A friend recently sent me this article written by Ida Lichter, author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression. She presents the argument that the misogyny found in some Muslim communities are the result of culture rather than scripture. Here’s an excerpt:
However, many Muslims say culture, not religion, is the real issue. This is not simply a theoretical concern but relevant to the urgent search for reform within Islam.
In many Muslim societies, Islamic law deems women inferior to men. A woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man, and her independence is restricted by seclusion in the home, laws of guardianship by male kin, polygamy and unilateral divorce.
Women are compelled to marry Muslim men and can be beaten by their husbands if they misbehave. Many secular women reformers insist these restrictions, derived from holy texts, are inimically hostile to women’s rights. To effect change, they say, Islam must be transformed rather than reformed and civil law should evolve from the people, not religion. Some such activists have been labeled heretics and agents of the West, incurring death threats from violent Islamists.
However, Muslim women reformers say culture is the problem, and like Zainah Anwar, intrepid Malaysian activist of Sisters in Islam, they add that, “the law might be divine but the interpretation is human.”
These women contend authentic Islam is egalitarian and early Islam ended female infanticide and brought women freedoms such as property rights.
There is little doubt that culture has played a role in the subjugation of women while claiming religious grounds for patriarchal practices when there are none. However, moderate and liberal Muslim reformers also fail to recognize the existence of contextual proofs for many of the practices that are discriminatory to women.
It is explicit within the Quranic texts that women’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, that the male has guardianship over her, that the male may engage in polygamy, that he may beat her as a last resort for her disobedience and that she will recieve half of her parents inheritence. While there does exist some engaging, if not convincing apologia regarding the validity and meaning of these verses, the fact remains that the verses exist and are at the core of the problem.
Islam did provide rights to women that were not previously available to women. However, some Muslim feminists and intellectuals are challenging that claim and as an example, Khadija did quite well as a successful and strong woman before the coming of Islam. But no argument can be complete without balancing some of the more problematic verses with the general spirit of justice inherent in Islam. Our current religious doctrine does not leave any room for honest exegetical criticism of the Quran. Most Muslims believe the Quran is the unchanging, verbatim word of God and how can one argue with that? It’s not surprising that the scales lean more heavily toward the literal embodiment of the text, rather than an acceptance of the overall message. And this will always be problematic for women.
It’s not enough to claim that culture is the sole problem. Those looking to reform Islam and Muslim communities must tackle the verses head on and engage in an honest discussion of their meaning and their place within our modern societies.