To westernize the Middle East while abandoning Islam will only cause suspicion among Muslims, and do little to bring about political and social change, one Islamic scholar says.
“Many of the social and cultural practices of Muslim societies have little or nothing to do with Islam, specifically as embodied in the teachings of the Koran,” Asma Barlas said in a lecture last month at the Library of Congress.
The teachings of the Koran support egalitarianism, not patriarchy in any form, though the Koran recognizes patriarchy’s historical existence, said Ms. Barlas, 54, associate professor and chairwoman of the department of politics at New York’s Ithaca College.
The West should engage Islam on Islam’s own terms and not attempt to secularize Islam “or make it over in the Western image of a completely privatized religion,” said Ms. Barlas in her March 26 lecture, “Globalizing Equality: Muslim Women, Theology and Feminism.”
Such an engagement requires a rereading of the Koran free of the patriarchal context that subjugates women as being inferior to men, Ms. Barlas said, since it is not the Koran, but the context in which it is read, that has subjugated women in the Islamic world.
Ms. Barlas questions the common argument that providing Muslim women with access to technology, high-tech employment and Internet access will enhance women’s status in the Islamic world. What is needed, she said, is “a fundamental epistemic shift in how Muslims interpret and practice Islam.”
“Such a shift would involve a willingness to read liberation from the same scripture that Muslims use to discriminate against women,” she said.
Ms. Barlas argues for a “Koranic hermeneutics of sexual equality” and interpreting the Islamic scripture text to promote democratic reform. Islam, she said, is a product of how the Koran is read, “a function of who reads it, how and in what contexts.” She says reading the Koran to give men sovereignty over women is a heresy.
“This is, of course, a controversial issue,” said John Voll, professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Traditional Muslims and radical secular feminists in the West believe that the Koran “requires subjugation of women by men,” while most mainstream feminists “emphasize the Koran’s position of gender equity,” he said. “Mainstream Muslims, including the generally conservative ones, emphasize that the Koran’s message is the message of gender equity within a framework of recognizing the differences between men and women.”
Muslim women are not a homogeneous group and are not any more subjugated and oppressed than non-Muslim women, said Hibba Abugideiri, assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.
“Women all over the world, including the West, are relatively less privileged than men in terms of their status, access to resources … and even in their legal rights,” she said. “No, the Koran does not subjugate Muslim women. If it did, would so many women, some of whom converted of their own volition, continue to practice what would amount to be a misogynist revelation? This is simply illogical and belittles the intelligence of half the 1.2 billion Muslim believers in the world.”
Ms. Barlas, a Muslim who was born in Pakistan, became one of the first women to be inducted into the Pakistani foreign service, where she served as a section officer in the U.N. division for six years.
Her service was terminated after she criticized Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq’s military regime. She then served as assistant editor of an opposition paper from 1983-84, but was forced to leave the country. She received political asylum in the United States, where she earned her doctorate degree in international studies from the University of Denver and started teaching in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1991.
“All of these contexts [Ms. Barlas] comes from are engaging with this text called the Koran. … She is able to reinterpret and reimagine the text for contemporary times,” said Meena Sharisy-Funk, who is studying for a doctorate in international relations at American University.
Ms. Barlas uses “the context of that time to recreate and reconstruct the Islamic community of today,” said Mrs. Sharisy-Funk, a volunteer for the university’s Center for Global Peace, which co-sponsored Ms. Barlas’ lecture, along with the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.
Ms. Barlas “started a process of unreading the patriarch out of the Koran,” Mrs. Sharisy-Funk said.
“If you approach the text in a selective way, you are missing the whole worldview of the text,” she said.
Ms. Barlas said in an interview that she is “trying to disassociate God or the divine from sexual oppression.”
She spoke of globalizing equality as a way of ensuring that Muslim women have equal rights wherever they live, free of any gender oppression: “To put it directly … we cannot speak with a clear conscience about sexual equality in Muslim societies without speaking about equality in the global arena.”
In the United States, she said, she has noticed “a high level of ignorance here about basic, simple things in Islam.”
In achieving democracy in Muslim societies, Islam should not be ignored or silenced, she said.
However, before women can be liberated in Muslim societies, including postwar Iraq, security first needs to be achieved as a human right, said Hadia Mubarak, a Georgetown University graduate student who attended Ms. Barlas’ lecture.
“It’s not an issue limited to sexual equality. It has to do with authoritarian regimes and the overall political injustices that exist,” Ms. Mubarak said. “We must admit that U.S. foreign policy, at times, has perpetuated those political injustices.”