Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reading the Quran: Women

Another thing that strikes me, hard, as I move through my reading, is the consistent perspective of the first few suras.  The Quran was written to be read and received by men.

This is not something that the Bible lacks.   There is a great deal of gendered language in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.  There is a significant amount of gendered language in the Gospels and Epistles, as well as some strong tensions between the perspectives of different authors.

But my encounter with the suras, and particularly the sura entitled An Nisa, or "Women," is of a deeply different character.   The foundational assumption, comprehensible from context, is that both the speaker and the hearer are male.

It's a man, speaking to men, about women.

And unlike storytelling, which may come from one perspective but remain accessible, and ethical teaching, which may be from a gendered perspective but be easily universalized, the form of direct address/lawgiving/exhortation that I've encountered so far in my reading lends itself rather less well to reinterpretation.   Even the gendered stories told by Jesus are intentionally metaphorical speech, which speak not directly about kings and stewards and Samaritans, but about deeper things to which the stories are only a signpost.

Women in the Quran, as I have so far encountered them, are at best like children.  They are to be cared for, yes.  Protected?   Sure.  What is commended is treating women with kindness and fairness. (An-Nisa 19)  These are unquestionably good things, and they resonate with other Quranic teachings that I have encountered.   But the assumption, both explicit and implicit, is that women are not equal, and the teachings are not directed at them.

At worst?  Well, An-Nisa 34 commends beating women to insure compliance.  This particularly awkward one varies depending on the translation, with only the liberal/heretical Ahmadiyya text interpreting it so that that 1) this clearly only has to do with infidelity and 2) it is only metaphorical and that no believer should physically strike another believer.   That a female Muslim scholar did the final edit that version may have had some influence over that approach.

The other translations make it more clear this is about obedience, and vary about the non-metaphorical whuppin', with some saying "strike them," others "scourge them," and others just plain ol' give 'em a beating.  A significant minority suggest that one should be sure not to hit them too hard, which, you know, makes it better.   This'll hurt me more than it hurts you, I suppose.

There is no question that there is a fair amount of hitty-punchy-punishy language in the Bible, even as it pertains to marital and familial relationships.   And both Torah and the later Epistles written not by Paul but by his disciples in his name establish this same sort of gender dynamic.

 It is also fair to say that this approach to male-female relationships is entirely comprehensible given the historical and cultural context.  This is true in the same way that the degradation of the radically egalitarian gender ethic of Jesus and Paul can be understood as a result of the incursion of Greco-Roman cultural norms into the later Pastoral and deutero-Pauline letters.

But in Christianity, there is a clear tension in the text, with some texts defending subordination, and others explicitly calling for that cultural norm to be replaced as the Reign of God presses into our reality.

Where the Quran has so far dealt with women explicitly, I have not seen that tension.  It does not defy or challenge that context in any way that I can discern so far.  Men are stronger.  Men should be in control.   That may change as I read, but as of yet, it has not.

It is also irresolvably alien to the ethic of both primal and moderate Christianity, not to mention that of the secular West.   It is, however, not alien at all to the Christian right, or to Christianity as it manifests itself in areas of the world that have still-extant biases against women.

Even with all of this, from the broader principles of hospitality, justice, and mercy that have so far been articulated in the suras I've read, I think it would be entirely possible to construct an egalitarian Muslim ethic towards women.   That would require certain portions of Quran to be less authoritative in our current context than others, in the same way that certain portions of the Bible no longer govern the lives of progressive/moderate Jews and Christians.  It would require interpretation and redefinition from the self-evidently highest principles articulated in Quran, rather than simply taking each verse individually.

For fundamentalism, this is not possible.  I simply can't see how that would work.  But that does not mean it is impossible.  Just harder, like constructing a Christian egalitarian ethic using only First and Second Timothy and Titus.

It is clearly the case in Muslim households I have encountered, and among many Muslim scholars.  It is also clearly in evidence in the actual day-to-day lives of more moderate Muslim communities.

So.  Onward I read.