Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Studying Islam in the Age of Islamophobia”

An hourlong teleconference with

Ayesha S. Chaudhry 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

1 PM to 2 PM ET


WATER spoke with Ayesha S. Chaudhry, Associate Professor of Islamic studies and Gender studies at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Religion, Law and Social Justice. Dr. Chaudhry spoke to us about her book, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition: Ethics, Law, and the Muslim Discourse on Gender (Oxford University Press, 2014).

These notes are provided as companion to the call’s audio. A Q & A session followed.

Mary E. Hunt: We welcome all of you to this session and all of WATER’s efforts, which are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. A special welcome to Ayesha S. Chaudhry.

Ayesha S. Chaudhry is the Canada Research Chair in Religion, Law and Social Justice. She is Associate Professor of Islamic studies and Gender studies at the University of British Columbia. She is a 2016-17 Wall Scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Study at the UBC and she was the 2015-16 Rita E. Hauser fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

She is the author of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition: Ethics, Law, and the Muslim Discourse on Gender (Oxford University Press, 2014). Dr. Chaudhry’s research focuses on Islamic legal and theological reform, with eye towards promoting human rights by focusing on women’s rights.

Dr. Chaudhry is deeply committed to bridging the academic and civil society divide, which is mutually edifying. In service of this commitment, she is actively engaged in civic discourse around religion. She has consulted on high-level national and international cases concerning human rights and religious pluralism and freedom. She works with NGO and international development organizations to improve women’s rights and promote pluralism. She is currently working on two major projects, one entitled “Feminist Shari’a” and the other “The Colour of God”. She knows how important it is to make theoretical materials available to a wide audience. She will now speak on “Studying Islam in the Age of Islamophobia.”

Ayesha S. Chaudhry:

Thank you for having me, I’m thrilled to be here. I look forward to listener participation. This book came out of a 10 year journey, started as PhD dissertation at NYU in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department.

Let me situate myself. I’m South Asian, Muslim, Canadian (raised in Toronto). All scholarship is autobiographical, so I will follow the feminist mandate to situate subjectivities in our scholarship. This is important when we think about studying Islam in the age of Islamophobia, as our subjectivities deeply inform the conversation surrounding Muslims. Muslims are under siege in the US, North America, and Europe. When communities feel under siege, they understandably do not want to have self-critical conversations, because you need sense of security to have these conversations.

I’ve been alarmed by the current political climate. There are tremendous losses that come with the demonization of a particular segment of population; when the diversity of communities are erased in the face of simplistic stereotypes.

One of the costs of this demonization is the loss of imaginative horizons of the communities that are demonized. For example, the poet and scholar Ross A. Gay asks, how much does it cost black men to live in a world thinking about the violence they might encounter? What would happen if they were using this imagination thinking about other things?

The book was written in a different political climate, but it feels like things have only gotten more dire. It’s about a verse in the Qur’an, Q. 4:34, which has been historically interpreted to permit husbands to hit their wives. Some Muslim-majority countries do not legislate against domestic violence because of their interpretation of this verse.

As a Muslim woman, I was disturbed and hurt by this interpretation. I don’t believe this to be the correct interpretation, I don’t believe the Qur’an permits husbands to hit their wives. The question is: Am I allowed to talk about ethical problems of this interpretation? In my book, I offer an intellectual history of this verse. How did Muslim scholars in the pre-colonial period read this verse, and how do Muslims in the post-colonial period understand this verse? While I was writing the book, a lot of Muslims who heard about my research topic would say, “why are you airing our dirty laundry?” Non-Muslims would say, “don’t you worry you’re feeding Islamophobia?”

