Beyond “Liberal” Female Piety or “Women Read the Qur’an Too” by Amy Levin
I’m a teacher’s assistant for an undergraduate course at New York University called, “What is Islam?” The other day in class, my professor asked the students whether or not the Qur’an is considered a “book”. Fraught with anxiety over inheriting such a problematic scholarly tradition of defining and delineating what “religion” is, I kept quiet. While my professor was aiming more for something sounding like, “a book is read, while the Qur’an is recited,” I kept thinking about the physicality and sacrality of the Qur’an (among other authoritative religious texts) and the way it is handled, revered, preserved, loved, an constantly under interpretation. It was about a week later when news broke out that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were guilty of burning several copies of the Qur’an on their military base, followed by an unfortunate slew of casualties including at least 30 Afghan deaths and five US soldiers.
There is no shortage of media attention and political analysis over these incidents, as some are lining up behind Obama’s “apology” and others behind Santorum’s critique of said apology. While I support the impulse to apologize, I want to seize the chance to interrogate the source these incidents: a lack of awareness (or perhaps care) of the relationship between Muslims and the Qur’an, using accounts women and their often neglected experiences with this sacred text. The common secular-liberal ethos that pervades the Western media in many ways continues to interpret women’s Islamic practices as false-conscious embodiments of patriarchal agendas, whether it is wearing a hijab, or following Islamic law.
Many scholars and feminist theologians are engaged in projects devoted to the way women actively organize and negotiate their day-to-day lives around Islamic doctrine. Two important ethnographic accounts of women’s religious gatherings in the Middle East in particular bring attention the importance of the Qur’an in the daily lives of many Muslim women. Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety analytically maps concepts and practices of moral agency, embodiment, and piety through a women’s mosque movement in Cairo, Egypt, while Arzoo Osanloo’s The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran engages the way women perceive themselves as rights-bearing subjects in the Iranian Islamic-Republic.
Saba Mahmood argues that the mosque movement in Cairo is the largest movement in history whose participants are invested in the teaching and studying of Islamic doctrine, physical comportment, and social practices for the purpose of cultivating a virtuous self. Mosque participants said that the movement was in response to the perception that religious knowledge had been marginalized under secularization, and a concern with fashioning their everyday lives with accordance to religious observances. Mahmood is particularly interested in the way women negotiate and cultivate their piety within Egypt’s secular environment. However, while governmental policy acts as an obstacle for these women at times, other conditions in the modern secular environment can be used to negotiate such qualms. On the one hand, government and public institutions do not operate according to Islamic law, making it difficult for women to uphold a pious comportment. On the other hand, modern Muslim citizens raised in a culture of public literacy and mass media now have access to Islamic texts that were once inaccessible and limited to religious scholars. Pedagogical booklets, manuals, tape-recorders, and other accessible materials are available for straight-forward and readable religious rules and obligations. Such shifts are altering not only accessibility of knowledge, but the very authority over that knowledge.
Arzoo Osanloo’s ethnographic account of women’s religious gatherings also documents the newer ways that women interact with and understand their relationship to the Qur’an and Islamic doctrine. Oslanloo’s account is a political ethnography set in Tehran and some of its surrounding area. Her motivation for her research occurs during her law profession when she notices a continual universal invocation of human rights that privileges individual autonomy. Osanloo claims that this particular discourse of rights carries Western liberal markers, posing a methodological problem for how to study rights in non-Western countries. Her questions lead her to Iran, where she analyzes the women’s perception of their rights through looking at particular dialogical sites.
In Tehran and other urban cities in Iran, Quranic meetings, referred to as “jaleseh-ye Qur’an”, are gatherings in which women without previous scholarly background in Islamic theology are reading the Qur’an on their own terms. While the discussions fluctuate between topics relating to familial, religious, individual, and civil concerns, what is crucially at work is that these women are determining to what extent Islamic principles affect their rights and roles. Osanloo argues that the meetings are a new space for knowledge production in which they are using the Qur’an to subvert the system and gain control over their rights. Most of the women brought to the meetings their own Qur’an – this reflects the “institutionalization and rationalization” of Islam that has led to the mass production and distribution of the text, as well as greater accessibility due to its bilingual (Persian and Arabic) versions. This means the women can also explicate the verses given that their ability to read it directly does not necessitate an Akhund (traditional religious leader).
Both of these spaces are sites where women are gaining authoritative relationships with Islamic doctrine, leading to new types of knowledges and ways of negotiating their everyday lives. While these monographs are more ethnographic, there is a growing body of Islamic feminist theology. Amina Wadud’s work is quite provocative and important in understanding the intimate and important relationship between the Qur’an and women in various socio-political and regional contexts. Her book, Qu’ran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective is particularly reflective of the ways in which the sacred text holds authority while at the same time is debated, negotiated, and interpreted through a variety of ways.