It is clear to many Muslims and non-Muslims alike that if we look at countries in which Muslims make up the majority of the population, the status of women and girls often is problematic. (The primary latest example is in Pakistan, with the Taliban-directed shooting of a 14-year-old girl who is a child rights activist.)
Why should this be so and what can be done about it in ways that, while liberating women from oppression, nonetheless respect the core of Islam?
Those were the very questions at the core of an excellent presentation by a visiting female Muslim scholar this past week at St. Paul School of Theology.
I liked not only Dr. Riffat Hassan's (she's pictured here) answers but also her sense of humor and her realistic approach to what needs to change. Hassan is a retired religion professor at the University of Louisville.
After years of studying the Qur'an and the Hadith (the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), Hassan, a native of Pakistan, concluded that three fundamental theological assumptions form the base of the thinking that leads many Muslims to view women as inferior to men:
1. Eve was created from Adam, as described in one of the two creation stories in Genesis, so this made Eve derivative and of secondary importance.
2. Eve was assumed to bear primary guilt for the story of what has come to be known as The Fall, because it was Eve who gave the forbidden fruit to Adam.
3. Eve was created not simply from Adam but also for Adam, as a "helpmeet," or, in effect, a servant.
Hassan said that when she talked with both men and women Muslims and asked how Eve came to be they all said, "from Adam's rib." The problem with that answer, she said, is that although it comes from one of the Genesis creation stories, it's not found in the Qur'an, and it is in tension with the first creation story in Genesis.
So she looked for the origin of Muslim thinking about all this and discovered it not in the Qur'an but in the Hadith, though many, if not most, of these 600,000 or so collected sayings and stories about Muhammad have been judged to lack authenticity. Indeed, one early prominent Muslim scholar judged only about 3,000 of the 600,000 to be authentic.
The point, she said, is that "women got derailed at the point of creation. And you cannot put them on the right track if you don't go back to that point."
Which means, she said, that if you want to undo the inequality many women experience in predominantly Muslim countries, you can't begin with secular documents about equality from such institutions as the United Nations. Rather, "the only way to challenge injustice towards women is from within the tradition." That means teaching both male and female Muslims that Islam was really quite liberating for women as the religion was introduced by Muhammad. Since then, however, various cultural and other forces have led to oppression of women in Muslim societies.
So Hassan has been training both men and women to give Islamic, theological answers to people who hold the three foundational theological assumptions about women that she identified. And it's beginning to have an effect, she said.
"I see a lot of pregress has been made but we have a long, long way to go yet," she said, but progress is slow because most Muslim women in the world are poor, illiterate and live in small villages, so their opportunity to challenge anti-woman attitudes and practices is limited.
The three theological assumptions she identified in Islam are, in some ways, even more deeply embedded in both Christianity and Judaism, particularly in branches of those faiths that take a fundamentalist approach to theology.
That's why we see a pushback with the rise of feminist theology in the last several decades as scholars and others seek to find a different theological framework that doesn't subjugate half the population.
By the way, Hassan's talk is just one example of the many talks and other programs by visiting scholars that our several local seminaries offer. If you want to get e-mail notifications about such events from St. Paul, click here.
(The Louisville Courier-Journal did a piece in late July about Riffat Hassan's work. You can find the start of it here, but if you want to read more it will require payment.)
* * *
WHEN SHOULD RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE BECOME LAW?
The part of the vice presidential debate on Thursday night that most intrigued me was when moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, both Catholics, to comment on how their faith influenced their position on abortion. As you may know, Biden is generally called pro-choice, while Ryan has said he's against abortion even in cases of rape or incest, though he's going along with Mitt Romney's stance of having exceptions in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother. You can read their answers in this part of the transcript, but I thought Biden's answer was most in harmony with public opinion on this. He said: ". . .with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion as
a -- what we call a (inaudible) doctrine. Life begins at conception in
the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I
refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews,
and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the
-- the congressman. I -- I do not believe that we have a right to tell
other people that -- women they can't control their body. It's a
decision between them and their doctor." Seeking to impose specific parts of religious doctrine on the public through legislation is almost always problematic, though even there one finds a thin line between being true to one's beliefs and governing properly. By the way, I believe that in the "inaudible" part of the transcript, Biden referred to a "De Fide" doctrine. Such doctrines in Catholicism are considered divinely revealed and belief in them is thus obligatory for Catholics.
* * *
P.S.: As my regular readers know, I've been an opponent of the death penalty for a long time and for many reasons. In fact, I used to write the anti-capital punishment editorials that expressed the position of The Kansas City Star on this matter. So I'm glad to notify you of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty's Nov. 10 "Abolition Conference," to be held in Olathe, Kan., in suburban Kansas City. The speaker will be Dr. Allen Ault, dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University and former Department of Corrections commissioner in Georgia, Colorado and Mississippi. Details about the conference (registration is free) are at the site to which I've linked you above. And feel free to spread that link around to your own faith community, if any.
* * *
: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place
in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here
(for non-members) and here
(for members). Hope you can join us.