By: Nadira Artyk
My relationship with Islam has never been straightforward. I grew up in Soviet Uzbekistan, hearing my grandfather recite the Koran on a daily basis. Sometimes he would translate a few verses for us. I was drawn to the beauty of the prose. I sensed a strong connection and especially admired the values of social justice, equality and generosity of human spirit.
On the other hand, I was a Soviet Young Pioneer and later a Komsomol activist. Despite all my respect and love for my pious grandfather, I saw a mismatch between his words and my reality, at least in one area – there was no equality or justice to be found in Muslim families. The superiority of men over women was deeply entrenched and never questioned.
In Soviet Uzbekistan, women were emancipated in the public sphere, but that emancipation usually ended at the doorstep to their homes. Society remained deeply patriarchal and the principal roles for women were still those of wife and mother. Any aspirations of women that went beyond the “classical” female jobs of teacher and medic were discouraged.
I came to believe that gender inequality was part and parcel of Islamic teachings. As this didn’t fit with my world view, I distanced myself from my religion and embraced secular feminism.
My return to Islam began four years ago when I started a blog for women in Uzbekistan. Together with a couple of girlfriends, we raised some highly contentious and even taboo issues – domestic violence, family vs. career, child abuse, divorce, virginity, sexuality. At one point, the blog was taken hostage by some Islamist men who left highly restrictive and extremely conservative views on every topic.
I then decided to educate myself on the original sources – the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad). That’s how I discovered progressive Islam and Islamic feminism. I came to understand that my faith had strong egalitarian messages within it; that the Koran and the Hadith, having been interpreted for 14 centuries by men, had layers of patriarchal bias stuck on them like layers of dust.
Fast forward to late October. I am attending the International Congress of Islamic Feminism in Barcelona, organized by the Islamic Council of Catalonia, and I hear stories of Muslim women from around the world who have faced similar challenges.
With the global rise of political Islam, the traditional messages of secular, Western-style feminism based on the concepts of democracy and human rights seem not to work any longer.
Feminists from Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Senegal and elsewhere confided that when they tried to educate women about their rights based on the Western human rights agenda, they were often regarded with suspicion and asked whether those principles were compatible with Islam. Women responded with far greater enthusiasm to arguments based on the Islamic teachings, to solutions to their social problems that originated from within their own faith.
Islamic feminism is a fledgling movement, but it is fast spreading its wings. Its aim is to recuperate the egalitarian voice of the Koran. Its main struggle is to uphold gender equality within families. That’s where the Muslim feminists differ from classical feminists – they say a woman will only be capable of practicing all her rights in the public sphere if her rights within her family are respected.
The Muslim feminists point out that the Koran always describes marriage as a sacred and serious pact between two equal parties. The verse about marriage, “They are your garments / And you are their garments” implies closeness, mutuality and equality.
They go to the Koran and the Hadith to demonstrate that Islam does not inherently discriminate against women, that the Islamic scriptures grant women rights to inheritance, divorce, choosing a husband, respectful treatment by the husband, and even for being fulfilled professionally outside of the family.
The concept of equality of men and women is best illustrated in the Koranic rendition of the Adam and Eve story: “Oh mankind! Be conscious of your Lord, who has created you out of one living entity, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad the multitude of men and women.”
A woman is recognized in the Koran as an equal partner in procreation. She is equal to man in the pursuit of education and knowledge; she has equal rights to make a contract, to earn and to own independently: “To men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn.”
With conservative Islam on the rise, the small and underfunded groups of feminists in Islamic societies are perceived as more radical than their secular Western counterparts.
Read the rest of this interesting article here.