It bothered me that there was pressure on me to not do the kind of scholarship I was doing because of an external gaze that was unkind, cruel, and ignorant. I struggled with moral and ethical issues around writing a book on this topic. As a Muslim feminist, I decided to write the book and deal with the consequences. The people who suffer the most when Muslims avoid self-critical conversations are Muslims. We don’t get to be honest with ourselves. I understand the impulse to not have these conversations, the worry that turning a self-critical gaze on ourselves will compromise Muslim standing when we are already under attack. In the end though, I believe that the PR (public relations) version of Islam hurts Muslims. We can’t sanitize Islam to only religion of peace or war, this makes Islam and Muslims one-dimensional. Neither are accurate representations of Islam or Muslims.

Instead, we must always remember that Muslims speak for the Qur’an, and Muslims are socially and historically contingent, have different relationships to power and the status quo. We are always in a web of power. We want the text and Islam to say different things based on how status quo hurts us or serves us. This is what the book looks at — how Muslims speak in different ways about the Qur’an, historically and presently. These conversations are not static.

The book has been well reviewed, but it’s been about 5 years since it came out, but I feel like it could have been better in some ways. One of the shortcomings, I believe now, is that I looked only at textual sources, and I wish I’d considered contemporary voices to a greater extent. I wish I had done ethnographic work for the book, brought in more Muslim voices.

I’m going to read now an excerpt from a forthcoming paper for the Oxford Handbook on Islamic Law entitled, “Islamic Legal Studies: A Critical Historiography” that talks about some of the ethnographic work that I’ve done since publishing the book:

“One of the reasons I decided to conduct the surveys was to find out if Muslims recognized Q. 4:34 as a text that permits the physical discipline of wives. When presenting on my book, people often asked me how this verse relates to domestic violence in Muslim communities. I know that domestic violence is prevalent in every human society irrespective of religion, but religious discourses contribute to domestic violence in important ways, both sanctioning it and prohibiting it. In my conversations with Muslim scholars, I found that views on whether Muslims knew about this verse were anecdotal, based on our own experiences with our own communities. “Most Muslims know about this verse”, “Most Muslims have never heard of it before”, “Most Muslims don’t see this verse as permitting domestic violence.” So I decided to survey Muslims in two diverse cities, one in which Muslims are a minority–Toronto–, and one in which Muslims form a majority—Kuala Lumpur.

In Toronto, I surveyed mosque-going Muslims in the month of Ramadan, which expanded the sample size of Muslims, because more Muslims go to the mosque than would otherwise during Ramadan. I surveyed Muslims in three mosques; a conservative mosque that was patriarchally structured, where all positions of authority were occupied by men; a more moderate mosque, where women held some positions of authority, sometimes spoke to mixed gendered audiences and held seats on the mosque board; and a progressive mosque, where women held positions of religious, ritual authority. The racial make-up of these mosques was diverse, peopled mostly by brown and black Muslims (South Asian, Arab, African).

In Kuala Lumpur, the Muslims surveyed were mostly Malay, but they included South Asians and Africans. And instead of surveying in mosques, which have a different function in Kuala Lumpur than they do in Toronto, I conducted my surveys in three settings of Islamic teaching and learning. These included a conservative academic setting that champions a patriarchal version of Islam, a think tank that produces reformist Islamic scholarship, and a progressive NGO that promotes a gender equal vision of Islam. There was strong representation of women in each of these three institutions.

The first question of the survey scrambled six patriarchal verses from the three Abrahamic scriptures; two verses each from the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and the Qur’an. I removed identifying characteristics from the verses, like any mentions of Allah or the Church, referring to them instead as God or house of worship. A translation of Q. 4:34 that permitted physical violence was one of the verses in the mix. I asked participants to identify the Qur’anic verses. Then, after a series of questions about marriages and life partners, I asked, “Do you believe it is ever right for a husband to hit his wife to correct her behaviour?” I wanted to see how many Muslims answered “yes” to this question, and whether there was any correlation between the level of structural patriarchy in an institution and its members’ acceptance or rejection of domestic violence. I also wanted to know if there was any correlation between a participant’s recognition of Q. 4:34 as a Qur’anic verse and the answer to the final question; i.e. did a recognition of Q. 4:34 mean that participants believed that husbands could hit their wives?

