Islam vs. Feminism
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Feminism has radically altered Western culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Perhaps no other social movement has wrought such profound changes in social mores and attitudes. Sexual revolution and liberation meant that sexual relations should be freed of the constraints associated with traditional Christian virtue. The gay rights movement extended the demand for freedom regarding sexual relations to homosexuality. Moral censorship was relaxed in print media, cinema and television, and pornography burgeoned. General standards of taste in speech and behavior developed in response to the dictates of prints, films and broadcasts. Family ties were weakened and the divorce rate soared. In Scandinavia it is estimated that roughly half of all infants are born to unwed mothers.

It was bewilderingly abrupt relaxation of the restraints of centuries…

The sudden sexual revolution was not just the lifting of censorship, Landlords and hostlers, long forbidden by law to accommodate unwed couples, could now be told not to ask personal questions…

The courts were left facing stubborn new problems regarding marital or quasi-marital responsibilities and titles to property. Deeper dislocations of a social kind are being wrought by the weakening of the family![1]

At the same time, women became in increasingly visible force in the workplace, the academy and the political arena, the most outspoken among whom have been feminists.

The changes mentioned are not solely the work of feminists. The anti-establishment attitudes among the youth of the 1960’s and the popularity enjoyed by the left contributed to these changes and to support for feminism itself. Nevertheless, feminist thought has been a major force in the social upheaval in the West since the sixties it continues to exert its influence, and among the explicit goals feminists have advocated, have been the abolition of the family and traditional gender roles, to which ends they have championed homosexuality and promiscuity.

Feminists have managed to set standards for the use of ‘non-sexist language’ in most universities and publishing houses, the most visible result of which has been an explosion of the population of feminine pronouns. They have also managed to enforce their own preferences in areas as diverse as script employment practices. They have introduced a popular jargon in terms of which important social issues are debated, and they have begun to export their ideology abroad.

Feminism began to establish itself in areas outside the West through its use by colonial powers to undermine local culture in the areas under their control, and although it was met with some resistance, particularly among Muslims, there continues to be a great deal of confusion about what feminism is, about its goals, history and branches.

In what follows, a brief introduction to feminism and its history is presented, with particular attention to philosophical and theological issues relevant to Islam. There follows a comparison between feminist and Islamic doctrines in which their utter incompatibly is elucidated. Finally, some observations are drawn with regard to the Islamic women’s movement.


A Brief History of Feminism Distinguished from Other Women’s Movements

Women have been oppressed ever since the invention of human sin, and for nearly as long they have been engaged in the attempt to free themselves from oppression. The attempts made to end the injustices done to women, particularly when the injustices are institutionalized, may be called women’s movements. In this sense, Islam may be considered a women’s movement, because it includes a divinely ordained program for the eradication of injustice done to women. Western women, however, usually fail to recognize Islam as a women’s movement, and they restrict the term ‘women’s movement’ to the products of Western culture designed to change the status of women in society.

The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the gradual process of urbanization brought women together in the labor force outside the framework of the family, whereas in agrarian society, women worked with family members. At the same time, women were excluded from politics. The rights of man proclaimed by the French Revolution were limited to males. During the Enlightenment, women began to demand ‘emancipation’, freedom from dependency on men, educational opportunity and political rights.

Feminists would go on to make more radical claims, including among the most prominent of these: legalized abortion on demand, free love or sexual liberation, complete equality with men and the abolition of differentiation of the roles of the sexes. Feminism is often defined as a movement seeking full equality of rights with men, but it is important to emphasize that the equality of rights sought by feminists goes far beyond equality under the law. Feminism aims at the eradication of any difference in social roles based on gender difference, and this is what distinguishes it from other women’s movements.[2] Nevertheless, the feminist movement includes within its ranks writers and activists who differ on many fundamental issues in philosophy, politics and morals. What unites them is the social ideal of the elimination of traditional gender roles. Feminism may thus be defined as a branch of the women’s movement that aims at the elimination of traditional gender roles. However, confusion exists about the use of the term feminism’, for there are writers who fail to distinguish feminism from the more general women’s movement.

