“THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, intellectually stimulating manner.
Each debater makes their opening argument, followed by an optional rebuttal.
The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of the respective arguments.
The motion: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism”
For the motion: Mohamad Tabbaa
“God is not dead; and neither is He a feminist” by Mohamad Tabbaa
God has not died, just yet. But there is a real push to kill Him. And it’s gaining popular support. I’m sure we’ve all noticed the modern tendency to ‘reconcile’ Islam with almost everything; democracy; liberalism; homosexuality; heck, even Christianity. And now feminism. So what’s the problem, exactly? Surely any right-minded individual would openly embrace the move to bring Islam into modernity, while only a backward Wahhabist regressive fundamentalist caveman would resist, right?
Well, not exactly.
You see, there are a number of fundamental flaws inherent in many of the arguments put forward to ‘modernise’ Islam. I will highlight some of these flaws — especially as they relate to feminism — and argue that not only are Islam and feminism not compatible, but that our actual attempts at reconciling Islam with modern ideologies is futile and misguided.
Rather than launch into definitions of what Islam and feminism mean, I believe it’s important that we first take a step back. This debate, after all, is not really about Islam and feminism per se; this debate is more to do with epistemology. Epistemology, otherwise known as “the theory of knowledge”, is the study of the creation and basis of knowledge itself.[i] Epistemology concerns itself with questions such as: What are the structures and conditions of knowledge? How is knowledge constructed and justified? Does knowledge lead to truth? What are the limits of knowledge? And does God play a role in this process?[ii]
The question being debated here, namely is Islam compatible with feminism, is one which can only be answered by first exploring the epistemological and methodological assumptions underpinning the call for Islamic reformation, and what these mean in the greater scheme of things.
Feminism, in all its variations, depends very heavily on postmodern theories of knowledge; namely that there is no ‘objective’ or transcendental truth; that all realities are merely constructed, contextual and relative, and therefore subject to change; and that all knowledge is intrinsically biased.[iii] Utilising poststructural methods of deconstruction, postmodernists argue that all knowledge is influenced by power, personal interest and especially language, and that therefore no knowledge can claim to be impartial.[iv] It is upon this basis that feminists (rightfully) critique the dominant liberal discourse as being male-oriented and oppressive towards women.
So, while the core concern of feminism might be women’s equality, rights or humanity, postmodernism (and hence, feminism) itself teaches us that one cannot judge an idea based solely on its ‘abstract’ theory, but must instead deconstruct its underlying assumptions in order to ascertain what that idea is really advocating or producing. For example, renowned feminist scholar Margaret Thornton argues that, despite its proclaimed concern of ensuring equality between males and females, liberalism is inherently biased against women; not because of its ‘abstract’ theory, which is neutral, but purely because of its underlying assumptions – its epistemology – which are male-oriented.[v] Likewise, in order to properly assess both the nature and impact of feminism, one must necessarily look past its purported aims and concerns, and instead investigate its philosophical basis.
Let us pause here for a moment. At the core of feminist philosophy lies the belief that there is no transcendental knowledge, there is no objective truth, and that all knowledge is subjective and biased. So what does this mean for Islam, and religion more generally? To begin with, feminism entirely rejects the notion that there is a higher being. That is not to say that one must reject God to be a feminist, but merely that any belief in God must acknowledge that there is no such thing as divine knowledge; basically the idea that you can believe in whichever god you wish, so long as that god stays in your mind and does not intrude into the feminist discourse in any significant way.
Secondly, the idea that there is no objective truth is in stark contrast to one of the core purposes of religion, which is to teach humanity the truth of their existence. Of what benefit is religion if it is just as ‘true’ as atheism? Finally, even if one were inclined to accept the radical notion that God has knowledge, they must also accept that even God’s knowledge is entirely subjective and constructed (perhaps He spent too much time amongst the angels?) or risk departing from feminist philosophy in a very serious way.
In 1967, Roland Barthes took the idea of postmodernism to its inevitable conclusion with his theory of ‘the death of the author’.[vi] Barthes had essentially argued that once a text had been written, it was open to unrestrained interpretation, and, most importantly, that the author’s intention for the work was of no relevance whatsoever. To this end, Barthes wrote that, “it is the language which speaks, not the author”.[vii] Barthes had effectively removed the power to interpret from the author, and instead placed it squarely with the reader. Barthes had killed the author.
The main purpose of this argument, as Margaret Davies explains, was to free interpretation “from anxieties and closures such as ‘is this what the author really meant?’ and [allow it to be] performed in a spirit of openness, and of endless possibility [emphasis added].”[viii] This is what Barthes referred to as the ‘death of the author’. While such an argument may sound convincing given the biased nature of human authors, we must keep in mind what exactly we are dealing with in a religious discourse. In Islam, we are not talking about any old author.
