Religion and Culture, And Things I Shouldn’t Have to Explain

So a few weeks ago I had this conversation online in the comments section of Feministe. This is going to be a snippet of the conversation toward the end, so bear with it. It’s the best way to illustrate my point.
Personal identifies are in bold. The italics are individuals quoting individuals.

Sonia 1.30.2011 at 3:39 pm

@Nahida: I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Islam is largely derived from Judeo-Christian sources and as such it is patriarchal from the origin. The patriarchal influences did not come later, they are built into it at the very core. That it is somewhat more egalitarian at places than Christianity does not in any way mean that it is egalitarian in general or something to look up to.

PrettyAmiable 1.30.2011 at 5:01 pm

Sonia: The patriarchal influences did not come later, they are built into it at the very core.

It’s worth noting that Judeo-Christian religions became MORE patriarchal over time. For example, while reviled by the Roman Catholic Church today, early abortion used to be okay there. As chuch doctrine was interpreted and reinterpreted over time, I would argue that it became pretty steadily more conservative. I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in other religions.


saurus 1.30.2011 at 5:13 pm

This may or may not apply to this thread (seriously).

I think that when we say “Islam”, we aren’t all necessarily referring to the same thing. Some of us may be thinking about the (perceived) core principles and philosophies of Islam, some of us may be thinking about the (perceived) historical practice of Islam, some of us may be thinking of (perceived) current incarnations of Islam, and within these different spheres we are selectively counting and erasing various experiences of Islam in order to fit conclusions which don’t apply well to Islam as a whole, given that it varies tremendously from place to place, era to era, person to person.

I can understand the motivation for emphasizing Islam’s progressiveness and human rights, because (as I’m sure any Muslim commenter knows) any thread involving Muslims dangles precariously over a seething abyss of Islamophobic (and often racist, and US-centric) sentiments and assumptions, and countering every potential conflation of Islam with violence and backwardness is sometimes the only thing that keeps it from tipping over.

This is not to say that praise of Islam is illegitimate, or that anyone with “rave reviews” of Islam is holding back: depending on one’s experiences with Islam and which facets of Islam one is discussing, I’d imagine there’s a whole spectrum of feelings from deeply negative to mixed to glowingly positive, as with all things. But I suspect many Muslims are hesitant to share their experiences and analyses particularly when critique is involved, because they know – all too well – that they must speak very carefully or else their words will be re-purposed as Islamophobic ammunition.

My point (which I’ve come to very circuitously, sorry) is that I think this topic calls for some soft treading, so that Muslim commenters in the thread (or reading along) are not backed into a corner, perpetually defending themselves and their faith against the venerable tide of Islamophobic attitudes. And if Muslim commenters take the considerable risk of discussing their faith, I think it’s important to listen and learn, so that there is room for this conversation to grow, and room to explore all the various facets of Islam without relying upon oppositional generalizations.

In sum, let’s try to be sensitive to the tough position we may be putting Muslim commenters in if we non-Muslims adopt a “critical outsider, looking in, wagging finger” role.

Sonia 1.30.2011 at 5:27 pm

I wonder if we should also tread softly on Catholics when the Pope’s declarations on women and gays come out, or tread softly on Phelps clan, or on evangelical preachers calling for abortion to be banned?

saurus 1.30.2011 at 6:41 pm

Sonia: I wonder if we should also tread softly on Catholics when the Pope’s declarations on women and gays come out, or tread softly on Phelps clan, or on evangelical preachers calling for abortion to be banned?

Oh, good points, all. Islam (a huge and diverse faith) is equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church (an unambiguous hate group), and recognizing a religion’s diversity and the widespread discrimination against members of that faith is the same as approving every decision made by the Pope (who represents all Catholics, who are all straight men, natch) and the beliefs of every evangelical preacher. Also: taken to its logical conclusions, I think we can all agree that my comment is calling for acceptance of the neo-Nazi movement, media silence on all religion-related violence, and immunity for any crime committed while wearing a rosary. That’s why we should ignore my comment altogether, and instead forge a feminist movement in which we utilize stereotypes and generalizations about Islam to make Muslim feminists feel as uncomfortable as possible in this space. Because that’s the right thing to do.

Nahida 1.30.2011 at 7:48 pm

David: So, did you not read the rest of my post where I said that the U.S. shouldn’t have anything to do with sending troops overseas – wasting the lives of our men and women, wasting the lives of civilians over there, and wasting everyone’s time, blood, and money?

Yeah, I read it. Dude I said it made me uncomfortable, not that I disagreed with you or that you shouldn’t make such statements. This whole thread, with Sonia equating broad theological dictations in Islam to very specific discriminatory words and actions of a few very specific religious leaders, is making me uncomfortable. I’m sorry if I’m snappish but when there’s an underlying anti-religious bias in a thread against a religion that’s beyond misconstrued by both outsiders and its own followers, it’s very hard to remember that people are making statements in good faith. Some guy told me just today that it’s impossible to be Muslim and a feminist at the same time (like WTF) because in his words the two will never be compatible because of “Islam’s origins” and he tried to argue that being calling myself an “Arab feminist” is more constructive. (Note that I’m not even Arab. [And even if I were, I don’t identify with any race.] When I pointed out that I, as a woman, should be able to decide whatever the hell kind of feminist I called myself, he accused me of being sexist against men.) So when Sonia says something like Islam is “patriarchal from its origins”–that’s what it makes me think she means. (I’m guessing with the gender pronoun here, forgive me Sonia if it’s not the one you prefer.) That because I’m of a religion that’s supposedly “patriarchal from its origins” (which I completely disagree with) I won’t be a proper feminist as long as I continue to

Sonia: does not in any way mean that it is egalitarian in general or something to look up to.

