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Published Date: June 4, 2007

Published Date: June 4, 2007

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The Subjection of Islamic Women

I would like to point out an article in The Weekly Standard by Christina Hoff Sommers, in the May 21, 2007 issue, called “The Subjection of Islamic Women and the Fecklessness of American Feminism.” The first paragraph reads as follows:

“The subjection of women in Muslim societies–especially in Arab nations and in Iran–is today very much in the public eye. Accounts of lashings, stonings, and honor killings are regularly in the news, and searing memoirs by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi have become major best-sellers. One might expect that by now American feminist groups would be organizing protests against such glaring injustices, joining forces with the valiant Muslim women who are working to change their societies. This is not happening.”

She goes on a couple of paragraphs down: “The condition of Muslim women may be the most pressing women’s issue of our age, but for many contemporary American feminists it is not a high priority. Why not? The reasons are rooted in the worldview of the women who shape the concerns and activities of contemporary American feminism. That worldview is–by tendency and sometimes emphatically–antagonistic toward the United States, agnostic about marriage and family, hostile to traditional religion, and wary of femininity. The contrast with Islamic feminism could hardly be greater.”

Sommers then follows with example after example of the skewed priorities of American (secular) feminism and takes them to task for their moral short sightedness. She sites Katha Pollitt, a columnist at the Nation, for example, who draws a “common thread of misogyny” between Christian Evangelicals and the Taliban, and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who characterizes Christian evangelical movements (that’s us!) as “Christian Wahhabism,” i.e., the name of the sect that is the inspiration for Osama bin Laden. These radical feminist philosophies “collapse moral categories in ways that defy logic, common sense, and basic decency,” such as casually placing “limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex and opposing abortion [in the U.S.] on the same plane as throwing acid in women’s faces and stoning them to death” [in third world countries]. Likewise they seem to be “incapable of distinguishing between private American groups that stigmatize gays and foreign governments that hang them.”

It may be that some of these feminists are tied up in knots by multiculturalism, she says, and find it difficult to pass judgment on non-Western cultures. Maybe they find it easier to find fault with American society for minor inequities than criticizing heinous practices elsewhere. To her credit, Sommers does mention some activity in the secular feminist movement, such as Eleanor Smeal and Mavis Leno’s efforts with the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) to create a national campaign in 1997 to expose the crimes of the Taliban.

Fortunately, Muslim women are creating their own growing movement to address their plight. “Islamic feminists,” says Sommers, “believe that women’s rights are compatible with Islam rightly understood. One of their central projects is progressive religious reform. Through careful translation and interpretation of the Koran and other sacred texts, scholars challenge interpretations that have been used to justify sexist customs. They point out that forced veiling, arranged marriages, and genital cutting are rooted in tribal paganism and are nowhere enjoined by the Koran. Where the Koran explicitly permits a practice such as the physical chastisement of wives by husbands, the feminist exegetes try to show that, like slavery, the practice is anachronistic and incompatible with the true spirit of the faith. This kind of interpretation of scripture has been practiced by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars for centuries. Now Islamic women want to play a part in it, and nothing in Islamic law, they believe, prohibits their doing so.”

I don’t know how much of this slanted piece I believe, but it does appear that Islamic feminism differs radically from its best known contemporary American secular counterpart — having instead a faith-based, family-centered and positive-towards-men approach. Too bad that the CBE version of gender equality isn’t better known, or Sommers might have seen some hope in America.

I appreciate CBE’s international scope and was happy to see the most recent issue of Priscilla Papers highlights gender justice worldwide. The moral need and imperative to engage Muslims can’t be emphasized enough. Does anyone else see an opportunity for Christian egalitarians to dialog with and help our Muslim sisters? Although the details may be different, we speak the same type of religious language and have similar approaches. Perhaps some CBE members have already involved themselves in such projects. If so, why aren’t they better known? Maybe if [more/bigger/more impressive] joint projects could be undertaken, perhaps both our respective patriarchal societies could be helped.