Does Islam Oppress Women?

Among secularists, Islam has a nasty reputation. And nowhere is this clearer than when the issue is the status of women. It’s hard to generalize about more than a billion people who identify themselves as Muslim. Nevertheless, Muslims tend to have a patriarchal orientation. And the more observant, the more orthodox the Muslim, the greater the chances that they will adopt a traditional view of gender roles. Conservative Muslims favor female subordination in the family and the public sphere, and prefer a more-or-less sex-segregated way of life.

So if we’re critics of the social role of religion, particularly Islam, we will often suspect that Islam oppresses women. It would seem that conservative Muslims relegate women to a second class status. Islamic law and Muslim institutions—both religious institutions and state institutions influenced by religion—enforce female subordination. If we are universalist in our moral outlook, we will find this unacceptable. We might, for example, say that conservative Islam violates the human rights of women, and that we need to take a stand against this.

Usually, the case for Islam oppressing women is strengthened by arguments that Islamic practices actively harm women. Such arguments usually come with illustrations showing how in an Islamic environment, women’s freedoms are curtailed and women are even physically harmed with disturbing regularity. For example, check out Maryam Namazie’s writings and speeches, where she often drives her point home with horror stories that regularly occur under Islamist regimes. She draws our attention to young women who are executed in states enforcing strict Islamic law, where the “crimes” they are punished for strike liberal Westerners as minor sexual transgressions, or not even any transgression at all. She describes how women are forced into veils to protect men from sexual temptation, how even simple travel for women must always happen under the control and consent of male guardians, how the sancrosanct nature of the Muslim family translates into ignoring or even condoning domestic violence, how women bear the inconveniences and restrictions implied by sex-segregated public domains. And she emphasizes the intimidation brought to bear on women: for example, how women do not have a real option of discarding the veil because of immense family and community disapproval that is impossible to escape from. Even if a woman were to take advantage of the anonymity in a Western city, if she were prepared to pay the price of severing family and community ties, she still may have to fear male relatives hunting her down to punish her betrayal of a God-given moral order. For Namazie, conservative, especially political Islam represents a regime of gender apartheid.

Now, some of these horror stories need to be taken with a grain of salt. Every political ideology has a store of graphic tales that exploit human psychology to rally the troops and put a personal face on the evils they oppose. Secularism is no different in this respect. So there is some reason to ask if an emphasis on especially nasty cases distort our perception of life among Muslims, or whether such tales need to be put in a different context to understand them properly. Still, I would argue that the thrust of secularist horror stories need to be taken seriously. Certainly, these are extreme examples. Nonetheless, far too many are real, and they illustrate significant devices of social enforcement. Uncommon events of violence can work very well for intimidating large numbers of women. The streets do not need to run with blood for women to fear the consequences of transgressing an Islamic moral order.

Moreover, feminist criticisms of male domination go far deeper than horror stories appealing to moral intuitions. Feminists criticizing Western religions and social institutions have emphasized structural and cultural barriers to equality, and persuaded most liberal-minded people that female subordination is an injustice that can be remedied. Much of this analysis carries on into the Islamic context, even allowing for important cultural and historical differences. According to most current feminist and humanist conceptions of justice, most varieties of Islamic culture have not been friendly to women.

This is not an easy conclusion. Given the history of Western colonialism, with its superficial judgments about the moral inferiority of different cultures, given the remaining legacy of racism, and given the Western habit (going back to the days of Christendom) of defining the “West” in opposition to a demonized image of Islam, we have to be careful when charging Islam with misogyny. At the least, together with secularist critics such as Namazie, we have to listen to some oft-encountered counterarguments.

One view, popular among modern-minded, Western-influenced Muslims and liberally religious Westerners alike, is that whatever unfortunate characteristics traditional Islam or present forms of political Islam may possess, they do not represent True Islam. Islam is a religion of peace, justice, and respect for other religions; instances of oppressing women can only be perversions of the true message of the Prophet.

I do not find this persuasive. The notion of a “True Islam” is a myth; in this case, a myth deployed for blatantly apologetic purposes. It is very easy to agree that peace, justice, and respect are good things, but such vague concepts are not very helpful in dealing with very real conflicts of interest. “Justice” for a Western feminist and a political Islamist has serious differences as well as overlaps. Speaking of justice without giving it content—content that will always be controversial—is just evading the political debate. Moreover, even if we were to accept the notion of a True Islam of peace and justice, this does very little to help us respond to actually existing understandings of Islam. Less-than-feminist versions of Islam are by far the most influential and they also insist that they carry the flag for True Islam.

