Religion has often been categorized as a source of oppression and constraint in public discourse. Take, for example, policy debates in the United States about curtailing women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights; in these kinds of debates, particularly in progressive responses to these debates, religion is typically associated with justifying oppression. In reality, however, both religious and secular frameworks can and have been utilized with great success to advance all manners of subjugation and violence, whether through oppressive foreign and domestic policies, discriminatory laws, or military interventions.
Yet certain religious communities—Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, Amish, and other conservative Christians, for example—bear sociopolitical stigmas in the US context, not least because their female adherents may adopt styles of dress and demeanor that set them apart from the dominant white Protestant culture in the United States. These differences in clothing or customs can mark such communities as outsiders whose compatibility with western liberal values such as individualism, freedom, and capitalism is called into question. Similar attitudes permeate research on gender and sexuality as well as the policies that result from that research. Consequently, religion is either rendered suspect in the broader struggle for gender justice or otherwise overlooked as a productive category of inquiry by feminist and queer academics and activists alike.
Scholar Elizabeth Castelli, for instance, has called attention to how religion “has rarely been included in the litany of qualifiers (‘race, class, culture, ethnicity/nationality, sexuality’) by which ‘women’ becomes an ever-more marked and differentiated category” (2001, 4–5). This is despite the groundbreaking interventions of feminist scholars who attest to the significance of religion within matrices of identity and power. Within the field/discipline of religious studies, many works that have focused on formal religious institutions, scriptural exegeses, and legal frameworks have, perhaps inadvertently, suggested that religion belongs exclusively in the realm of elite men, who have historically dominated positions of religious authority. By contrast, the study of lived religion, generated by scholars such as Robert Orsi (1997) and R. Marie Griffith (1997) in the 1990s, has opened up frameworks to study “everyday” religious actors and examine the various other spaces where diverse actors “do” religion outside of formal institutions. The lived religion approach, as Nancy Ammerman states, “has resulted in an outpouring of work documenting the religious activities of people—women, migrants, queer people, and others who had previously been ignored” (2020, 10). Consequently, academic focus on lived religious communities in their varied configurations has offered rich possibilities for the study of religion and gender in women’s lives in productive ways. These studies do not disregard analysis of scriptures and formal institutions but rather foreground religious communities’ relationships to them in practice. Furthermore, the framework of lived religions gives scholars a vantage point to examine new forms of exegeses as they emerge and new institutions as they are built.
Islam in particular has served as a site of contestation over the place of women and equality in modern liberal societies. Some US feminists’ turn to global issues in the 1990s signaled a shift whereby the plight of women overseas, in places like Afghanistan, took center stage over domestic issues. Abu-Lughod (2013, 7) argues that in order to divert from the stagnant aims of feminism in the United States, impaired by charges of racism, as well as conservative backlash to advancements in education and employment, “American feminists began to focus on spectacularly oppressive practices that were easy to mobilize around: female genital cutting, enforced veiling, or the honor crime” to cement their status as moral saviors and facilitate a narrative of US exceptionalism. In the wake of 9/11, the moral savior complex of white US feminist groups in their commitment to “liberating” Muslim women only further intensified and facilitated public support for war on terror policies, including aggressive military campaigns in Muslim-majority nations like Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact that these interventions further harm women (Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002). The notion of saving Muslim women from Islam’s oppressive hold serves as a renewed manifestation of Spivak’s phrase “White men saving brown women from brown men” (1993, 93), which was written to describe one of the central justifications of British colonial rule in South Asia. More recently, the increase in state Islamophobia in the United States since 2016 through policies like the Muslim ban has also resulted in rising incidents of anti-Muslim violence. Despite how Islamophobic rhetoric in the United States continues to emphasize their oppression by Islam, Muslim women of color are disproportionately targeted by such violence. Moreover, white liberal feminist narratives that promote the idea of Muslim women in need of liberation attribute their oppression to religion while neglecting to consider material conditions of poverty, war, political corruption, or other aspects of inequality that are the inevitable result of modernity and global capitalism.
Many groundbreaking academic studies on Islam and women have pushed back on white feminism’s liberal narratives, effectively dismantling the enduring trope of the oppressed Muslim woman and the concept of Islam as inherently antimodern. For example, historical accounts related to Islam and gender in Egypt and Iran have highlighted how the encounters between Muslim-majority states and colonial powers have often exacerbated women’s social and economic conditions. As these societies shifted to adopt patriarchal structures of the nuclear family and companionate marriage, women were coerced into sacrificing their kinship networks in the service of nation-state building (L. Ahmed 1992; Najmabadi 2005). Other studies have demonstrated that Muslim women exercise agency in their religious engagements, use religious norms to their universal betterment, or otherwise subvert patriarchal control in creative ways (Mahmood 2004; Rouse 2004). These works have illuminated how Muslim women in countries such as Egypt and the United States work to promote Islamic sensibilities in the public sphere through their participation in piety movements and mosques, engagements in religious revivalism, and formal membership in Islamist political parties. Significantly, these studies further highlight how Muslim women as full agents critique, reject, and resist the various processes of secularization in their particular contexts, defying academic and activist notions of Islam as inherently opposed to the liberal ideals of rational choice and freedom.
