The Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), a member of the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS) in Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), held its specialised seminar on Islamic ethics and gender issues at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, UK on 19-21 May 2015. Prominent scholars from both streams of knowledge i.e. religious knowledge of the text and contemporary knowledge of the context, joined the three-day discussions on this highly controversial and important topic.
From the religious scholars, CILE received valuable contributions from Dr Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi, currently an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia; Dr Farida Zomorrod, Professor of Qur’an Interpretation (Tafsir) and Sciences at Dar-Al Hadith Al Hassania for Higher Islamic Studies; Dr Roqaia Taha Jabir Al Ulwani, an Associate Professor at the University of Bahrain; and Dr Muthanna Amin Nader, Muslim scholar and currently a Member of Parliament of Iraq and President of the Kurdistan Muslim Union Party.
From the context scholars, CILE received valuable contributions from Dr Terrell Carver, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK; Dr Mamoun Mobayed, who is both Consulting Psychiatrist and Director of the Department for Treatment and Rehabilitation at the Behavioural Health Care Centre (BHC), Qatar, and Professor of Psychology at the Community College, Qatar.
For the first time, we also had scholars whose knowledge cuts across both the text and context fields: Dr Serene Jones, the 16th President of the historic Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and President-elect of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist, specializing in Islamic law, gender, and development and a Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, University of London. Dr Jones brought to the seminar the perspective of feminism from within Christian theology and Dr Mir-Hosseini, the perspective of Muslim feminism.
As per CILE’s usual practice, the first day grounded the discussions in the theoretical basis of gender relations by considering issues of authority and its philosophical foundations. In his response to the question of how to develop a framework of referential authority for gender issues based on the Shari’a texts and objectives (including equity, masculinity and femininity, relationships and roles, and their effect on legal rulings), Dr El-Mesawi presented an insightful contribution entitled, “Gender Issues in Islam: ‘Recovering the Measure’ and Restoring the Balance”.
Dr El-Mesawi maintained that feminist literature relating to gender and specifically the concept of woman, projects men and women as two opposing camps and furthermore, that the related challenges and solutions are framed within an opposing relationship between the “dominant secular West”, which calls for women’s liberation, and the “weak East,” which resists women’s rights. Dr El-Mesawi explained that in both these cases, the concept of woman has been reduced to issues relating veiling/unveiling; women’s bodies and sexuality; and between “the ‘liberating ultra-feminists’ or ‘conservative and fundamentalist anti-feminists’”. Dr El-Mesawi proposed an alternative, holistic approach, one which addresses the challenges by considering them in relation to all humans—both women and men—and one which is grounded in the Qur’anic worldview instead of using these reductionist approaches.
He indicated that the Qur’an considers women and men as human beings, with each having two important components—materiality and spirituality—and who both have superiority above all creatures due to their ability to use knowledge and reasoning. Both women and men are created from one soul (nafs, in Arabic). This understanding of human creation is the basis for gender relations between women and men. Both women and men, regardless of their sexual differences, received the divine commands. Dr El-Mesawi pointed out that the Qur’an also reveals how women and men naturally and reciprocally cling to each other and how the relationship between them is one of “complementarity and solidarity.”
Professor Jones agreed with Dr El-Mesawi’s ethical and religious framework, within which he addressed gender issues. As a Christian theologian, she argued that most knowledge produced with regard to gender relations and challenges for women has come from secularist viewpoints. Moreover, in Islam, gender issues are further framed within neo-colonial ideologies and the relationship between the East and the West. She confirmed that ideas of freedom and equality have different conceptualizations in religion. She praised the fact that the Qur’an provides support for the story of creating all humans on an equal basis as the cornerstone for gender relations, as opposed to the account of creation from the Old Testament in Christianity. She questioned the concept of complementarity and wondered if it provided a good basis for understanding justice in gender relations.
On the philosophical foundations of gender issues from a contemporary feminist perspective, Professor Terrell Carver’s paper began by confirming that gender, sex and sexuality are viewed as analytical categories for men and women in opposition. These concepts are loaded with different political ideologies which are applied by different institutions at national and local levels as well as internationally, to treat people as objects and determine their choices and freedoms. A feminist’s knowledge interrogates male-centric perspectives and considers that sex and gender are no longer merely defined within the parameters of biology. Femininity and masculinity are concepts through which gender is understood to distinguish female from male behaviour. Through the performativity of both, masculinity and femininity maintain a kind of gender hierarchy and place men and masculinity in a superior position, with political and economic power, in opposition to women. For Professor Carver, gender is an ideology of power, and gender equality is a problematic concept in itself since it is based on hierarchy and favours masculinity and men.
In his response to Professor Carver, Dr Muthanna Amin Nader considered the meaning of the term “gender”, reviewed the different schools of feminism, and emphasized the differences between feminism and women’s liberation movements. He argued that feminist movements are pro-Western and promote certain ideologies which are not acceptable to Muslim communities. Dr Nader reasoned that Islam grants women certain rights and so, in his opinion, the important issue is to provide an alternative to gender relations based on the Qur’an and an accurate interpretation of the Islamic understanding of equality and justice.
