Friday, September 10, 2010

A feminist tries to overcome her Islamaphobia

This anniversary of September 11 has been marked by a much more virulent outbreak of Islamaphobia than we have had in the past. It’s motivated me to work on my own anti-Islamic biases. I do not want to be in that company!

My bias against Islam was not the result of 9/11. I realize most Muslims are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. For me it’s the burqas, the honor killings, the stonings.

Several months ago in a conversation with a good friend, I expressed my very negative feelings about Islamic societies' treatment of women and how, as a consequence, I could not help but feel intense dislike for the religion. She reminded me that her sister, a woman for whom I have the greatest respect, was a convert to Islam and urged me to separate the religion from the misogyny of some of the societies in which it evolved.

A week ago I was having a conversation with another good friend who was making exactly the same arguments I had been making several months ago. She was reading Hirsi Ali’s latest book and was essentially repeating Ali’s arguments that Islam was a misogynist religion which must be condemned. And I was making the very same arguments my friend with the Muslim sister had made.

With regard to Ali, I greatly admire her courage, but understand why so many Islamic feminists feel that she is undercutting the work they are doing to advance women’s rights in the Muslim world. You are not going to change people if you trash their religion.

The Islamic feminists who want to work for women’s equality without rejecting Islam are likely to make much greater progress advancing women’s rights than Hirsi Ali.

As a secular feminist, I’ve always had some difficulty understanding how important religious traditions are in most people’s lives. And it’s been particularly hard for me to understand why any woman would embrace Islam.

What I found most helpful in trying to disentangle Islam from the misogyny of many Islamic societies was Nicholas d. Kristof and Sheryl Wu's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide . (If you haven’t already read this book, it’s now in paperback.) Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the problem:

A politically incorrect point must be noted here. Of the countries where women are held back and subjected to systematic abuses such as honor killings and genital cutting, a very large proportion are pre¬dominantly Muslim. Most Muslims worldwide don't believe in such practices, and some Christians do—but the fact remains that the coun¬tries where girls are cut, killed for honor, or kept out of school or the workplace-typically have large Muslim populations.
To look at one broad gauge of well-being, of 130 countries rated in 2008 by the World Economic Forum according to the status of women, 8 of the bottom 10 were majority Muslim. Yemen was in last place, with , Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan right behind it. No Muslim country ranks in the top 40. Kazakhstan ranks highest, at number 45, followed by Uzbekistan, at 55.

They argue that these attitudes are better viewed as cultural rather than religious practices. Just as attitudes towards women have evolved in Christianity and Judaism, we are witnessing a nascent move towards gender equality in the Muslim world. They note the cultural attitudes which have already changed:

A useful analogy is slavery. Islam improved the position of slaves compared to their status in pre-Islamic societies, and the Koran encourages the freeing of slaves as a meritorious act. At the same time, Muhammad himself had many slaves, and Islamic law unmistakably accepts slavery. Indeed, Saudi Arabia abolished slavery only in 1962 and Mauritania in 1981. In the end, despite thse deep cultural ties, the Islamic word ahs entirely renounced slavery. If the Koran can be read differently today because of changing attitudes towards slaves, then why not emancipate women as well?

Half the Sky is a hopeful book. I had resisted reading it because I expected it to be depressing. A friend encouraged me to read it as the stories Kristof and WuDunn tell are primarily about resistance rather than oppression.

The struggle for women’s rights around the globe is the major battle of the 21st century. After reading the book, I thought if I were a young woman trying to decide on a career path I would choose working on women’s rights in the international arena. I’d try to get a degree in something like international economic development with a gender emphasis. (It would have been difficult—there’s a reason I was an English major.)

Unfortunately, at this stage in my life my contribution will be primarily a financial one. The final section of Kristof and WuDunn’s book contains a valuable list of resources and various ways to contribute to the cause of women’s rights around the globe.

Their book is a powerful argument that those who want to fight gender inequality in the Muslim world must resist simplistic notions of Islam and instead view Islamic traditions as complex and evolving. It changed my mind.


  1. I followed Kristof and WuDunn's trip in the newspaper but avoided the book because, like you, I didn't want to be depressed. That's the same reasoning people used to avoid seeing Precious (the movie)and yet it was redemptive, just as you say this book is uplifting. I'm clicking and buying - if nothing else, it's another strike for the triumph of the written word on the acid-free page.

    Most religions seem to divide and conquer - gender, ownership, color, family lineage (eg Jews with the distinctions between Cohen's, Levi's and all the rest known as Israelites. There are times when poor, brain-damaged Rodney King's words ring true - can't we all get along?

    Thanks for this.

  2. Ashleigh,
    I would love to read your thoughts on Half the Sky. When you finish reading it, maybe you might want to write a review on your blog. I would be happy to cross post it.

    I just discovered your blog at

    Great stuff! I’m going to add it to my blogroll.