of Islamophobia. I was really trying to avoid that and present what this particular line of argument presented by Carland looks from the other side. I am glad if I succeeded.

  4. The ol’ ‘(western) society’s to blame’. First, for all the ‘troubles’ in the middle east & now for preventing muslim women from ‘speaking out’.
    Here’s a tip, personal responsibility goes a long way to building bridges & genuine reform.
    And what of the many who are not afraid to ‘speak out’ with their new & improved ‘feminist’ interpretations?
    Certainly no shortage proudly declaring the reinvented hijab as a feminist sword against male ‘objectification’.
    So its personal responsibility for Islamic women only now?
    Who’d had ever guess the ol’ ‘she was asking for it’ mentality could be so liberating?

  5. “until Muslims find an interpretation of the Quran that meets secular standards…” I’m not sure what to make of your statement, if it’s an admission that you have never read it, or if it is ironic?

    Sorry to be blunt, but you’re a woman, an ideology makes you a perpetual minor, and you’re approach is to wait for the right one?

    Why not looking into the said ideology in the first place? Why is it that after 1400 years, it is still alive and striving?

    To understand Islam, you need to read what Islam says about itself, and deconstruct its narrative.

    Deconstruct islam, Miss Prakash, that’s the key.

      • Glad to hear that.

        But again why not examining the ideology then? The time is now Miss Prakash, when Mohammed Ben Salman is done cleaning his house, islam will be impossible to fight. And all women will be taught to look for *better guarians*, to the point where making their own decisions will be a frivolous dream. It won’t be even a dream anymore.

        Social sciences have become a mafia. It’s a service industry, they have their rules, their bosses, their capos, their foot soldiers, their hitmen, their networks, they know how to hire the right people, and those who challenge them are ruthlessly hunted down. If you cross them, you’ll get whacked,

        You asked how this PhD got through. You asked the wrong question. What service did this PhD provide to the family?

        When Cassie Jaye came to Australia, it’s ilke a small army of goons were ready to chase her down, and that went up to Australian TV. Just pay attention at how their hitmen were picked, and the coordination in the attacks. It’s a methodical, ruthless process of an organization that protects its territory.

        When Lindsay Shepherd got dragged before a kangaroo court, they thought it would be the end of it. You think it’s over, think again. The foot soldiers have been summoned, while the hitmen are taking their aim. Meanwhile, the bosses show up on TV, pretending to be the guardians of social cohesion.

        That’s what the mafia does! That’s her goal! Wherever the state has given up or subcontracted its duties, and common decency is broken, the mafia steps in. And gets payed for it. This PhD is a (small) payment for previous services. Even to the lowest standards, it shouldn’t have gotten a pass. But it did. That’s how the mafia operates. Overpaid clumsy roadworks.

        Like all mafia, they make alliances. And Islam is one of those alliances. The funny thing is that to the naked eye, none of those should even exist. Both sides believe “I’ll get off the train whenever i reach destination”.

        Until one of them gets wacked. Obviously.

        Both of them have the same rules to quench dissent. There’s no getting out of the family, no spilling secrets to a judge. If you try, they’ll chase you, if they can’t, they’ll go for whom you love. ‘Don’t say anything, please, you’ll get us in trouble’. The common man is petrified. There aren’t even enough common men left to fight. Everyone is watching shitting their pants, one eye through the curtains, behind the window ‘is somebody going to do something or what?’

        If you want to understand why this PhD got a pass, Monday morning when you get to the office, clear up a wall. Start pining pictures, connect them with strings, and from the foot soldiers, the overpaid jobs, the innocents who went destitutes for speaking out, or live in hiding, find The Godfather. Identify where the money flows. And yes, as you know, ideas are worth a lot more than money.

        A new generation replaces the old, soon, it will be too late. These are child soldiers.

        In ‘A Dry White Season’, Ben du Toit asked himself ‘how does this system perpetuate itself?’

        That, Miss Prakash, is the question.