In the context of colonial North America, Native Americans resisted Catholic and Protestant missionizing efforts from European colonists. Their Indigenous religious beliefs and customs often included female deities and matrilineal kinship structures. With respect to the Indigenous populations that did convert, Mónica Díaz (2011) shows how Native American women asserted their agency and authority within the Catholic Church. These women resisted hegemonic power through the colonial structure itself in their activities within missions, convents, schools, and churches. Likewise, the institution of the Black church served as a site of decolonization and resistance to white supremacy, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (1993) shows how Black Baptist women occupied central roles in advocating for desegregation, voting rights, and education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Black Muslims in the United States have also deployed religion as a way to resist white supremacy and counter women’s vulnerable status. Through both ethnographies and historical analyses, scholars have shown how African American Muslim women embrace particular Islamic sensibilities that may stand in contrast to secular liberal norms with respect to their choices of conservative dress, embrace of patriarchal gender roles within the family, and participation in polygynous marital arrangements for a variety of reasons. These reasons include these women’s relationships to religion as a source of empowerment, spiritual fulfillment, and community support as well as a part of their broader rejection of a racist US state steeped in white supremacy (Rouse 2004; Majeed 2015; U. Taylor 2017; Chan-Malik 2018). Outside of the United States, religion has similarly been deployed as a tool of decolonization. Amina Jamal (2013, 13) suggests that Muslim women’s cultivation of religious subjectivities in places like Pakistan should be understood as a “necessary part of the project of decolonization” rather than simply a reactive response to western domination. These practices include promoting religious education as well as forms of governance and legal systems rooted in Islamic teachings.
Other studies have emphasized how the secular state apparatus has been implicated in harms against Muslim women. In Bangladesh, for example, where foreign aid is an integral part of the secular government’s infrastructure, microcredit initiatives endorsed by US-funded NGOs are championed as a mode of rural Muslim women’s empowerment against economic dependency on corrupt and misogynistic local religious elites. This is despite the fact that such programs drive borrowers deeper into debt and social stigma while benefiting lenders through prohibitive interest rates (Karim 2014). Such patterns demonstrate the shortcomings of emphasizing linkages between religion and Muslim women’s oppressive conditions without due attention to how they themselves often view their religious identities as sources of empowerment. Moreover, these Muslim women also highlight how secular governing bodies and principles can also exacerbate and perpetuate the same material inequalities.
What to say, then, of the inequalities that religious women around the world undoubtedly confront within their communities of faith that are steeped in patriarchal norms? How can we as students and scholars engage in critiques of gender oppression within religious communities without perpetuating the reductive notion that religion necessarily constrains and subjugates women, queer communities, and other vulnerable populations? Aysha Hidayatullah and Judith Plaskow (2011) argue against the problematic trend among religious feminists to critique other religions’ treatment of women as a foil to promote how their own traditions uphold women’s status. Writing as Jewish and Muslim feminist academics in the United States, Plaskow and Hidayatullah, respectively, highlight how the marginalization of religious women extends beyond status in their own religious communities into their wider exclusion in a Christian-dominated academy and culture. In studies of already marginalized groups, then, what are the best practices to address gender-based discrimination and violence without rendering them even more vulnerable to erasure under white Christian hegemony? With respect to the study of Islam, how can we address issues such as domestic violence, gendered norms of honor and shame, and marginalization of women, queer, and nonbinary Muslims in worship spaces without adding fuel to the global climate of Islamophobia?
To approach these questions, it is useful to reflect on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989, 1991) concept of intersectionality to understand the limitations of single-issue frameworks, which do not account for the multidimensional experiences of women, especially in communities of color. Sa’diyya Shaikh (2013) advocates for the multiple critique method in the study of Islam and gender, which is an intersectional approach that simultaneously accounts for a multiplicity of inequalities and their interactions with one another—that is race, class, colonial status, sexuality. A number of scholarly works on Islam and gender continue to demonstrate the utility and promise of this approach through their investigations of sexual ethics, domestic violence, anti-Black racism in Muslim communities, and Islamophobia and by confronting patriarchal scriptures. Engaging with internal critiques of sexism within the Islamic tradition while simultaneously keeping in mind the global imperial context in which ideas of Islam, women, and identity circulate is critically important in providing a more complete picture of how the categories of religion, gender, and sexuality intersect and relate to each other.