Though no tradition can be considered representative of all religions, this essay will focus on Islam and whether it should be considered ‘bad’ for women’s development and the pursuit of gender equality. Although focussing on Islam, it will become clear that there is no single manifestation of this religion and, therefore, some interpret it in a way which is bad for women’s development. The recent shooting of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai for promoting the education of girls in Pakistan is one of many shocking occurrences used by the Western media to paint a sombre picture of women in Muslim countries (BBC 2012). The essay will begin by demonstrating that the literature surrounding this topic leads us to assume that there is one model of ‘women’s development’ and one model of Islam and that the two are at odds. Next, it will argue that this assumption is the result of Islamophobia and more specifically gendered Islamophobia which has increased since the September 11th attacks (Zine 2006). Gendered Islamophobia relates to the negative stereotypes presented by Western media and institutions of vulnerable veiled women (ibid.). The primary purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that Islam has been considered ‘bad for women’s development’ because it seems to contradict Western ideas about gender equality, but that this is only part of the picture. It will highlight the fact that there has been a rejection, from within Islam, of the fundamentalist Islamic perception of women. It will argue that Islam has the potential to be ‘good’ for women’s development as Muslim women have been establishing new spaces of discussion and opportunity within their religion and are fighting against the negative stereotypes placed upon them.
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In recent decades, the Western perception of Islam has been almost entirely influenced by the increase in what the West describes as ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. Although I acknowledge that views within the Western world are not uniform, the term will be used to describe the mainstream political and developmental discourses on Islam and Muslim women. ‘Fundamentalism’ is a delicate term which refers to the conservative, apparently misogynistic interpretation of the Qur’an and the enforcement of Islamic law, Shari’ah. Shari’ah has increasingly been used to justify the oppression of women in all areas of their lives and child marriage and the veil are two of the more visible examples (Othman 2006; Hopkins and Patel 2006).The conservative interpretations of the Qur’an directly oppose traditional Western development discourse, exemplified in the universal aims of the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG 3) to ‘Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women’ (United Nations date unknown a; United Nations date unknown b). Feminist notions of women’s rights based on equality between men and women are central to the development of women and bills and policies such as CEDAW and MDG 3, regardless of religion. It is clear that this Western approach is at odds with the treatment of women required by some conservative forms of Islam. This leads to the assumption that Islam, as a whole, is a definitive barrier against women’s access to human rights, such as the right to freedom, the right to education and the right to safety (United Nations 1995a) and is therefore ‘bad for women’s development’.
However, the views traditionally held by the West are criticised for a variety of reasons and are, in fact, thought to be detrimental to Muslim women. Western policy depends on a simplistic and over-generalised version of Islam based on the culturally-rooted traditions of the dominant minority which are seen as the defining feature of this religion. It therefore employs secular, feminist ideals in order attempt to free women from this supposedly patriarchal religion (Tomalin forthcoming). Although some Muslims are fighting against the veil, others challenge Western ideology and defend their right to continue with what the West would conceive as ‘radical’ Islamic practices. They claim that the Western model itself has created oppressive roles for women by reducing women to their physical appearance and they believe that they could choose to cover themselves in order to be defined by their brains, not their bodies (Afshar 2000.) They challenge the generalised Western notion that the veil is an unequivocal sign of oppression and argue instead that they are examples of a woman’s agency over how her body is to be represented, which frees them from sexual objectification (ibid.). They view any opposition to this choice as an attack on their civil liberties and human rights (Critelli 2010). Nevertheless, this approach does not challenge the root problem of the objectification of women. These women are merely resigned to the fact that gender relations will always be based on sexuality and it is up to women to sacrifice their freedom in order to be protected from men. This does show, however, just how complex Islam and Islamic culture are and highlights the need for dialogue and cooperation rather than simply viewing Islam through a western lens.