  6. augustine says

    A cultural ban on negative views of Islam, which appears to be in force in the West at this time, will be counterproductive for Muslims and everyone else ultimately. The statement in the article “…lest they provide fodder for anti-Muslim bigots” is an example.

    I’m curious why Dr. Carland apparently chose the words “feminism” and “feminist” to characterize the efforts by Muslim women that she describes. I very much doubt feminism has any more compatibility with this patriarchal religion than it does with Christianity. Yet Christian men and women do treat each other as equals in Christ. This was not always so, and partly it is a cultural issue (as with Islam), but the idea is clearly reiterated in the Bible. Instead of turning to feminism, earlier generations sought a better understanding in God’s word. Perhaps the Quran has similar potential.

    • The women she spoke to actually didn’t like being called feminists. Because they didn’t identify with Western feminists who are too confrontational for their liking. Carland designa

    • Dear Augustine,

      I was walking by, and couldn’t help it. Please Don’t pay attention.

      You are either a man, or too young of a woman to even fathom what Christianity did to women.

      Gender equality, before the law and in the bedroom, happened despite Christianity, not thanks to or even remotely condoned by Christianity.

      If you have a grand mother, it’s time for a serious discussion. Bring the cookies, and loads of tea.

      And also, read the Quran and the Hadith. You’d spare yourself with some serious embarrassment.

      Having said that, one must acknowledge that atheism is the only possible path for a woman with above average courage. If any God had carved a place for men, as they did for women, their priests would have been hanged by their bowels right from start.

      In matters of religion, and I am no feminist, women start their journey with an insurmountable ordeal. If they look away, who could blame them?

      • augustine says

        Anyone can follow a path of their own design (atheism). It takes courage to submit to something greater than yourself and strive to live under a transcendent aegis by precepts such as humility, forgiveness and charity. Even Islam, an accomplished enemy of Christendom and the West, honors these qualities. Forfeiting religion does not improve our moral condition but weakens it instead and allows other social structures to dominate us in its place.

        The dark heart that is our nature is what we seek relief from– how can that be resolved by an ego-based pseudo-religion like atheism?

        • You are lying or deluded: “humility, forgiveness and charity” do not sit well with (to take just a few examples from your book)…

          Quran (8:12) – “(Remember) when your Lord inspired the angels… “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

          Quran (8:39) – “And fight with them until there is no more fitna [disorder, unbelief] and religion is all for Allah”

          Quran (9:5) – “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.”

          Quran (18:65-81) – This parable lays the theological groundwork for honor killings, in which a family member is murdered because they brought shame to the family, either through apostasy or perceived moral indiscretion. The story (which is not found in any Jewish or Christian source) tells of Moses encountering a man with “special knowledge” who does things which don’t seem to make sense on the surface, but are then justified according to later explanation. One such action is to murder a youth for no apparent reason (v.74). However, the wise man later explains that it was feared that the boy would “grieve” his parents by “disobedience and ingratitude.” He was killed so that Allah could provide them a ‘better’ son. [Note: This parable along with verse 58:22 is a major reason that honor killing is sanctioned by Sharia. Reliance of the Traveler (Umdat al-Saliq) says that punishment for murder is not applicable when a parent or grandparent kills their offspring (o.1.12).]

          As a former Christian, now atheist, I am much happier with the concept of universal human rights than with having to bow down to some deity that does not exist but seems to want blood sacrifice.

          • augustine says

            My book? I think you misunderstood my comment. I was not exactly defending Islam.

            The problem with “universal human rights” is that no authority for its circumscription or implementation exists. How will your idea of a moral compass align with mine, or with any of the potential billions of other moralities on the planet? How is a global atheism scenario better than one of moral contests between a few larger groups? Do you believe atheism necessarily will lead to a better outcome for all? If not then for who?

            If atheism was merely a personal choice that would be ok. Instead it is actively *against* certain other beliefs rather being merely an absence of belief (as is often claimed). This makes it sound a lot like just another religion with new strictures and prohibitions.

