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The Issue Of Gender And Islam

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The institution of religion as per the view of the feminist, especially the Abrahamic religions are patriarchal in nature, given the fact that the creation of the institution of religion from a sociological perspective, historical perspective as well as from a divine and theological perspective have been male-dominated with very less importance given to the role of the women and the ones who have found a mention of in the holy scriptures, have been mostly tangential and almost all of them have been portrayed in a fashion which idolizes the passivity and the submissiveness, acknowledging the supremacy of men in the society . Religions are one of the sources which have provided a formula for being an ideal woman who is essentially passive, accommodative, flexible enough to accept the fact her status of being disparate compared to that of men and observes an attitude of acquiescence to the denial of the leverage provided to a man. The tenets of the religions have been designed in a way which renders the men with a position of privilege and also bestows the role of controlling the women in all possible ways. It would, however, be wrong to say that religion does not provide any right to the women, but at the same time it is also true that the rights and privileges provided to the women can be easily bypassed by the men given the fact that highly religious societies are highly patriarchal, and the religious councils are overwhelmingly male-dominated rendering the bargaining power of the women redundant . For example, Islam has provided a holistic collection of rules and regulations which seek to bestow specific role and rights to both the genders which are not congruent to the western narrative of gender relations which focuses much more on equality of the sexes as a result of the societal evolution. Thus, it becomes clear that the disparity of the status that Islam has endowed to the men and the women are a result of viewing the gender dynamics in the religion from a Western perspective having its roots in the enlightenment philosophy .

In this particular essay, the focus of the discussion shall be on the gender dynamics in Islam. The thesis statement of this particular essay shall be to testify the views of the scholars on the aspect of gender in Islam and Islamic societies. In the following sections, the discussion shall be focusing on the aspects of veiling of women and the aspect of sexuality as it has found a mention in the views espoused by the scholars. The aim is to problematize the views and present alternatives countering or supporting the viewpoints. The main focus of the discussion shall be based on the views of three prominent authors, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Fatima Maernissi’s Freudian Analysis of the understanding of sexuality in Islam and Fadela Amara’s views on hijab and the display of masculinity as displayed by Muslim men living in the west.

As per the Western Feminist narrative, the ceiling of the women is a sign of oppression, erasure, and subjugation of women which not only seeks to marginalize the women socially but also seeks to control the women sexually. However, the Muslim feminists who have a pro-Islam attitude argue that the narrative has its basis on a mistaken premise and that it is based on an assumption that delineates and detaches itself from the Quranic principle. They even argue that the secular and western narrative of feminism is not a justified basis to describe and define the feministic side of Islam as the secular and western narrative of feminism stems from a premise which stems from a position of having no or inadequate knowledge of Islam and the way it had emancipated women. In the following, this debate centred in gender disparity shall be discussed at length.

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Oriental and Occident debate of Edward Said

Edward Said challenges the western portrayal of an oriental woman as submissive and as a secretively exotic affair. Said had challenged the portrayal of the Egyptian woman as submissive and who is incapable of voicing her own opinion, in his post-colonial discourses focusing upon the one-sided understanding of the western scholars about the eastern societies like that of Theophile Gautier who had opined that Turkey is more of a woman’s paradise than that of a man as all the Turkish women were either confined to the private realms of the harem or were hidden by means of a cloak . This image of a veiled woman has been used by the Western scholars to show that the eastern women are subjugated and that they are oppressed. Edward Said had opined that it is a biased account of the presentation of a woman belonging to the eastern or Islamic societies as he considers that the attitude of Eurocentrism in ethnographic studies deployed in the understanding of the Islamic women in Islamic societies is unjustified. Veil and confinement to the private realms of the household might be a symbol of oppression to a westerner but that might not necessarily so to a Muslim woman as they prefer the protection and cherish the veil in order to fulfil her religious obligations . In defence of Said, the views of noble laureate Tawakol Karman, Yemeni human rights activist must be mentioned of in this regard. She had opined that her hijab had not been an impediment rather it was her strength .

