The Gender Jihad

Inside the Gender Jihad is the title of a book by Professor Amina Wadud, who has become quite controversial in recent years following her assertion that Islam does not prohibit female Imams from leading a mixed congregation in prayer. My point is not to go into this particular issue, but look at the much wider challenges that confront discussions of gender roles among Muslims. Let’s be honest, when we say ‘gender roles’, we mean ‘women in Islam’ – perhaps one of the most controversial and sensitive (and tired) topics in debates concerning Muslims today. So why is a bloke writing about gender issues? Because as with any true ‘jihad’, this is really about justice – and that makes it everyone’s concern.

Many Muslims are quick to point out that in terms of ‘the rights of women’ – early Islam emancipated women by recognising the agency of females – the right to own property, to inherit wealth, to enact marriage, to keep one’s name, to have a political voice, etc. long before these rights appeared in the West. But the debate has now moved far beyond this point. The reality is that over the last hundred years the position and status of women in Western societies has changed beyond recognition. So the challenge is really to compare the realities as they stand today for both Muslims and others, notwithstanding the progress that still needs to be made (in the West) in terms of greater equality – for example in pay, leadership roles or glass ceilings in employment.

The abuse of women in the name of Islam or Muslim culture simply cannot be denied. Whether we look at general chauvinistic attitudes, difficulties in marriage, domestic violence, being squeezed out of the public arena, or even something as fundamental as lack of access to education in some parts of the world, and the list could go on. Muslim women are not allowed into many mosques in the UK, let alone lead the prayers. And for all this, we seem to have established quite ‘understandable’ explanations – culture, tradition, honour, respect. In a bizarre distortion of the teachings of Islam, women have been seen by some as a ‘fitna’ (a test) and essentially therefore a source of evil, or on the other hand as lacking any true agency and therefore almost childlike, to be ‘looked after’. Yet the language of the Qur’an is of partnership, using the metaphor that men and women are “…as garments unto each other”.

So if the early history of Islam was so progressive, what went wrong? Clearly something has. Academics such as Fatima Mernissi, and more recently Asma Barlas and Wadud, have articulated what some now think of as a burgeoning Islamic feminist critique of Muslim history as well as modern patriarchal structures. But this is not just a recent endeavour – Qasim Amin wrote Tahrir al-Mar’ah (the Liberation of Women) in 1899. The whole debate raises some very challenging questions. Where have our established notions of gender roles actually come from? Can Muslims accept calls for equality that go beyond a mere acknowledgment of ‘equity’? Could it be that – as is widely acknowledged in the gradual abolition of slavery or the struggle against tribalism – what the Prophet (s) initiated was a social movement that was designed to run its course long after his life? If so, then at least two important points need acknowledgement: firstly, that while the revelation of Islam is complete in the Qur’an, the teachings of Islam and how we understand them must always evolve with time and grow with every generation if these teachings are to have eternal relevance. Secondly, that our understanding of how gender relationships work – as social constructs – will always change, as the roles and responsibilities of men and women evolve with time. The emancipation signalled by early Islam was the beginning, and not the end, of the process.

Wherever the theoretical debates on this go, the reality on the ground is changing rapidly, and in a compelling way. In the UK Muslim girls are now better educated than their male counterparts, many of whom often struggle in the school system. At times of economic uncertainty and with the earning potential of females becoming higher than males in the next generation, a potentially very important shift in family and gender dynamics is about to happen. We had better get ready for it!

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