        • Hi Augustine, I completely appreciate where you are coming from. Personally, I don’t think that religion is a force of evil, I think most religions give people strength to face life’s difficulties. I would have personally appreciated with Carland had looked at the reasons why Western feminists took a more confrontational approach to religion, the effectiveness of that approach, and its downsides and use it to discuss why the approach being taken by the Islamic feminists is better or necessarily more effective with Muslim women. She does no such thing. She merely says that the approach will not work for Muslims.

          Moreover, she doesn’t offer any references to what feminist reinterpretations of Islam constitute in practice – what do they say about women’s right in matters of marriage, clothing, relationships, inheritance, public spaces. Without any understanding of that it is hard to judge whether such feminism will be effective or not. A few of the Muslim women activists themselves sounded deeply doubtful about whether they had achieved any significant change in attitude through their work, something that Carland doesn’t explore.

          But my point is more that what option that does that leave non-Muslims with. If we see discrimination, we can’t have a dialogue because we are not discussing issues from the point of view of natural justice but from the point of view of Quranic edicts, which most non-Muslims are unlikely to know. At the same time they shouldn’t criticise, because if they do they are making the job of Muslim feminists harder because the community will give them a harder time.

          This is fine in a Muslim majority societies or theocracies. But in a multicultural society, we need to be in dialogue with each other to constantly debate our value systems. That is downside of living in a secular society that all values are up for discussion and debate. But the terms of discussion that Carland suggests only takes into consideration what works for the Muslim community, and leaves too little room for non-Muslims. Which is why the debate is suffocating both Muslims and non-Muslims.

          • augustine says

            Thanks for replying, Chetna. You write:

            “That is downside of living in a secular society that all values are up for discussion and debate.”

            I don’t think all values at this level are up for debate, nor am I sure that we (in the West, as I take your meaning) are living in secular societies. Maybe not religious societies in many big cities but ones certainly founded on persistent Christian tenets. The religious aspect is more than a vestige, as is true in “secular” Islamic countries. To suggest that all values are up for debate implies that some number of participants will submit to competing ideas or that conflict will inevitably erupt where compromise is refused. Changing values is not necessarily a recipe for peace.

            Why should non-Muslims not take the view that social or cultural issues in Muslim communities are none of our business? Do Egyptian Muslims concern themselves with the plight of Coptic Christians? Of course not. In fact they are antagonistic toward them at best. The situation in India is worse and has been ever since the arrival of Islam many centuries ago.

            The pattern of Islam is consistent: its arrival in the spirit of conquest results in submission (conversion), exodus, dhimmitude or slaughter. Where the mission could not be completed, and along frontiers with non-Muslim lands, there is constant strife and bloodshed. How to address the very real humanitarian concerns about women in Muslim societies against this backdrop?

          • It is suffocating because no one is willing to tell what Islam is.

            I see comments peppered with the most violent verses of the Quran, followed by hints along the lines ‘Christianity is much better’. As if forcefeeding crazy, absurd fairy tales would solve anything.

            In Islam, for every violent verse, there’s a peaceful one. For every path to murder, there’s a path to mercy. For every man enslaved, there’s a path to freedom. For every beaten woman, there’s a path to a happy home.

            We’re going in circle, it seems no conclusion is the right one, the logic of Islam escapes us. How could one thing and its opposite be morally right?

            There is no contradiction. The freedom to choose one thing or its opposite, is nothing more than the freedom of the oppressor.

            The Jew who pays the jizya is spared, the one who revolts is killed.

            The Christian who converts is welcome like a brother, the one who asks for equality is jailed.

            The wife who obeys her husband is a queen, the one who wants to make her own decision is repudiated.

            The gay who promises not to love another man is freed, the one caught in the act is thrown *off of the highest cliff*. Why oh why do you think Isis used rooftops?

            The tyrant, blessed by a god he made in his own image.

            But everyone is looking the other way, hoping the problem will vanish, or hit the neighbor’s house. And the Christian in this farce, where is he? He’s relishing on the few new souls who will join his death cult.

            And you think you’re safe?

