Reinterpreting Women and Islam

Fatima Mernissi’s The Veil and the Male Elite was very similar to other books that I have read this semester in that it offered a unique, feminist perspective on the history of Islam and how the past has worked to shape the present.  She opens the text with a brief introduction, explaining to readers that she intends to “lift the veils with which our contemporaries disguise the past in order to dim our present” (11).  Over the course of the book, Mernissi successfully debunks myths that have come to dominate the (mainstream) Western ideology on Islam.  The historical analysis was really helpful for me in understanding how cultural attitudes have shifted over time and I really appreciated the way in which she situated Islam within a bigger picture of other religions, cultures, and ideologies.

Although Mernissi’s discussion of the origin of the practice of veiling was completely new to me, it seemed to make sense it light of other issues present regarding Western misconceptions of Islam and the role that patriarchy has played in shaping religion and culture.  First, she explains that veiling did not originate to encourage female modesty.  In fact, the veil was initially used as a curtain for separation.  After the Prophet married his wife Zaynab, they invited over many people for dinner.  Mohammed was eager to spend time alone with his new wife, but three of the visitors would not leave.  In order to give the couple privacy, a curtain was drawn between them and the others in the space.  There was no mention at this point that the veil would be only used by women nor was there a discussion of how this cloth could “protect” or “oppress” women.  It was not until later that the veil was to be used exclusively by women.  To prevent sexual violence against “free women,” those that were not slaves, would veil themselves.  Female slaves were to be unveiled and therefore open to the gaze of men; violence against them was seen as permissible.  Today, veiling has become a culturally significant practice that is evident in many Islamic societies, but it is not mandated in the Qur’an or required by Islamic law.

The reasons why women veil vary drastically depending on the individual situation.  Some women veil because it is a symbol of their faith, others veil because of their socialization, and others veil for many other reasons.  Making assumptions about why a Muslim woman does or does not veil is incredibly problematic; it is also problematic to tell a woman what her actions should be regarding veiling.  For example, women in France are forbidden by law from entering the public sphere while veiled because the government believes it represent women’s oppression.  Veiling is a personal decision and should be treated as such, not regulated and restricted by governments.  However, as Mernissi notes, this is often the case.  “All debates on democracy get tied up in the woman question and that piece of cloth that opponents of human rights today claim to be the very essence of Muslim identity” (188).  I think this is an incredibly interesting point, and one that accurately represents how women’s rights are treated in society.  Unlike intangible inequality, the veil can be seen and felt., whereas the wage gap, sexual violence against women, the lack of reproductive rights, and other gender dynamics in social institutions are more abstract concepts.  Mernissi brings this up in her discussion of how women’s sexuality is stigmatized across religions:

“All the monotheistic religions are shot through by the conflict between the divine and the feminine, but none more so that Islam, which has opted for the occultation of the feminine, at least symbolically, by trying to veil it, to hide it, to mask it.  Islam as sexual practice unfolds with a very special theatricality since it is acted out in a scene where the hijab (veil) occupies a central position.  This almost phobic attitude towards women is all the more surprising since we have seen that the Prophet has encouraged his adherents to renounce it as representative of the jahiliyya and its superstitions” (81).

By standing out against “women’s oppression” through opposing the veil, the French government seems to be interested in eradicating gender inequality.  This illusion of action and equality only serves to reinforce the status quo, marginalize Muslim women, and spread Islamophobia in the West.  If gender equality was really the concern of government officials, they would be working to address and improve issues that directly affect women’s lives, but as Mernissi notes, power dynamics and vested interests play a crucial role in systems based on patriarchy, capitalism, and politics.

“Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of power in Muslim societies.  Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimated by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrications of false traditions” (9).

In this passage, Mernissi points to the significance and variability of interpretation.  Historically, these sacred texts have been interpreted by a fairly homogenous group of individuals, namely men that identity themselves as Muslim.  Recently, more individuals have started to examine this text from new perspectives.  Of most interest to my personal project are feminist interpretations, which focus on the ways in which gender and sexuality are situated within the religion.  What these scholars have found is that the way in which a text is interpreted has the potential to completely shift the way in which societies operate.  Since the seventh century, it has been (mostly) accepted that these texts have aspects which are inherently misogynistic and violent.  However, as many have started to notice, these principles are exactly the opposite of what Islam advocates.

Mernissi continues to refer back to this argument throughout the text.  I was particularly struck by her discussion of her personal socialization, by which she came to understand Islam.  At home, her grandmother offered a beautiful, complex portrayal of Islam that valued self-discovery, peace, and happiness.  Meanwhile, her schoolteachers offered a completely different understanding; they required her to memorize the text, recite prayers, and portrayed Islam as a monolith.  She says, “This dual attitude that I had toward the sacred text was going to remain with me.  Depending on how it is used, the sacred text can be a threshold for escape or an unsurmountable barrier.  It can be the rare music that leads to dreaming or simply a dispiriting routine.  It all depends on the person who invokes it” (64).

I completely agree with Mernissi’s perspective and think it can be applied more generally to all religions.  Our positionality and personal biases have a clear effect on the way in which we interpret religious texts.  There is not just one interpretation and we cannot accurately conclude that one is “right” or “wrong.”  I recognize that this line of thinking could also be used to justify misogynistic, violent interpretations, but feel this does not stand up to the fact that religions are based on certain values and principles.

A religion based on equality, social justice, and self-growth does not match with one that opposes human rights, gender equality, and sexuality.  If you, as I do, see Islam as promoting these basic ideas, then you cannot also link it with discrimination and exclusion; it is so important to break down this relationship.  Associating religion with these inherently oppressive and negative ideologies is demonizing and ostracizes a very important part of human existence.  Although I personally identify as an atheist, I think it is incredibly problematic to write off religion.  Rather, I think we should adopt the perspective of Mernissi’s grandmother.  “Her Islam was an occasion to journey to strange countries, to spread one’s wings, and to discover love and enlightenment there” (63).


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Angelbird72
    Apr 24, 2011 @ 22:35:20

    I really enjoyed this post! Thanks!

    It makes me want to go and read this lady’s book (actually it makes me want to go and sit down for a cup of tea with her Nan, but that seems unlikely).

    I wonder, when I read about Islam and religions in general, and interpretations of them like this, what their places will be in 100 years time. What will Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and all the others look like when my grandchildren are my age? Will feminist readings like these catch on?


  2. Trackback: Scripture For Sale; Why Do Preacher’s Think It’s OK To Sell God’s Word

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