Islamophobia and gender equality

July 15, 2013

A recent article reprinted in Truthout has the provocative title “The biggest lie you’ve told about the oppression of Muslim women.” And what is that biggest lie? According to Lauren Rankin, author of the article and  graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, the biggest lie is that Islam is a “violent and misogynistic faith, one from which Muslim women need to be saved.” Rankin adds that those who perpetuate this lie–as Joyce Carol Oates allegedly did in this series of tweets–suffer from a form of racism known as “Islamophobia,” a term that has also recently been used against Sam Harris for some of his remarks on Islam.

Does Rankin, who describes herself as a feminist activist, really want to defend the religion of Islam from accusations of sexism or misogyny? Her main point, as far as one can tell, is that with respect to the real problem of violence against women, Islam is not the root of the problem, patriarchy is. She writes:

Until we address the root problem, patriarchy, we will continue to trap ourselves in racist and xenophobic rhetoric that does nothing to create a world where every woman is free from violence and domination.

While patriarchy is the most important concept in Rankin’s argument, she doesn’t make any attempt to define it, which is never a good idea. Here is the Webster’s definition of patriarchy, which is more-or-less what one finds in any standard dictionary.

1: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly : control by men of a disproportionately large share of power
2: a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy

A key point in these definitions is that patriarchy (literally, rule by fathers) is a social system or a set of social practices in which women are subordinated to men. Patriarchy manifests itself in all sorts of ways–in legal codes, in cultural traditions, and in other forms of behaviour. But if patriarchy is an unjust social system, one has to consider the beliefs, assumptions, or myths that help to sustain it. Why does it still exist in so many cultures around the world? Religion, it seems, has a lot to do with it.

A few years ago, during a public debate on the question of whether or not religion is a force for good in the world, Christopher Hitchens challenged Tony Blair  to name one religion that stands for female empowerment. Blair didn’t meet the challenge, and it is doubtful that it could be met. More importantly, there is evidence linking religion in general with patriarchy and female subjugation. The following is the abstract for a study carried about by Stephanie Seguino and published in 2011 in the journal World Development:

This paper investigates the effect of religiosity on attitudes toward gender equality using World Values Survey data. Results indicate that religiosity is strongly correlated with gender inequitable attitudes across countries. Further, OLS, TSLS, and 3SLS regression estimates reveal that gender inequitable attitudes are associated with negative effects on seven measures of gender equality of well-being and public policy. No single religion stands out as more gender inequitable than others. The impact of religiosity is likely transmitted via “stealth” effects on everyday behavior in economic transactions in labor markets, household resource allocation, and government spending.

If the results of this study are to be believed, when it comes to female empowerment, no one religion is worse than the others but only because they are all bad.

Why then would someone like Rankin, someone who describes herself as a “feminist activist,” be so concerned to rebut the comments (actually questions) of Joyce Carol Oates concerning the role of religion in the violence against women in Egpyt? Rankin criticizes Oates for not mentioning the violence against women endorsed or promoted by certain Christian religions. But this is not true. In the series of tweets that Rankin is commenting on, Oates did write that:

“Yes. There is a Christian Crusade culture. All religions are “militant.” Secular law needed to restrain them.”

But setting aside the issue of what Oates did or didn’t say, this question of whether Islam is worse than Christianity or any other religion is really a red herring. The deeper point, which Rankin fails to confront, is that Islam and Christianity (and virtually all other religions) are impediments to the social progress that is needed in order to bring about greater gender equality and end the real problem of violence against women. Given this, it is irrational for Rankin to criticize those who object to the sexist elements of Islam and to smear them with the term “Islamophobia.” It would be far wiser for feminist activists like Rankin to work with people, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and even Joyce Carol Oates, who seek to promote secular ethical values and help liberate women and men around the world from the shackles of religion.

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