At the Centre of the Debate on Secularism, Faith, and Gender Equality

Last week, Christopher Majka posted an article on in response to Sheema Khan’s piece in the Globe and Mail entitled “Muslim men: Stop blaming women.”

At the centre of the debate is: what is the best way to bring gender equality and rights to Muslim women? Is it at all possible? Should it be a faith-based solution or a secular one?

Sheema Khan’s article speaks to Egyptian women’s current situation under the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, and focuses on the Brotherhood’s latest pre-marital seminars, where women are reassured of their “proper” role as men’s followers. Khan argues that the image of women as a passive observer and follower of male authorities is a myth. In her view, Muslims can find plenty of examples in Islam’s history that advocate for women’s emancipation and gender equality.

On the other hand, Christopher Majka disagrees with this view. A research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Majka draws his conclusion from his observations of Muslim women in Iran during the 70s. These experiences enable him to conclude that a faith-based approach to achieving women’s equality is not viable in modern society. For him, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents like it, should be the basis of modern civil society, and should then be able to provide women with an equal untouchable status that does not rely on theological interpretations.

The topic in itself is quite challenging world-wide. Gender equality is not something that can be, or will be, achieved overnight (as you can see in these statistics). Today, as much as we would want to, we cannot say that women enjoy equality everywhere at all times. Even those with more access to the spheres of influence, such as female politicians, tend to be discriminated against, from the U.S. to Egypt.

Sheema Khan. Image via the Globe and Mail.

In addition, gender equality is not only a matter of whether men blame women or women blame men, in contrast to Khan’s headline. It is not one gender against the other. There are women and men who benefit from patriarchal and authoritarian structures that prevent women from achieving equality. Similarly, there are men and women that work together in resisting institutions that threaten gender equality, and the United Nations Population Fund argues that men’s involvement is key to end inequality.

There are a couple of issues that I see in the debate between the two articles. First, they assume that we can paint everyone with the same brush; thus, it is assumed that gender equality means the same to everyone everywhere. Well, that might make things easier, but unfortunately what works for some does not work for others. For instance, while Khan invites us to explore Islamic history, we must also acknowledge that history is also interpreted. How Islamic history is interpreted in each particular context contributes to Muslim women’s status and access to the public sphere.

Christopher Majka. Image via

In contrast, Majka argues that secularism is the way to go. The fact is that secularism means different things in different places. For a simple example, the province of Quebec has addressed secularism in different ways from most of the rest of Canada (especially with regards to how to deal with religious clothing and other visible signs of religion), as discussed by woodturtle in a recent post.

Secularism, I would argue, has not been a guarantee of equality either to Muslim women or women in general, and can’t be counted on as inherently anti-sexist.  Patriarchal systems are still going strong in secular contexts as well, and we can’t rely on secularism in itself to bring about changes.

Second, I feel that these approaches (either faith-based or secular) are often posed as mutually exclusive, when at the end of the day many Muslim women worldwide interact in both arenas. Whether through colonialism, military occupations, globalization, social media, immigration or conversions to Islam, Muslim women engage with secularism and religious-based communities.

How can one be chosen over the other?

An important factor that I feel Majka overlooks is the fact that for many Muslim women their identity as Muslim is very important and does not undermine their identity as women; some even identify as Muslim feminists. Telling Muslim women and men that secularism will solve their issues as far as gender equality goes (if secularism is understood as removing religion from the equation entirely) may not take us very far when Islam is at the centre of identity along with gender. Yet, it also seems that a faith-based approach that is closely related to the state (i.e. Saudi Arabia or Iran) can further contribute to inequalities and the marginalization of minorities.

Therefore, I believe that any attempts to bring gender equality to Muslim women should be recognize that neither approach is complete without the other. Secular ideas along with faith-based approaches could be beneficial as most of us largely interact with both spheres. Gender equality strategies should empower Muslim women and men to reflect on gender equality in their particular context. It should also enable them to recognize these principles in their own religion if we want this to be a positive change in Muslim women’s lives.

  • Anwer

    I don’t like the use of “Mrs. Khan” here because her marital status has nothing to do with the story. Let’s promote the use of Dr. or Ms. Khan as the proper reference.

  • Krista

    You’re absolutely right; thanks for pointing that out. Most of the Ms./Mr./etc. were taken out before this was posted, but obviously I missed one – will go fix that now.

