I Am Not A Hostage

Joumana Haddad wrote a provocative piece for NOW News last week titled “Islamic Feminism: Stockholm Syndrome” in which she claims that any woman who claims to be a feminist and religious (Muslim, Jewish, or Christian specifically) is identifying with her captor, her hijacker, her tyrannical overlord.

To be clear, this is not a new claim.

It is also a claim that radically simplifies the problem and dramatically underestimates women and men working for justice.

I spent a good amount of my graduate career immersed in the writing and work of Mary Daly, second wave radical feminist philosopher, and wrote my second book partly about her political and theological work.  So, I get deep sustained criticism of monotheistic religion.  I respect it enormously.  I understand beyond measure the legitimacy of feminist criticism of patriarchal religion.  To some extent, in fact, I agree with it.

But when Daly and Haddad and others simply throw their hands up in disgust and declare a religion essentially and permanently incompatible with feminism, they miss the point.

The point is that religions change – always have and always will.  Tell me of another human-constructed institution (education, law, state, family, even the military) that feminists have determined to be permanently incompatible with equality and justice?

None that I know of.

So why admit defeat in the face of religion?

Haddad makes a few key points I want to respond to at some length.


“All monotheist religious texts are inherently misogynic and against gender equality, however we cherry pick them. They compete on enforcing patriarchal standards—humiliating women, classifying them as men’s property and oppressing them. Taking one verse from here or there in order to prove that this or that religion promotes women as equal to men is a futile exercise, to say the least.”

She focuses here on scripture – the Quran or the Bible.  It seems there is a longer discussion to be had about various ways in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians use their sacred texts.  There are (dare I say always have been) different methods of reading and understanding them, and there are (always have been?) different ways of viewing their authority.  Even her own mention of the Quran as “the verbatim word of God” and Islam as “solidly resistant to reform” misses a more complex understanding of the history of that very text and the complicated historical emergence of Islam – each discussed at length by Amina Wadud in Quran and Woman, and Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam.

But, though I teach a course on Women in Islam, I am no expert in Islam.  Let me focus on Haddad’s claims about monotheistic religions more broadly.  Her very next point, in fact, makes a claim about individual adherence to a religion:

“First and foremost, you cannot embrace a religion selectively. You don’t use one or two ingredients and overlook the rest in order to fabricate for yourself a comfortable co-existence between your self-respect and your inability to admit the obvious.”

Of course you can.  And we do.

Every single religious person and institution out there is selective in what they emphasize, ignore, champion, and fight about from their texts and traditions.  Pentecostal Christians emphasize the second chapter of Acts to define how you know a person has received the Spirit.  If any person in my Lutheran congregation started speaking in tongues, no one would know what to do with them.  Conservative Christians who apply some verses in Leviticus directly to current debates on marriage equality and gay civil rights still eat shellfish and clothing made from mixed fibers.  And women as pastors, priests, and bishops?  Well, it depends on who you ask.

So when Haddad claims, regarding Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that “these three religions have the same attitude toward women: oppressive and unfair,” I want her to be more specific.  Which versions of these three religions?  At what point in history?  In which culture?

Her most sweeping and damning claim, and one with which I do not completely disagree, is this:

“Not only are the monotheist religions biased against women, but they are, all three of them, racist, sexist, homophobic, merciless, bloody, and biased against humanity, freedom and human rights. They are even biased against common sense. They are ManMade and PowerMade institutions that aim at controlling people and their lives. All of them have, throughout their history, used wars and terrorism to promote their objectives and survive the secular forces that threaten their continued existence, not to mention that their exclusivism has frequently fostered violence against those that are considered outsiders.”

This has all been true of these religions.  For some versions of each, it still is.  My question is simply this:  Why assume that monotheistic religions will always be this way?  Or, if we want to bring historians into the conversation, why assume they always have been?  While Haddad thinks it is an admission of defeat and ignorance to work for change from within the religions, as many of us do, I think it is more defeatist and ignorant to paint millennia of diverse global religious communities with one brush.  It’s absolutist:  Either you are with us or against us.

The thing is … if they are “ManMade,” to use Haddad’s word, they are no better or worse than the men or women making them.  Why not make them better, and lessen the violence and hatred that they can and have spread?

Haddad argues that anyone working for change from within a religion cannot call herself a feminist.  I’m dubious of this claim for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is several generations of women and men doing just that.  Additionally, that Haddad turns to the dictionary for a definition of feminism doesn’t do much to bolster her argument.  Feminism, she (and Webster!?) say is first and finally about equality.

OK.  Great.  A little basic, but let’s just go with it for the sake of the argument.  So, how is this incompatible with monotheism?  Haddad never makes that clear.  She says:

Monotheism and feminism inevitably exclude each other, unless you are deliberately turning a blind eye and being choosy in your understanding of both. In that case, you could very well be self haters: hostages that defend and love their captors.”

