Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism
by Susan Carland
Melbourne University Press, 2017, 182 pages, $29.99 ______________________________________
Much attention has been given to women and Islam in the Australian media during the first few months of this year. On February 13 ABC television presenter Yassim Abdel-Magied asserted on Q&A that Islam is “the most feminist religion”. On February 22, the President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Keysar Trad, explained to Andrew Bolt’s Sky News viewers the circumstances under which a husband is permitted to beat his wife, qualifying this by saying it is a “last resort”. This was followed by a Facebook video posted by the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir in which two women further attempt to justify and explain how and when a man can strike his wife.
It was, therefore, particularly disappointing that the prominent Somali-born Dutch-American writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to cancel her tour of Australia in April due to security concerns. Here was a chance for local audiences to hear first-hand from a prominent and thoughtful critic of Islam and its treatment of women. Instead we have this newly published study of Islam and feminism by Susan Carland, an Australian academic, better known as television personality Waleed Aly’s wife.
Fighting Hislam, an adaptation of Carland’s PhD thesis, is concerned with countering the “allegedly” sexist treatment of women in Islamic communities as well as highlighting the thriving feminist movement within the religion. Islam, she writes, is not “inherently oppressive towards women” and concerns shown by non-Muslims for the welfare of Muslim women can be understood in the “broader context of Islamophobia”. Whereas Hirsi Ali has written honestly about female genital mutilation in Islamic communities, and is personally a childhood victim of this ritual, Carland refuses even to address it, claiming the people who raise the issue with her are smugly ignorant. Like, for instance, the shop owner responsible for binding her thesis. When collecting it she found herself on the receiving end of an “unsolicited and impenetrable rant about female genital mutilation”, and adds, “this was not the first time a stranger had felt entitled to raise the potential religious interference of my genitals with me”.
Carland was born and raised in Australia and converted to Islam when she was nineteen, so religious interference with her genitals is unlikely, but this gives the reader an idea of where her book is headed. Muslim feminists like her, she states, face their greatest challenge from the “patriarchy”, presumably meaning the men who forcibly and unjustly dominate the world, not from the men who dominate Islam. Indeed, any resistance to feminism in Muslim circles is just an “understandable reaction from a minority community that frequently feels itself under siege”. The reality, she argues, is that feminism and Islam are complementary, as the Koran has a mandate of “gender equality and social justice”.
Today a woman or girl in any number of countries with sizeable Muslim populations, and not just in North Africa and the Middle East I might add, may be subjected to forced marriage, gender apartheid, honour killings, female genital mutilation, polygamy, and harsh punishments for adultery or for being a rape victim. Of course, to Carland, any mention of this represents typically negative and condescending attitudes towards Islam. She instead draws the reader’s attention to the challenges faced by Muslim women in Australia, such as coping with our supposed “obsession with the hijab” and the “inadequate space for women” that exists in many mosques. Her personal experiences are no less harrowing, remarking as she does at the necessity for her to avoid dawdling behind her husband when walking in the street for fear that onlookers will accuse her of being subservient.
This review appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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This sort of anecdotal “evidence” of the alleged gender discrimination Muslim women endure is reflected in her research methodology. She bases her study on interviews conducted with twenty-three Muslim women in Australia and North America in 2011 and 2012. These women are described as theologians, activists, writers and bloggers. Nine are Muslim converts, and therefore presumably born in North America or Australia, seven are single, eight are divorced, eight have no children and all but one have university degrees. Wisely, Carland does not attempt to claim they are representative of Muslim women around the world.
It is as well that Carland confines herself to the experiences of a small group of fortunate Western Muslim women. When she and her study cohort venture opinions on some of the more serious problems confronting their Muslim sisters (insofar as they even acknowledge these problems exist at all) in nations that are actually dominated by Islamic law the results are not encouraging. Carland claims that the prevalence of forced marriage for under-age girls in Nigeria has nothing to do with Islam but because the fathers are so poor they have no choice. Her solution is for the Nigerian government to address poverty. In other cases it is the West’s fault there has been no improvement to women’s rights. When in 1999 there was apparently an internal “woman-led” push for “tighter laws” against honour killings in Jordan a local Muslim leader called it “a Western plot to destroy and corrupt their society … [the West] has occupied us militarily and politically, and now they want to destroy society”. In other words, the failure of some Islamic societies to reform their brutal customs is excusable on the grounds that these countries are burdened and traumatised by the legacy of colonialism. Furthermore, attempts by Western women to highlight women’s rights issues in these countries are seen as disingenuous and done merely to justify American-led imperialism. According to Carland, when Laura Bush and Cherie Blair spoke publicly about the “plight” (her quotation marks) of women in Afghanistan after 9/11 it was only done to justify the need to “bomb the country”. The fact that the ruling regime of Afghanistan at the time, the Taliban, unarguably treated women appallingly and harboured a terrorist group that had recently murdered thousands of Americans and other nationalities is, apparently, not worth mentioning.
More tellingly, here is one of Carland’s research subjects on the punishment of rape victims in Pakistan. Bear in mind she is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin:
Nobody wants women to be imprisoned or punished because they were victims of rape … So if a Western feminist comes in and tries to attack the hudud laws [punishments under Islamic law specified by the Koran] … the pushback you’re getting isn’t because someone wants these rape victims to be punished. That would be a skewing of their perspective. What they want is for Islamic law to be respected and honoured in their society … But when you really show them the sources and say, “Look at this,” they realise … “This is not what Islam teaches.”
The absurdity of basing a modern criminal justice system on literal interpretations of ancient religious texts never seems to occur to Carland or her fellow Muslim feminists. Quite the opposite. They are at pains to emphasise the fundamental role the Koran and Islamic law play in Muslim societies. We are told that attempts at social reform that exclude Islam will inevitably end in failure. It used to be taken for granted that an American law professor or a student awarded a PhD in a liberal arts discipline from an Australian university would understand and defend the need to separate church and state. Sadly this is no longer the case.
This book, therefore, is highly reactionary, not to mention deliberately obfuscatory. According to Carland, the problems facing Muslim women around the world are not really problems at all, or at least not problems caused by Islam; if reforms are to be made they must be in strict adherence to Islam’s religious texts; and anyway, these are not things that non-Muslims can understand or should involve themselves in. We are asked to believe that the real challenge for Muslim feminists is analogous to the trivialities concerning their affluent, angry, secular counterparts in the Green Left: vague complaints about sexism, misogyny, the patriarchy and lack of social justice.