Politics Magazine

Oxford Union Debate: “This House Believes Islam is Incompatible with Gender Equality”

Posted on the 23 May 2014 by Mfrancoiscerrah @MFrancoisCerrah

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This is the transcript of the debate I (and my team) won at the Oxford Union on Thursday 23rd of May, 2014, opposing the motion: “This House Believes Islam Is Incompatible with Gender Equality”
Final results: 166 opposition, 51 proposition

Ladies and gentleman, I’m here with you this evening to oppose this motion because I believe my ‎faith, Islam, is underpinned by a core principle of justice, which necessarily implies the full equality ‎of men and women. Moreover I urge you to think carefully about the infantilising and frankly ‎patronising implications of suggesting that Muslim women just don’t really know what’s good for ‎them.‎
But the significance of this topic and your recognition that it is entirely legitimate and coherent to ‎be both a Muslim, a practitioner of Islam, and to believe the faith is not only compatible with ‎gender equality, but fundamentally demands it, is far bigger than my personal, particularly ‎privileged position on the issue.‎

I’d like to draw your attention to the story of the little known activists doing the hard graft on the ‎ground. Khatoon Shaikh is a campaigner from one of India’s slums who, despite her lack of formal ‎education, decided to challenge injustices she saw meted out to women. She did this by ‎establishing a sharia court, which reclaims Islamic texts through a feminist perspective, challenging ‎prevailing patriarchy in the justice system and demanding gender parity. For her, like for millions of ‎women worldwide, Islam is an ethical framework of reference through which to affirm their ‎absolute equality with men. ‎

As a Muslim feminist, I’m acutely aware of the struggle over authority and meaning within Islam. ‎As Muslims, we can’t control who interprets the faith or how. But we can call people out for ‎inconsistencies between the proclaimed authenticity of their interpretation, and the very sources ‎they claim to derive their legitimacy from. ‎

I could have spent this entire speech highlighting ways in which the Quran seeks to affirm the ‎equality of men and women, but one simple saying by Prophet Mohamed (pbuh), who is referred ‎to as the embodiment of the Quran, sums it up: “Certainly, women are the equals of men, ‎whomever honours them is honorable, and whomever disdains them is worthy of disdain” (Imam ‎Ahmad).‎

What you’ve unknowingly stepped into via this debate is a struggle over religious authority in Islam ‎and who actually gets to speak for ‘Islam’. Really what supporting this motion would mean is ‎validating those with the power to assert their sexist interpretations – in other words, upholding ‎the view that those, predominantly men in power, somehow get to define Islam, and this, typically ‎at the expense of women. ‎

What you may not be aware of, is an ongoing struggle by a movement of Islamic reformists, for the ‎re-insertion of women’s voices. Religious literalists uphold the idea that they alone have the ‎authority to dictate to women where they belong and that usually is not far from the stove. ‎
But many other Muslims, male and female would dispute their religious authority, pointing to ‎empowering precedents of Muslim female leaders, businesswomen, scholars, activists, judges ‎from Islam’s inception onwards. What is often missing in discussions about the very real injustices ‎experienced by some Muslim women is a profound and nuanced understanding of the intersecting ‎circles of oppression they experience, and the consequent impact on Muslim women’s ability to ‎define the faith. ‎

After all, how in the face of illiteracy, is a woman meant to become a religious leader? How can ‎Muslim women assume positions of political authority within the context of widespread political ‎dictatorships, which are themselves a form of neo-patriarchy? ‎

Like many Muslim feminists, I spend a significant portion of my life unpicking the presumed truism ‎that Islam promotes gender inequality, both among some of my co-religionists and within broader ‎society. I am a feminist because I recognize there is a problem with misogyny in all societies and I’m ‎a Muslim feminist because I firmly believe that my faith, Islam, is inherently egalitarian.‎
It never ceases to amaze how much overlap can be found between the position of religious ‎puritanicals and those who try and claim Islam is inherently misogynistic. In many ways, the ‎positions are co-dependent, since the assumption that sexist interpretations represent an ‎authentic reflection of the faith, is critical to the argument that Islam is inherently misogynistic.‎

The problem is, such a position only really emboldens the sexism, it only serves to confirm the ‎perception of puritanicals that they, alone, reflect a true vision of the faith and that those of us ‎who refer to example of Prophet Mohamed as a pioneering feminist – who insisted on women’s ‎education, religious authority and tied the very notion of piety to the just treatment of women – ‎are either naïve or just plain deluded. ‎

