By Beeta Davoudi.
When women light the Shabbat candle, maybe it’s because women are the light of the house. When the Hail Mary is said, maybe it’s because Mary is the giver of faith. When women don’t have to wear white to Hajj, maybe it’s because women are devout in any colour.
There are strong cases for why the hijab is oppressive, marriage is unjust, and religion is sexist; but I’m just not convinced. I’m not convinced in the idea that a piece of cloth is oppressive, a vow is unjust, and a book is sexist. I’m not convinced because for every “helpless, submissive, incapable hijabi who is oppressed by her husband” , there is an educated, powerful, independent hijabi who 1 teaches her son to respect women. I’m not convinced because for every “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12), there is a “Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another”(Quran 3:195). But most of all, I am not convinced that this is a progressive interpretation of religion, but rather a realistic one.
Growing up in a Shia family, raised studying Kabbalah, and attending a Catholic school, I have been exposed to many different holy texts and have spent a lot of time evaluating my relationship with religion. As a woman, I never felt that when the Quran advised me to not draw attention to my body (Quran 24:30-31) it was oppressing me any more than when Teen Vogue tells me how to draw attention to it (Sarah Wu, ‘The Best Makeup Tricks to Look Better in Photos’, 2017). I never felt that any of the ‘look-we are woke, look-we love diversity’ princesses in Disney empowered me any more than the Persian Queen, Esther, who liberated the Jews in the Tanakh.
Like wealth, beauty, and intelligence, religion is merely a word, a concept, a reality which we have defined, and therefore which every one of us can also redefine. Of course the hijab is being used to subordinate women, of course marriage is used to establish the patriarchy, of course many religious texts are interpreted as justifying male superiority, but this is a projection of pre-existing societal biases and norms which have existed far before and beyond religion. And even if it were true, even if we were to say that religion is more sexist than it is egalitarian, it still leaves us with many people who have interpreted their religious texts as empowering for women. So this essentially leaves us with one question, if religious texts empower some but oppress others, then is the text itself empowering or oppressive? To this I would answer no. No series of words, and no individual word, has an inherent meaning, or any meaning beyond that which we have allocated it. And thus it is up to us, with our sexism, racism, and aporophobia, to interpret our religious texts; no surprise we manage to find in them all that we need to confirm, and thus justify, our biases.
Why, you may ask, do we need to do this? Why are you trying so damn hard to interpret Holy Texts as being deeply feminist? The answer, as always, is twofold. First, the woke middle-class white woman claiming that we need to rip off the burkas and free the nipples does very little to liberate women around the world. For many, not having to look good according to society’s standards of beauty, and just throwing an ankle-length cloth over your head, is the very definition of liberation. It means that the mind is not preoccupied in wondering if one’s butt looks good, and if it pleases another person’s sexual interest, but instead on slightly more useful things like doing well at school and with friendships. And so this heavily normative, atheist, feminist narrative is deeply homogenising the mechanisms for female empowerment into one which falls snugly within Western social norms. Second, when we look slightly beyond our white-Western-feminist eco-chamber, we realise that many women place more importance on what their religion says regarding their social rights, than on what the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) says on the matter. By making blanket-statements such as “Islam oppresses women” we are feeding into the very narratives used by those who seek male dominance. Studying any religious texts, one can draw a plethora of conclusions, one of which is that women are of greater importance than men. The only reason why the most widely understood interpretation is that men are more important than women is because the society which originally interpreted these texts had pre-existing patriarchal systems and narratives which utilised religion to reaffirm its sexist narratives, and which still exist today.
When the founder of Sisters in Islam, Zainah Anwar, went to Malaysian villages to “tell women about their rights she was confronted with questions about Islamic law: Doesn’t Islam say a man has a right to beat a woman? Doesn’t Islam say a woman must obey her husband? Doesn’t Islam say a man has a right to four wives?” (2) . Until religious texts are recognised as being fully open to interpretation, we are stuck, blindly following the narratives created by clerics from the time of their conception. Until then, women living in religious societies will blame institutionalised sexism on Holy Texts, rather than the patriarchal systems which defined them as such. Until then, many women will remain complacent to society’s sexism, believing that it was ordained to them by their God. And of course, until then, the husband will beat his wife in the name of God.
You may say that Eve created original sin, but I say she was the founder of free will. You may say that Mary Magdalene was adulterous, but I say she was the first to see Jesus resurrect. You may say that Khadija was an obedient follower of her husband’s religion, but I say she was a sugar mama.
1 The use of speech marks is to emphasise the fact that this is a very harmful narrative, and by no means what I believe.
2 Elizabeth Segran, ‘The Rise of the Islamic Feminists’, 2013, The Nation