Islamophobia and Two Tales about Muslim Women by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

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 FuenteVanessa 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. 

Categories: Feminism

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14 replies

  1. Powerful essay that resonates with me as a Native American/white woman. I am so tired of seeing rationality pitted against irrationality. Why is it that we cannot include both in a “both and” perspective?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you. In my opinion, discourses act as devices to endorse and keep a status-quo of discrimination and colonization against people in the otherness. That’s one part of the issue. The other is the way we organize the reality. We have inherited from positivism/rationalism a system based in categorization and dicotomy. Instead, first nations had a comprehensive understanding of the reality where even the opposites had a place in the dance of the world

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An important article, thanks, Vanessa, very well written. And as regards, “nothing should be changed,” I recently came across a movement called “Musawah” (“equality”). It defines itself in the following manner:

    “Musawah operates on the belief that Islam is not inherently biased toward men: patriarchy within Muslim countries is a result of the way male interpreters have read Islamic texts. With this framework for action, Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, then push for legal reform in their respective countries.”

    I noticed that Sara Wright said she was Native American/white. My mother’s father was Native American too (Choctaw) but her mother was German. My dad was born from an English mother and father. And I remember my father’s mother speaking to me with a strong British accident. And we had a loving joke between us, when she started talking about all those “itch-ikers” meaning hitch-hikers of course. But I have always pronounced it the way she did, out of sheer love for her.


  3. This first line caught my attention — “Woman in religion is a story.”

    So I got thinking about it. Every challenge we meet is a story I guess if we engage it. And maybe if we think of it that way we may be able to come up with more creative solutions to our challenges. Interesting. Thank you.


    • Is difficult to avoid stories because we live inmerse in them and upon them. For example, the stories that support racism ie. “White is good/Dark is bad” or stories that endorse misogyny “Women are weakand unable to control their emotions”. Our reality is made of stories that can benefit or not or enable or not some behaviors and values.


  4. Inequality of the sexes starts at birth with the differences in the strengths of human traits. Males seem to inherit more of a status hierarchy, physical strength, and physical energy to use their bodies. They also tend to be more mischievous where females tend to interact more with others at an emotional level. This leads to males creating a status hierarch of who is the toughest with males at the top, followed by males and females, and the bottom tends to be males that are more rebellious or don’t fit the male definition of toughness. The definition of toughness tends to vary in different situations and cultures. What I find from experience is that the males at the top are usually more kind and nurturing of females, and the males at the bottom more hostile to women because they feel they must fight their way to the top and women are above them.

    Religions in general tend to help men to be more kind and nurturing to females and see them as equal in society as a whole, letting women dominate in domestic and social services and men in civic services. Women can not bully the male bullies, but male bullies do bully both men and women and children. So there is always a disparity between men and women. Cultures will narrow or widen the gap.

    Women and religion will try and narrow that gap but may takes many generations to do so. History has given women more civic right and taken them away. Muslim women are not exception, it seems more of a matter of cultures in history then religion, cultures interpret religious teachings. It certainly seems so with Christianity over the ages. Different sects of Christianity interpreted differently. Perhaps science also helps bridge the gap as it better defines human traits and their distribution among people, men and women, as different from arbitrary cultural interpretations. Biological men will usually do better at certain roles and women at others.


    • You’re confusing difference with inequality.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Redefining Matriarchy.

      In rethinking matriarchy, Sanday suggests that for societies where the social foundation is forged by maternal principles, attention must be shifted from forcible power to the persuasive force of tradition. In their leadership roles in these societies both men and women exert influence by upholding tradition. Barbara Alice Mann , an Iroquoian scholar, presents an example in her analysis of women’s sovereign influence in Iroquoian society. Like the Minangkabau, the Iroquois have a special label for senior influential women.

      Matriarchy is not a system of governance of the family or society associated with exclusive female rule. Matriarchy is a balanced social system in which both sexes play key roles founded on maternal social principles. As the symbolic originators, women, in their roles as mothers and senior women, are the performers of practices that authenticate and regenerate or, to use a term that is closer to the ethnographic details, nurture the social order. By this definition, the ethnographic context of a redefined matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate, but female responsibility (in their roles as mothers and senior women) to conjugate—to knit and regenerate social ties in the here and now and in the hereafter, through their leadership in upholding tradition. Tradition determines the rules for appropriate leadership and knitting social ties through the economy of gift giving. Power conceived in this way is balanced in the sense that it is diffused among those who work in a partnership to uphold social rules and practices. There are many well-described examples of matri-centered societies like the Minangkabau and the Iroquois. Others that could be mentioned are the Zapotec of Mexico and the Mosuo of southwestern China.


      • I agree with what you say but the word “matriarchy “disturbs me because it suggests to me that patriarchy would be it’s compliment. And patriarchy is about having power over. I think we need another word here…


  5. Difference creates inequality if the people do not see where equality would help them. A bully will bully if the other is different and they can get away with it because they are stronger or in a better position to get away with it. Men together increase their strength, if it benefits them to bully and they have no belief as to why they shouldn’t bully and they can gain by it they probably will. Women are weaker and more vulnerable outside the home. They have little status in the hierarchy. In the home they have a stronger function and related males that may defend them. In the animal world we call it the pecking order.


  6. Some good insights here, thank you. To Ruth, difference does not necessarily create inequality. The problem is systemic, on the cultural level, and not all societies have or have had systems of domination based on size.


    • Thank you for the opportunity to post. I appreciate your equality in discussion. Difference in size or strength gives opportunity for inequality. Cultures can stop the inequality. Religions are one of the tools that can be used to stop injustice or to rationalize and justify inequality abuse. Children by nature, without being taught, often bully each other, depending on their personalities. Parents will teach them to be more kind and allow or demand equal opportunity for resources or tasks. All cultures have rules when you can bully and when you can not. But humans, of course, are not always so easily controlled. The rich rationalize and justify their financial dominance, and so do ghetto and street fighters rationalize and justify their rebelling. They all have their beliefs and logical reasons for their illogical and biological reactions. One is not better than the other, by reason of equality beliefs. But one certainly has more power, more resources, and more knowledge of how to keep their status. The man fighting in the street did not create that system for the rich, nor the people just above who are financially struggling to make means end. Who made the system, those who benefit by it? They certainly maintain their system of equality. I would venture to say if in a point in history people find cooperation works better then inequality it will be used. We have to look at the larger picture of environment, history, and the interplay of many systems that come together to determine why a group chose equality, or I should say closer to equality, as sociologists have never found perfect equality in any in-depth studies of groups and cultures.


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