Freudian Analysis of the understanding of sexuality in Islam by Fatima Mernissi

Fatima Mernissi had in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’ had provided a juxtaposition of the western and the oriental or Islamic of women in order to provide an understanding about the basis and justification used to resort to the female subjugation in Islam and Islamic societies. Mernissi had used the logic of sexuality and the disparate conception of the women and their status to prove her point. Mernissi, however, maintains that the women are subjugated in Islam. According to her understanding, the Western world considers a woman who exposes herself to the male gaze is the epitome of an empowered woman. Underneath is an image of the French actress, Brigitte Bardot, making her appearance for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival, in the year 1953. When the controversy over banning the hijab, niqab, burqa and the burkini in France had occupied the political centre stage, her image was cited as an argument to support the decision by the Sarkozy Government. Besides upholding the deeply rooted principle of French Secularism, a legacy of the French Revolution, she was also cited as an epitome of a Free Woman in a Free Society which discourages subjugation of women. On the other hand, in the Islamic world, female sexuality is considered to have immense potential to doom the morality of a man. Mernissi writes that in Islam, women are unclothed in loose-fitted garments to hide every aspect of their beauty from the male gaze. Contrary to the Western conception, a woman is subjected to control on the basis of the belief that if her aura is left unbridled, it can bring forth chaos to mankind . Thus, it becomes clear that the women are considered as less than men in both the Islamic and the western societies hence to say that only Islam dominates women is wrong and a misrepresentation. The fact that the western woman is an epitome of freedom cannot be considered as the absolute truth since the free woman of the western world is also subject to male domination can also be explained by means of providing the Gaze Theory of Laura Mulvey. Mulvey’s work reflects the Freudian conception of sexuality explained in terms of voyeurism. She utilizes that logic and attempts to provide comprehension of the objectification of the corporeal existence of women in the entertainment media. The image of a woman that finds expression in popular media is but a product of the fantasies and imaginations of man, woven to suit his desirability and his ego. Mulvey opines that to a man, the feeling of sexual stimulation on seeing a woman in a sensuous way is a source of immense self-gratification and self-aggrandizement .

Views on the hijab and the display of masculinity as displayed by Muslim men living in the west by Fadela Amara

One of the classic examples which could be cited as echoing the essence of the slogan ‘personal is the political’ as raised by the radical feminists back in the decades of 1969s and 70s in the contemporary times is the support of a French Muslim woman of Algerian origin who identifies herself as a Radical Feminist, named Fadela Amara towards the hijab ban by the French Government by two successive Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac in the 21st century. The very fact that a Muslim woman had expressed her support for the decision of the French government to ban the hijab had been a radical one by itself as the observance of the rule of the hijab is very much central to the belief system of a devout Muslim woman. Amara herself is an observant Muslim woman, she offers her customary Islamic prayers, fasts during the period of Ramadan, abstains from pork and alcohol and other aspects of daily life considered as haram according to the Qoran. However she does not wear the Islamic headscarf, the hijab as she considers it as a tool used by the men to subjugate and control the women, prevalent both in her country of origin, Algeria as well as in the ‘banlieues’ of France where the population is dominated by Muslims, and the men use Islam to maintain their dominance over the women which had put the freedom of movement at stake. Following the murder of a teenage Muslim girl Sohane Benziane, and the growing insecurities pervading the lives of women living in the banlieues in form of eve teasing, harassment of non-veiled women or the ones with makeup, rising instances of domestic violence, Fadela Amara had organized a protest march under the politically charged slogan of ‘Ni putes ni soumises’ (neither whores nor submissive) as a challenge to the dominant culture of the balieues where the men consider all women as whores apart from their own mothers . Amara had also published a book titled after the slogan, through which she had disseminated her radical message that the real problem of the Muslim women is not the deprivation from the right to wear hijab and that the hijab does not protect the women from harassment rather the real problem is the delinquency and unemployment of the male youths who make a display of their masculinity by means of subjugating the women and they seek validation for their existence and their importance. Amara had even considered the law forbidding all forms of religious garments as a blessing as that would safeguard the rights and interests of the women who do not wish to wear the hijab but have to do so as a result of the family pressure and to escape harassment from the men. While the mainstream feminists were concerned about safeguarding the religious freedom of the Muslim women and the government of France about safeguarding the constitutional principle of secularism, Amara had through her radical movement championed the oppression which non conformist Muslim women face, who are marginalized by the Muslim community for their rebellious attitude and also by their fellow religious Muslim women. Amara had brought the concerns of the women which were considered as personal and hidden to safeguard the family honor to the political forefront by her activism .


Thus, in the end, it can be said that the view that gender relations being disparate in Islam cannot be considered as a tool of oppression of women as per the Western narrative as even the Western societies have their set of flaws and their own subtle method of subjugating women. Whether a Muslim woman is being oppressed or not by the Islamic gender equations must be left to the judgment of a Muslim woman herself and must be not be attempted to make an objective reality.


  1. Ahmed, Leila. Women and gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate. Yale University Press, 1992.
  2. Amara, Fadela, and Sylvia Zappi. Ni putes, ni soumises. Ed. La Découverte, 2004.
  3. Lewis, Reina. ‘‘Only women should go to Turkey’Henriette Browne and women’s Orientalism.’ Third Text 7, no. 22 (1993): 53-64.
  4. Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the veil: Male-female dynamics in modern Muslim society. Vol. 423. Indiana University Press, 1987.
  5. Mir-Hosseini, Z. (1999). Islam and gender: The religious debate in contemporary Iran (Vol. 7). Princeton University Press.
  6. Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.’ In Visual and other pleasures, pp. 14-26. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1989.
  7. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.
  8. Selby, Jennifer A. ‘French secularism as a ‘guarantor’ of women’s rights? Muslim women and gender politics in a Parisian banlieue.’ Culture and Religion 12, no. 4 (2011): 441-462.

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