a long post about islam

yesterday i went with my brother to his class on islam and mormonism at the byu. at the beginning of the class they took a quiz on the assigned reading. the questions were pretty basic but one caught my eye:

the "oppression" of women in muslim majority countries is primarily the result of:
a) religion
b) culture
c) some dumb throw away answer that i can't even remember

the "right" answer to the question (as far as any introductory class on islam is concerned) is culture. all the intro text books say that islam is gender inclusive and mohammad was basically feminist since he stopped female infanticide. they say that it is the misogynistic arab culture which is to blame for keeping the muslim women down. and this is basically the explanation my brother's prof (who was wearing tom and jerry tie which should have tipped me off to the fact that he probably wasn't going to be the kind of guy to give a mind blowing explanation of anything) gave the students when they went over the quiz.

a kid in the class immediately shot up his hand (he seemed like the delightfully nerdy type) and asked the teacher if that wasn't kind of a cop out explanation. the prof got a bit flustered and basically just repeated his earlier explanation topping it off with the patronizing "it will all make sense as we go through the course."

man i wish i was teaching that class because nerdy boy's question is really interesting and worth exploring (for the entire semester as far as i am concerned).

the explanation is kind of a cop out. muslim feminists can say that the opression of women in their religion is because of the sexist culture islam emerged from until the cows come home...and they might right except for one little problem.

a cornerstone of the religion is that the qur'an is the literal word of god which means the things in it can't just be interpreted (or contextualized) away. at the end of the day muslims have to account for the fact that in their holy religious text is says beat your women if they disoby (among other nasty things). if your religious text says something, doesn't that make a pretty strong case for the notion that the religion at least has some impact on the oppression of member women?

but i actually think the question is problematic because it assumes that we can clearly deliniate "religion" from "culture." can we? i'm not sure i can draw those lines in my own faith tradition.
though i probably don't like to admit this--i think i have a tendency to just call anything within the tradition i don't like "culture," whereas things i like are "religion." the reality is that the line between those two things seems really fuzzy when we actually try to define terms. culture is religion and religion is culture. focusing on one at the expense of the other will lead to incomplete explanations for the cause of the oppression of women, not to mention any other question a person could think of.

thinking about the reasons women in islam seem to have fewer rights than women in the west is a really interesting question however. it becomes particularly curious question when we examine the position of women in the golden age of islam who unlike their european counterparts could: own land, were entitled family inheritances, and could divorce a spouse who did not keep their marriage contract.

several explanations are worth considering.

being able to travel via boat to the far east instead of overland meant that fewer people traveled through the middle east. this meant that the people living in middle east were cut off from their source of news, and ideas. isolated from developments in the rest of the world they simply did no have the information they needed to keep up. crusades to the holy land also probably caused muslims to become protective and isolationist--which didn't improve their access to information problem.

another way of explaining the situation is that the cultures where muslims live are traditional and conservative in the sense that they resist change. the reforms that muslim women enjoyed during the golden age where things mohammad had advocated for and at the time they were radical. but overtime radical becomes the status quo becomes conservative. however because many religions are resistant to change, now the position of women in islam seems completely unacceptable.

do you have any ideas? how do you define religion and culture? why do you think women are oppressed in religious communities? how do you define oppression?

whoa. this is getting really far off where i intended to start from which was basically to say i think my brother's prof is a goof.


Bonnie White said...

And from your blog, I think you are a prof. This was really thought provoking. I feel instructed and curious to know more.

Abbie said...

Great post Mercedes! You opened up a huge Pandora box in my head. I wish I could explain everything I'm thinking but I would make ZERO sense. Very thought provoking...

Char said...

Are you sure you guys can't move to Edmonton?

It seems that culture is influenced by religion and also that religion responds to culture. There doesn't seem to be a clear a) or b) distinction. When Mohammed organized Islam wasn't it partly in response to the inadequacy of the social structure of the existing culture? His reforms seemed both cultural and religious....and political. Gee, the line between religion and politics is kind of fuzzy in Islam as well isn't it? Wow, this is such a loaded question. Thanks for making me think today.

Mike said...

It seems odd to me to ask about why Islamic countries haven't followed the latest wave of feminism without asking what factors led some western countries to involve women more. As you note, these countries weren't always more oppressive. If we knew what factors led to the expansion of women's rights we could ask whether those factors exist in Islamic countries.

LiNds said...

Yes, I loved sitting in on one of Woozie's classes at the BYU too. Commenting on Mike's thoghts, I would say that WWII had a big impact on advancing the feminist movement.

leah jane said...

Mercedes, I am not really sure just how to get a hold of Nicolae Grigorescu prints. I had a dickens of a time trying to find one even while I was in Romania. I finally got my hands on two but it was all very unorthodox. One a lady handed me one from right off her wall after I admired it aloud, and the other was a gift from a friend that I believe he found at an antique store after weeks of searching. Sorry I am not much help, but perhaps ebay could produce something?!