Islam and women: A small step forward
Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, the official body that runs all Turkish mosques, has just realized its fifth Congress on Religious Publications. The Ankara-based meeting, which drew Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, ended with a declaration on advancing women’s rights. Acknowledging the problem of misogyny in the Islamic tradition, Professor Mehmet Görmez, the head of the directorate, tied the trouble to tradition rather than religion.
That is in fact a point made by many modern Muslims, but the directorate’s declaration was a bit bolder than some, explicitly acknowledging misogynist statements do exist in “Islamic literature... in the books of tafseer, hadith and fiqh.”
If those three terms sound like Chinese to you, here is a glossary: Tafseer means interpretation of the Quran by learned scholars. Hadiths are saying and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. And Fiqh is the tradition of jurisprudence within Islamic law, a.k.a. the shariah.
It was notable that the directorate accepted in all these sources, “There are some wrong, incomplete, biased interpretations that do not reflect the general principles of our noble religion.” Not everything you read in an “Islamic” source, in other words, is really Islamic in the sense of being divinely mandated. Some of them, Görmez explained, simply “reflect the socio-cultural conditions of their time.”
As an example of misogyny in Islamic tradition, Görmez noted the “mythologies with regards to the creation of women.” He pointed to “the rhetoric of weakness and deficiency in women, or the accusation of deception and seduction.”
In my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” I, too, had given examples of this misogynist deviation in Islam. For instance, the Quran presents a version of the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace for tasting the forbidden fruit but, unlike the Old Testament, it doesn’t portray Eve as the deceiver. In fact, Adam receives the divine reproach. But in the Quranic commentaries written after the third century of Islam, Eve started to receive the blame. This occurred at the same time that dozens of new Hadiths appeared, defining women as cunning, insidious, and immoral creatures.
It is of course commendable that the directorate, the top official authority on Islam in Turkey, acknowledges such problems. Civil Islamic opinion leaders have also voiced similar comments over the years. Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual guide of a million-strong movement, suggested that in the face of cruel husbands who are prone to domestic violence, Muslim women should learn karate or judo: “So if their husbands hit, they can hit back better!”
However, not everybody in Turkey’s Islamic camp is happy with such “feminist” ideas. Opinion leader and columnist Ali Bulaç, who is ultra-conservative on such cultural issues, recently wrote a series of pieces criticizing the directorate for calling on women “to leave the house.” The emancipation of Muslim women, Bulaç also argued, is a Western imperialist project against Islam and even “the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan.”
In other words, Muslims should not emancipate their women, because this is precisely what the West asks for.
This line of thinking represents a large audience in the Muslim world, who criticize more progressive voices for “taking the West as their guide.” However, these ultra-conservative Muslims seem to have taken the West as their guide, too, only in reverse: They just look at what the West says, and do exactly its opposite.
However, being a Muslim implies one should have his own principles. And the degradation of Muslim women fits into no principle. It just fits into patriarchal machismo, whose latest refuge in “anti-imperialism” cannot really hide its true intentions.