Islam, Modernity, and Gender Equality
First, it is necessary to make a few preliminary remarks as to the ambition and format of this article. It is mainly a statement of opinion that aims at pointing out, and linking together a few topical issues.
It does not aim at bringing a scholarly contribution to the subject. It takes as a starting point the fact that philosophical and theological debates among scholars are rich and enlightening, but that not all of them are then disseminated to the public and become part of the democratic debate.
The blame is not to be put on theologians and scholars, given that this situation is mostly due to the tensions within the societies in which they are immersed. The richness of their contributions is sometimes overshadowed by current events, and in dictatorships, is sometimes purely and simply silenced.
To overcome this situation, it is necessary to link philosophical and theological debates to recent political developments. It is also necessary to understand that all the participants to this debate, me included, talk from a certain vantage point, and that this vantage point considerably conditions the content of their stances.
Before we turn to the question of Islam and gender equality, it is necessary to first have an understanding of the relations between Islam and modernity, which must be framed in the context of a general crisis of religious and national identities.
Islam and Modernity
It is in this rather frightening context of crisis that the reflexions and conversations on Islam and modernity take place. Beliefs and behaviours are far from being monolithic in Muslim and non-Muslim societies, so it appears that we are rather witnessing an implosion of civilisations, than a clash between them.
An observer of our time is thus taken by simultaneous and contradictory feelings: on the one hand, a feeling of peace arising from the peaceful behaviour of most of believers and non-believers, Muslims and non-Muslims; and yet, on the other hand, an increase in violence that is very worrisome in spite of the fact that it remains the result of a tiny minority, because this growing violence cannot be totally explained by socio-economic factors.
Conservative schools of thought in Islamic theology use, like a growing fraction of conservative politicians in the “west”, religion as an “identity shield”. They preach a supposed “Islamic exceptionalism” that would allow Islam to be shielded from modernity. Their defiance towards modernity does not extend to the point of negating all its benefits, but they generally remain reluctant to give up on a general aversion for the protection of the individual, and instead of emphasizing on the spiritual content of Islam, they rather assimilate it with a mere list of prohibitions.
Recent political developments, including the development of erratic Jihadism worldwide, have put conservative theologians under pressure. Many of them have publicly denounced “Jihadism”, and the so-called “Islamic state”, and the vast majority of them seem to be sincere.
However, their insincerity resides in the fact that they could not have the intellectual and moral courage to recognize, that, albeit there is no common criminal intent between them and the “jihadists”, they nevertheless share a common imaginary world. They both adhere to a dangerously naïve conception of the Bedouin Arab society of the VIth century, which is ultimately a source of radicalism and violence.
Radicalism is meeting a particularly fertile ground today. A first example lies in the fact that the crises the developed industrial world is facing are not only economic, but also spiritual and metaphysical. As M. Tareq Oubrou rightly states it, there is in modern societies a “savage comeback to religion”. And on the other side, a now sizeable proportion of “western” elites are reactivating the old project of civilising the rest of the world. It makes more difficult the pursuit of an authentically progressive agenda, given that such progressive initiatives are labelled by conservatives within Muslim communities as a form of “intelligence with the enemy”.
It is very unfortunate, given that these initiatives are utterly needed, and are probably the first way to encourage individuals to find peace within themselves, with the others, and as a result, at a macro level, between civilisations.
In developing and emerging countries, which constitutes most of our world, ancient cultural forms are threatened by a world that is more and more connected, and challenged by the combined forces of mass alphabetisation and demographic transition. Tensions are also exacerbated by the fact that globalisation sometimes degrade further the conditions of existence of the most fragile populations in these countries, and they often see a rigorist conception of religion, Islam or others, as a form of moral support.
There is another difficulty in trying to define the relations between Islam and modernity, and this one is not about the context, it is about the terms in which the debate is usually conducted. Many participants use the term “reform of Islam”. If their intent is generally positive, it seems nevertheless problematic to define the debate in these terms.
