Gökhan Bacık
Nov 28 2018

Modern Islam's endless debate on women

The Tunisian cabinet recently approved a law guaranteeing gender equality in inheritance. Many Muslims see giving women the same inheritance rights as men as contradictory to the Quran, which states: “Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females.”

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, a secular politician, is behind the new proposal, but parliament, dominated by the Islamist Ennahda Movement, has to ratify the measure before it becomes law. The moderate Islamist movement previously rejected the proposal on the grounds that it is against Islamic law.

The Tunisian case reveals the contemporary Muslims rejection of egalitarian approaches to women is mostly because of the interpretation of Islamic law.

By referring to several passages in major Islamic texts, especially the Quran, contemporary Muslims are usually of the opinion that Western ideas of equality between the sexes are religiously incorrect.

A famous verse from the An-Nisa (literally women) chapter of the Quran states: “But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], beat them.”

But some respected Islamic scholars argue that such passages should be understood within their context, and thus do not represent the general Islamic view of woman.

Indeed rules governing women’s behaviour and dress abound in many cultures. For instance, in July 2017, more than 30 U.S. congresswomen wore sleeveless tops to support their "right to bare arms" in protest of a long-standing dress code.

Thus, whether in the Muslim world or in the West, it is unfair for the status of women to be based on a few laws, some of them centuries old. It is more complex than that.

One reason some contemporary Muslims dislike the egalitarian view of women is the man-made nature of Islamic tradition.

The Muslim world has never revisited the Islamic tradition through the lens of an egalitarian perspective. Thus, the Islamic tradition that still inspires contemporary Muslims has been able to protect its man-made nature. Mostly shaped by men, the Islamic tradition has a very limited ability to embrace egalitarian new thinking on key issues.

A second structural problem is the failure of contemporary Islamists to frame a new and effective way of thinking about women’s bodies and sexuality. Instead, contemporary Islamist thought has preferred a denialist approach.

Ironically, classical Muslims had a more liberal view of sex, mostly seeing it as an integral part of daily life. A quick perusal of traditional Islamic authors like Buhari and Taberi would quickly demonstrate how classical Muslims thought of sex as an ordinary element of their life.

In contrast, women’s bodies are almost taboo for contemporary Islamists. The minimalist and denialist Islamist narrative of sexuality defines it only as a “human need” that should never be contemplated publicly.

Contemporary Islamists define motherhood as the ideal form of womanhood. This decision is nothing but the result of Islamists’ failure to develop a reasonable narrative on women’s bodies and sexuality.

Indeed, Islam adores motherhood, but Islam has no message defining motherhood as the ideal form of womanhood. The idea that motherhood is the only legitimate representation of womanhood has been invented by contemporary Islamists as the best way to construct a social idea of woman without a sexual dimension.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.