The focus of attention in what follows will be on feminist philosophy (including political philosophy) and feminist theology, however, among the important feminist writings there are also works on psychoanalysis, jurisprudence and literacy criticism.


Feminism and Socialism

Perhaps the first use of the term ‘feminism’ was in the early nineteenth century by the socialist, Charles Fourier (1772-1837). The followers of another early socialist, Henry de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), introduced the androgyny principle, according to which there was a mixed male and female being at the beginning of history. (Muslims will find it amusing to learn that Saint-Simon’ disciples went to Turkey to seek the female savior after having lost hope of finding a truly free woman in Europe!) Socialist feminists advocated the abolition of any division of labor along sex specific lines, and called for quotas whereby half of all the positions in every field of employment are to be filled by women.

With the domination of Marxism among the various forms of socialism, socialist feminism also came to be dominated by Marxist feminism, first elaborated in 184 by Fredrick Engels in Der Ursprung der Families (The Origin of the Family). In this work Engles demands the abolition of the family, uniform integration of men and women into the labor force and the communally raising of children in order to achieve equality among all people and an end to the domination of one person over another.

Although socialism has lost popularity in recent years and Marxism, in particular, seems on the verge of extinction, a political left continues to survive, even in America, especially in academic. As the academia left has also welcomed feminism, so too, Marxist ideas continue to find expression in the writings of important feminist leaders.

Perhaps the most notable lesson feminists have learned from Marxists is their polemical style. Articles on feminism, even those printed in such reputable works as the Encyclopedia of Ethics and Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy do not merely describe the work of feminists, they actively advocate the abolition of traditional gender roles for the sake of the liberation of women. Like Marxists, feminists have also adopted an ideologically charged rhetoric with which to declaim their analyses and polemics. Often the language used is directly inspired by Marxist terminology, even when Marxism is itself explicitly rejected.

More orthodox Marxist and socialist feminists argue that the oppression of women has its roots in the class system, and that the system must be overturned in order to liberate women. Feminist critics of Marxist feminism has argued that the labor of women through housework is exploited by men regardless of the class system, so that the class analysis is insufficient and must be supplemented by an analysis of exploitation based on gender.


Feminist Philosophy

Certainly the most famous of feminist philosophers of the twentieth century was Simon de Beauvoir (1908-0986). In 1949 she published Deuxidme Sex (The Second Sex) in which she elaborated an existentialist Marxist analysis of the relations between men and women. As existentialist thought emphasizes the radical freedom of the individual to arbitrarily choose his essence, de Beauvoir makes the dramatic claim that one’s gender is also a matter of choice. To the extend that biology would seem to indicate otherwise, she finds biology degrading. Biology gives men a freedom from reproductive processes that women lack, so she sees femininity as an obstacle to being truly human. Later feminists have criticized de Beauvoir for her disparagement of female anatomy and for advocating that women take men’s roles in society. Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that her work set out what would become major themes of later feminist writing: the difference between sex and gender (biological and social sexual characteristics), concern with autobiography seen as a political statement, and the need to draw upon various disciplines in the analysis of gender roles.

While de Beauvoir’s feminism has much in common with the existentialism of Jean Paul Sarte, more recent feminists have drawn from the philosophies of Michael Foucault and Jaques Deride to apply the methods of genealogical analysis and deconstruction to issues pertaining to gender, including women’s roles in society, women’s psychology, and the political oppression of women.

Feminists, however, have not merely made use of philosophical trends for their own purposes; they have also elaborated positions in virtually all the major areas of philosophy. Hence, there are feminist readings of the history of philosophy, feminist philosophy of science, feminist epistemology, feminist social and political philosophy, feminist social and political philosophy, feminist ethics and even feminist ontology. The Society for Women in Philosophy was founded in 1972 whose journal, Hypatia, publishes articles on feminist philosophy.