On the second day, discussions focused on issues of gender in terms of experience and application. In the Islamic approaches to the issues of rights and duties of men and women, Dr Roqaia Taha Jabir Al Ulwani began her presentation by referring to the importance of terminology, the fact that words are ideologically loaded, and that all of this is related to issues of identity. She referred to the term “gender” and its different definitions in Western feminist discourse. She also discussed how this term is applied worldwide by United Nation institutions. Dr Al Ulwani considered the different meanings of family and the family role of both men and women in Islam, compared to the Western understanding of family that is based on individualism. She provided and called for a balanced discourse on gender issues and gender relations, one based on the Islamic conceptualization of equality, justice and freedom. This should be based on a framework of Islamic reference and the higher objectives of Islam as represented by monotheism and vicegerency.
In his response, Dr Mamoun Mobayed agreed with Dr Al Ulwani’s concerns regarding the different meanings of particular terms, yet he also expressed concern that this focus on language could create difficulties in achieving a mutual understanding. At the same time, he recognised that this was a natural consequence of the diversity of human thought. He confirmed that the biological differences between men and women are mentioned in the Qur’an. He referred to the different meanings of the term “gender” and called for differentiation between gender in relation to sexual identity disorders, and gender relating to socialization and the impact of social and cultural norms. He considered that a better understanding of the latter could lead to positive changes for some of the currently unjust gender relations between men and women, for example the expected societal roles of both men and women. Dr Mobayed also commended the positive understanding of gender advocated by the UN and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). He too referred to the value of family in Islamic thought as contrasted with the understanding of the concept of family based on individualism, which is prevalent in some societies in the West. He also referred to the different meaning of “freedom” in Muslim thought and similarly to Dr Al Ulwani, called for the adoption of a renewed model for gender relations that is based on the higher objectives of Islam and as such, surpasses both (i) extremism, which is against the principles of Islam and (ii) the rigidity in the understanding of Islam that does not consider the current challenges of our time.
In response to the question of the application of rights and duties in Muslim family law, Dr Farida Zomorrod explained that it is important to review Islamic conceptualizations of issues of gender relations within Islam with the purpose of providing new readings that are based on scientific Islamic means and methodologies. Her discussion paper critically evaluated what is known as the “Muslim feminist approach” to gender relations, where Dr Zomorrod considered that this approach is based on an incorrect understanding of Islamic conceptualization of some important issues like “equality”. She also considered that the Muslim feminists’ efforts of rereading the Qur’an missed the methodological means used by Islamic religious scholars. As an alternative, Dr Zomorrod called for the consideration of a different Islamic framework—one based on Islamic law and jurisprudence (fiqh) and the fundamental references (usul)—and then to build a new comprehensive understanding of gender relations in Islam as a combination of both text and Islamic ethical values. Dr Zomorrod maintained that there have been some discrepancies in the gender relations between men and women in Islam, mainly due to the impact of the specific culture of some Muslim societies. Her paper presented some of the methodological principles of religious rulings and the ethical principles of family law in Islam. Through her paper, Dr Zomorrod considered that the relationship between men and women is one of complementarity and based on the Islamic understanding of justice.
Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini, one of the proponents of the Muslim feminist thought, stated that Dr Zomorrod’s paper reflected the viewpoint of Islamic scholars who are specialized in the text against Islamic feminism and explained that in fact Muslim feminists—despite sharing common ground with Western feminism—don’t advocate absolute equality; they are part of the Muslim reform thought movement. Dr Mir-Hosseini argued that the goal of the Muslim feminist is to raise awareness of the discrimination against Muslim women in work and society, with the purpose of improving women’ lives. She confirmed that the feminist concept of gender goes beyond the narrow understanding of the biological differences between men and women to consider the social and cultural aspects within which both men and women live and experience. Her paper went on to illustrate the different understanding of Muslim feminists of the concept of equality, such that Muslim feminists do not deny the essential differences between men and women—as the traditionalists and Islamists who equate between equality and identicality believe—rather, that equality is needed as a principle of justice, law and for regulating power relations between men and women; this enables women’s full participation in family and society.
Dr Mir-Hosseini explained that in their methodology, Muslim feminists combine two approaches: Religious knowledge on one hand, where they differentiate religion (din) and religious knowledge (al-ma’rifah al-diniyah) i.e. the changeable from the unchangeable in the texts; and also distinguish between Shari’a and fiqh and the two main categories of legal rulings (ahkam) of ritual/spiritual acts (‘ibadat) and social/contractual acts (mu’amalat). All of which they base on the higher objectives of Islam (maqasid). On the other hand, they also benefit through contextualizing women’s actual, real-life experiences with the purpose of including women’s concerns and voices in production of religious knowledge.
The paper concludes by acknowledging the similarity of some of the aims of both Muslim feminists and the scholars of the text and finally confirms that there is room for a dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding between Muslim feminists and scholars of the text (Ulama‘).
These discussions are a welcome addition to the current literature on this topic as they cover both sides of the knowledge realm through the engagement of both kinds of scholars in mutual intellectual dialogue. Moreover, this unique forum also brought the essential concept of ethics to the subject, enriching the discussions and providing a meaningful opening to respond to the challenges of our contemporary Muslim societies, both in the East and the West. Beyond this, by adding the issue of Muslim family law as a practical legislative example of the application of knowledge, these scholars moved the discussions and thoughts about gender relations in Islam beyond merely an intellectual exercise towards the impact on the real-life experiences of both men and women. The outcomes of this seminar open the door for serious discussions in the future, aimed at providing a framework and an understanding of gender relations which is based on the higher objectives of Islam, as an alternative to what currently prevails.