  • Sheema Khan

    Hi Eren,

    Thank you for a refreshing, thought-provoking analysis. I think you are right when you say that there are not two mutually exclusive spheres of secularism and faith-based dialogue. In order to enhance gender equality, we should use all effective approaches – and this is where “points of reference” come in. If I am trying to enhance gender equality amongst Muslims who mistrust secularism, and adhere strictly to what they have been taught about Islam, then I will refer to Islamic teachings and authentic traditions to advance the cause. Secular humanism arguments will fall on deaf ears. I alluded to such in my original piece. Of course, such an approach may fail. Nonetheless, we must keep trying, and stand up to the brutality that we have recently witnessed in Pakistan, with the attempted murder of Malala Yusafzai. Here, we must all join forces to condemn such an atrocity, and support the brave women, men and children who are fighting for education.

  • Eren Cervantes

    Thank you for your comment Dr. Khan, I am happy you had the opportunity to read this piece. I am hoping a joint approach will be able to further appeal to different groups of Muslims and provide them with the tools to achieve gender equality. The unfortunate situation in Pakistan with Malala Yusafzai (all the prayers and blessings to her), it is also an example of how faith-based approaches can contribute to such a violence. Yet, you are right. In the context, I feel that perhaps endorsing alternative religious readings will enable people to fight this violence.

  • Aishah Schwartz

    Great job habibty! Keep up the good work, insha’Allah!

  • Christopher Majka

    Dear Eren,

    It’s a thought provoking article and I’m delighted that you have taken the opportunity to weigh in on this issue! A few quick responses:

    In the immediate term: it’s undoubtedly the case that there are people who are more apt to listen to and (one hopes) be persuaded by the theological points made by Sheema Khan. Indeed, there are people who reject the very notion of secularism. One hopes that there are imams and others who will take to heart what Khan has written and urge their followers and friends to take the issue of gender equality seriously.

    However, for a long term solution to this problem, basing gender equality on theological grounds will not succeed. There are always others with different views, even within any religious tradition (Sufi, Shiite, Sunni, Ismali, Wahabi, Alawite, etc.) and in the end these are based on individual beliefs. There always are religious texts (and interpretations of these) that can be found to support any belief. Building lasting protections for the rights of women on such slopes is not just slippery, it’s positioned at the top of a ski slope. ;~>

    The growth of secularism (what I refer to as moving from medievalism to modernity) has entailed the recognition that we must build civil societies on broad humanist principles of universal justice. It’s true that there has not been (and is not to this very day) complete agreement on what these are either, but broadly-backed accords like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by the UN General Assembly with no dissentions and only 8 abstentions) is a *huge* step in this direction.

    You are undoubtedly correct in saying the secularism by itself (or, indeed, the adoption of the UDHR) will not ensure gender equity. Governments need to have the resolve to implement these principles (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt all voted for the UDHR). There need to be justice systems that are fair and impartial, and will address violations of the principles of the UDHR, etc. But at least working from a secular perspective, the struggle will be based on humanist principles, clearly and unequivocally stated, and not on individual interpretations and beliefs. This is a *major* step forward.

    You are also undoubtedly correct in saying that for many Muslim women, their religious beliefs are an important part of their identity. And it is the case, that in many “secular” societies there are women for whom their Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish, or other religious faith, forms a vital part of their identity. However, in a secular-based society there is a broad understanding and acceptance, and laws, a justice system, etc. that base the treatment of women (and every other group in society) not on individual faith-based beliefs, but on humanist principles. Not every single person will accept this — but the society functions on this basis.

    So, in the long term: gender equity for women (and particularly for their daughters, and grand-daughters, and great-grand-daughters …) will need to be based on humanist principles if it is to be of lasting duration and effect. This is what I mean by moving from medievalism to modernity.

    On a personal note: when I lived in Iran I had the pleasure of knowing some Sufis. I was profoundly impressed by their phenomenal egalitarianism, not only in regard to women, and people of other faiths and belief systems, but in regard to animals, plants, and all sentient beings. This is the diametric opposite to the narrow, intolerant Wahabist interpretation of the Muslim tradition. This serves as an illustration that gender equity can come to full fruition within a Muslim tradition.

    Best wishes,

    Christopher Majka