In the history of philosophy, feminists have concerned themselves with two major projects. First, a number of works have been written that aim to disclose bias against women or gender stereotypes in the writings of Western philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to John Rawls. Descartes has been a particular target of these sorts of critique. Second, there has been an attempt to emphasize the importance of women philosophers throughout history.[3] A major accomplishment in this program was the publication of Mary Ellen Waih’s three-volume A History of Women Philosophers.[4]

Feminist philosophy of science and epistemology has for the most part sought to refute claims to the objectivity of science and knowledge, and to identify gender bias in the works of scientists and philosophers. Modeled on the Marxist idea that culture is a superstructure that reflects class interests, feminist ‘standpoint theories’ advocate the idea that a specifically feminine view of the world is possible when science is practiced from a woman’s perspective.[5] A current topic of debate in feminist philosophy of science and epistemology is whether emphasis on the uniqueness of the female perspective implies relativism or a denial of objective truth.

Feminist approaches to ethics place a strong emphasis on politics. They are more concerned with power than goodness, and often provide criticism of the ways in which traditional ethics contributes to the subordination and oppression of women. Allison Jagger, for example, suggests that feminist ethics should provide guides to action that will subvert the subordination of women.[6]

Lesbian feminists have proposed a feminist ethics based on the proposition that women cannot enter a relationship with men without becoming victims of subjugation, and that lesbian communities should construct their own ethics on the basis of a quest for freedom and self-identity rather than the good, and choice rather than duty.[7] Lesbians have played an important role in the feminist movement, and although not all feminists are advocates of lesbianism, feminists generally condone lesbianism as an implication of the attack on traditional gender roles.[8]

Feminists have also been critical of those who have proposed a particularly feminine ethics. For example, the renowned moral psychologist, Carol Gilligan, has proposed that an ethics of care is more suitable to explain the moral development of girls than the ethics of justice by her mentor, Lawrence Kohlberg, to explain the moral development of boys.[9]

Feminists respond that Giligan places too much emphasis on the virtue of caring for women because this may serve to support rather than undermine established gender differentiation. Likewise, feminists reject the feminine ethics proposed by ethicists that focus on the moral insights to be gained through an examination of maternal relationships. Feminists argue that by giving primacy to women’s roles as mothers’ feminine ethics fails to encourage women to gain the traits necessary to overturn patriarchy and gender bias.

An important part of the feminist polemic is the insistence that traditional gender roles based on sexual differences is wrong, that patriarchy is a form of oppression and subjugation of women, that women have been unjustly marginalized and ignored, that women’s rights have been violated. So, there is a moral demand in feminism for the subversion of patriarchal social arrangements, for the rewriting of history, for the critique of every element of culture dominated by a male perspective, including (to mention but a few) art, psychology, theology and ethics itself.


[1]  W.V. Quine, Quiddities (Cambridge: Harvad University Press 1987), p. 207-208

[2]  The Duden German dictionary feminism as a “direction within the women’s movement that strives for a new self-understanding by women and the abolition of the traditional separation of roles. “Duden 1, 20th ed. (Manheim, 1991), p. 267. Cited in and corroborated with other references to leading feminists in Germany in Mansfield Hauke, God or Goddess? (San Fransisco: 1995), p. 20-21 This article is deeply indebted to Hauke’s book and all the references to German feminists as well as much other material is taken from Hauke’s citations or summarized from his discussions.

[3]  See A. Nye Philosophy and Feminism: At the Border (New York: 1995).

[4] Mary Ellen Waith, A history of Women philosophers 3 vols. (Dordrecht: 1987-1991).

[5]  See Sandra Harding, whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from women’s lives (Inthaca: 1991).

[6] Allison Jagger, “Feminist Ethics”, in L. Becker and C. Becker, eds, The Encylopedia of Ethics (New York: Car-land, 1992).

[7] Sarah Lucia Hoogland, Lesbian Ethics (Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988)

[8] See Christa Mulack, Naturlich Weiblick (Stuttgart: 1990).

[9] Carol Gilligan, In a different voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Authors: Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen
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