Muslims have committed acts of terror. They have murdered and bombed and caused all manner of heinous death and destruction. Western political groups have taken these crimes as an opportunity. They insisted that these acts of terror were not isolated incidents. No, these were just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, there was a much bigger, much more sinister and ominous threat that threatened to destroy us all. This is the threat of “radical Islam” and if we don’t act now to stop it, that will be the end of civilization as we know it.
An existential threat requires a massive response. George W. Bush and neoconservatives in the US created what they called the “Global War on Terror.” They claimed that this was what was needed to protect us from certain destruction. It was a multi-pronged effort involving not only military action but also the exercise of “soft power.” Soft power meant, in so many words, reforming Islam — ridding Islam of those teachings that were thought to be conducive to terrorism and anti-Western sentiment. Different programs were put in place in the West as well as in Muslim countries to promote the “right kind of Islam” and to punish and silence the purveyors of the “wrong kind of Islam.” This was a multi-billion dollar, multi-nation joint program that is still in progress today and is responsible for, among other things, over a million innocent Muslim lives lost since 2001.
Of course, Muslims have vigorously objected to the Global War on Terror. They have argued that the instances of terror committed by some criminal Muslims are not part of some global existential threat and are certainly not due to some nefarious problem with traditional, orthodox Islam, the Quran, or classical scholarship. In actuality, the instances of terrorism are isolated events from disorganized criminals that, for the most part, are reacting to something else, namely Western invasion and hostility in the Muslim world.
But this explanation is dismissed as “justifying terrorism.” “Are you denying that terrorism is a problem?! Are you denying that we have to fight terrorism?!” is the response. This is the non sequitur reaction by those who want to insist that Islam itself is the problem in one way or another and that the onus is on the Muslim community to police and reform itself in order to stop terrorism from happening. (In America, both Republicans and Democrats are unanimous on this point.)
What does all this have to do with feminism?
Well, like the War on Terror, feminism also takes examples of actual crimes and overgeneralizes them as instances of a wider phenomenon that can be blamed on religion.
The fact that some men are terrible, abusive husbands or the fact that in some countries, some women are the victims of gang rape becomes the indisputable crimes that supposedly prove that there is a bigger, more sinister program to systematically subjugate women. We are told that, “This is a very real, very widespread problem” that requires a massive response.
To object to this program — a program, by the way, that is no less expansive in reach and scope than the War on Terror — and to reject the Feminist Overgeneralization is met with the same kind of non sequitur response we saw before: “Are you denying that wife beating is a problem?! Are you denying that women have rights and need to be protected?!” These histrionics are meant to shame into silence anyone who dares to oppose the feminist project.
What is the feminist project? The average Muslim might think that feminism is a good thing, that feminism just means “supporting women’s rights.” And that is the bait and switch. That is how the feminist project gets its foot in the door because who would be against women being afforded their rights?
But once they have their foot in the door, once this ideology has a foot in the door of one’s heart, then that’s when a domino effect begins.
Feminism might be in “support of women’s rights,” but it promotes a very specific vision of women’s “rights” and a very specific vision of the human society that can afford those specific “rights.” And Islam plays no part in that vision, despite what Muslim feminists themselves might say or think.
Islam is a gendered religion. It is based on a gendered view of reality and prescribes ethics and law according to that reality. This is clear as far as revelation is concerned and it is clear in terms of how Muslims and their religious authorities operationalized that revelation in their day to day lives over the course of centuries. “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
In practical terms, if you are a “salafi” and believe that the best generations were the first three, then you should recognize that those were very gendered societies. If you are a “traditionalist” and believe that both the salaf and the khalaf are authoritative, then you should also recognize that 1400 years of Muslim society were highly gendered. What does a gendered society entail? It means there are well defined genders, there are gender roles, there is gender separation, etc. Islamic law and ethics are all predicated on this gendered conception of human society and function.
But feminism aims to destroy a gendered view of reality and gendered society. Feminism says that a gendered reality is false and a gendered society is an oppressive one.
As far as Islam is concerned, different kinds of feminists have different approaches (some of them don’t even consider themselves “feminists” per se). But all of them have the same essential goal: to erase gender difference.
The alarming thing is when otherwise credible scholars unwittingly adopt feminist language in their teachings or promote feminist causes, thinking that they are doing something positive.
For example, in Islam, prayer spaces are gendered: men in the front, women in the back and short of that, then men and women are separated. The Prophet ﷺ explicitly stated that the best rows for women are the last rows. The best rows for men are the front ones and the worst are the back ones, and the best rows for women are the back ones and the worst are the front ones. When we look at the narrations, we see that the Sahabiyyat rendered themselves all but invisible when attending the masjid.
Aisha (rn) for example narrated: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes *unrecognized*. [Bukhari with similar narrations in Muslim and elsewhere, emphasis added] The Sahabiyyat went out of their way to remain unrecognized. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to be seen — that was a foregone conclusion since they were covered from head to foot, including their faces. They also did not want to be *recognized* such that someone could identify them from their garments or mannerisms and think, “That is so and so.” Think about that. That was the level of gender separation they abided by.
But this is all anathema to some Muslims today because they understand a lack of visibility as oppression and “erasing the presence of women.” This is why Muslim activists, many of whom do not label themselves as “feminists” per se, are calling for major restructuring of Muslim prayer spaces. And this restructuring is not limited to simply making sure women are not praying in a storage closet — a dirty or otherwise inadequate prayer space designated for women is a legitimate complaint. But their calls for change go well beyond that. To have women and men at all separated physically and visually is categorically unacceptable to them. For some, men standing in front of women is also categorically unacceptable.
But these calls for change make us ask some serious questions: Did the Prophet ﷺ oppress women? Did the Sahabiyyat oppress themselves? How can Muslim feminists and their supporters today reconcile the Prophet ﷺ establishing gender separation such as this with their particular and peculiar understanding of “gender equality” and their reconstruction of prayer spaces accordingly? If that wasn’t oppression in the time of the Prophet ﷺ, then why would it be oppression for masajid today to separate men and women into different spaces, especially masajid that are explicitly attempting to follow that prophetic model?
But, of course, restructuring the prayer space is not enough because even if men and women pray in the same space in full view of each other, use the same entrance, maybe even pray with the women’s section side by side with the men’s, etc., the imam is still a man. This is a gendered requirement for who can lead the prayer and hence it is another instance of subjugation, another piece of the oppression puzzle that the feminist mind is piecing together. Therefore, we need women to lead prayer at least as often as men. And we are already seeing this happen and being insisted on by some. But it won’t end there because Islam has different dress requirements for each gender. How is it fair that a female imam has to cover her hair when men have no such requirement? So, that will be next to go and so on as each domino falls one by one toward the obliteration of any and all gender distinction.
This is just one simple example and there are many, many more examples of how feminism at its core bitterly clashes with Islam in no uncertain terms and ultimately aims to undo so much of the deen.