Here’s what I found.

A significant minority of participants in both cities recognized Q. 4:34 as a Qur’anic verse; 44% in Toronto and 35% in Kuala Lumpur. The majority of Muslims surveyed answered the question, “Do you believe it is ever right for a husband to hit his wife to correct her behaviour?” with a “No”; 87.7% in Toronto and 59.8% in Kuala Lumpur. A minority of participants believed that husbands had the right to hit their wives to correct their behaviour; 12.3% in Toronto, and 25.6% in Kuala Lumpur, with 14.6% of all surveyed declining to answer the question altogether.

As I had suspected, there was a correlation between the sites where the surveys were conducted and survey responses. In Toronto, the mosque with the most patriarchal structures of authority had the strongest levels of tolerance for domestic violence. Nearly half of the respondents at that mosque recognized Q. 4:34 as a Qur’anic verse (47%), and 20% of respondents said that husbands could hit their wives to correct their behaviour. In the more moderate mosque, where women held positions of limited authority, 42% of the participants recognized Q. 4:34, but only 10.5% were willing to concede that husbands could hit their wives. Most interestingly, the mosque in which women had ritual authority had zero tolerance for domestic violence. 100% of the participants of that mosque said that, no, husbands can never hit their wives. This mosque also had the largest Qur’anic literacy, with 50% recognizing Q. 4:34 as a Qur’anic verse.

Similarly, in Kuala Lumpur, the survey responses differed based on institutions’ commitment to patriarchal Islam. At the most conservative institution, in which patriarchal Islam is seen as ideal, 43% of respondents believed that husbands could hit their wives, while 38% believed husbands couldn’t hit their wives. 19% abstained from answering the question. At the think tank that promotes proscribed Islamic legal reform, preserving some forms of patriarchy while challenging others, 65.6% of respondents believed that husbands could never hit their wives, while a third (31.2%) responded to that question affirmatively. And finally, at the NGO that promotes women’s rights and is headed by women, a majority of the participants did not believe that husbands could hit their wives (69%), while only 7% thought that hitting wives was acceptable. Interestingly, this group had the largest abstentions, with 24% not answering the question at all.

These surveys bring to light the correlation between structures of authority and tolerance for domestic violence, which is an important lesson for those who seek social justice. Structural change must accompany social justice rhetoric. There is also a strong correlation between the desired idealized religious cosmology and attitudes towards domestic violence. The more beholden a community is to interpretations of the pre-colonial texts that were unabashedly patriarchal, the more likely they are to justify domestic violence.

What do these surveys tell us about Muslims and their relationship to the Qur’an and their view of Islamic law? What do they tell us about the relationship between recognizing Q. 4:34 as Qur’anic and beliefs about domestic violence? There was a strong correlation between not recognizing of Q. 4:34 and zero tolerance for domestic violence; that is to say, the majority (just over a half) of people surveyed both did not recognize Q. 4:34 and believed that husbands could not hit their wives. The second strongest correlation (28%) was between people who recognized Q. 4:34 and answered that husbands could not hit their wives. This means, they knew that Q. 4:34 was a part of the Qur’an, but did not think that it justified domestic violence. There was a significant but weaker correlation between people who recognized Q. 4:34 as Qur’anic and who believed that husbands could hit their wives, just under 12%. Finally, a minority of people did not recognize Q. 4:34 as Qur’anic and thought that husbands could hit their wives, less than 1%.

The majority of people surveyed did not recognize Q. 4:34 as Qur’anic, and further, most participants did not believe that husbands could hit their wives regardless of whether they recognized Q. 4:34 as Qur’anic or not. This means that, for these participants, Qur’anic verses did not function as legal verses without the mediation of other factors.

