This article, by Ndeye Andújar of the Junta Islámica Catalana [Catalan Islamic Commission] and WebIslam, analyses the impact of both stereotyped and fundamentalist views of women in Islam, and their contribution to Islamic extremism.
It is of interest to the religious and to secularists alike: for the latter, to identify those elements of religious theory and practice that are beneficial is important in the pursuit of an integrated society that respects all its citizens. ‘Fundamentalist’ secularism also has to do this, to show that the source of these qualities is human and not sacred.
The article is equally of considerable interest as regards security and the oft-criticised battle for ‘hearts and minds’ in the European Muslim community.
Islamic feminism: challenges and realities for European Muslim women
In the European context, Islamic feminism is an alternative to dominant patriarchal interpretations. In the face of both religious fundamentalism and aggressive secularism, it demands freedom from all forms of discrimination.
The situation of Muslim women is currently the source of a passionate and polarised debate that presents a stereotyped, simplistic and even dualist vision. Although it is particularly difficult to identify all of the issues that revolve around the question, two primary narratives can be identified: one that demonises Islam and another that idealises it, in terms of the treatment of women in Islam.
As regards the former, an objective view of the realities enables us to affirm that Muslim women are indeed subjected to discrimination. Analysis based on this narrative is, however, mistaken because the origin of that discrimination is fixed within Islam, as inherent to it. The Koran – a spiritual message addressed to all men and all women – is confused with human laws formulated from the 10th century onwards.
The closed circle of the two narratives
A prevailing mistake in the West is to constantly show the negative face of Islam and to ignore those fighting against this injustice. From this perspective, only abandoning the religion will allow Muslim women to become free [a perspective notably expounded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali] . Yet this narrative is perceived by those it targets as a form of cultural imperialism. That is why many Muslims imagine the terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘feminism’ to be inseparable.
Confronted with this ‘colonial feminism’, fundamentalist movements appeal to Islam as a mark of identity for Muslim societies (or as a mark of identity for Muslim communities in Europe), a form of ideological resistance in the face of Western imperialism.
As for the latter kind of narrative, it claims that Muslim women already enjoy all their rights, but only in a complementary relationship with men. Women are placed on a pedestal, spoken of as a “fragile and beautiful pearl” to be protected. This vision infantilises women, prevents them from accessing the public sphere and conceals the obvious discrimination that exists.
We end up with a closed circle: fundamentalism makes separation of the sexes and distinct roles for men and women a battle flag against Western interference, which leads to various kinds of discrimination that are in turn presented by their opponents as conclusive proof that ‘Islam oppresses women’. Fundamentalism as the legitimate ‘representative’ of Islam is thus validated, and all those who fight against extremist elements are marginalised from the debate.
A movement of freedom and spiritual regeneration
In the face of this false dualism, there is a movement of men and women reclaiming freedom from all forms of discrimination within the framework of Islam. This movement believes that a degradation of Islamic tradition has taken place, with a false interpretation of the message of the Koran. Islam contains a significant element of liberation, whose reclamation as a framework for social emancipation is proposed by Islamic feminism. It is a movement of protest, but equally of spiritual regeneration.
These are men and women who challenge patriarchal interpretations and suggest an alternative reading of sacred texts, so as to achieve equality of rights and, at the same time, to refute Western stereotypes. Western culture’s claim to ‘superiority’, on the one hand, and aggressive secularism pitched against the fact of religion on the other, do not make for an effective opponent to fundamentalism. Quite the opposite: this attack on religion strengthens it and leads us into a cul-de-sac.
It is, therefore, essential that governments and civic society support this movement, to liberate the community of European Muslim women from foreign models and break from the monolithic view of Islam that exists in the collective imagination.
Finally, we need to find mechanisms to apply Islamic feminism to the European context, as an instrument to both normalise the presence of Muslims in Europe, and to reconcile their religious beliefs with their European identity.