Another common view is sometimes called “cultural relativism” and strongly denounced by moral universalists such as Namazie. In the name of anticolonialism, antiracism and so forth, some political thinkers, especially on the Left, are inclined to say that we should respect and not interfere with people’s cultures. By liberal Western standards, many attitudes and actions endorsed by conservative Muslims would be considered affronts to human dignity. But if people identify with a Muslim community, then their standards will be different, and it is no business of Westerners to tell them otherwise. In situations such as large Muslim communities living in Europe, Westerners will have to adjust their public lives to accommodate the freedom of Muslims to identify with their community and to communally live according to their religion.

I find the cultural relativist option evasive at best; Namazie goes farther and strenuously denounces it. Indeed, it is hard to avoid an echo of Western superiority in what is ostensibly an effort to avoid ranking cultures. Where Westerners are concerned, we are persuaded by the injustice of Western forms of female subordination, and we take action to prevent this injustice. Muslims, however, simply by respect of their being Muslims, end up excluded from a similar moral concern. It is as if we care for those like us, but not Muslims. If secularists stand against church-based attempts to publicly establish patriarchal gender roles, we should be able to take the mosques on as well.

More to the story?

So it would appear that there is a good case that at least the dominant conservative forms of Islam oppress women. Perhaps liberal-minded, secular people should oppose at least certain public manifestations of Islam.

But now, I have to confess some ambivalence. And the reason is th

at again, we have to be careful about condemning other cultures, and we have to listen to counterarguments. And we have not, perhaps, been careful enough in listening to Muslim women who wholeheartedly endorse a strongly Islamic way of life.

Listening to women who live a stereotypically Islamic life is especially important if we’re going to throw around terms such as “gender apartheid.” The vast majority of South African blacks under the apartheid regime would have, presumably, agreed that they were being oppressed, provided they could express their views under conditions that protected them from retaliation. Is this true for conservative Muslim women? Note that I speak of conservative Muslim women—not women who might argue that a lifestyle less grating on Western feminist sensibilities is compatible with True Islam as they see it. In other words, women who wear the veil in public, who live in a highly sex-segregated environment, who are often subject to male guardianship. What do they think?

Lately this question has become even more interesting, with moderate Islamist politics (of the democratic populist rather than the violent revolutionary variety) enjoying success throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, political Islam is only part of a larger story of Islamic revival. Among most Muslim populations, past decades have seen increased orthodoxy, more public demonstrations of faith by means such as Islamic clothing, and a self-consciously Islamic identity recieving more emphasis. Large numbers of young women take the veil, very often insisting that this is what their deepening piety and knowledge of Islam demands.

This is not exactly a reawakening of traditional attitudes: the assertive young veiled women are not peasants and do not dress like their grandmothers. Many have a modern, “born again” style of faith. And they are often politically active. Islamist politics usually finds plenty of support among non-elite women; some Islamist parties have been especially noted for organizing among women. Though remaining subordinate to males, Islamist women have been able to achieve secondary leadership and spokesperson positions as well as being active in the base. They tend to claim domesticity as the primary sphere for the devout woman, while insisting that women can also have a place in public and work life, as long as the Islamic proprieties are observed. They might, for example, support segregating the sexes at work, and insist on establishing women-only bus services to protect women from unwanted male contact while commuting.

The veil is also, for many modern Muslims, an especially potent symbol of Muslim identity. Veiling receives plenty of community support, and young women who adopt the veil very often describe themselves as proudly standing up for their belief in God. Indeed, modern Muslim women most often bring up piety as the reason for wearing the veil. They are devout, and they freely and gladly submit to God’s prescriptions for proper female behavior. They may even use a modern moral language, insisting that they did not bow to family or community pressure but made a personal choice. After all, they decided that they needed to learn more about their religion, and actively consulted sources such as books before deciding that the veil was God’s will for them.

Naturally, religious obedience is accompanied by more pragmatic reasons to endorse a conservative Muslim vision of sex roles. Many women feel more comfortable in a Muslim environment. A veil, for example, serves as a signal of devoutness and conservative morality; it can work well in warding off male advances. It can be a portable curtain, so that irrelevant sexual issues do not interfere with work and other public life. In other words, many women are convinced that aside from pleasing God, conservative Muslim attire and attitudes serve female interests. They would rarely go so far as to justify instances of violence as in the secular horror stories; instead, they insist that the solution to problems such as domestic violence is more Islam, not less. It is precisely the mindless hedonism, morally unconstrained individualism, and lack of religious restraint of modern secular societies that is the real danger. When a woman actively supports a more conservative Islamic community, she expects the men in the community to act more according to pious standards as well. A proper Muslim man, after all, would not engage in domestic violence on a whim. While enjoying final authority in the family, he would be protective, not oppressive; submissive to God, not tyrannical toward other submitters. And this is not just pious hope. Conservative Muslim women work to strengthen local Islamic community, which can exert pressure on men to conform to a moral ideal. Governments, if they are guided by Islam, will also strengthen the moral ambiance of Islam.

