Deconstructing Patriarchal Practices Through Islam - from a Yemeni Woman’s Lens
Coming from a very traditional society as Yemen, I always seek to find common grounds between Yemeni women's Muslim identity and their belief in gender equality.
For decades, most women in my society lived in a psychological discomfort because they feel they are either betraying their faith or their feminist consciousness. For example; when speaking about women’s rights and duties in the household be it a wife, sister or daughter, women are expected to perform in the most perfect way that the caregiver, breadwinner, husband, brother or father wishes things to be. They are fully aware that the demands that they are deemed to do by societal norms or religious practices are unjust and do not necessarily give them the honor and respect as a mutual partner or an important entity who is living in the house.
One time a woman was complaining to the women of the neighborhood- in one of the lady’s gatherings that usually take place during weddings or baby showers- about the fact that she was expected to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs even when she did not want to. She knew this was not fair to her as a woman. However, she would assume that her faith as a Muslim expects her to be an obedient wife who must submissively please her husband’s need anytime he wishes, otherwise she would be “Nashiz” “disobedient”.
Speaking more about Obedience, is when my young sister’s elementary school Islamic studies teacher was preaching the girls in class on how they should always obey their future husbands, and if they do not, he can beat her and as a good wife, she must get punished willingly. This female teacher would even have the courtesy to use a disgracing analogy by calling them sheep while she would refer to the husband as the herdsman. A terrifying and humiliating way of demonstrating Islamic life to these young girls.
Thus, these young girls grow up thinking that if they were to challenge and argue with their male partners in the future, this would make them betray their faith. Their innocent little minds get stuck in the dilemma of one of these two binary scenarios. If she obeys, she is a good obedient Muslim, or some would even call it “the better woman”, even though she is aware of the disgracing injustice this does to her as a woman. If she does not obey, then she is satisfying her feminist identity, but betraying her faith and falls under the category of the (Nushuz) in Islam “disobedient”. In other words, Patriarchy and faith have led women to believe that fighting for their freedom is against God’s will.
Enough has been produced of patriarchal interpretations of Islamic texts that impose restrictions on women and their participation in the society. These Interpretations regard women as inferior to men and henceforth challenge gender equality in the Arab region and in Yemen in particular. What could be a possible solution that would ease the discomfort that these women are experiencing? Are there any other ways of interpreting the Islamic texts that are compatible with current social structures to help women attain their full rights?
Islamic Feminism as a discourse – women’s revelation?
Throughout the Muslim world, there has been a growing movement among some women who seek to find common grounds between their Muslim identity and their belief in gender equality. (Segran, 2014). For decades they lived in a psychological discomfort because they feel they are either betraying their faith or their feminist consciousness. However, there has been some efforts to erase that discomfort through the work and vision of a global movement called Musawah—“equality” in Arabic. Musawah encourages women to realize that they should not have to choose between any of their dear identities. In other words, it aims to help women fight for justice and gender equality within the frame works of Islam by re-interpreting Islamic sources. In her Chapter ‘Trends and Directions in Contemporary Islamic Feminist Research’ Omaima Abou-Baker defines ‘Islamic Feminism’ as a feminism that originates form Islam’s Values and ideals, at the same time benefits Islam as a religion. Her definition attempts in using feminist awareness of the discrimination against women, by first realizing the existence of the problem, then proposing reforms and interpretations that embody the spiritual message of Islam. A reinterpretation that eliminates concepts that have been misrepresented like the superiority of men and marginalization of women. (Abou-Bakr, 2014) A reinterpretation where justice and equality are inseparable.
An Islamic Feminist Scholar: Amina Wadud
Wadud is an African-American Muslim woman who is one of the founders of the group sisters in Islam. She was a professor of Religion and Philosophy at among others, the Virginia Commonwealth University.
Wadud strongly believes that patriarchy is a form of shirk (making partners to God) because “by placing men above women it contradicts the Qur’anic vision of equal and reciprocal relationships and violates the requirement that God is supreme”.
Going back to the husband and wife scenario mentioned earlier, Wadud tries to explain the situation relying on a verse from the Quran.
Quranic verse goes like “So good women are Qanitat, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear [nushuz], admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them”
According to the Islamic Feminist researcher Amina Wadud, the word Qanitat describes a characteristic or personality trait of believers towards Allah both males and females. However, it would be falsely translated to mean ‘obedient’ and then assumed to mean ‘obedient to the husband’ (Wadud, 1999) They are inclined towards being co-operative with one another and subservient before Allah. This is clearly distinguished from mere obedience between created beings which the word ta 'a indicates. In other words, obedience is only before Allah. If these women were able to reinterpret the Quranic verses from a female perspective, Islam would have been understood from the female lens. A reinterpretation that eliminates concepts that have been misrepresented like the superiority of men and marginalization of women. (Abou-Bakr, 2014) A reinterpretation where justice and equality are inseparable.
An Islamic feminist woman scholar like Wadud tries to challenge all the stereotypes and make a “reading” of the Quran that would be meaningful to women living in modern era. She claims that “No method of the Quranic exegesis is fully objective. Each exegesis makes some subjective choices” Therefore, her attempt of interpreting and analyzing the Quran make some subjective choices.
The plethora of talk about women’s daily lives in Yemen today demonstrates the abiding power of tradition, customs and male religious leaders. The misconception that Islam as an overall religion demeans women and belittles them is a phenomenon that is wildly spread. I believe that Muslim women, and especially Yemeni Muslim women must reconsider taking these Quranic interpretations at face value as described by male religious leaders. These patriarchal practices are not rooted in the Quranic passage mentioned above, they are only understood and interpreted from a male’s perception.