We are talking about God. Therefore, to strip God, the author of the Quran, of authorial authority to interpretation is not only to have a very lowly opinion of God as equal to humans, but it is to kill God Himself. In the Islam/feminism debate, the core conflict lies in the fact that traditional Islamic discourse attempts to understand the intention of God by analysing authentic Islamic texts, while modern discourses, such as feminism, remove God entirely from the equation and place humans at the centre of knowledge. In essence, by arguing that Islam is open to all sorts of interpretation, feminism aims to kill God in Islam.
But it doesn’t end here. Taking the relative, pluralistic approach towards religious interpretations inevitably leads to “endless possibilities”.[ix] The problem with this is that, since there is no ‘authentic’ Islam, and all interpretations are relative and biased, all interpretations must be treated as equal, as there is no basis upon which to criticise one version as ‘unIslamic’ (there is no ‘true’ Islam, remember?). So what exactly does this mean? Well, in short, it means that if we are to accept the feminist interpretation of Islam as valid, then we must also, by default, accept bin Laden’s version as equally valid. Feminists would need to come to the discussion accepting that honour killings, domestic violence, gay-bashings, female infanticide and terrorism are valid Islamic practices, according to one, subjectively valid, interpretation of Islam. Such practices could not be condemned as ‘unIslamic’ if we accept the feminist epistemology of multiple truths and the death of the author.
This is where feminism actually needs traditional Islam, and not the other way around. If feminists wish to condemn the oppression of women in Muslim societies as against the ‘heart’ or ‘nature’ of Islam, then they can only do so by opposing the idea that Islam is open to interpretations, and instead seeking out what God’s authentic Islam teaches. Unfortunately, however, we see that the Muslim feminist discourse regarding Islam is laden with contradictions, and Katrina’s article is no exception. In order to convince us of the validity of feminist Islam, feminists initially argue that “Islam is open to interpretation”.[x] However, many then make the mistake of saying things like, “we must acknowledge some Muslims’ (mis)use [or misrepresentation] of Islam”.[xi] But how can Islam be ‘misrepresented’ or ‘misused’ if there is no singular authentic meaning of Islam by which to judge actions? What if a person genuinely believed that honour killings or domestic violence were an authentic part of their interpretation of Islam? How could we denounce such a view in light of the idea that ‘Islam is open to interpretations’?
Acknowledging this pitfall, many feminists have now turned to human rights as a basis for critiquing such actions, arguing instead that the abovementioned practices are “human rights violations”.[xii] This is a very strange move, and is fundamentally anti-feminist. Many of the most prominent feminists (and postmodernists) have attacked the very core of human rights as being anti-woman and the epitome of (male-oriented) liberalism, such as Catherine MacKinnon, Margaret Thornton, Wendy Brown and Gayatri Spivak.[xiii] In fact, the concept of human rights has been consistently accused of bias and critiqued from every possible standpoint; such that it there is somewhat of a consensus in the legal scholarly world that human rights are fundamentally flawed.[xiv] These are only some of the many fundamental problems associated with attempting to merge Islam into a postmodern discourse such as feminism.
However, a more alarming question also arises and requires urgent attention, which is: Why do we need to merge Islam into anything else in the first place? Is Islam so deficient that we need feminism to ‘save’ it?It is not at all surprising that most of those voices calling for Islamic reformation are of western origin or education. The western (European) experience with religion is extremely different to the Muslim experience, and the results of these different experiences have never played out more clearly than today. The west’s experiment with Christianity (and, to an extent, Judaism) was disastrous to say the least, and does not need any explanation.
Regarding the position of women, they were considered to be sub-human and soulless in the western world; their humanity was denied; they were considered the property of men; they had little to no economic, political, sexual or social rights; and they were generally treated as the root cause of sin and immorality. It is little surprise then that the notion that women were human not only had to be explicitly noted in the western world, but it was also considered a ‘radical’ idea. Given these experiences, many of which were directly related to religion, it is not hard to see why the western world moved in the direction of ‘enlightenment’, secularism and even atheism.
The Muslim experience was not the same, and it is arrogant to assume that the entire globe shares the western experience and mentality. Although the Muslim world obviously had its fair share of bad experiences, these were largely seen to have resulted despite Islam, and not as a result of it. In fact, while many of the European revolutions/movements sought to remove religious authority in order to end oppression and corruption, the Muslim world generally sought to strengthen religious authority to achieve that same end. The recent phenomenal success of Islamist parties across the Muslim world is testament to this ongoing and prevalent attitude. Similarly, Muslims did not need a 19th Century historian to teach them that women are human; the Quran had already taught them this from the very beginning.