I have no doubt that today the proposition will pull out decontextualized verses from the Quran ‎and herald them as a damning indictment of Islam’s inherent misogyny. What I would urge you to ‎do is not fall into the trap of thinking that sacred texts are books from which random excerpts can ‎be pulled and the significance of which is seemingly obvious. Let me assure you that is not the ‎case. ‎
The Quran is a context specific set of revelations which cannot be read without due consideration ‎of the higher objective of any given injunction. There is good reason theology is an actual academic ‎discipline – it requires years of study to understand how practitioners of a faith approach their ‎textual sources and one does a huge disservice to religion by claiming anyone can pick up the ‎Quran and understand what is intended by the text.‎

Similarly, I’m sure Iran or Saudi Arabia will be touted as examples of Islam’s inherent inequity ‎towards women, but the question does pose itself – Who says that the pseudo religious practises ‎of a given state actually represent the most authentic reflection of Islamic theology? In fact, the ‎entrenched sexism institutionalised in these countries has far more to do with political interests ‎and literalist interpretation, than with careful consideration of a faith which, in its earliest ‎incarnation, sought to radically reverse the deep misogyny of a society which buried its daughters ‎alive and treated women as chattel. ‎

Back in the 7th century when it was revealed, Islam instated a new set of values according to which ‎women have inalienable rights, among them the right to choose your spouse, the right to divorce, ‎to earn your own money, to take on public including political roles, to inherit and much more. But ‎above all else, Islam brought a message of fundamental human equality.‎

You will rightfully ask, if Islam has given women such clearly defined rights and established their ‎fundamental equality, why do so many Muslim communities reflect such inequities between the ‎sexes. The truth is there is no simple answer. Certainly, the marginalisation of female voices within ‎Islamic scholarship historically has given men free reign to institutionalise their authority and ‎cement it through the construction of religious legitimation. ‎

The consequence is a body of scholarship which perpetuates male privilege and a political body ‎which justifies its discriminatory practices through reference to those same texts. ‎
But to locate the root of women’s unequal treatment in religion, is to minimise the very real ‎multifaceted struggles women face –poverty, famine, disease, illiteracy, violence, occupation, war. ‎In other words, claiming Islam is to blame for women’s oppression is to be essentially blind to ‎‎“intersectionality” namely to the impact of the interrelated systems of race, gender, class, ‎ethnicity, etc.‎

Support for today’s motion equates to denying women agency in defining their faith and rejecting ‎the legitimacy of their struggles for equality expressed through paradigms which are meaningful to ‎them. ‎
You might aswell suggest that the Taliban extremists who shot Muslim educational activist, Malala ‎‎(Yousafzai) are actually the true representatives of Islam. Such neat binaries which present religion ‎as the source of all evil fail to recognize the value of religion to millions around the world and its ‎transformative potential, sometimes for bad, but often also for good. ‎

To quote the Iranian Muslim Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi: “An interpretation of Islam ‎that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion ‎that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”‎

To support this motion is to lend credence to the likes of Boko Haram in Nigeria who kidnap young ‎girls and claim their education is a sin, rather than recognising the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims ‎who demand justice for women because of their faith, not despite it. ‎

Illustrating this is the largest ever study of Muslim public opinion globally by Gallup, which indicates ‎that religiosity does not actually correlate with less egalitarian views towards women, but rather ‎that in the majority of countries, men who support women’s rights were actually found to be more ‎religious.‎

What opposing this motion is truly about is recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all call for ‎gender equality. What there should be is a recognition of the myriad ways in which women ‎express their full emancipation, and sufficient respect for the intellect and integrity of Muslim ‎women to recognize that they are not passive victims of their religion, but active combatants in ‎reclaiming its true nature.‎

I’m asking you to oppose this motion because the struggle for gender equality is not the struggle of ‎white, secular middle class feminists – it is a struggle for justice and humanity which innumerable ‎devout Muslims around the world are involved in every day. By failing to acknowledge the ‎legitimacy of their voices in the struggle against gender oppression, by marginalising those who ‎articulate gender equality in terms other than our own, we only ultimately succeed in weakening ‎the struggle for gender equality itself. ‎

Islam isn’t just compatible with gender equality, it is a meaningful articulation of the full humanity ‎of women for millions around the world. I urge you to oppose this motion.‎
Thank you.‎

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