Speaking of a “reform of Islam” could suggest that Islam is from the origin a static, defined normative object, and that this object should now be reformed to adapt it to present times. This proposal contains both right and wrong assertions.
Adapting Islamic law to present times is an urgent task, but we should not reduce Islam to the law that it has inspired centuries ago. Before being a set of legal principles, that were enacted in a specific historical and anthropological context, Islam is a spiritual inspiration. Hence, talking about “reforming” Islam is somewhat a self-defeating way of putting the question, since it encourages conservatives who says that a “reformed Islam” is a pale copy of the supposedly “pure and authentic” version they are pushing for.
In reality, numerous progressive theologians, including M. Tareq Oubrou have shown that the sacred texts have attempted to push for equality between human beings, but that this attempt has necessarily been limited by the need to take into consideration the cultural context in which the revelation has happened. Gender equality has been a major topic and objective of the revelation, but the legal norms that have been enacted appear to be a compromise between this aim and the cultural norms that were predominant in the Bedouin Arab society at that time.
In other words, saying that there is a need to reform Islam is self-defeating in the sense that it does not recognize that Islam is in itself a reformist impulse, and a spiritual process that is expected to unfold in history. Instead of defining the problem as the need to reform, it might be preferable to say that a process has been started, and that it would be a betrayal to replicate the cultural context of the revelation instead of continuing and perpetuating the liberating spiritual impulse of the origins.
Islam and Gender Equality
It is obviously impossible to exhaustively sum up and to adequately define what are the main elements of political modernity. However, and for the purpose of this article, we can emphasize that modernity necessarily includes the protection of individual rights through principles of freedom, equality, and dignity. In this regard, gender equality is a central indicator. An illustration of it is that gender equality and social and economic development seem to be strongly correlated.
However, one needs to acknowledge that gender equality is a very contentious subject, and it is difficult to have an appeased debate on this question.
There might be a reason for that taboo. Talking about gender equality and the status of women leads most participants to talk about issues that have an intimate component, and the difficulty to have this conversation is especially acute in societies that are majority Muslims. Talking about family law, leads one, notwithstanding all the assurances of objectivity given to the public, to feel that he or she talks about HIS or HER family. Talking about gender issues creates a huge pressure, because it also puts into question one’s personal attitudes towards himself or herself, and towards the opposite sex.
As a result, there is an immense pressure that falls on the participants to the debate, especially conservative ones, who need to preserve the appearance of sainthood on which their audience and their “moral authority” is reliant. And in most cases, in theocratic countries, which conditions their material and physical safety.
It is therefore a domain in which mechanisms of denial and defence are particularly important, because behind a model of civilisation, it is often the narcissism, and the social mask, of the intellectual himself or herself that is defended.
It explains why many conservative authors can be prolific on a wide diversity of subjects, ranging from economics, political models, and ecology, while being careful when it comes to questions of personal status. On this last category of topics, they generally limit themselves to a reminder that the legal norms that have constituted the legal consensus for centuries still ought to be respected. But by avoiding these questions, they are depriving themselves from the ability of actually helping out people who are rightfully dissatisfied with medieval legal norms that are not adapted to their life and their time.
It is probably not realistic to expect everyone to have a thorough understanding of the Arab Bedouin society, including myself (I am not a historian nor an anthropologist). But a superficial description of it is necessary to understand the philosophy behind the medieval legal status applicable to women.
In the Bedouin Arab society, it seems that women had very limited rights regarding the issues of marriage, but also had a generally very limited capacity when it came to contracts, like in many medieval societies. The Islamic legal prescriptions of that time relative to women must be put into this context. It seems non-controversial to say that the legal prescriptions of the Qur’an relative to women were considerably more liberal and egalitarian than the cultural standards of the Arab Bedouin society. The mere limitation of polygamy, and the fact that women received only half the heritage of a man, appears legitimately unacceptable if one compares it to the standards of a modern society. But if one compares these prescriptions to the cultural norms of a society that granted very few rights to women, it appears as a considerable progress. By focusing on the letter of these prescriptions rather than on the spirit, conservative theologians refuse to be up to the challenge posed by Islam, i.e. understanding the ethics of the original text, and struggling to apply it to a changing world.
