Scholar Makes a Religious Case for Women’s Rights
RABAT—The Rabita Mohammedia des Oulémas (Mohammadian League of Scholars), Morocco’s pre-eminent official institution of religious studies, is housed in a stately building here in the country’s capital. Its gleaming hallways and inner courtyard are decorated with traditional stucco work, tiles and wooden lattices. The hushed atmosphere embodies a religious, legal and scholarly authority that, here and across North Africa and the Middle East, is almost entirely male.
Almost. In 2011, Asma Lamrabet was appointed to the league, to head a center on feminist studies in Islam that is unique in the region. Lamrabet is the best-known representative in Morocco of what is often referred to as “Islamic feminism”—a school of thought that argues for women’s rights from within religious tradition. She wants to reclaim Islam, to prove it does not justify inequality, and to show, she told me in an interview a few months ago, that “spirituality can be liberating.”
In her numerous books and public speeches, Lamrabet puts forth a progressive, contextual reading of the Qur’an. She argues that Islam needs to be cleansed of centuries of interpretation by male scholars, who imposed their own misogynist prejudices on a religion whose original spiritual message was remarkably egalitarian for its time.
In her latest book, Islam et Femmes: Les Questions Qui Fâchent (Women and Islam: the Troubling Questions), Lamrabet questions the way Islam discriminates between men and women—in polygamy, divorce, inheritance, bearing witness, the obligation to veil, the husband’s authority over the wife—and deconstructs the religious basis for these inequalities, either showing that they aren’t based on injunctions in the Qur’an, or arguing that their textual basis needs to be understood in terms of its historical context.
The goal of her book, she writes in its introduction, is to “denounce what a patriarchal culture has anchored in the souls of Muslims: the devaluation of women.”
Lamrabet’s first career was as a medical doctor. While in South America in the 1990s, she came into contact with and was influenced by liberation theology, a progressive vision of Christianity that argues for socio-economic justice.
“When I write I first of all write to myself,” Lamrabet told me. “From the beginning it’s been a debate with myself, as a Muslim woman.”
Secular feminists sometimes question “Islamic feminism” as either disingenuous or unnecessary—why not argue from the basis of universal human rights, especially in countries that have signed international conventions guaranteeing them? Lamrabet argues from a religious basis because, she says, religion is the principal support of patriarchy in the region today. She wants to furnish women with arguments to push back.
Lamrabet wants to articulate a “third way” between Western feminism—which she believes has been tainted by Western military intervention, colonialism, double standards and thinly veiled attacks on Islam—and a male-dominated religious discourse that smears all discussion of women’s rights as an affront and a corruption of the local culture.
Muslim women are “caught” between two discourses that both use them as pawns, she writes. On one side, women are “constantly called upon to preserve the foundations of a Muslim identity that is supposedly under perpetual threat.” On the other, they are “the scapegoats of choice, through whom to vilify Islam and bolster the idea of the superiority of Western values over an archaic Islamic culture.”
Lamrabet’s own discourse is still not accepted by most male scholars nor taught at traditional religious institutions, but she has slowly established herself. She has been developing her ideas and arguments for almost two decades now. “It’s only in the last five, six years,” she says, “that my discourse has become audible and pretty respected, even if many don’t share my views.”
Moroccan authorities often tout the country’s “moderate” vision of Islam. In 2004, King Mohamed VI passed a new family code, the Mudawana, which granted women increased rights and protections. As “commander of the faithful,” the highest religious authority in the country, the king had the legitimacy to do so despite protests by Islamists. While the Mudawana was hailed as an important step forward, its application has been disappointing. Women here still suffer from domestic violence, harassment, sexual double standards and economic inequalities.
Yet women in Morocco can serve as judges and in the police force; they can also act as mourchidat (religious guides) in mosques, teaching other women about religion. Recently, they have been granted the chance to work as adouls, notaries who witness marriage, divorce and inheritance contracts. This is a small step in the ongoing process of “deconstructing the religious patriarchy,” says Lamrabet.
“Patriarchy is this: to refuse women authority over religious texts,” argues Lamrabet. Even women who get degrees in Islamic studies, she says, “will interpret in the same patriarchal way as men, because otherwise they will be marginalized. One of our demands is to accept women’s readings of religious texts and let women be religious authorities. In our history, this existed, but those women were marginalized.”
Lamrabet is trying to put women back at the center—not in the usual way, as subjects of the debate, but as speakers in their own right.