Islam is unlike religions which have developed in the West, such as Christianity, as it has no one authority that monopolises religious meaning (Barlas 2004). It is a multifaceted religion which draws on more than the culture and traditions it is famed for and the Qur’anic scriptures and legal interpretations of Shari’ah law also play crucial roles in the lives of Muslims. Islam cannot easily be conceptualised and, therefore, Western institutions fail in their attempt to do so in such a simplistic way. The absence of a critical attempt to come to terms with Islam as a heterogeneous tradition in development discourse, and the universality of bills such as CEDAW and MDG 3, deepen pre-existing inequalities and strip Muslims of their own vision of women’s rights (Bradley 2011).Traditional feminist development appears to offer no way to achieve human rights and wellbeing for women other than through the Western model, which implies that women in the West are liberated and Muslim women are trapped. This approach is destined to fail since it alienates Muslim women who may be equally against radical ideologies but are not willing to reject their religious identity (Jawad 1998). Some Muslims view traditional development as a threat to Islam and this has produced increased hostility towards Western institutions (Adamu 1999). It is counterproductive to continue to view Islam in this way, as it will only ever be portrayed as a negative force against women and prevent any meaningful cooperative action from being taken.
Although there is a tendency to misrepresent or ignore Islam in the field of development, some organisations are beginning to engage with this religion. Oxfam is a secular organisation that arranged two workshops in 2004 and 2006 to determine the opportunities found within Islam (Hopkins and Patel 2006). These workshops confirmed that the stereotypical portrayals of Muslim women as helpless victims often make them invisible in the process of development. Moreover, international human rights treaties are viewed as a display of Western arrogance and are dismissed for being culturally irrelevant and incompatible with Islam (ibid.). Therefore, Oxfam is approaching development through the eyes of the recipients and use quotes from the Qur’an to try to prove that their vision of women’s rights and equality are compatible with the teachings of Islam. In addition, the secular organisation the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Pakistan is increasingly engaging with conservative versions of religion, as they consider this the only way to truly promote change in Pakistan (Pearson and Tomalin 2007). Including Islam in their fight for women’s rights shows that they are engaging with women on their level and in a language they understand, rather than undermining their culture using Western, secular methods. Both Oxfam and WAF are open about this engagement being a strategy. However, it is not clear whether they are doing so because it is the only way to undermine the oppressive dimensions of Islam, or whether they actually believe that Islam can contribute to women’s rights. Nevertheless, it is clear that both of these organisations understand that issues of faith and gender are intrinsically linked and that to criticise Islam as ‘bad for women’s development’, would be to ignore the reality of Muslim women’s lives.
The notion of ‘Islamic feminism’ is used to describe the way in which women are using aspects of their religion to counter the Islamist patriarchal interpretations of conservative Muslims and the gendered Islamophobia these have created in the West (Kirmani and Phillips 2011). Islamic feminists reject the imposition of Western, secular approaches which they see as reflecting imperialist ideologies. They believe that they have the right to participate in an understanding of Islam and that this right to autonomy is being denied to them both by ‘fundamentalists’ and the West (Anwar 2001). Islamic feminism calls for Muslim women to reclaim their religion by reinterpreting the Qur’an in order to establish the ‘authentic’ foundations of their religion. Islamic feminism states that the patriarchal culture of pre-Islamic Arabia heavily influenced modern Islamic law and states that Islam should not be judged for the oppression caused by the traditions carried out by Muslim people, as many of these actions are also forbidden in the Qur’an. At the fourth World Conference on Women, the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first women elected to the head of a Muslim state, Benazir Bhutto (Bostan 2011), proclaimed that “Muslim women have a special responsibility to help distinguish between Islamic teachings and social taboos spun by the traditions of patriarchal society” (cited in United Nations 1995b: para. 14). Thus, it is culture, not Islam, that is bad for women and Islamic feminists are working towards a distinction of the two and are fighting for rights on their terms.
There are various versions of Islamic feminism. The first believes that Islam is not bad for the pursuit of women’s equality and uses the Qur’anic teaching to re-educate Muslims that inequality is not prescribed by their faith (Jawad 1998). Although sharing the common goal with the West of achieving equality between the sexes, these Islamic feminists have different visions of how to achieve equality as well as different motivations from conventional development, which is viewed as drenched in neo-colonialism. This type of development implies that in order to achieve equality and access to rights, Muslim women must reject their religion. However, some Islamic feminists claim that they can be a Muslim, a woman and equal. Sisters in Islam (SIS), for example, is a Muslim women’s organisation established in 1988 in Malaysia to promote the equal rights of women from within an Islamic framework (Bostan 2011). They draw from parts of the Qur’an that assert that men and women are equal and that men have no priority over access to education and that Muslims are to marry of free will, for example (Jawad 1998). Central to their mission is the belief that feminist interpretations of the Qur’an are the true Islam and they abrogate Shari’ah law on the ground that it is human derived and not divine (Mashour 2005; Ahmed-Ghosh 2008). This conviction has put SIS at the forefront of pressures to change family laws in Malaysia and in lobbying for women’s equality and rights (Bostan 2011; Ahmed-Ghosh 2008). The view that Islam is good for women and the pursuit of equality is the driving force behind SIS and, therefore, Islam cannot be dismissed for being detrimental to women as it depends on one’s definition of what Islam is.