“look up” to it.

And when you, David, make statements about what kind of government an “Islamic country”* should have, I connect it immediately–whether or not it’s wrong of me to do so–to the same sense of US centrism.

*This person and I had had a disagreement over the term, which resulted in this entire conversation. I told him a “Muslim country” was not the same as an “Islamic country”–that just because a country has a majority Muslim population does not mean that its government reflects Islam as it was meant to be practiced. Sonia then asked what an Islamic country would be, I began to outline examples of verses that are mistranslated, and there we were with Sonia making an absurd claim out of nowhere about the “origins” and what was “built in” and all my efforts gone to waste. Enter PrettyAmiable’s voice of reason and saurus’s general awesomeness.

You get the idea. This is why it’s so important to me that culture is held accountable for what culutre does, and Islam is held accountable for what it dictates, and the two remain separate. Packing them together is not only oppressive, but it suggests that religion and culture becoming intertwined is inevitable–which, most importantly, is damaging to communities who practice it in that it acts as an excuse to carry out terrible, backward cultural practices.
So you can imagine I have my issues with feminists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I don’t disagree with everything she says. Far from it. And for full disclosure, I might be holding a particularly unfair first-impression-grudge against her because I was introduced to her by a Christian attempting in vain to convert me and convince me that Islam is a sexist religion. (Yes, this is coming from a Christian… man.) The world needs Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She has done amazing things. But I find her ties between religion and culture no more than ridiculous. For example, she’s asserted that while Islam does not prescribe female genital mutilation it encourages the practice by demanding that people marry as virgins and therefore it is at fault. Which, to be blunt, is the most laughable thing I’ve ever heard. On top of implying inaccuracy–virginity has been coveted long before Islam, and FGM predates it as well–it does three things, and they are all extensions of each other: (1) it excuses the criminals by portraying them victims of the religion when they should be held responsible for their own heinous crimes (2) it misplaces blame–I suppose if I told a friend that she shouldn’t do something and then she takes it to a horrifying extreme it’s my fault? and (3) it is highly disrespectful to the actual victim of the mutilation in totally missing the point and/or using the victim’s pain to push a political agenda, and it is especially disrespectful if she has not renounced her faith. There is a difference between pity and respect.
As I’ve said before, I have high standards for society, and I will not hesitate to denounce and reject those who commit unspeakable evils against humanity in the name of anything, including Islam. I am going to hold everyone to the same standards. Holding people to the same standards does not mean everyone should not be aware of areas of their own advantages. That would be too simple. These two things are not mutually exclusive and we should be doing both. I will have no patience for people (like Sonia in the thread) who refuse to at least attempt to keep their privilege in check and instead continue to maintain an ethnocentric perspective. You can’t, in a practical sense, hold everyone to the same standards and expect them to achieve these standards while they are underprivileged. There needs to be an educational system that isn’t classist in practice. Low poverty levels. Democracy. You know, the things you take for granted that make life seem *so* easy. Get off your high horse.
Which brings me to my second point, the “things I shouldn’t have to explain” part of the title. If you do not speak feminism fluently, you are not part of my intended audience. If you are a man who is not a feminist, when I say “patriarchy” I am not specifically talking about you. Get over yourself. If you are a woman who is not a feminist, when I say “patriarchy” I am not specifically talking about the men you care about. I mean, really? There are men I care about too. As a matter of fact, I’m probably not even specifically talking about men. If you need me to explain every time I say things like “predatory men” that I don’t mean all men are predatory or that women can’t be predatory, I am not going to waste my time adding a disclaimer after everything I say just for your sake. And no, that does not work the other way around. You can’t say something like “women aren’t funny” and claim that you didn’t mean all women. No, I don’t think it’s a double standard. Societal condition counts.** Deal with it. If you can’t, feel free to leave.
**And I mean all relevant societal and historical context. I’ve met people who were uncomfortable with hearing certain Arabic phrases because they associate it with war cries. It’s not my problem there are massive parts of history you’re choosing to ignore and massive groups of diverse people you’re going to pretend don’t exist. Women, on the other hand, have never been historically privileged–and are still underprivileged. This is also why “straight pride” doesn’t work like “gay pride.” No, you are not “making it even.” Seriously, people.