  7. Thanks for this article! Would the author still recommend reading the book itself?

  8. Susan says

    The methodology, ‘reformist’ Islam and white suburban feminism of ‘Hislam’
    – or – Can you judge a book by it’s cover?

    In response to Augustine, yes the Quran does have similar potential for the equality of genders. But you won’t find it in this book.

    Observe the publisher, title, cover and text.

    The publisher: It’s pretty safe to say that this is the first ‘popular’ book ever published by the prestigious Melbourne University Press. This is a solid step down for this press, which claims to be so highly selective about its list – and an embarrassing way to represent feminism in Islam in Australia.

    The cover: A woman in a man’s cape. Superman’s cape. Could there not be a more potent symbol of Muslim women’s appropriation by the increasingly extremist, Western ‘liberal’ faction? Susan Carland and Waleed Ali do not speak for all Australian muslims. They are ‘white’ middle class feminists (here I refer to their theoretical positioning and not their skin colour) celebrities who stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the ‘diversity’ couple with Carey Bickmore, Hillary Clinton and Uma Abedin (Waleed is an outspoken supporter of ‘feminist’ Clinton, his political idol).

    The title: Fighting’ Hislam. Fighting. Hislam. Sounds like a Human Rights Watch campaign slogan. And how about appropriating ‘Islam’ with ‘Hislam.’ OMG… it’s all in the word-blend… Islam is not a man. God is not a man. The key principle of Islam is One God, immaterial, hence the absence of the priestly/brahmin cast in Islam… Islam is not in the image of a person. Susan knows this. So where’s the feminist Islam now?

    Writers do not usually get to chose the cover of their books but in this case… Susan could have, should have, would have, been a feminist Muslim and stood up for her academic and personal integrity, if it weren’t for her white feminist suburban positioning, and her determined celebrity climb to the top.

    The text: so catchy is the book, the Melbourne University Press page shows a book excerpt where Susan responds to a man who asks her about FGM:

    ‘This was not the first time a stranger had felt entitled to raise the potential religious interference of my genitals with me.’

    Let’s deconstruct the keywords:

    Felt… stranger.. raise… religious… interference… genitals.

    Here, the author deploys subversive language to belittle a male critic and reinforces stereotypes popular in the rape-culture movement… without even addressing the man’s question or comments directly in her text. So arrogant is the stance taken by the author, we never even find out what the guy said to her. She doesn’t bother to tell us.

    Using ‘genitals’ in the book excerpt has nothing to do with Islam, or defending muslim women. This is rape-culture band-wagoning and ad agency sloganeering to make a buck. It is not intelligent, and it is certainly not remotely aligned with Islam or feminist theory.

    Perhaps it is time for the academic to be more explicit about the intersectional theory she is using.

    I am an Australian, muslim woman raised in a feminist household. I find nothing in this book that is even vaguely representative of Islam, or feminism.

    The book excerpt:

    https://www.mup.com.au/books/9780522870350-fighting-hislam

    A study guide:

    http://chicagomonitor.com/2015/07/appropriating-black-asian-and-islamic-culture-for-entertainment/

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10572435/Intersectional-feminism.-What-the-hell-is-it-And-why-you-should-care.html

  9. Chetna Prakash is so live in pointing to contradictions in the postulations of Susan Carland who should look east particularly to India where Muslim women are making determined efforts to challenge Quran in interpretations and very open to dialogues on their rights.

    • Richa M says

      I wouldn’t agree that Indian Muslim women are making much of a stride in changing any aspect of their lives. They are stuck in a rut and if we are to go by Carland, they would need to find interpretations of Quran, which can fit into today’s world and is more about emancipation of women.

      They are largely far behind their non Muslim counterparts. As pointed by the author of the article , there seems to be quite a few biases and gaps in the publish. However, I would like to read the book to be able to establish more concrete views.

    • Perhaps, good doctor, you would be more convincing if you could provide
      (a) links to several independent studies which show the great strides these many thousands of Muslim women are making, and
      (b) an explanation of how they reconcile their feminism with the violent and oppressive hadiths in their Koran which their faith, unlike most others, does not permit them to change in any way.

