What does it mean to champion women’s rights and identify oneself as a feminist? Though it appears simple and easy to answer, this question is anything but that. This is especially so for a practicing believer. A quick Google search on this topic will generate results like “This is how Islam led the world with women’s rights”; “Women’s Rights in Islam”; “5 Rights Islam Gave Women Before Western Feminism Did”; “How Islam Confirms Women’s Rights”; and “Women’s Liberation through Islam”. There is even a whole Wikipedia page titled “Islamic Feminism”. The general aim behind this discourse, despite its diversity, inconsistencies, and conflicts within its advocates on what it means to be a Muslim feminist and what Muslim women want, is to respond to Western critiques against what is deemed to be an oppressive religion towards women. The problem, however, is in the inherent impossibility of answering the proverbial question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” in a way that would not only satisfy the critics without tacitly incriminating oneself, but also while being consistent with Islamic values and cosmology within a paradigm that rejects the Unseen.
We live in a postmodernist age of feelings. Like feminism, postmodernism is hard to give a definition to, which ironically tells you something about this philosophy and what it stands for. If you review the literature in search for a unifying theme, you will find the diversity of thought that falls under the category of “postmodernism” quite overwhelming. That is until you realize what underlies these differences is a single unifying belief – that there is no such thing as absolute Truth. What you have are opinions and points of view. No belief can claim to have authoritative validity in relation to others. What you have are perspectives, and they are all equivalent in their claim to authority, and it becomes a matter of who is in a position of power to determine what is authoritative. It is from this that we get the concept of structures of thought determining the narratives they draw their powers from, and Michel Foucault’s archeological method which negates logic and grammar as the ultimate arbiters of what language really means.
Let us take Islam as an example to see how this plays itself out. A traditional way of approaching scholarly texts assumes that the authority of rulings and interpretations put forth depends on factors related to the educational pedigrees and peer testimonials of scholars who evaluate these texts using academic criteria. It is focused on the logical structure and coherence of the text and conclusions of the author based on scriptural evidence to support it where needed. In a way, scholarly work is nothing but commentary on Scripture. Historical and cultural contexts are heeded to the extent that they inform our understanding of what these scholars were writing about, but they do not determine their truth-value. In this view, historical development and cultural differences informed, rather than determined, how legal theory and rulings developed and progressed over time. This does not mean that it has always worked that way in every instance. One can point to cases where this idealistic approach was not followed. However, it is how Islam has been and continues to be traditionally engaged with in a general sense.
A postmodernist approach on the other hand does not even allow for logical structure to rise to the level where it can be seriously considered. It is simply ignored. Instead, the text is approached with the assumption of it being a necessary product of social and political power dynamics, the type of which to be most concerned about in the case of those interested in women’s issues is patriarchy. In this view, rulings that differ between men and women in Islam are not a product of interpretation of Revelation, but a product of men deciding what Revelation says in a way that would privilege them. They are inherently oppressive. Therefore, having elevated the subjective experience and rejected objective measures in the postmodernist approach, being men automatically excludes male scholars from being able to issue rulings that could be considered authoritative for women. This is not about women scholars being able to reveal dimensions of meaning that men could miss due to differences in their respective experiences in the world (the same could also be said about men being able to reveal dimensions of meaning missed by women). Rather, the postmodernist approach negates anything men would say about Scriptural meaning because they cannot transcend their structure of thought. Remember, logic and grammar do not have a role to play here. One can even say that logic and grammar are part of the patriarchy, and they too must be dismantled. It is hard to see what is the point of having Scripture if one adopts such an approach to it. At most, it might serve an aesthetic function.
This points out a more fundamental problem with elevating the subjective over the objective in the approach to the Islamic tradition. Pushed to its logical end, assuming that differences in rulings between men and women are products of patriarchy and as a consequence oppressive to women entails accusing the Beloved ﷺ, being a man, to have engaged in such behavior. The only way to avoid this charge and square the circle (or circle the square – we would not want to privilege one shape over the other after all) where these postmodernist concepts of patriarchy and feminism are projected onto the past, is to either reject narrations as inauthentic, and if that is not tenable to historicize them so as to restrict their authority to a certain time and place. In this case another problem arises as Islam is by implication no longer a complete religion valid for every time and every place. That is the conundrum of using postmodernist concepts in approaching the Islamic tradition. Somehow one has to eat their cake and have it too.
