Last night I went to Susan Carland’s book launch in Sydney. She has written a book called Fighting Hislam which is about standing against a patriarchal interpretation of Islam. She has interviewed Muslim women in Australia and North America about their experiences of sexism in their religion.
What makes this book interesting is that Carland says people are wrong in thinking Islam is sexist and patriarchal.
This sexism she argues, is a cultural imposition on her faith, its an interpretation by sexist men. She believes in fact that Islam is liberating for women. What needs to stop is a sexist interpretation of the religion that is effectively binding women instead of setting them free as the Islam faith originally intended for females.
She is well aware that her book will be contentious as not all Muslims interpret scripture in the same way, and of course not all feminists see things in the same way either. I appreciated that Carland was very adamant that there is room for different interpretations of both Islam and feminism today. I had to chuckle when she took a slight shot at the second wave of feminism represented by Eva Cox who was sitting in the audience. It was all in done in a good natured way to again reinforce there is room for everyone on the table when it comes to fighting sexism.
The more I listened to Carland’s presentation last night, the more I thought to myself “I think I have heard all of this before.” In fact there were many times I nudged the friend I went with and we gave each other knowing looks.
Where have I heard some of the arguments Susan was making and the counter arguments from those who still practice sexism? In Christian circles of course.
One woman in the audience at question time stated that when the Koran says men can as a last resort “beat” their wives, it literally means “beat”, as in hit. It’s just simply what scripture says she stated in a matter of fact way. Even though Carland tried to explain to her that scholars disagree on what the specific word means, the women persisted in saying that “beat means beat”.
Does this remind you of any never-ending arguments about certain words in some passages in the Bible that are contentious and are used to reinforce sexism? There are plenty. The word “head” or “authority” and of course “submit” are examples.
Carland also told us that Muslim women are seen as meek, submissive and under the control of their husbands. They experience more racism and sexist comments than most. She said that often faith is seen as a barrier to progress and the freedom that comes with a more enlightened manner of thinking. This made me think about how often Christianity is seen by our society as something that limits the freedoms of women and endorses outdated attitudes towards gender.
I wondered about Judaism. Are there also conversations going on in this religion and others that are attempting to deconstruct a sexist interpretation of the various faiths? What is it about religion that attracts sexism? What is it about sexism that it can attach itself to faith which is supposed to set us free from the darker aspects of humanity?
What I liked is that Carland is making space for religion in this feminist conversation. Religion does not have to be a barrier to feminism.
My friend and I bumped into Susan after we left the book signing and I explained to her that we were Christians and could identify with a lot of the things she was saying which occurred also in our religion. She was graceful. But she also looked a little anxious and it made me think about what speaking out on this topic might be costing her and her family.
This is another thing we religious women have in common. When we speak out about such topics the effect is that we rattle our culture which is used to a calcified sexism. We receive backlash from those in our own community and those outside who misunderstand us.
I hope she stands strong in the midst of the media storm around her because we need voices like Susan Carland’s in our society today speaking truth and deconstructing the distorted interpretations of religion and offering a different view of feminism.
A religion should be representative of all that is beautiful in life to counter the oppression, injustice, cruelty and darkness in our world rather than contributing to it.