What should be largely unsurprising, except to the scholar who ignores Muslims in his study of Islam, is that there is at best a tenuous and highly contested connection between pre-colonial interpretations of the Qur’anic text and what Muslims believe is “Islamic”. And surely, Muslims ought to decide what is Islamic about Islam, no? Seen in light of these surveys, it makes little sense to ask questions like, “Is the Qur’an a book of law?” or “Is ISIS Islamic?”, much less to answer these questions as if they are legitimate.

Looking back at my book, I see that the most interesting discussions about domestic violence were happening in the contemporary period. And, certainly, it was important for me to patiently, methodically, and painstakingly (and it was painful!) lay bare the violence against women and wives sanctioned in pre-colonial texts in order to counter the rhetoric of plurality and diversity and beauty of these same texts. Though pre-colonial texts might be described in those ways on other topics, they are devoid of such qualities in discussions of violence against wives. Still, even though I said in the book that the most interesting conversations about domestic violence and Islam were happening now, I acted as if the most important conversations had happened in the past, devoting three chapters to the pre-colonial period, and only two to the post-colonial period, and even less to the voices of living Muslims. This is something I hope to correct in my research going forward, because research on Islam that ignores living Muslims isn’t just irrelevant and obsolete. It is bad scholarship.”

I want to build on this a little. If we say, is domestic violence Islamic? Yes, in pre-colonial times, but if you talk to living Muslims, the answer would be no. This question isn’t limited to gender or domestic violence. For example some of you may have read the Atlantic article where Graeme Wood asks the question, is ISIS Islamic? He talks to a Princeton Professor that says yes, ISIS is Islamic. But the Princeton Professor ignored vast majority of Muslims who do not support ISIS, he ignored 1.6 billion Muslims in order to say this, he was only looking at pre-colonial period. I find that really problematic. Islam is a living religion, it’s always evolving. Looking only at pre-colonial texts is deeply irresponsible. We need to shift in Islamic Studies to be more morally accountable, not morally neutral. Scholars have to be morally accountable for the kind of scholarship they produce.”

MEH: Thank you so much for that very thoughtful and insightful presentation.

Q & A

Q: I feel like I consistently see a split between academics and policymakers in the area of Islam and Islamic Studies. What should the relationship be between Islamic Studies and government policymakers? How much engagement ends up being accused as being part of the foreign policy world both here and abroad?

ASC: This is such an important question. I don’t have an answer for you, but you raise a difficult moral and ethical problem that a lot of Islamic Studies scholars face. What is our responsibility to engage in public policy? Some scholars feel morally compelled to do so.

There are multiple ways to engage with government actors. For example, you can work with the World Bank and make Islamophobic policies, but you can also work with them on their gender-based violence team. We are always part of larger agendas, even within the academy. Our scholarship is always political.

I have made the decision to engage policy in various ways. I spoke at the UN yesterday, I argued that we should not treat religious leaders as the only representatives of religious communities. If we do this with Muslims, for example, we missing out on speaking to wider Muslim populations. For example, in North America, only about 20% of Muslims go to the Mosque. That means we know very little about 80% of Muslims in North America. Oftentimes, public and government sponsored events bring in religious representatives who superficially fulfill a caricature of what westerners think Muslims look like. But there should be a diversity of representation; most Muslims do not look stereotypically Muslim. Who we choose to represent Islam, or any religious traditions or various secularisms, is always a political decision. We should take more care in this. For many years, I avoided these platforms because I didn’t want to be co-opted by the larger neo-imperialist agenda. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision here. There’s no winning.

Q: Thanks, my second question: How do we intervene in publics where general knowledge is so restricted by language access or by inability to access academia? I’m thinking about specific assumptions about being able to access academic books, afford books, etc. How do you have conversations with publics that literally can’t access your work?

ASC: I recognize the context that I’m in. For example, my book was very expensive, it’s down to $25 now, which is still unaffordable to many people. It’s also only in English, which limits its audience. Still,I have realized that my work has had a sort of cascading effect. I’ve met activists who have read my book and incorporated things into local workshops that serve local actors. I know my work has been interpreted, translated, and incorporated into other kinds of platforms.

