This Week’s Mtg: Islam And The Role Of Women (1/13/11)

Linda’s topic, I think.  It’s a good topic, but fraught.  Lord knows what kind of crap you’d get if you Google “women in Islam.”  There’s all sorts of propaganda out there from both people who want to hate the entire Islamic faith [Update: link changed], and from apologists who would deny that Islamic societies have this problem at all.  We could sling Koranic quotes back and forth, but I don’t think any of us is qualified to debate the fine points of Islamic jurisprudence.

I still think we can have a good debate.  I hope we can avoid over-generalizing about a global religion that crosses many nations and cultures.  But, I also hope we won’t be afraid to draw conclusions, or dismiss the whole topic with the old “all religions are inherently equal in all respects” stuff.

Look , the unequal role of women is a real problem in the Islamic world, and especially in the Arab region.  A well-known U.N. report says so (in chapter 4 — the details are shocking), as do many other analyses from institutions and people who are not trying to be haters.   See, for example, this article from Der Spiegel that Chris alerted me to describes the fear that young women in Muslim areas of Europe often live with.

Let’s keep two things in mind, however.  First, “Islam” is not a monolith.  There are 1.5 buillion Muslims living in dozens of countries (See this map for how many live where), and they do not have any single approach to women’s rights.  Muslims everywhere have certain common beliefs and they read the same holy book.  But, Islam has no Vatican-like central religious authority to set doctrine, and, like Christianity, engages in a constant struggle to interpret the faith’s teachings for the modern era.  The role of women is a key concern.  Not all Muslims are fundamentalists, and certainly not Taliban-like in their outlook.  

Second, lets distinguish the influence of religion from that of culture more broadly.  All traditional societies treat women abysmally, from our perspective.  A recent book I read on traditional African societies would curl your hair.  Religion is not the only factor that determines how people treat each other.  Many people in Arab and non-Arab Muslim societies live in very traditional,m patriarchal cultures.  They are more loyal to clan or tribe than to a nation, much less to a Bill of Rights.  Add to that 50%+ illiteracy in many such countries.

So for me on Thursday night, the key question is not “how are women treated in Islamic countries,” or even “what does the Koran say or imply about women’s role.”  To me, it’s:

  1. What role have Islamic authorities, versus other cultural institutions, played in keeping women down;  and
  2. How can the religion become a modernizing force in this and other areas? 

Also, the new topic list will be available.




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