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Postre: Women's Equality and Gender Equality (Roberta Tontini, Italy/Germany/China) (John Eipper, USA, 07/12/10 6:54 am)
Roberta Tontini writes:
I would like to respond to Massoud Malek's 10 July posting on "Equal Rights for Women," in which he mentions the possibility of a Muslim man to be "permitted up to four wives. (â¦) All should receive equal attention (sexual and emotional), support, treatment, and inheritance." Here, I wish to underline that while he does justice to the issue of "women's equality," he is surely not talking about "gender equality." In the polygynic marriage format he describes, the wives involved may arguably be equal to each other, but they are clearly not equal to their husband in that the rights and the duties granted to the latter (in terms of access to multiple partners within the family sphere for example) are not the same as those granted to the wives involved in the resulting family format. This creates a situation of unilateral polygamist union which leaves unsolved the issue of equal rights for men and women in particular areas of Islamic law.
With that said, it is worth stressing that the discourse upon "Islamic law" is much more complex than how it is currently sold by arbitrary Sharia courts which claim to be operating in the name of God and its law (much could be said, for example, about the imprecise equation of "Islamic law"--qanun al-Islam--and "Islamic jurisprudence"--fiqh--under the general umbrella-notion of Sharia). Moreover, if one wants to believe that polygamy is permitted by "Islamic law" based on what is written in the Koran, I wonder how one should approach analogous social patterns which seem to be permitted by Islamic law as well--given their being explicitly addressed by the Koran--but which in fact are no longer fashionable among the social arrangements of many Muslim societies. Slavery stands as an example.
Here, it is worth pointing out that slavery, as far as I can tell, is no longer practised in Islamic societies, although it was among the social possibilities contemplated (though not recommended) by the revealed scriptures of Islam--just as polygyny. The fact that slavery was ultimately overcome is indicative of the evolving potential of certain Islamic patterns into new cultural paradigms, following changes in historical contingencies.
In trying to make sense of the will of God as implied by the Koran, medieval Islamic jurists identified a set of corollary juridical tools among which is the so-called ijma--the consensus of the Muslim community. Based on the Hadith that "my community shall not agree upon an error," this particular juridical tool seems particularly well suited to open the doors to systematic adaptations of the Koranic message to changes in society. However, while the Muslim community appears already unanimous in rejecting slavery as a workable social practice, equally unanimous signs of willingness to renounce other forms of social inequalities, such as polygyny and other gender-related issues, seem to be still far form the dominant agenda of Islamic social thought.
Worth reinforcing, as previously mentioned in the forum debate, is that gender inequality and patriarchy are not prerogatives of the Muslim world. They are also well rooted in "Western" areas. Moreover, it should be noted that the problem of social inequality in the West and elsewhere cannot be addressed merely by reference to substantive legal rights. The problem is much more subtle, requiring an equally subtle analysis.
Consider the following--while Western women at large are generally promised equal access to social rights and opportunities from a legal perspective, they are all too often concurrently surrounded by cultural stimuli which discourage them from appropriating confidently these chances. Such cultural discouragement is often promoted in subliminal manners and may assume various forms, ranging from the early exposure of children to pop-cultural gender models such as princess "Snow White" and the "Sleeping Beauty"--champions of passivity and fragility; to the general absence of women from official "History"--whose "heroes" tend to be male; to the marginalization of the female image by various religions--not to mention the chastity "heroes" such as the Christian Mary, who is even deprived by the Christian dogma of the right of actively participating in the biological "creation" of her own offspring; to the frequent objectification of women perpetuated by commercials and by media--not to mention the psychological consequences of thinking about God as male.
In closing, with the growing subscription of many Western societies to "science" as its new religion, imagined gender differences are often kept together in the name of putatively objective "biological" arguments, and as such are put at the service of new forms of cultural politics (note here that the misuse of biology to justify racial differences have lost currency in the past century, but some still insist in using biological arguments to justify gender differences). However, the basic premise on which many of these constructions rely remain questionable. In saying so, it is worth remembering Simone de Beauvoir's intuition that "gender" ultimately functions as a learned category. As she once famously put it--"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."
JE comments: WAISers who attended our October 2009 conference will remember Roberta Tontini's engaging presentation on women, Islam and China. I'm very glad she's checked in with the Forum after several months. I understand that Roberta is still in China doing research. A report on her latest work and experiences would be most welcome.