I’ve also been focusing on writing in more accessible ways lately. For example, I co-wrote a piece with Rumee Ahmed, “The Islamic Case Against Domestic Violence: A Guidebook for Scholars and Leaders” for the Canadian Council for Muslim Women for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. The paper has been translated into French. It includes twelve sermon “seeds”, which can be used to deliver a sermon for one Friday a month for the entire year, promoting and expounding a gender egalitarian vision of Islam, in which there is no room for any sort of domestic violence..

One of my current works, The Colour of God, is a collection of personal essays. I talk about the ways I negotiated my religious identity, racial identity, and gender identity. These essays are written accessibly, I’m hoping they will have a broader audience. One of the reasons I’m writing this book is that I feel there is a silent majority of Muslims whose experiences aren’t heard. I’m writing from my experience in identity development. The book should be out in about a year.

My second project is Feminist Shari’ia, looking at six laws and rethinking the stories that undergird these laws: minimum marriage age, polygamy, corporal punishment for illicit sex, women’s leadership roles. I’m going to try to rethink these.

Comment: I worked at World Bank, I can relate to what you’re saying. The living with one another and the diversity that changes one’s consciousness. The one question I have, did you look at the Judeo-Christian/Islamic texts that mirror one another, the problematic texts to strengthen your argument? As you explore this, do you add to the arguments a commonality that we’re struggling with this as people of faith? Have you worked through that when you consider diverse audiences?

ASC: I teach a class on religious feminism. Muslim women aren’t the only religious feminists. Religions are shaped by patriarchal and historical contexts. Women within these traditions who resist patriarchy have to make a decision of how to relate to these traditions. Some do the work of patriarchy, some walk away from their religion. The field of religious feminism was created by women who aren’t willing to choose between their commitment to gender equality and their religious tradition. So there is a lot of commonality that’s important to recognize.

At the same time, the ways that these conversations happen within each tradition is unique. In my work, I look at Islamic feminism in particular. Often people will recognize these conversations because they recognize them within their own traditions. Interfaith conversations are happening and need to happen. But in my scholarship, I also want to capture the diversity of the intra-Muslim conversations. I think it’s interesting especially within our current context that we capture the diversity of Muslim voices.

MEH: I think sections of your book could give some answers to the previous question. The ways you sketch out two cosmologies set out by patriarchal v. egalitarian. And the part of your book about performative interpretation: who says that it’s not Muslim unless it’s patriarchal? Who gets to say that? I come from the Catholic tradition, and obviously some people think feminist Catholicism is a contradiction in itself. Who gets to say that it’s not Islam when it’s not patriarchal?

ASC: I want to unpack that question. It’s a great question. I am not imposing Western values on Islam, because gender equality doesn’t belong to the west. And Islam is not inherently patriarchal. I don’t see these identities in conflict, even though they’re also pitted against each other as if they are in conflict.

Comment: That question of who represents Muslims. I didn’t find anything within Islam that I connected to. I’m looking back into my traditions to find what I have rejected that I might come back to. Is there a place for Muslim people who have rejected their faith to come back to that and have a stake in this conversation? I’ve seen a lot of resistance to go back into the space that I’ve rejected for so long.

ASC: I think yes, there is place for that. I think the work of Muslim feminists is this work. Usually we take the most patriarchal voice and consider it as the most authoritative definition of the religion. Islam is constantly evolving. It doesn’t have an essence apart from the communities that interact with it. I think we need to see and hear more and more diverse perspectives. There are gender egalitarian prayer spaces that are popping up all over the world. I would imagine there are egalitarian spaces near you. Maybe this is a way to go back that doesn’t feel like you’re supporting patriarchy.

WATER thanks Dr. Ayesha S. Chaudhry for her work. We look forward to further collaboration.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 1 PM ET with Judith Freeman.