Samandeh Oladi

The Evolution and Significance of Female Islamic Scholarship

Q&A with Samaneh Oladi
Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies

Dr. Samaneh Oladi is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at VCU, whose research focuses on the evolving role of women as religious authorities and producers of Islamic knowledge. Her work studies how female Islamic scholarship challenges patriarchal interpretations of sacred scriptures, and she has published papers examining the involvement of women in civil society and women’s participation in the reformation of Islamic family law.

How did you originally become interested in studying women’s evolving role as Islamic scholars?

Coming from a Muslim-majority country, the question of women’s religious authority was not something that had occupied my mind. However, when I came to the United States, the portrayal of Muslim women within the Western discourse was very concerning to me. As somebody who had lived and traveled in those countries, it was evident to me that generalizing Muslim women’s experience is problematic because the experience of women in each country is quite distinct. Although women might practice the same religion or follow a particular school of thought, how they go about practicing or embodying their religious tradition is very different. Another surprising issue that I encountered was the level of religiosity in the American Muslim communities – I noticed that some of the immigrant communities were more traditional than their fellow Muslims in their native countries. Second generation Muslims on the other hand are becoming increasingly liberal, all the while trying to maintain their Islamic identity. Minority groups that face prejudice, including religious minorities, cling to their religion and culture as an affirmation of their own group identity and worth.

How do you think this portrayal of Muslim women’s experiences affects their ability to be religious and societal leaders?

It depends on whether you’re looking at the American context or Muslim-majority countries. In the West over 80% of news coverage about Islam and Muslim women is negative, and the practice of veiling has functioned as the primary mark of women’s oppression in Western narratives. It’s not uncommon to hear that Muslim women are forced to wear the veil, however, out of the 50 Muslim-majority countries, only two require women to cover their hair. One is Iran and the other is Saudi-Arabia, and the way veiling and modesty is embodied and defined in Iran and Saudi Arabia is very different. The other interesting statistic is that the majority of Muslim women don’t cover their hair, unlike what the dominant narrative tells us. The question that always occupied my mind was, why is there so much emphasis on Muslim women’s dress code? It seems this obsession over women’s clothing by both Islamists and secularists is another form of intervention in the ideological tug-of-war over the women’s bodies.

Why do you think veiling is such a highly publicized issue for Muslim women?

Covering is not unique to Islam, you see it in other religious traditions as well (including Christianity and Judaism). Portraying it as a Muslim issue is problematic and it just adds to the politicization of women’s clothing. We know that images of Afghan women in burqas was used to build up mass support for the War in Afghanistan, but what is left out from such rhetoric is that a very small segment of Afghan trip, the Taliban, had enforced this dress code (burqa) on women. Also, if you were to compare the traditional dress code of Afghan men with that of Afghan women, you would realize that their dress code is not very different – both wear long garments to preserve their modesty and protect themselves from the elements. When speaking about “saving” Muslim women, what is often conveniently left out is that it’s not an article of clothing that’s the main concern for these women – it’s poverty, lack of education, the militarization of their countries, and lack of access to health care. It’s important to recognize that historically, the rhetoric of saving women from their “oppressive culture and/or religion” has been used to justify colonialism and pursue interventionist policies.

Why is the growth of female scholarship on Islamic scripture important?

Women are trying to reclaim the narrative of their tradition and in the process reclaim their positions as religious leaders. We know that in the formative period of Islam, women would consult and debate with Prophet Muhammad concerning various issues. For instance, one woman came up to Muhammad after his sermon and inquired  why he is only addressing men in his sermons? And from then on, Mohammad addressed both men and women in his sermons. In fact, the Quran is one of the few religious scripture that addresses both men and women (if you look at other religious scriptures it’s usually addressed directly to men). So, there was a culture of inclusivity that existed during the time of Muhammad, but when Muhammad passed away and his religion expanded, it encountered different cultures. Some cultures were more patriarchal than others, and in some, women were not allowed to become religious authorities. So the status of women in premodern Islam didn’t necessarily conform to the Quranic ideals, but to prevailing patriarchal cultural norms. Fast-forward to the 19th century and religious institutions became much more inclusive. The reform movements of the 19th century saw a decrease in the sociopolitical and educational influence of the male religious scholars, which in turn opened the way for women to participate in Islamic educational institutions. Once this space opened up, Muslim women became involved in hermeneutics project, in order to challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islamic scriptures. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re dealing with countries where religion plays an important role in the socio-political domain, so these women acknowledge that in order to be effective they must position their arguments within an Islamic framework. By doing so, they legitimize their demand for gender justice as organic, rather than Western-inspired.

What kinds of unique challenges do Muslim feminists face in working towards equality?

Muslim feminists are met with mixed reactions from secular and orthodox communities. On the one hand, you have the conservative, male, Orthodox communities who think that Muslim feminists are influenced by Western discourses and are attempting to bring secular values into their tradition. On the other hand, you have some radical secular feminists within Muslim communities who see religion as the cause of women’s oppression and believe that Muslim feminists are pawns of patriarchy and androcentrism. Such critiques also expose the challenges Islamic feminists poses to both secular and orthodox thoughts. But regardless of all these pressures, Muslim feminists are quite successful in reforming discriminatory laws and they tend to be more successful than their secular and conservative counterparts.

How do female interpretations of Islamic scripture differ from the traditional male interpretations? How has women’s role as religious scholars evolved?

Their number one priority is women’s rights and achieving gender justice through reinterpreting religious scriptures, because this issue is impacting them directly. By using frameworks offered by religion, these women are challenging discriminatory policies implemented in the name of religion. Women’s role as religious authority has evolved significantly in the past few decades due to socio-political factors. For instance, in countries such as Iran, after the 1979 Revolution, women participation in social and political realm increased, particularly enrollment in institutions of higher education and religious institutions. This indirect consequence of the Iranian Revolution provided an opportunity for women from traditional and religious backgrounds to participate in the public sphere, because they could pursue their education in segregated schools. Before the Revolution, men and women were in a mixed environment and Western dress codes were imposed on women – not too long after Reza Shah Pahlavi, the previous Monarch of Iran came to power, women were banned from wearing the veil in Iran. During the Pahlavi’s secular monarchy, elite women benefited from the secular state while the concerns of more traditional and religious women was ignored. Today, the literacy rate in Iran is over 82% and this rate increases to 97% among young adults without any gender discrepancy. In fact, the majority of college students in Iran are women, and women are gradually dominating a lot of fields that was traditionally monopolized by men, including religious institutions.

What impact has the rise of female Islamic scholarship had on the experience of Muslim women living in Islamic countries?

Women are being increasingly active in political discourses, religious discourses, and public arenas. The rise of female Islamic scholarship is contributing to the deconstruction of traditional paradigms. Women make their claims through religion by arguing that gender justice is inherent in Islam but denied to them by patriarchal misinterpretations. For example, Morocco is a successful model, in that it has reformed family law due to women’s activism and participation in socio-political and religious spheres. A women’s group initiated the family law reform movement by lobbying their government and being involved in hermeneutics projects, the interpretation of literary texts. They launched the One Million Signatures campaign, which tried to gather a million signatures on a petition to reform the discriminatory family law. Because the campaign was so successful, the King of Morocco was forced to act in response to the campaign and in 2004, King Mohammed and members of the Moroccan Parliament conceded to reforming family law. The 2004 law is now considered one of the most progressive in the Middle East and North Africa, because it secured several important rights for women. As you can see, pressure from women has forced these states to reconsider some of the elements that contribute to gender hierarchy, in order to placate these increasingly vocal challengers.

By Megan Schiffres