The role of the intellect for a postmodernist is not to find Truth. They have already discarded such notions as fiction. What is called “Truth” is nothing more than a product of relationships that give rise to social institutions and concepts, which serve those who stand to benefit from them. There are no objective Truths here. Rather, there are accidents of circumstances. This begs the question about the role of the intellect and rationality. Foucault tells us that the intellect should be employed to problematize conditions under which we live. As he put it in The Use of Pleasure, thinking is “the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimizing what is already known.” [emphasis mine]
In the modern age, if you are not engaged in an intellectual exercise of deconstruction with the intent of destruction, you are not intelligent. Hence, we get the view of a believer in God, the Messengers, and tradition, as one who is irrational and under the iron grip of blind faith. The practice of authentically transmitting the Quran, the Sunnah of the Beloved ﷺ, and what Muslim scholars who were deemed authoritative over time have penned down is seen as the activity of a stagnant community that refuses to progress. In the case of Muslim women, for example, deciding to follow the hijab or niqab rulings is not a rational act rooted in reflection over what the Quran, the Hadith, and scholars interpreting these sources have said, followed by personal conviction, but an act of a woman brainwashed into defending her own subjugation and oppression.
Though calling for equality between men and women appears noble at first glance, as it resonates with our innate sense of justice, the concept of the equality being advocated needs to be parsed out to ensure that it does not entail a call for oppression. We must get beyond the captivating power of such words upon our sensibilities so as to not commit an injustice in our attempts to reach justice. When we speak of equality between men and women, at least two questions must be answered: what type of equality are we talking about? and what is the standard that we will use to confirm such equality has been achieved? To give a weightlifting analogy, every healthy person can go to the gym and train to become fit and strong. But how much volume and weight can be handled differs between people depending on how long and how often they train and their nutrition, factors which are under their control to a large degree, and on their biophysical makeup, which is limited by their genetics.
In weightlifting competitions, competitors are divided by weight and sex. The reason for this should be obvious. If you want to compare relative strengths, you need to establish weight classes where competitors are comparable. You also need to divide them by sex because differences in average skeletal structures and bone densities, result in different biomechanics that automatically, on the whole, advantage males over females in physical performance. Unless we are looking for pure inconsequential entertainment, it would be unjust to set up a competition where none of these categories exist. Even our desire for amusement has a limit here, or otherwise we would accept to watch a boxing match between a man and a woman, a sight I can safely assume no sane person would advocate for.
If we mean by equality that men and women are the same, the Qur'an asserts otherwise. Before the birth of the Virgin Mary her mother, believing that she would give birth to a boy, had vowed to devote what she had in her womb to God’s service in the temple:
“When the wife of Imran said: My Lord! Surely, I vow to You what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Your service); accept therefore from me, surely You are the Hearing, the Knowing. So, when she brought forth, she said: My Lord! Surely, I have brought it forth a female — and God knew best what she brought forth—and the male is not like the female, and I have named her Maryam, and I commend her and her offspring into Your protection from the accursed Satan.” [3:35-36]
Unless equality is equivocated with sameness, declaring that “the male is not like the female” should not be controversial. Indeed, on face value most people would acknowledge and even accept this. However, actions speak louder than words. When the current discourse on gender equality and social engineering propositions to establish it are examined closely, declaring that men and women are inherently different is blasphemous in a world where education and public platforms are dominated by liberalism for an ideology and philosophical naturalism for a faith. In fact, this Quranic declaration is nonsensical within such a paradigm, because the male and the female are not merely matters of biology in Islamic cosmology. What we call “man” and “woman” are material manifestations of the created duality referred to in the Quran where God says, “And that He created the pair, the male and the female” [53:45], which act as vehicles in this world to manifest the duality of Divine Attributes, those of Majesty coming forth predominantly in the masculine form, and those of Beauty dominating in the feminine form. It is balance between the masculine and feminine that should be sought to create harmony, not sameness.
Sameness implies oneness, and oneness is God’s alone. Sameness implies self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency is God’s alone. Sameness implies completeness, and completeness is God’s alone. Creation on the other hand is the beautiful and diverse spectrum of deficient multiplicities that arise out of the initial paired duality. Each side of the paired duality is deficient in ways that render it unstable and in a state of constant anxiety until its deficiencies are complemented by the other side. That is the indication given in the verses recited at Muslim weddings:
“And from among His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves so that you may find tranquility in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” [30:21]
The first act of oppression towards men and women is to disconnect them from their metaphysical sources and treat them as nothing but physical bodies. The second act of oppression comes in the assumption that they can be compared with the impossible goal of achieving sameness. Moreover, given the irrational belief in philosophical naturalism that dominates popular intellectual discourses, and the power dynamics emphasized by postmodernists, there is no real independent standard that can be applied to make a comparison, in the true sense of the word, between men and women possible. Instead, what we have is an evaluation of women’s achievements based on masculine metrics.