There are a number of points to be made about this difference in religious experience, and how it relates to the current debate on Islam and feminism. It appears that much of this debate rests on oriental racist stereotypes about the ‘backward’ nature of exotic (Muslim) peoples, and the supposed ‘superiority’ of the western (white) world. How? Well, to begin with, the call for feminist Islam suggests that the Muslim scholars of the past 1400 years not only got it terribly wrong, but that they were in fact misogynists. Some have gone so far as to suggest a deliberate cover-up (yes, a conspiracy) amongst all traditional Muslim scholars, who apparently knowingly perpetuated deliberate ‘misreadings’ and ‘mistranslations’ of Islamic texts in order to maintain power.[xv] And it gets worse. Throughout these 1400+ years of cover-up, conspiracy and corruption, the Muslim women who were the (ideal) victims in this narrative were either too stupid or too scared to even speak out against such barbarity, let alone take any assertive action to reclaim their religion.
And so, naturally, the white middle-class enlightened objective free western woman must now come to the rescue of the imperilled and unable female Muslim victim. Yet again. This narrative also suggests that the European experience of mistrusting and secularising religion, which brought us the wonders of enlightenment, colonialism, biological racism, atheism, evolution and capitalism, somehow culminated in the ultimate discovery of the ‘true’ (feminist) meaning of Islam, and of the otherwise unknown representation of God as The Feminist. Very convincing. Indeed.
So in concluding, God is not dead. Alhamdulillah. And it is not in our best interests to try to kill Him. Islam is not feminism, just as feminism is not Islam. The fact that feminists need to radically reinterpret — or at times entirely disregard — very clear Islamic texts highlights this fact beyond a doubt. Islam and feminism are differing ideologies. Each has its own foundations, epistemologies, methodologies, worldviews, discourses and paradigms. This means that, while they have the potential to overlap at times, they cannot be coherently merged into one another without fundamentally compromising one or radically expanding the other. The push to merge Islam into feminism is akin to trying to squeeze an elephant into a birdcage; either the elephant will be killed by being forced into such a narrow entrance, or the birdcage will have to expand so significantly that it would no longer be recognised as a birdcage. Besides, suggesting that Islam ought to merge into feminism suggests the superiority of feminism, and the inferiority of Islam.
So, where to from here? Well, Muslim feminists must now make the choice between the Islamic paradigm, which is centred around God, or the secularised modern theology, which is based almost exclusively around (white) men. We must also move away from this tendency to merge Islam with anything and everything, as this method is limitless, and there is nothing to stop such an approach ultimately leading to a merger between Islam and atheism, with god presented as The Atheist. We should take an investigative approach towards Islam, trying to decipher God’s intention from His revelations, rather than entering with our own preconceived ideas of right and wrong and then attempting to mould Islam into these ideas. Humble pie is ultimately more fulfilling than arrogant pie. If you personally feel the need to become a feminist, a socialist, a liberal or a capitalist, by all means, knock yourself out. But there’s no need to drag Islam down with you.
Mohamad Tabbaa is a recent Honours graduate in Legal Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and former president of the La Trobe Unoversity Islamic Society.
[i] Michael Williams, Problems of Knowledge: a Critical Introduction to Epistemology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.1.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 1-5.
[iii] See: Margaret Davies, Asking the Law Question: The Dissolution of Legal Theory, Sydney, Lawbook Co, 2002; and Judith Butler, ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of “Postmodernism”’, in Judith Butler and Joan Wallach Scott (eds.), Feminists Theorize the Political, London, Routledge, 1992.
[iv] See: Jacques Derrida, ‘Force of Law: The Mythical Foundation of Authority’, in Michel Rosenfald and David Carlson (eds.), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, New York, Routledge, 1992; Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon (eds.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-
1977, London, Harvester Press, 1980; and Tim Dant, Knowledge, Ideology, Discourse: A Sociological Perspective, London, Routledge, 1991.
[v] Margaret Thornton, The Liberal Promise: Anti-Discrimination Legislation in Australia, Melbourne,
Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 7.
[vi] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, London, Fontana, 1977.
[vii] Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, in Josue V. Harari (ed.), Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, London, Methuen, 1980, p. 143.
[viii] Margaret Davies, “Ethics and Methodology in Legal Theory: a (Personal) Research Anti-Manifesto”, in Law/ Text/Culture, Vol. 6, Iss. 1, 2002, p. 11.
[ix] Ibid., p. 11.
[xiii] See: Catharine MacKinnon, Are Women Human?, And Other International Dialogues, Cambridge,
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006; Margaret Thornton, The Liberal Promise: Anti-Discrimination Legislation in Australia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1990; Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005; and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Use and Abuse of Human Rights’, Boundary 2, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2005, pp. 1-60.
[xiv] For a comprehensive overview of the human rights debate, see: Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2000.
[xv] See: Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, New York, Routledge, 2009, pp. 12, 41; Brian R. Farmer, Understanding Radical Islam: Medieval Ideology in the Twenty-First Century, New York, Peter Lang, 2007, p. 71; Youssef M. Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, London, Pinter, 1990, p. 3; and Charles E. Butterworth, “Political Islam: The Origins”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 524, p. 9.