It arises from these considerations that diffusing an accessible knowledge on the Arab Bedouin society is a very powerful antidote to the idealisation of the prophetic period, which is itself the symbolic basis used by “jihadists”.
There are people who idealise the period of the revelation, and may believe that the Qur’an recognized the possibility to have sexual relations with a slave woman (Surah An-Nisa, verse 24). It is necessary to remind those people that the revelation did not happen in a social vacuum, but in a society that was brutal and imperfect, and the revelation attempted to limit and discourage social structures that were deeply unfair instead of purely and simply abolishing them. At that time, two different standards existed as to sexual morals, one for free women, and one for slaves, which shows first that this legal period does not deserve to be blindly idealised, and secondly that it is impossible in practice to transpose the legal norms of that time to present days.
Arab Bedouin society was also tribal, and patriarchal. In this society, the “honourability” of a woman was of paramount importance, and was conditioning her ability to play a social role. In this regard, the prescriptions of Islamic law relative to marriage can also be understood as following a protection rationale, instead of attempting to promote a universal and non-temporal sexual morality. The obligation for a man to marry a woman before any sexual intercourse probably aimed at regulating the behaviour of men more than that of women, given that they suffered huge social pressure to preserve their “honourability”.
Instead of being gradually reduced, the patriarchal structures that the revelation attempted to reform has progressively been assimilated to Islam itself, to a point in which people struggle to distinguish the two. Two explanations can be proposed to account for this assimilation.
Firstly, one must remind that the representation of the divine comes first, whether we want it or not, a psychological fact. A believer uses his or her psyche to represent the idea of God. And in spite of the fact that the Qur’an repeatedly state that Allah is neither masculine nor feminine, it seems that, intuitively, classical “father like” representations have stayed predominant.
Secondly, the fact that Islamic Fiqh has been essentially formulated by men is obviously relevant to the fact that it has been unfavourable to women for centuries. For instance, the classical case law forbidding the marriage of a Muslim woman with a non-Muslim man has been questioned and criticised in the remarkable work of Mrs Asma Lamrabet. This prohibition is not stated explicitly in religious text, and therefore, it lies on the combination of an a contrario interpretation of the authorization given to men (Surah Al Ma’idah, verse 5), and on a verse that does not address specifically the question of marriage, but exhorts believers to “protect Muslim women from non-believers” (Surah Al Mumtahanah, verse 10).
As Mrs Asma Lamrabet rightly underlines it, it is rather the pre-eminence of patriarchal considerations than explicit and unambiguous texts that explain this inequality between men and women in classical case law.
These different debates have one thing in common. They show that the main obstacle to gender equality in the Islamic tradition is not the result of a textual incompatibility, but rather a difficulty to dissociate Islam from the cultural context of its revelation. It appears crucial to make this dissociation accessible to the public, so that the idea that faith is compatible with an evolution of norms in time becomes widely shared. It appears to be the only way to reconcile Muslims with their time, with other believers, and with non-believers. The deep psychological wound that many of them feel is caused by the scission that medieval law has created between them and the outside world, and it can be cured so that they realise their aspiration to be bound to both their spiritual world, and to the societies they live in.
 The first person to have used this useful expression seems to be the progressive theologian Tareq Oubrou.
 “La féministe et l’imam”, Marie-Françoise Colombani, Tareq Oubrou, p.30, Editions Stock, 2017.
 http://www.lescahiersdelislam.fr/Ce-que-dit-le-Coran-quant-au-mariage-des-hommes-et-des-femmes-musulmans-avec-des-non-musulmans_a441.html, and for a detailed analysis “Femmes et hommes dans le Coran : Quelle égalité ?”, Asma Lamrabet, Editions Albouraq, 2012
About the Author
Mr. Adil Sahban
Attorney, New York and Paris Bar