Many nonbelievers are convinced that Islam subjugates, even oppresses women. Now, there’s a certain carelessness in such blanket descriptions. The Islam of the Taliban and that of the Bosniaks are quite different. Still, we can identify a historical mainstream within Islam, and observe that this mainstream upholds patriarchal social ideals.
I guess for many of us, traditional Islamic practices concerning women come close to our defining examples of oppression: the condition of slaves, or battered women, for example. In such examples, we’re fairly sure about oppression, because we can put ourselves in the position of slaves or battered women, and it looks like that they are in miserable circumstances. This is true even if they do not get terrorized when they “behave well.” Imagination and empathy are perhaps not entirely reliable. But if slaves or battered women can securely express themselves, they often affirm that they feel oppressed and would like to escape their circumstances.
As always, there are complications. What, for example, if a slave or a battered woman has internalized their status? If they think of themselves as naturally inferior, or even deserving of suffering? They might deny that they are oppressed. They might, in fact, choose to remain with their master or husband even if other options became available.
In such a case, we might suspect some sort of false consciousness. Such slaves or battered women have inaccurate views of the world and those possibilities that are open to them. They have adopted moralities that undercut themselves. Secular liberals may well see this false consciousness as an especially nasty form of oppression, amounting to installing your jailer in your brain.
Indeed, such examples may inspire liberals to intervention. The circumstances that lead to oppression have to go, even if this means denying choices inspired by false consciousness. Slavery or battery severely stunts the capabilities and potentialities of people. Intervention to enhance individual capabilities seems acceptable.
Now, there are some clear-cut Islamic analogues to such situations. If a fourteen year old girl is given away in arranged marriage as a fourth wife and treated as a household and sex slave, that comes very close. Even if she was not treated as a slave, but merely had to live under a particularly cheerless version of traditional Muslim patriarchal strictures, we may well want to call her oppressed.
But then, many devout Muslims would agree. A marriage such as that might formally fit traditional Islamic law, but they would say that divine law is supposed to be animated by the spirit of justice that pervades the Quran. Such cases should be seen as an abuse of Islamic social ideals. Drug abuse, for example, does not invalidate secular liberal views about personal choice—it complicates them. Liberals may well treat drug use as a choice that predictably reduces individual capabilities, and favor policies that discourage drugs. Similarly, examples of abuse do not automatically invalidate mainstream Islamic gender ideals. Even a conservative Muslim could easily say that the practices exposed by such examples are condemned by “true Islam,” since they violate duties of protection imposed on males, and undermine the ideal of family harmony. So we need to address not extreme examples but ordinary devout Muslim families, looking at cases where women are subordinated in practice and in ideal, and where there are few religious objections.
Secular liberals can do this. We put ourselves in the position of women in patriarchal Muslim families, and notice that we’d chafe living under male authority. Furthermore, we don’t just have to rely on our empathy and imagination. There are Muslim women who have been in such circumstances, but who have also taken the opportunity to escape. Their experiences and arguments lead us to think that there is some degree of oppression here, and that a more gender-liberal social order would be a good idea. Furthermore, this is not a matter of a few individuals. More expansive views of women’s rights have made some inroads in Muslim populations.
Beyond this, however, the analogy to slaves or battered women becomes more strained. For we also find many Muslim women who defend patriarchal ideals. It is not so clear that we can describe them as suffering from false consciousness.
A common phenomenon throughout the Muslim world now is is women visibly turning to a more conservative religiosity. Sometimes this includes more feminist reimaginings of traditional practices. But by and large, the result is a reaffirmation of a patriarchal family and social ideal. Lots of women, even from more secularized family backgrounds, put on the veil and join groups of other women to ponder scripture and attempt to live a more devout and authentically Islamic life. Very often, alongside piety, they focus on cultivating traditionally feminine versions of virtues such as patience, humility, sacrifice, and submission. They put on veils because they want to enact modesty and become more modest in the process. They intend to transform themselves to become more virtuous, as virtue is understood in their cultural context. There are certainly some practical reasons to take the veil. For example, the conspicuously virtuous woman faces less harassment when in public in a Muslim society. (Veiling, in this respect, increases capabilities.) But the primary reasons for veiling expressed by pious women are religious.
On the other hand, it is hard to say that pious Muslim women are being made miserable. Piety has its own satisfactions, and many prefer it to more secular alternatives.
Moreover, if we are speaking of capabilities, we should ask: capability to do what? Not all human capabilities are mutually reinforcing or even compatible. A tight-knit family and community life, permeated by piety, supports different capabilities than a secular, liberal, individualist way of life. It values various capabilities differently.
So I think we should resist the temptation to diagnose some kind of false consciousness. If pious women suffer from false consciousness, this is no minor matter. Reorienting themselves is not a matter of removing a few false beliefs and reconsidering a few moral ideals while leaving more fundamental aspirations intact. The changes required go deep into who they are and who they want to become. They demand a radical rethinking of the life they want to live. It is not a matter of getting rid of a jailer installed in the brain; ripping out religious commitments that are integral to pious women’s identity would mean a major personal transformation.
Personal transformation, however, is prime religious territory. Orienting oneself to a moral ideal—through study of scripture, inspiration through stories of heroes and saints of the faith, living daily life in ways that affirm piety and commitment—this is exactly the sort of thing religions have been very good at. And it is very hard, if at all possible, to try to decide between rival comprehensive moral ideals from a neutral point of view. Secular liberalism is not a neutral standpoint; it is a competing perspective. Today, some women of Muslim backgrounds are attracted to a more liberal individualist way of life. But then many are attracted to a more pious and patriarchal conception of virtue and personhood. Conservative Islamic spirituality works for many people. This is what they want. Moreover, most Muslims are far from purists about their piety or their liberalism. Very often, people are drawn to aspects of many ways of life, and they end up trying to fashion hybrids.
So I am uncomfortable with the statement that Islam subjugates or oppresses women. I don’t think it’s defensible as it stands. You have to add a lot of qualifications and caveats to narrow the statement down to describe a circumstance that fits. And when you do that, you let all the air out of the original condemnation.
As a relative, limited judgment, we might still get some honest use out of “oppression.” Iranian women from a liberalized subculture found themselves oppressed after the Islamic revolution. Secular Turkish women are not deluded to think that their interests are threatened and capabilities narrowed by the creeping Islamization of their country. But even then, I don’t it’s legitimate for them to speak of all women being threatened by Islamization, especially as women’s activism is a major driving force behind Islamization movements today.
I think a better context for talking about Islam is that of political competition. Just because Muslim piety can so powerfully shape interests and ideals, it does not ring true to think of it as oppressive or as a variety of false consciousness. Nonetheless, Islamic piety invariably includes ideals of human interaction that conflict with secular liberal ideals. If secular liberalism works for us, we have damn good reasons to oppose Islamic movements. That is enough; we do not also need to portray Islam as some kind of universal evil.