If we reflect on why this comparison is even made in the first place, we will come to realize that it stems from another problem. Ever since the Industrial Revolution and what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, human beings have been stripped of their essence and reduced to being nothing more than primates who by sheer evolutionary randomness happen to gain this curious ability to communicate through more complex language than bonobos and chimps in a way that allows us to share knowledge and give rise to culture and civilization. It is all an accident and although leading intellectuals of this age talk about human dignity and human rights, in reality it is all sophist rhetoric without a transcendent basis to justify it or even the practice to confirm it. The value of the human being in this paradigm is not because of something essential to them that we call "humanity". Indeed, there is no such thing. The real value of a human being in a materialist culture focused on production and consumption is in what an individual can contribute to that bottom line.
Men were the initial victims of this because they were the ones who went out to work. It was not until men accepted to go kill each other in modern warfare at a mass scale in service of old demons who mobilized them in the name of nationalism that factories needed to tap into the female population to keep factories running. In addition, industries were created to advance this new value system where women with children went to work to make money that they then gave to a stranger to take care of their children. The historian Stuart Ewen highlights this in his book Captains of Consciousness where he writes:
“The advancement of consumerism touched on the intimacies of social life, as industry worked to forge a new definition of the family which would mesh with the gears of the productive machine. By the 1920s family life had become contested ground – eroded by increasing divorce, its authorities under fire from the women’s movement; people felt that what had once sustained an active social life was becoming ineffectual and often painful. The demarcation of what the family should be through advertising represented an attempt at recomposition – redefining family roles so as to bring them in tune with the rhythms of the age.”
Two of the casualties to this age of production and consumerism were education and motherhood. Rather than being sought for the sake of increasing one’s knowledge and level of erudition in order to mold oneself into a more refined human being, the goal of education has been redefined in terms of its practical utility as defined by capitalist ends. Furthermore, given that the value of the human being in the modern age is based on what they can produce in service of the greater capitalist machine, anything that detracts from realizing one’s full productive potential is perceived as an obstacle. Thus, motherhood is not an honored state of being but a hindrance to a woman’s career progress and potential earnings that she could pump back into the machine as a consumer. This is readily palpable in reactions a woman might receive if she declares she decided to quit her career in order for her to focus on raising the children. This is especially so for women who attained higher levels of education and chose to spend their days looking after their children instead of contributing to some company’s bottom line. They are made to feel guilty for having "wasted" their years and their degrees. Think about what is being really said here for a second: children benefiting from having a highly educated mother dedicate her time and knowledge to them are a "waste of her education".
The sanctity of motherhood in Islam cannot be overstated. How do you think Prophets and Messengers came into this world? God could have sent angels, but He chose to send men. Moreover, God could have created them without involving the biological sequence of events we are all familiar with, but that was not the case. To come into this world Prophets and Messengers had to enter through the gate of mercy we call the womb, ar-Ra’him, which lies within the woman. Not only that, but just in case we got confused and thought men were indispensable in this process, God's Word Jesus Christ peace be upon him was brought as a sign. God does not create in vain and among the lessons to be learned from Christ’s birth is the status of motherhood. Women are the gateways of God’s mercy and revelation to this world.
The Merciful, ar-Rahman, is the predominant Divine Attribute of God, which shares the same root letters in Arabic for the womb. The misguided quest to achieve sameness based on masculine standards established by a consumerist culture that rejects the Unseen does not only desacralize motherhood, it is also an active attempt at closing off the gate of mercy to the world. It places an undue burden on the woman who feels the impulse to claim that status, either through biology or adoption, by making her experience guilt for her feelings, and lays out an expectation to ignore them in favor for material pursuits that are euphemistically called achievements and are celebrated by a culture that negates her feminine essence. Furthermore, negation of the feminine and evaluation of women’s success based on male standards established in the modern age, which are not necessarily rooted in Islam, have led to a transgression of the balance being referred to in the Quran as part of God’s creation:
“And the heaven, He raised it high, and He made the balance. That you may not transgress the balance. And keep up the measure with equity and do not make the balance deficient.” [55:7-9]
As the old Arabic proverb goes, “Everything that goes beyond its limit turns against it.” Without a manifestation of the feminine to counterbalance and temper the masculine on the scale as God had placed it in the world, toxic masculinity is the natural consequence. In such a world that lacks harmony between the masculine and the feminine, and where the origin of each essence is negated, men and women become nothing more than physical bodies with contrasting reproductive systems and slightly different biophysiologies. What is referred to as toxic masculinity today is a result of ongoing efforts to erase the feminine. Instead of men and women manifesting the Divine Attributes of Majesty and Beauty in harmony, they become animals whose sole purpose is the production, collection, and consumption of material things until the dirt of the Earth consumes their bodies. Before they get buried under that dirt, they try to put their reproductive systems to use to produce more of their kind to keep this terrestrial cycle going. During this time of production and consumption, concepts of masculinity and femininity take dimensions of meaning devoid of their Divine sources, focusing on terrestrial manifestations of dominance for the male in all its forms, and of sexualization for the female in all its uses. That cannot be called being human.
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