This was a conversation that was bound to happen, but one regardless of how much I thought about or anticipated, was still unsure of how to have. It started with a simple question from her; “can you be really religious and be a feminist?” The answer was far from simple.
My niece and I both come from Muslim heritage. My parents are a common story of very traditional muslims who came to the UK in search for a better life (and well, because of colonialism). I am first generation here and my niece, second, obviously, and as these generations progress, the belonging to the religion and tradition changes. In my case, it almost skipped a generation…just don’t tell my Mum.
This week, my niece asked me about my thoughts on religion and whether it had an impact on my politics and feminism. It of course has, but to what extent, I’ve never been completely sure. It has been said to me, more times than acceptable; “But you’re a Muslim, how can you be a feminist? That religion oppresses women”. Well, there’s a whole lot wrong with that sentence. Firstly, there is, I believe, a misconception that Islam oppresses women more so than any other religion. It’s just not true, more often than not, it’s only because they’ve recently read a Daily Mail article telling them about the atrocities of wearing a Burka and come to the conclusion that Islam hates women. All religious texts, if read literally, oppress women. They also condone stoning for harvesting the wrong crops next to each other. But rather than explain the danger of taking religious texts literally, let’s take a moment for President Bartlet to explain it.
You enjoyed that didn’t you?
I used to think that feminism and religion are not compatible. I used to, quite frankly, think anyone who believed this was ridiculous. Until I realised exactly how patronising and insulting that view was. I have had countless conversation with actual religious feminists, (not my kind of ‘religious’) and they’ve said time and time again, how tired they are of people assuming that they either don’t understand religion or feminism if they believe you can be part of both.They are entitled to interpret both their spirituality and feminism as they see fit. Don’t get me wrong though, through these conversations I have understood just how difficult being a religious feminist is (mostly from arguing within their own families) but that doesn’t mean they are ridiculous for trying or that they somehow are being brainwashed by some patriarchical force. These women are strong, trust me, no oppressive force is taking over their minds. But I still struggle with the contradictions between their feminist beliefs and religious actions.
I’m a firm believer that religion is about individual interpretation. My personal interpretation (or the one I am still figuring out…) is that which doesn’t align exactly to my parents – Family dinners are much fun. Sometimes I just randomly throw in a story about the most recent pro-choice rally I’ve been to. Cue awkward silence and dropping of forks. I’m in it for the LOLs.
I’m a modern, western, women in an eastern, traditional, religious family – I respect their views, uphold as many of them that I feel are representative of my own and go along on my merry (often conflicted) way. But it’s not easy – I’m a walking identity crisis. I grew up in a world that on the surface appeared equal but there were subtle inequalities, masked as religious respect. For instance:
- When a boy is born into a family, you distribute sweets to your neighbours and friends. Not if you have a girl though, as she is not to be celebrated, she is a burden until she is married. (My niece was appalled by this “So no one gave out sweets when I was born, not even a bag of flipping maltesers?!” I do love her.)
- It is considered ‘a pity’ or worse ‘a flaw’ if a women only gives birth to girls. Regardless of the actual genetic way in which gender is assigned….(for those of you wondering it’s all on the bloke and the x or y in his swimmers)
- Boys in my family were allowed to stay out till late, girls were not.
- Boys educated themselves, for girls this was less important (thankfully, my Dad is more progressive, bless him, I don’t think he was looking for this to be outcome of that education though. Ah well, win some, lose some Dad)
- Girls are expected to marry quickly and have children…quickly.
But is this religion or culture? I don’t recall being cited chapter and verse to explain these rules. Why in today’s day and age, with progressive and religious thinkers working side by side, does religion still feel like a smokescreen for sexism? I don’t think it is necessarily religion that we should blame, I don’t think anyone should be blamed for having faith. I think it is the fault of those who benefit from creating a religious culture or preaching a specific religious interpretation which oppresses women. Culture is different. Culture doesn’t come with a Bible to tell you how, culture comes from the power to shape people’s’ thinking. And in our world – who has the power? It is religious culture, rather than the religion itself, I have always had a problem with and that my feminism just cannot abide.
I’m going to stick my neck out there (note: I say this with experience in Islamic States, but I would be interested to hear of other opinions), religion is used wrongly by men to give themselves power and platform. If you look at religious states and the adoption of Sharia law – it favours men, on every front. Not surprising given all Islamic religious positions are occupied by men. But to create and convict under Sharia Law, you have to interpret the Quran, if it is only men making this interpretation, of course it will favour them and disadvantage women. It’s not difficult to see – in a case of rape, a women can only be believed if the rapists confesses or there are four MALE witnesses. I’ve yet to find the sentence in the Quran that says ‘four male witnesses’. Or how about the laws that state that domestic violence is acceptable if a wife is ‘disobedient’…I’ll leave the interpretation of ‘disobedient’ to the all male jury or the male judge shall I? It goes on; genital mutilation, women’s education, abortion….by no means am I a religious scholar, but oppression and brutality towards women is not why any religion was created.
It is these brutalities and cultural inequalities that make it very difficult to be a feminist and have faith, and why it is perhaps unsurprising, that many people find religious feminism an oxymoron or, at the least, a feminist perspective that lacks credibility. But if feminism is about choice, why are we restricting it for those who don’t have faith? That’s not fair and it’s not what a movement about equality should be doing. A women can take a feminist interpretation of religion and fight for that religion and society to become equal – I happen to think she should be applauded for it, because, just maybe, she’s fighting a powerful and all too popular patriarchy, which most of us dismiss rather than try to change. But let’s be honest, religion isn’t going anywhere and is always going to be a hugely influential part of society. So why not have a few more religious feminists and start changing the influence religion has?
The two belief systems can be compatible but, I worry at times, that the terms ‘religious’ and ‘feminist’ are just for namesake. I would love to see more ‘religious feminists’ challenge their own religion and its culture, and push for them to have position and power within their religion to start redressing this cultural patriarchy, which, as far as I see it, doesn’t need to be the assumed structure of religion in a modern, equal society.