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Islam and Patriarchy

By:
Bahar Davary
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Islam and Patriarchy

Patriarchy is by no means exclusive to Muslim societies, but nonetheless it is prevalent in much of the Muslim world. Patriarchal elements and principles can be found in the public rituals, practices, mores, and customs of Islam, as well as of most other religious traditions (especially Judaism and Christianity). Within the Islamic tradition, patriarchy is more highly pronounced in the context of the Sharīʿah (Islamic law). According to the verdicts of the Sharīʿah, women receive less inheritance than male family members, their testimony counts as half of a man's testimony, and men have more power in the case of divorce. Custody of children (after a certain age) is automatically given to the father or the father's father. These decrees can be counted as unmistakable characteristics of a patriarchal system that gives a disproportionate share of power and control to men. Yet many Muslims and scholars of Islam argue that the presence of patriarchy in Muslim rituals, cultures, norms, and laws are not an accurate reflection of the Qurʾān, the divine word, and the tradition of the Prophet (ḥadīth and sunnah). In other words, Islam is not inherently patriarchal, but is shaped and formulated in societies with a predominantly patriarchal framework, and hence is bound by it. This view contends that the Prophet did not make patriarchy his way of life. It further posits that the Qurʾān does not prescribe patriarchy as the norm, nor does it stipulate a gendered division of labor.

A cursory word search in the Qurʾān reveals that the word ab (father) is used 111 times, and various plural forms of it, āba (fathers), are used 63 times. The word umm (mother) is repeated 37 times, and ummahat (mothers) 16 times. This disproportion in the usage of terms notwithstanding, the content of the verses not only fails to substantiate patriarchy, but can be interpreted as implying that patriarchy is a kind of shirk (idolatry). For instance, some of the verses suggest that the fathers had no sense at all (2:170), knew nothing (5:104, 18:5, 6:19, 14:10, 11:87, 11:62), were engaged in indecency (7:28), associated others with Allah (7:173, 9:23), were in manifest error (21:54), or followed the way of Satan (31:21). These references principally denigrate shirk and call one to tawhid (unity of the divine). Patriarchy as implicated in shirk can be seen in the following verses of the Qurʾān: “Do not take your fathers and your brothers for allies if the denial of the truth is dearer to them than faith” (9:23). The Qurʾān calls for the unity of the divine as well as the unity of humanity (39:6), commands respect for parents regardless of gender (17:24), and specifically emphasizes the work and sacrifice of the mother in bearing and nursing the child (46:15, 31:14).

A much-debated statement of the Qurʾān, often translated as “Men are maintainers of women” (2:228), is central in discussions about patriarchy and Islam. The error of patriarchy is its imposition of sexism. The question is, Do the above statement and related Qurʾānic verses support and strengthen patriarchal constructs and their sexist implications? Can there be a soft, nonsexist patriarchy? Is the answer to the search for a just Islamic society an Islamic matriarchate—or as some prefer to call it, a gynocentric society—that does not mirror patriarchal male domination of women by imposing matriarchal female domination of men?

Most interpretations of the statement “Ar-rijal qawwamun ala-nisaʾ ” (Men are maintainers of women) fall into the two categories of ambivalent sexism—benevolent or hostile—or lie somewhere in between. While hostile sexism may imply that women are incapable of their own maintenance and therefore are in need of a male guardian for their protection, benevolent sexism often suggests that women are given a high status and therefore must be cherished and served by men. It is in connection with these latter interpretations of the verse that women are perceived as the honor (which is the correct and original meaning of harem; place of hurma; respect) of the man. Recent studies of the psychology of women by Glick and Fiske have shown that benevolent sexism is as detrimental, if not more so, to women's cognitive performances as hostile sexism. Ironically, this interpretation (benevolent sexism) is popular in Muslim women's circles as a means of prevailing over oppressive gendered hierarchies. Such women suggest that the term qawwamun (sing. qawwam), often translated as “maintainers and protectors,” refers to the male responsibility to provide and to be in the service of the women of their household, rather than maintaining and controlling them. They do not share the view that this notion amounts to women's gendered self-stereotyping.

Needless to say, neither Islam nor Muslim societies are monolithic. Islam from the very beginnings of its spread to various parts of the world lent itself to cultural adaptations and simultaneous development with a multiplicity of cultures. The Near East and the Arab world maintained its pre-Islamic patriarchal culture and wedded it to Islamic law in the realm of jurisprudence through the process of ijtihad (deriving the law from the sources, mainly the Qurʾān and ḥadīth). East Asia, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa shaped their own varieties of Islamic culture. In Southeast Asia, for example, there are communities of Muslims for whom matriarchy and a matrilineal or matrifocal system is the way of life. The largest and most stable surviving matriarchy, the Minangkabau, live in the largest Muslim country, Indonesia. They reside in villages around Mount Merapi in Sumatra, where land is owned by women and is passed down from mothers to daughters. A man is a guest at his wife's house and must leave when she so desires. The Minangkabau find no contradictions in their culture, which consists of three equally important and interwoven strands: ancient customs and beliefs (adat), Islam, and the state.

Yet there are states that use Islam to justify and institutionalize patriarchy, especially when the age-old customs of the land support it. These efforts, however, have not been able to silence the voices of women (and men) who challenge patriarchal oppression in both the state and the family unit. Formulation of the Sharīʿah in a patriarchal context has given it a patriarchal color, but Islam is a message of unity and justice that neither promotes gender duality nor justifies gender hierarchy.

Bibliography

  • Davary, Bahar. Women and the Qurʾan: A Study in Islamic Hermeneutics. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.
  • Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “Ambivalent Sexism Revisited.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2011): 530–535.
  • Kandiyoti, Deniz. Women, Islam, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Wadud, Amina. Qurʾan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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