It is this last image, the one that she picks up on for the title of the piece and tagline about “love thy hijackers” that I make my final objection.  Haddad clearly thinks very little of the creative and critical work being done by Jewish feminists like Judith Plaskow, Marcia Falk and Susannah Heschel, Christian feminists and womanists like Serene Jones, Delores Williams, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Monica Coleman, Muslim feminists and women like Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi.

A bunch of brainwashed women?  Ignorant?  Blind?  Captive to hijackers?

You could say a lot of critical things about the work of these and so many other women and men working for gender justice in monotheistic religions.

Including me.  But I am not a hostage.

By ascribing this role to anyone working for justice and equality from within a flawed institution, Joumana Haddad commits the absolutist error of which she has just accused the religious and puts those women in the very submissive position that she decries.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Amina Wadud

    Thank you Professor Riswold. Although we have been saying this for years: religion is what we as humans MAKE of it, your succinct and INCLUSIVE response here was just perfect. Keep up the good work!

    amina wadud

  • Thierry Phillips

    OK, I’m male and soon to be 60, so at a functional level I can’t possibly be considered a feminist, being a product of the Euro-American social paradigm and all that crap.
    I do attempt to operate first from a rational and analytical stance, so I am led to several assumptions based on observation.
    One is that biologically, males are a later development.
    Would it not make some sense to couch a lot more arguments in those terms, to overturn the “women are the 2nd sex” paradigm in thoughtful people’s minds?

  • enness

    While I don’t agree with everything in your article, I’m very glad you’re exposing this “Stockholm Syndrome” claim as the nonsense it is. The irony of such a mindset goes flying right over their heads as they insult and patronize any intelligent woman who simply has looked at the same information and come to a different conclusion.

  • http://nasreenaminablog.wordpress.com Nasreen Amina

    Joumana Haddad is just another so called feminist distracting attention from what is really important: Patriarchy. In all what she says, she’s talking about Patriarchy. Her statements can be said about any religion not only monoteist but, above all, can be said about any organization where women are in a second place and experience discrimination and understimation. What is more serious for me is this kind of “Intelectual” elaboration feeds the orientalist idea that muslim women have not a voice for themselves and have not agency on themselves, and they are only what other- with an idea of cultural/moral/spiritual superiority- say about them; especially, she remarks the idea that everyone except muslim women have spiritual agency to define how religion insert in their own lives. Shame on her

  • Eric Schramm

    The Christian Bible is not just a religion book, it is also a history book. Unfortunately it describes a nation that had all those flaws she spoke of. Read the bible for God’s beliefs and not human ones and you will find in Ezekiel 16:49, the prophet quotes God as saying, “’Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Sex didn’t play a part in his condemnation. Genesis 1 states let us make man in our image. Despite being mistranslated (ask a rabbi), man (adam) does not have a male lean to it. Here is what a Rabbi said to me in an email. I asked if eve was taken from the “rib” or if the word in Genesis meant Womb – making Adam a functioning Hermaphrodite. His reply was “A better translation may perhaps be side, but not womb. Since the word means side, there is a Midrashic tradition that Adam was originally both male and female, G-d then removed one side and made that into Eve, leaving the male side as Adam.” Doesn’t sound like GOD was anti-feminist to me. Then there is the Prophetess Deborah – who also led Israel before king David. The Jews had that superior knowledge and still treated women like dirt. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, in public, as an equal. He let women support HIM with money Luke 8:1-3. He then DIED so that we wouldn’t have to go to hell and suffer eternal torture. They then made it into an oppressive religion “turn or die”. Nowhere did Jesus ever tell is to forcefully convert anyone. “He that lives by the sword, dies by the sword”. You are right. We do make all our religions into whatever we want it to be. I struggle every day with trying to decide if Leviticus is still to be obeyed – because I’m gay. I don’t let my own feelings decide what is or is not right, because they are little liars, we will always try to convince us that what we feel is right. If that were so, then our feelings haven’t been corrupted by sin? Well Hallelujah! Uh, sorry, they have been too. Long ago I decided the only way to know right from wrong was to find out what the Bible said, despite what any church told me and since then have poked holes in every theology taught me in every church. I’m not right in everything and never will be but I think I try harder than any major denomination I’ve seen. The one I’m with right now is the best fit for me – Christian and missionary alliance. Bible Based, loving, with a GREAT outreach.
    Trust me, not all religious men are unbalanced or anti-feminist.
    have a nice day.

  • Karen G.

    I have a PhD from one the most leftist feminist sociology departments in the USA. The women i met there were far far more dogmatic than any conservative catholic I’ve ever known. You’re not allowed to be ambivalent about anything. The hell with their bigotry and self serving doctrines. I’ve also never forgotten hearing mary daly at BC in the late 70s . Visceral hatred in the room. we need to be open to one another.

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  • http://holdingontotruth.blogspot.com Johan Tristan Aslim

    Nice reflection. And as Amina Wadud is rightfully mentioned as one of the ‘non-hostaged’ ones, an interesting conversation with her can be found here: http://www.halalmonk.com/amina-wadud-reformed-theology