The revolution for women’s rights and equality within Islam began long ago. And it was initiated and is perpetuated by Muslim women themselves.
Despite this, renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently tweeted:
Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 23, 2015
He followed this proclamation with the quotation of multiple verses from Islamic texts related to women garnering the ire of many Muslims, especially many Muslim women.
Dawkins’ statement reveals a striking lack of awareness of the existing work of Muslim women, including writings here on RD or elsewhere by Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Riffat Hassan, Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Ziba Mir Hosseini, Azizah al-Hibri, and myself among many others. It also includes the on-the-ground efforts of organizations such as Musawah, Sisters in Islam, Karamah, and W.I.S.E. Muslim Women.
These scholars, activists, and organizations have reinterpreted Qur’anic verses on women, men, gender, and sexuality; challenged laws that privilege men over women in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance; engaged in ritual practices to foster equality, such as female-led and mixed congregation prayers; and provided education to multitudes of Muslim women around the world.
Statements such as Dawkins’ also vividly highlight the multiple tensions Muslim women face in our struggles for equality and egalitarianism. We not only have to contend with patriarchal and androcentric interpretations, laws and practices that are found within Muslim traditions, but we also have to deal with negative rhetoric about Islam and Muslim women that emanates from sources outside of the tradition.
This rhetoric depicts Islam as different and foreign. And this depiction is not one of mere distinction; it is also concerned with evaluation and juxtaposition. Islam is viewed as “other,” but also as less valuable and in fundamental opposition to generally accepted norms and customs. Accounts of the plight of women in Islam are notoriously deployed to substantiate this view.
Negative rhetoric is also frequently packaged as a desire to “save” or liberate Muslim women. Concern for the well-being of Muslim women is unproblematic in itself. What is problematic is the paternalistic view that Muslim women are unconscious of their own needs and desires, incapable of articulating those needs and desires, and devoid of any agency in pursuing them.
Also problematic is the naïve assumption that Muslim women need to be and desire to be saved from Islam and Muslim men. Salvation rhetoric simplistically portrays Muslim women and Muslim men as fixed and opposite caricatures. Muslim women are voiceless, oppressed, and in need of rescue; Muslim men are oppressive, violent and opposed to egalitarianism. The saving of Muslim women therefore is seen as releasing women from the supposed twin “prisons” of Muslim men and Islam.
Muslim women continuously navigate these multiple tensions in our pursuits of equality, egalitarianism, and justice. We do this without forfeiting our diverse and deep connections with the tradition; through critical challenges to sources, interpretations and laws of the tradition; with creative and constructive visions of the tradition; and without succumbing to Islamophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
This is not new work or a new “revolution.” It is ongoing, and it is going on.
For those who genuinely ask “What can we do to help?” the answer is simple: Muslim women need allies. But allies are not saviors, disparagers, or dictators. Allies listen with depth, humility and compassion. Allies amplify the voices of others, rather than their own. And allies come to the table with a respect for the humanity, diversity and agency of those they wish to support.