13 thoughts on “Religion and Culture, And Things I Shouldn’t Have to Explain

  1. Nahida, as I have said in the past we need to separare Islam as a political movement from Islam as a religion. As a religion, at least how it seems to be practiced in most mosques in America I have no problem with it. But Islam as a political movement I have great concerns about.As for Allah Akbar, you simply can not separate it from it's historical context. thought one of the things that feminists teach is it doesn't matter if the harasser doesn't think it's harassment. What matters is if the person being harassed thinks it is harassment.Saying Allah Akbar is a form of harassment that legitimately provokes fear and hatred. That's what it as come to mean beyond any mere definition of the word.Putting up a Mosque near ground zero (the landing wheels of one of the planes caused some damage to the building) is also harassment. It doesn't matter that you or other Muslims think so. What matters is that we think so! By the way if you don't think historical context is important call a black man "boy" and see what happens. You as a non-white woman might get away with it but a white male who says it will get into a fight!


  2. Steve, I am going to tell you this only once: don't tell me what feminism is. I knew the ideology long before I even identified with it. Most women who don't identify with the ideology don't know what it is. The "full meaning" of the term is whatever masses of men and women make it. Feminists disagree with each other on practically everything–a feminist can't write an article without 27 other feminists disagreeing with him/her. I happened to have been at a disagreement with one of the feminists in that thread. I agreed with the other two, who understood me. One of those two, I had disagreed with very severely in an earlier thread. It's such an enormous ideology with such diverse that it is shallow and simplistic for anyone to call the entire thing hateful. I will not be allowing any more of such comments that overgeneralize the movement to pass through moderation. This is not up for debate.


  3. This times infinity! You've beautifully expressed the frustrations we religious feminists often face–an understandable wariness from non-religious feminists, but a bias nonetheless.I went and read that thread. It seems like everyone came around to understand your point. Good news.


  4. Okay, in reply to Steve's first post (the second one pissed me off too much so I had to address it first):My point was not to separate historical context… if you read this entry, Steve, I was expressing the opposite. What my point was in this post is that there is more historical context behind Arabic phrases than people know. And that's not my problem.The person seeing it as harassment most certainly is what makes it harassment! Here's the difference: whether or not it involves someone else. And saying "Allahu Akbar" to yourself (it IS something we use during prayer you know) isn't the same as saying it to someone in particular and harassing them about it. Same goes for the "Ground Zero" mosque, in which we are minding our own business. I'd rather not discuss that here, because it's totally irrelevant.


  5. Dude… Steve's last paragraph on his first comment. Did you even read her post? She said things need to be taken into historical context. She was only emphasizing ALL of historical context, including parts of history you weren't introduced to–the facts about what actually happens. "Allahu Akbar" isn't just a war cry–it historically was not just a war cry–and if you don't KNOW that bit of history, it's your problem, not hers.And what's someone who thinks all feminists are hateful old hags doing on a feminist site?Nahida was criticizing other feminists, which feminists do ALL THE TIME. We tear each other up. It doesn't mean she buys into the social pressure to believe all feminists are man-hating nazis like you have. She's a feminist. We all are. Part of being a feminist is understanding that no one is above criticism. That's what happened here. She's not rejecting people, she's rejecting particular aspects of their arguments.


  6. Speaking of no one being above criticism… Nahida, I felt this post was all over the place. Which isn't a bad thing, there is a logical flow, but the beginning seems obscure in your connections between the thread and what you felt/concluded.The general argument I got was that culture and religion should be analyzed separately, which I'm not sure is possible in a practical sense. I do understand why it's so important for you though, and you made good points about how blaming anyone other than the individuals committing the crimes is damaging. But is a religious reason any more valid than a cultural one? From a philosophical perspective (since Islam isn't the cause of FGM so it doesn't apply in real life) would it matter if it were religion or culture? The practice is harmful and needs to stop.


  7. Your first point–if you feel it is all over the place I am absolutely unapologetic for that. It's my place to be all over.The second–it is mostly possible in a practical sense. I've done it here, calling out the difference between what's cultural and what has been dictated in religious texts. THIS, I believe, is how we will actually get somewhere.It doesn't matter what inspired the crime–especially not to the victims. I'm always reluctant to say, "this wasn't the cause!" because I feel it steals attention away from the victims and totally misses the point. I get myself to do it because misconceptions that result in hatred and oppression need to be sorted out. MUSLIMS need to know, more than non-Muslims, that this is not Islam. As for the philosophical question about whether a cultural reason is more or less valid than a religious one–I've considered this before and it is definitely debatable.


  8. I guess I am seeing this from the perspective of the inevitable synchronization of religion and culture, which may not be relevant to the argument you demonstrate in your post. I feel you are quite the idealist, which I admire for the most part, even though we may disagree.


  9. I disagree that synchronization is inevitable; however, I do recognize that with the nature of identity comes an intrinsic inclination to blend the two together. My purpose here is not to offset this, but utilize the differentiations in promoting real understanding of the religion so that it may be practiced as it was intended. It is important to be aware of sources–you may personally question the validity of a cultural reason against a religious one, but for many one is much more valid than the other, and often for most the more valid of the two is religion. If emphasizing that this is not Islam prevents Muslims from acting violently, it is a useful distinction.So while I may be an idealist from some perspectives, in this utilization I believe I am pragmatic.



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