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Another type of Islamic feminism challenges the view that equality can be achieved at all. Certain Islamic feminists believe that Western women forfeit their biologically determined roles in order to be more like men but never actually achieving equality (Afshar 2000). These feminists see the Western vision of women’s development as a flawed model and see no reason that they should adopt it. It could be argued, therefore, that striving for equality is bad for women and what is in fact needed is equity. In Iran, Malaysia and other parts of Asia, the equality versus equity debate is prominent in Islamic feminism (Ahmed-Ghosh 2008; Foley 2004). This type of feminism believes that since women are not the same as men, equality can never be achieved. Instead of the individualistic priorities of equality, which encourage the breakdown of the family, communitarian rights found in the Qur’an are deemed to grant women rights while staying true to their biologically determined roles (Foley 2004). They state that the Qur’an grants them equal but different rights, such as the right to be provided for when pregnant (ibid. Ahmed-Ghosh 2008). This type of interpretation of Islam separates what is good for women from gender equality. Therefore, if Islam is bad for equality it does not necessarily mean that it is bad for women. This version of Islamic feminism would agree with the conventional secular approach that suggests that equality can only be discussed in secular terms and not within the framework of Islam. However, this simply means that they believe that the different but equally valid pursuit of equity is needed within Islam.
Both secular and Muslim critics of Islamic feminism continue to strip Muslim women of opportunity. It is thought that the term ‘Islamic feminism’ is oxymoronic since Islam can never been in favour of women. Moghissi, for example, asks “How could a religion based on gender hierarchy be adopted as the framework for struggle for gender democracy and women’s equality?” (1999: 126). Moreover, she argues that Shari’ah law is inherently discriminatory against women and is incompatible with human rights based on equality. However, concerns such as these are based on one view of Islam, reducing it to a narrow and negative conception which will further delegitimise the progress made by Muslim women. In addition, feminist groups such as SIS call for the rewriting and modernising of Shari’ah law to include gender equality rights. Therefore, opposition to them appears negated by the incorrect assumption that Islam cannot change. In addition, if Islam is incompatible with gender equality, this simply reinforces the feminist argument in favour of equity. However, there is also a tendency to speak of Islamic feminism as if it too had only one form. Islamic feminists in general have been criticised from within Islam on the grounds that they have no right to speak about Islam because they are not properly educated in Muslim schools (Othman 2006). However, this once again discriminates against women who can never be part of the patriarchal hierarchy put in place to ensure the continued appointment of men as the deciders of this religion. There is no consensus as to “what Islam and whose Islam is the right Islam” (Anwar cited in Hefner 2001: 227) and Islamic feminists truly believe that there is a place for all interpretations of women’s rights within Islam.
This essay questioned whether the human rights promoted by CEDAW and MDG 3 should be treated as universal and the implications on women and development in Islam. This essay has demonstrated that Islam is not a static phenomenon of patriarchy and oppression and that gendered Islamophobia only serves to worsen Muslim women’s struggle. Equally, there is no unique model of what is ‘good’ for women’s development and Islam has only been perceived as ‘bad’ for women because some interpretations contradict Western discourse. Contrary to the belief that Islam is bad for women, it has been shown that Islam is also a feminist resource. Islamic feminists must be commended for rejecting fundamentalism and the dominant secular Western development discourse and fighting for rights on their own terms. They battle the culturally-created element of their religion by using the historical texts to claim and defend the rights of women guaranteed to them in the Qur’an. The varieties found within Islamic feminism and conservative interpretations are all living forms of Islam which highlight the complexity of this religion and development institutions would avoid dangerous generalisations if they accepted this complexity and engaged with, rather than dismiss, Islamic feminism. However, it is also important to understand that Islam is just one part of women’s identities. Therefore, it is vital that Muslim women are able to speak out on national and international scales in order for them to access the rights they want and deserve. It is clear that Islam is both part of the problem and part of the solution for Muslim women and, therefore, what is good for women’s development must be defined by the women themselves.
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