  10. Whenever I hear someone refer to “the Muslim community”, I feel like screaming out “Christian community” or “Hindu community” or “Buddhist community”. These descriptors have little meaning in the real world. Even more meaningless is the term “non-Muslim”.

    So what can a non-Muslim get from Dr Carland’s book? Gosh, it really depends on the non-Muslim. No doubt many Muslims will disagree with her perspective, especially her emphasis on “Western” Muslim feminism (whatever that means). She may find a more sympathetic hearing from certain kinds of non-Muslims.

    Perhaps a major point of Dr Carland’s book was to dispel the idea that there is a single Muslim, a single Muslim woman, a single Western feminism and a single Muslim feminism. Maybe dealing with the finer details of family law wasn’t the point of the exercise.

    Finally, I think your remarks about whether Dr Carland’s work and methodology were worthy of a PhD say more about you than about Dr Carland. Perhaps you might wish to approach her supervisor and/or her examining panel and inquire as to why her doctorate was granted.

    • It is Susan who uses the term “Muslim community” in her book. It would be rather hard for me to review the book without using it. And if you want to scream Christian, Hindu or Buddhist community, I personally would have no problem with that.

      Actually, Susan’s book does the exact opposite of what you are saying it does. She essentialises Muslims in a way that I wouldn’t. It is Carland who quotes the American scholar Kecia Ali saying:

      “for most Muslims, “whether a particular belief or practice is acceptable” depends on “whether or not it is legitimately ‘Islamic’” This, she says, is true of Muslims everywhere, irrespective of whether they consider themselves moderate or fundamentalist, progressive or conservative. “Even many of those who do not base their personal conduct or ideals on normative Islam believe, as a matter of strategy, that in order for social change to achieve wide acceptance among Muslims they must be convincingly presented as compatible with Islam.””

      Carland doesn’t quote the above scholar to challenge its essentialism, she quotes her in support of her argument that Muslim’s women’s rights will best be fought through a theological revolution.

      I agree that it is for non-Muslims to make what they have to of her argument, which is why I wrote the piece so that we have a clear understanding of what is expected of non-Muslims according to Carland’s book.

      • You will find it suffocating, until you make the effort to answer a simple question. Why, and in which ways a muslim woman isn’t your equal.

        This is the only question feminists should look at.

        • It is suffocating because we can’t talk. If all talks are to be predicated on what is written or not written in Quran then dialogue is impossible because non-Muslims will never be experts in Islamic religious texts. For example, when questioned on women’s rights in Islam on Q&A, Yassmin Abdel Majid said we should read the Quran before we make a judgement. But I don’t need to read the Quran to discuss domestic violence anymore than Muslims need to read the Bible or the Gita. I don’t think at any point in the article I suggest they are unequal to other feminists – I just find that communications break down if I want to discuss issues on the basis of natural justice and they on whether it is allowed by scriptures or not.

          • “I just find that communications break down if I want to discuss issues on the basis of natural justice and they on whether it is allowed by scriptures or not.”

            The easy way to debunk an absurd argument, is to make it true, and look at its consequences. If Sura 4:34 is moral, then what happens? A muslim will answer ‘I’ll never beat my wife’. But that’s not the question one asks.

            There’s no escape to reading the Quran, first and foremost to understand that for a religious person, true and moral have the same meaning. Beyond that, in the Quran when two opposite arguments are moral, then violence is moral, and an oppressor always win. You must read the Quran to understand that. There’s no amount of dialog that will get you there.

            “Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport.”.

            That’s our world, we’ve let twitter and facebook ruin everything. Everyone expects to win an argument in less then 280 characters. And that’s not at all what this quote is hinting at.

            Will we have this conversation Miss Prakash?

  11. This review is interesting but appears to suffer from a false opposition: Should reform to contemporary Islamic practice be generated from within? Or, from outside?

    The answer is “Yes”.

    Not, obviously, by the same individuals, but by a multiplicity of differently situated actors engaging with totally different elements.

