Can Islam be Feminist?


“Their Lord responded to them: ‘I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another’” [3:195]

Progressives are crippled by a fear of Islamophobia. We recognize the historical dangers of moral absolutism, and so we are wary to criticize outsiders. But this fear can blind us to the reality of ideologies and forces us to take for granted the ability to criticize without hate. I do not believe Islam is that incompatible with the West, and as a materialist, I’m obligated to say that there is no Clash of Civilizations, a mere byproduct of colonial rationalizations that caste the East as monolithic and the West as dynamically diverse. None of this however, precludes me from criticizing aspects of Islam, and one of these criticisms is against the attempts of liberal Muslims to frame their beliefs as feminist.

Feminists Muslims argue Islam has been misunderstood by the West, and that its perceived patriarchal nature is due to erroneous interpretations upheld by global sexism, a force that affects the West as much as the Islamic World. I agree with this to some extent. For instance, it is clear that the hijab is a pre-Islamic convention forced on women by Arab traditionalists, not divine decree. In fact, before the institutionalization of patriarchal Islam, Muslim women enjoyed progressive freedoms, including participation in warfare, wealth accumulation, and sexual freedom (relative to the West at the time). Feminist Muslims are correct in saying that the Quran is an interpretable text that needs to be placed in a social context, rather than read literally; it may be the literal word of God, but God speaks in poetry as much as He lays down commands.

Progressive Muslims however, don’t fully understand Western modernity (by which I mean, the norms of the Enlightenment). When we call for gender equality, we implicitly desire an egalitarian society. Muslims deviate in their definition of equality, which they treat broadly. Specifically, Islam primarily calls for equality in worth, while the West requires equality in rights.

Let’s consider three forms of feminism:

Liberal Feminism: Gender is a social construct, but biological sex isn’t. As such, we can continue categorizing humans dichotomously as a general rule, although we should acknowledge that there are small deviations (i.e. intersex). Practically, men and women differ in physiological ways that affect their psychological and physical beings, but beyond those natural differences, all sexes should be given the same opportunities.

Postmodernist Feminism: Gender and biological sex are social constructs. Instead, humanity is organized as a spectrum that we shouldn’t force into neat categories. Just as we don’t classify humans by their belly button type since we don’t think the differences are important, so too we shouldn’t classify them by sex. For instance, we should not say that “women are able to give birth,” but simply that “some humans are able to give birth,” since the latter does not cast barren “women” as anomalies. This approach relies strongly on language.

Islamic Feminism: Both gender and sex exists, and they are tied together. This means that men should live in a particular social realm that women cannot enter, and men possess certain rights only available to them. Likewise, women also live in a unique realm. This however, does not mean that they are unequal. Since God loves both genders equally, they both have equal spiritual worth. As an analogy, compare the Canadian dollar to the US dollar; both are relatively equal in worth, yet each can only be used in their own countries.

Admittedly Postmodern Feminism isn’t a mainstream position in the West, but I do believe that’s where Liberal Feminism is headed. Even if it isn’t, Islamic Feminism is still very distinct from liberalism. The barrier that Islam is unable to cross is its semi-naturalistic worldview – that things are the way it is just because it is, because God says so. God may be a poet, but there is a limit to His symbolism. As such, it is misleading when progressives tell us that Islam is actually feminist. What they actually mean is that Islam doesn’t have to be as sexist as it is, but by Western standards, Islam is necessarily sexist. This is because no matter how far left Islam is pushed, its worldview will always require two distinct realms. This is something that modernity cannot accept, as it calls for equal worth, opportunities, and outcomes.

There is a caveat however. While Islam is innately sexist when compared to Western modernity, it is not exclusively so. The racism of the Clash of Civilizations argument is that it ignores how many ideologies within the West exhibit the same norms we criticize in Islam – in other words, how many native ideologies are themselves not “Western.” For instance, like Islam, it would be difficult to find Christian clerics who will accept Liberal Feminism. Despite this, many lay Christians are able to rationalize their Christian identity with their Feminist one, sometimes in contradiction. Why are we so reluctant to believe that Muslims can too?