Islam’s poor treatment of women has become a very contentious issue in recent years, both inside and outside of the Muslim community. From honor killings to polygamy, Islamic culture seems to place men on a higher level than women in almost every respect, raising doubts about Islam’s compatibility with contemporary egalitarian societies. Recent incidents such as the death of a 16-year-old Canadian girl at the hands of her own father because she refused to wear the hijab, or traditional Muslim headscarf, have only amplified these concerns.
Stanford’s Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN) felt that this topic needed to be addressed from a Muslim perspective, and thus invited Assistant Professor Hina Azam of the University of Texas at Austin to discuss it as the final speaker in their 2008 Islamic Awareness Series, entitled “Our Jihad to Reform: The Struggle to Define Our Faith.” Dr. Azam tackled this most controversial issue head-on, leaving the audience no doubt that Muslim feminists face extremely stiff opposition in their fight for equality.
Azam entitled her talk “Confronting Patriarchy in Muslim Societies.” In it, she argued that Islamic tradition “has adapted the scriptural sources and informed Muslim social practices in ways that are oppressive toward women.” She discussed what is arguably institutionalized sexism in the Islamic tradition as well as various cultural factors which have served to compound this discrimination. Azam’s calm yet confident manner of addressing this very contentious issue was admirable and gave her an almost palpable air of credibility.
A key aspect of Azam’s lecture was her delineation of “three tiers” of Islam: the scriptural sources, the interpretation of those sources by the ethical and legal tradition (called “fiqh”), and the adaptation of that interpretation to Muslim cultures and societies. She began by explaining the “distance between the scripture and the tradition,” using polygamy as a primary example. While the Qur’an seems to “circumscribe the man’s right to polygamy by requiring fairness between wives, and can perhaps even be read as discouraging polygamy due to its stated position that fairness between wives is often impossible to achieve,” fiqh “considers the male right to polygamy to be an absolute right and does not seriously countenance restrictions on it.” Azam went on to say that what few sexual rights are granted to women in fiqh, such as the right “to marry according to their desire” or to “terminate a marriage that is not fulfilling,” are often “taken away by patriarchal social practices and social norms.” In other words, the few rights granted to women in the Qur’an are further reduced in number by the interpretations of Muslim scripture, or fiqh, and are reduced even more drastically by modern Muslim culture.
Yet after her talk, Azam faced resistance. Several Muslim members of the audience said that they were personally offended or even “really hurt” by Azam’s speech. “I don’t know any other religion that has given the respect to women that Islam has,” one female audience member said, and received applause. Azam responded by saying that Muslim women who do not have to struggle against inequality are “blessed,” but in Islamic tradition “[women] are absolutely property.” Another questioner mentioned verses in the Qur’an and hadiths (traditions of Muhammad) which give women “the right to orgasm” and encourage foreplay as examples of “caring” for women in Islam. “I don’t say there is no value given to women’s sexuality [in the scripture],” Azam explained, but rather “there is much more value given to male sexuality and […] fulfillment of male desire than to women’s desire.” The antagonistic questions from the audience actually allowed Azam to provide more examples to back up her thesis. Azam stood by her views and had clear, well-reasoned answers for each difficult question.
Azam’s candidness was particularly surprising considering the fierce criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by a previous speaker in the series as well as MSAN themselves. […] Yet MSAN singled out Hirsi Ali in their Op-Ed to the Stanford Daily explaining the aim of their speaker series, as well as in their introduction of the series immediately before its first event, as an example of whom Muslims should not listen to in their quest for reform. Khaled Abou el-Fadl, in his speech at Stanford at the end of January, made similar comments. The main difference between Azam and Hirsi Ali is that, while Azam distinguishes between scripture, tradition, and culture and has chosen to remain a Muslim, Hirsi Ali left Islam and seems to view the religion as a monolithic whole. Nevertheless, both affirm that women are generally viewed as inferior in Islamic tradition, and it is thus very interesting that MSAN felt comfortable inviting Azam while so fervently and consistently denouncing Hirsi Ali.
In the end, Azam’s uncompromisingly critical view of Islam brought MSAN’s series much closer than it previously had been to being an honest discussion of the challenges that Islam faces today amidst calls for reform. The four speakers—two apologists, one moderate, and one reformer—provided a wide range of views which, while not always entirely objective, were nonetheless revealing and served to spark and encourage dialogue about Islam’s place in the modern world. As long as Islam remains a controversial topic—and that looks to be the case for the foreseeable future—open discussion of it will be crucial. Events like the Islamic Awareness Series are but one piece of that undertaking.