So it becomes hard to make a blanket statement that women are oppressed by Islam, when women are among the strongest supporters of an Islamic social order. Certainly, Muslim populations also include many women who think otherwise. Many Westernized women among the middle and upper classes of Muslim societies have enjoyed their freedom from a conservative Muslim order. Quite a few are appalled at how current trends in the Muslim world have turned against what they consider social progress—such women are among the most eloquent speakers against the dangers of political Islam. They do not, however, speak for all. They tell horror stories about young women forced into veils, but for perhaps larger numbers of women, the horror stories concern women who are forced to unveil due to secularist policies.

If not oppression, then what?

In light of a large proportion of the allegedly oppressed strenuously disagreeing with such an assessment, and even recoiling with horror from a secular Western way of life, I think we have to back off from saying that Islam oppresses women. We should be wary about language such as “gender apartheid,” because the analogy is weak.

This does not, however, mean that secularists should not vigorously oppose conservative Muslim politics. We can still, upon reflection, and all things considered, decide that we want nothing to do with a conservative Islamic way of life. We can determine that we will strongly oppose any intrusions by religious politics in places where we enjoy a more secular public order.

One possible approach begins by noting that the problem presented by Islam is not entirely new for feminists. After all, family-values cultural conservatism in the name of female interests is not confined to Muslims. (Just think “Concerned Women for America.”) And feminists have long been aware of how women very often oppose changes in their subordinate status if they decide such changes may upset a public order that serves many of their interests. Women are often the enforcers of traditional sexual morality and female subordination in their communities. Feminists are able to acknowledge all this and yet find themselves able to argue for a very different moral order.

Still, all such arguments draw heavily on Western historical experience, appeal to liberal moral sensibilities, and are most easily accepted by those of us who are content with a modern secular way of life. Moral universalism, such as insisting on human rights for all, seems very attractive as a way of putting some backbone into our moral convictions, of claiming some objective truth to our judgments that goes beyond defending merely our interests. But I do not think this works: moral universalism does not ring true. We need to move toward a more morally pluralistic stance, acknowledging that there are many conflicting ways of life that successfully claim the allegiance of their adherents, many constellations of interests that successfully reproduce themselves and enjoy long term stability. If we favor secular liberalism and oppose conservative Islam as a social order, we do this be

cause of our culture, our identity, our interests. This does not prevent us from sympathetically considering other points of view, or even changing our mind. If we are lucky, we can find overlapping areas of interest and act accordingly. In other cases, we may just have to acknowledge that many Muslims have a different allegiance, and that this can make good sense from their point of view. But that does not translate into paralysis, unless we forget that we also have worldly interests, including interests in cultural reproduction. What we do not have is a secular equivalent of God-given universal moral truth.

Moral pluralism also need not translate to a policy of non-interference. Any social interaction involves interference, including acts of what can only be called coercion. This is not, I think, anything to apologize for. If, for example, we want a social order that does not allow a man to have more than one wife, well, we have a political conflict with some conservative Muslims. If we are serious about opposition to polygyny, we will try to culturally discourage it, and even harness the coercive power of the state by making it illegal. Any universalism here will be no more than the aspiration of one kind of culture to become more universal. Nonetheless, we can still oppose polygyny. We can even identify with a universalist aspiration, without pretending that it is inscribed in Nature or demanded by God.

What I would like, however, is for us to be clearer about what this implies. Opposing an Islamic social vision in the name of secularism is not religiously neutral, and it is not free of coercion. Like every political option, secularism also has blood on its hands. Taking action against Islamists means seriously inconveniencing many people, sometimes interfering with their freedom to live according to their understanding of their religion, and sometimes substantially harming them. Conservative Muslims also have their horror stories, and the suffering they display is no less real than in secularist horror stories. So, especially given that secular moralities recoil from privileging some peoples’ suffering over others, we need to be aware of this and craft our politics accordingly.

It won’t be easy. I see the response to conservative Islam, in fact, as an exceptionally knotty political problem. I suspect that whatever we might do will also have some seriously nasty consequences. But then, secularists especially should not need telling that we live in an imperfect world.