This question, more than any other, is supposed to be the magic scoreboard that shows that the Enlightened West is morally superior to the Islamic world. Its point is to accuse Muslims of being backwards, medieval, and driven by a fundamentally misogynistic religion. But there are some presuppositions that ought to be addressed.
Firstly, Islam doesn’t say anything. Just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism don’t say anything. Muslims say things. Christians say things. Buddhists say things. If you ask different Muslims about the status of women in Islam, you’d probably get as many answers as there are Muslims.
You may be asking, “Yeah, okay, but what does the Qur’an say? And what did the Prophet Muhammad say?”
The response (based on fourteen centuries) is that no one completely agrees on what the Qur’an “says” or what the Prophet Muhammad “said”. This is by no means a cop out. If you ask the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia you’ll genuinely get a different answer than if you ask the Grand Mufti of Egypt or the Ayatollahs of Iran or Iraq.
If this seems dubious, then you need to read “Qur’an and Woman” by Amina Wadud, a female Qur’anic scholar, who has a deep and practical reading of the Qur’an as well as a critical attitude towards the male-bias in much of the dominant traditions. And she is just one of countless people who reject, on Islamic grounds, patriarchy, misogyny, or the oppression of women in any circumstances.
Or check out Zohreh Sefati, a female Ayatollah, who believes that women should also be able to be sources of religious emulation in the Usuli Ithna’asheri Shi’a school in Iran. Check out the countless female academics, scholars, activists, revolutionaries, artists, and writers who are present in the Islamic tradition historically and today. In order to miss Muslim feminists, you have to be willfully ignorant of countless individuals about whom you could learn with a cursory google search.
There’s also the important aspect of singling out Islam, as if Islam is the wellspring from where female oppression flows.
This first-world, culturally-imperialist “feminism” begins with an absurd comparison between drastically dissimilar societies. “Well look at how women are treated in Sudan and how they’re treated in England. Islam is to blame!” Instead, let’s present a more honest comparison in order to judge how misogyny and Islam actually blend together.
Are women in Muslim Somalia more oppressed than women in Christian Ethiopia? Are Muslim Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian women worse off than their Christian counterparts? How about Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs? Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians? Muslim women in India and Hindu women in India? Are Muslim Indonesian women worse off than Christian Filipino women?
The answer is no.
So why are you even asking the question: Doesn’t Islam oppress women?
Of course, it’s because you’ve heard it before. Repeated endlessly in the West and perpetuated by miseducation and a malicious (not uninformed, intentionally malicious) mass media, we’ve all been told that Muslim women are oppressed. After all, they all wear those headscarves! They look oppressed!
I imagine it must confuse a lot of people when practicing Muslim women choose not to wear hijab.
The real reason this question exists is because of Orientalism. Because the West has conceptualized and maintained a series of attitudes and stereotypes about Muslim culture and religion for centuries. The Muslim world is monolithic and there all women are either bellydancing or under a burqa.
Pakistan had a female prime minister throughout the 90s. The United States didn’t even have a mainstream female presidential candidate until 2008. Which standards do you want to use?
However, this question also implies something even more insidious than imagining that all Muslim women are oppressed. It assumes that non-Muslim women aren’t. As if Muslim women are experiencing oppression, whereas Christian, Hindu, Atheist, Jewish, and Buddhist women are all doing swell. You absolutely white-wash patriarchy and misogyny outside of the Muslim context.
Let’s not forget that the core assumption in the question is sexist. The question emboldens the patriarchal idea of male agency and female passivity. In painting Muslim women as all being oppressed, you are also painting them as powerless and ignorant. And to make it even worse, the real travesty is that they don’t even realize that they’re being oppressed. We must save them!
Does Islam oppress women?
No, but plenty of Muslims oppress women. Just as plenty of other people oppress women.
For the time being, we live in a sexist society with a sexist history and a sexist culture, and we all need to face that together. Throughout the world, patriarchy and misogyny structures almost every social interaction in disgusting ways. The only way to directly combat oppression is to embrace radical feminism, and nothing short thereof. More and more Muslim women are doing just that, regardless of whether or not they call it feminism. And if you’re not a Muslim women, you need to stand in solidarity with them, not try to tell them what to do. Women’s liberation does not mean cultural imperialism.
It’s not feminism to force a woman to take off her burqa.