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Charles: Feminism and the search for Allah



Last Friday the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program held a symposium in Gerlinger hall concerning Islam and Feminism and how to reconcile these seemingly contrary worldviews in modern society. Presenting speakers were Amina Wadud, Sarah Eltantawi and Azadeh Ghanizadeh. Wadud and Eltantawi are both progressive Muslim scholars, while Ghanizadeh is a grad student at OSU who is studying feminism, philosophy and postcolonialism.

I admit I was skeptical of their ability to fuse the two ideologies together. The scholars on the panel discussed how patriarchal interpretations have dominated the landscape of Shari’a, the penal code in Islam, and that Islam did not manifest in these strictly legalistic manners. A difference exists between the prescriptive, that which biased humans said should happen, and the descriptive, what actually did happen in Muslim majority societies throughout history. The scholars insist that existing verses pointing to patriarchal ideas may be contextualized in a certain place and time.

As a geography major with an emphasis on human geography, I personally take a great deal of interest in Islam. There are lousy five dollar paperback polemics about “Shari’a law” at Walmart. Ideas about Islam guide foreign policy and attitudes toward geopolitical issues in the Middle East. We scream at people to assimilate, but when they try by embracing modern notions like feminism, many of us mock their dedication. What we really need to do is sit down and listen.

Muslims, especially those living in progressive societies, will eventually face difficult questions about what their faith permits. For example, the symposium discussed female-led prayer, which has not been the traditional way of conducting prayer, “salat” in Islam; by mainstream Shari’a interpretations, only men may lead mixed congregation prayers. But Wadud challenged this and led khutbah at a mosque in 2005 in Manhattan. She gained notoriety for what was perceived as deliberately rebelling against normative Islam. Her critics called her extreme, and she stood her ground toward the dissent. If the worst thing she has ever done as a Muslim is make a mistake by leading prayer, then as far as I’m concerned, she’s fine.

Several women in the audience were struck in awe by Wadud’s conviction. Some even broke down in tears and admitted how difficult they found reconciling traditional interpretations with their needs for modern contextualized gender relations. I was moved by their passion. Clearly, many people desire a God to follow; however, it is difficult to construct a palatable view in light of tradition. Wadud offered them this clarity.

I am not personally convinced that Islam is malleable enough to conform to third wave feminist ideas about gender and sexuality. However, many people have faith that Islam has an emancipating message suited for modernity. People will always desire some deeper meaning in life. Day-to-day life can become boring and meaningless without the purpose that religion can offer. That is arguably the one defining characteristic of humanity — seeking the spiritual. I don’t believe we are on some trajectory toward atheism. Religion will not disappear. Religion will mold and evolve to suit current norms and expectations. We ought to welcome this change and support those who have a progressive vision within their religion of choice.


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Melody Charles

Melody Charles