Woman in religion is a story. This means that all that is said about women in all religions, as well as from social and natural sciences, institutions and the media is a story, a story that is the product of the interaction of mechanisms of power, authority, and performative actions. If gender is a discourse with cultural signifiers, then the “feminine” and “women” in the religious field are too. Speech about women has functioned in patriarchal structures historically, and still now, as a mechanism of control, discipline. and punishment.
In my experience, the situation of women in Islam is generally addressed from two opposing and dominant discourses that I call: The “Idealization of Inequality” and “Demonization.” The “Idealization of Inequality” view argues that the Quran elevated the position of women from a terrible condition of objectification in the pre-Islamic Arab society, also called the age of ignorance or Jahiliyya, a time in which many girls were killed at birth, to a state of full equality and recognition of rights. According to this approach, feminism has no place in Islam. Nothing should be changed. No new hermeneutics must be allowed, since the only differences between men and women stem from biology: women can conceive, men have more physical force. But this does not mean that one is below the other, because, under the “cosmological equality” established by the revelation, the lives of women and men are equal before Allah.
The “Idealization of Inequality” view represents a hegemonic discourse that lacks a strong and coherent response to the prevalence of discriminatory practices against Muslim women based on differences beyond their biological nature: such as the prohibiting women from entering or speaking in some mosques, not allowing women to hold positions of spiritual and administrative leadership, and requiring women to worship in segregated spaces with separate entrances. None of these are related to the “equality” they attribute to the Quran. Nor does the “Idealization of Inequality” standpoint provide real and concrete answers to the other issues affecting Muslim women: institutional violence, racism, stereotypes, and the sexist burden of common narratives.
The “Demonization” view, on the other hand, argues that, with respect to religion, it is not possible to speak of the liberation of women. So all kind of activism or feminist initiatives coming from or seeking background in religion are oxymorons. Accordingly, there would not be Catholic, Muslim, or Mormon feminism or the possibility to develop feminist hermeneutics that can be taken seriously. An important feature of the “Demonization” argument is the assumed axiom of a fundamental difference between East and West, pitting the rationality of “we” against the irrationality of “them,” and the analysis of “our” development versus “their” underdevelopment: reaffirming the western identity as superior. And here lies its most egregious shortcoming: “Demonization” acts as judge and jury in regard to the description of the oppression of all women perceived as “other.” First, it places them in the category of otherness, and then it defines the causes of discrimination suffered by them in their societies. Finally, it gives “us” the messianic ability to save “those” women.
For the “Demonization” approach, religions in genera,l and Islam in particular, are responsible for the oppression of women. The Quran becomes a book of female oppression; therefore, the only way to end it is calling women to abandon their faith. This narrative does not explain how a woman can leave her religion and embrace a “European model of the free woman” without embracing some kind of colonization. Also, this view seems not to recognize the intersectionality of gender exclusion, in which religion may or may not be a relevant factor, but which can be explained only by a multiplicity of interacting elements. It does not provide indisputable reasons about why European Enlightenment notions about freedom should continue to be universal. In a more negative aspect the “Demonization” viewpoint is manifested in racism when not recognizing the condition of individual agency or capacity in women who do not identify with an Eurocentric universalist-colonial perspective, but relegates them to abjection and otherness.
In the stories constructed about Muslim women from the standpoints of Idealization and Demonization, there is no epistemic justice. Both discourses include a significant element of sexism, patriarchy, and Islamophobia. In them, Muslim women are deprived of the right to speak for themselves and to define their declarative places as free individuals on equal terms with those who define them.
Islamophobia, although easier to identify in the perspective of “Demonization,” is also present in “Idealization.” Proponents of Idealization, mainly orthodox and patriarchal Muslims, express their Islamophobia by rejecting the understanding of Islam created by women who don’t match their ideas of true Islamic women of 1400 years ago–whatever that would be. As Shehnaz Haqqani says:
Muslim women’s practice of Islam as they themselves understand it or according to their own experiences is often mocked and relegated to a lesser form of Islam than that of a mainstream variant, which unfortunately happens to be deeply patriarchal. This is especially the case with feminists Muslims’ interpretation of Islam where the more traditionalist Muslims’, primarily men and male leaders, dismiss the perspectives, experiences, and knowledge of Muslim women leaders. I maintain that this is Islamophobia particularly because of the traditionalist Muslim’s fear and hatred of a more gender egalitarian Islam that embraces feminism as a reality.
Neither “Idealization” nor “Demonization” are perspectives that consider Muslim women as capable of developing a discourse outside the religious or secular mainstream to explain themselves. In both narratives about the status and rights of women in Islam, the representation of Muslim women is used to strengthen the privileged population’s reporting of the embodiment, spiritual experience and rightful place of Muslim women as Other.
This privilege of speech is expressed in mechanisms of control and discipline over women, whether they come from religious elites or the political-cultural colonialism, whether they are speaking from “Idealization” or “Demonization” standpoints. The problem with these views is in its episteme, which I understand as a place of talking and the beliefs and ideas that legitimate such a place as valid. Both epistemes speak as sources of authority over the world’s knowledge, including women’s reality which is part of those worlds. From this platform both discourses have colonized spaces, corporalities, speech, and performance based on the idea of Muslim women as inferior and voiceless.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.