Feminist perspectives on Islam explored in discussion

The Rutgers Muslims Feminists for Arts club hosted an event on Tuesday called "Feminist Conversation: Gender Roles in Islam.” Multiple professionals were invited to speak at this event, opening the table up for conversation not just between Muslims or feminists, but for everyone willing to learn more.

The first speaker to start the conversation was Atiya Aftab, a professor who teaches the course Islamic Law and Jurisprudence and the chair for Center of Islamic Life at Rutgers University. Aftab began to discuss how to approach the topic of gender roles from different sectors, focusing on the foundational perspective, or the foundation of creation itself. 

Despite the representations or depictions of God being a masculine figure put out from society, Muslims believe in a creator that is neither male or female. How do Muslims really comprehend the concept of God or Allah? 

Well, it comes from the 99 names and attributes provided to God and God only. From a cultural perspective, some of these attributes could be considered masculine, such as The Protector, and some could be feminine, such as Most Gracious. It is important for Muslims to embody all these attributes within themselves, and not let cultural understandings influence their concept of God as being either masculine or feminine.

The word "Allah" in Arabic is attributed to a masculine characteristic. Even with the English translation, a language that does not attribute masculine or feminine characteristics to words, certain words that depict Allah in the Koran are translated as “He,” thus emphasizing the masculine gender role attributed to God. It is important to understand that these are linguistic and cultural implications that define the concept of God with masculine gender roles, but that does not mean that God is masculine, or even feminine.

Abed Awad, an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, was the second speaker. His work focuses on general civil litigation, including complex matrimonial law, commercial law, Islamic law and international law. Awad started a conversation about the gender integration of early Muslims societies and the erasure of that in written history due to colonialism and modernity. 

Awad selected the stories of 10 women who lived during 1400 to 1500 A.D. in pre-modern Islamic societies. What these women had in common was that many of them were famous scholars of Islamic literature. Some of them were married multiple times, despite that being frowned upon or not even allowed in other cultures, especially the West, during this time period. All of these women were literate with an income and some economic wealth, whether inherited or from their own work.

Awad discussed the Western feminist revolution that had to occur in order for many women to gain the same rights as men, and how that did not occur in pre-modern Islamic societies for there was no need. Yes, there were certain cultural gender roles, such as men being the protectors and women being mothers, but women could learn how to read and write, attended public conventions, whether religious or cultural. Women were scholars and travelers, who not only learned, but taught others. They were their own independent, legal people by Islamic law, could own property and did not have to change their last name upon marriage. 

The third speaker, Chaplain Patricia Anton, discussed the importance of Maryam and her legacy. Having grown up Catholic, Anton talked about how she grew up with Mary or Maryam as a role model. She was taught that Mary was the example of all women, or the perfect woman. The depiction of Mary in a cultural sense is that she’s the perfect woman who embodied feminine gender roles – being pious and having no desire at all. 

This creates a culture of shame, bringing up the dangerous humiliation of women who are not mothers, women who are not married and women who choose to be sexually active outside of marriage. Anton discussed the importance of understanding this within both Catholicism and Islam, and that it is manifested from not a religious understanding, but a patriarchal, sexist culture.

Sarah Attalla, a Mason Gross School of the Arts senior, is one of the members of the Rutgers Muslims Feminists for Arts who put this event together. “We put this event together in order to tackle cultural misconceptions about gender roles in Islam through education to understand the true religious conceptions rather than the cultural ones,” she said.

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