    There is considerable value in recognizing the challenges that outside secular intellectuals will have in making headway in influencing those within. In that, Carland appears to have done an important service.

    (For the same “service” listen to the outstanding podcast conversation on this subject between Sam Harris and the brilliant Fareed Zakaria — Waking Up #83.)

    On the other hand, there are always adherents at the margins of, or just outside, the faith that are productive interlocutors. Such folks **may** wield some limited influence with contacts they reach within the faith communities. Examples of such individuals would be Ayaan Hirsi and Sarah Haider and her “Ex-Muslims of America.”

    That said, if I had to place money on the forces with the greatest potential to achieve change within the global population of 1.3 B individuals, I’d place my money on the inside reformers and especially those, who, like the present crown prince of Saudi Arabia, may be in a position to alter systematically the global Islamic ecosystem to reduce the financial forces behind the more extreme Wahhabist variety of Islam. Overall, I’d hazard to guess that about 95% of the motive force will come from within and about 5% from outside, except for the small muslim communities living in the west, for whom the ideological influences might be something like 65% inside and 35% outside and even more from rapid structural changes such as rising education and declining family size.

    The best advice to western secular feminists would be to stop worrying about targeting specific faith communities and to focus instead on developing arguments in universal humanist terms. (Of course, that, in any case, would be incredibly welcome for an altogether broader set of compelling reasons.)

  12. C Jones says

    A related conclusion from this piece would be that muslims are unable to integrate into any non-muslim environment. If every aspect of their daily life is directed from an interpretation, then there is no possibility a host countries culture or customs or laws and so on can have influence. In other words, what on earth are western politicians thinking when they invite so many in?

    • I don’t think that is my conclusion. It is what is to be concluded by Susan Carland’s book. I would say that I have known and seen many Muslims who can find a balance between their faith and modern expectations of life. They exist. But the book is not focusing on them. Susan acknowledges that diversity exists within the community but makes a strong case for Islamic feminism which is rooted in reinterpretations of Quran. I am merely pointing out that if that were to become the primary mode of women’s rights movement in Islam, what that would mean for non-Muslims.

      • C Jones says

        Thank you for your reply.
        I agree with you there are many muslims who find a balance between faith and modern life. But it doesn’t strike me this comes from a particular interpretation of their religion, rather it appears it appears they choose not to follow certain parts of it.
        If there already existed an interpretation compatible with womens rights, homosexuality, and so on, as you suggest in your reply, then the problems you mention would not exist … So I’m left wondering, which is it?

  13. Cassandra says

    I wonder if one reason for the stalemate on this topic is that all the strictures in Islam about women are not really about women; in the end, they are a statement about men. If we shift the lens in that direction, what we find is a belief system in which men are unable to control themselves sexually against the least provocation, and are not expected to do so. The continued, and escalating, demand that women should offer less provocation has a necessary corollary belief that Muslim men are becoming less able to control themselves.

    I think the west may be far more successful engaging with Islamic practices if the focus remains on the men. We have already lost the battle on the feminist end. This PhD thesis may have been unsatisfactory, but it does state a fundamental truth: given a choice between faith and freedom, faith will win. This isn’t actually unique to Islam; it always has.

    Of course, this is not the ideal moment to say that western men are capable of controlling themselves. While I deplore the #metoo movement, the daylighting of the ludicrous conduct of the Matt Lauers, John Conyers, and Harvey Weinsteins of the west show that maybe we take a bit too much for granted. Is there, then, an inherent honesty about the nature of the male sex drive in Islam that is lacking from the belief system of the modern west? That might explain why it’s so hard to overcome with a less honest, even if superficially more satisfactory, narrative about equality and respect between the sexes.

    A narrative that we get, in large part, from movies made by…. yeah.

    Anyway, maybe frank and honest discussions about the male sex drive would eventually generate some rational lawmaking. Now that western peccadilloes are out on the table, maybe we can lose the “holier than thou” (no pun intended) mindset and ask the right questions openly.

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