Author’s Note: I am not Muslim myself. However, as a person both intellectually and emotionally interested in religion, I aim to express what I have learned through my extensive research on Islam in Muslim-majority regions.
I also aim to express what many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances have articulated regarding Islam and its supposed gendered and sexual intolerance.
Furthermore, I wrote this article in collaboration with Daayiee Abdullah, Imam and Religious Director of Masjid An-Nur Al-Isslaah, meaning “Mosque for Enlightenment and Reformation” or “Light of Reform Mosque.”
LGBTQIA-friendly, the mosque provides services for Muslim individuals of diverse relationships, including same-gender and mixed-faith couples.
Further, as a spiritual counselor for the Al-Fatiha Foundation, a North American-based organization for LGBTQI+ Muslims, Imam Daayiee provided counseling for LGBTQI+ Muslims, their families and allies from 2000 until the organization’s close in 2011.
There is a pervading myth — amongst some Muslims and non-Muslims alike — that Islam promotes intolerance against women and LGBTQIA+ individuals.
This myth, however, is a dangerous one, as it often prevents non-Muslim feminists from more actively engaging Muslim communities.
Consequently, instead of expanding and empowering the feminist community, well-intentioned non-Muslim feminists sometimes alienate potential Muslim allies and reproduce anti-Muslim prejudices.
This creates a divide between feminist and Muslim communities. It excludes while inadvertently requiring conformity.
So, Why the Myth?
Narrowly citing the Qur’an (Islam’s holy text) and various Hadiths (teachings and accounts of the Prophet Muhammad), some Muslims argue that Islam is cissexist, requires patriarchy, and forbids homosexuality.
However, many other Muslims maintain that Islam demands compassion, acceptance, and love.
Arguing that an omniscient God created humanity — including the vast diversity within it — they insist that we should not discriminate against one another.
As such, Islam does not promote intolerance. People say that Islam promotes intolerance.
Unfortunately, this happens in other religions, too.
Some Christians, for example, have used the Bible to advance cissexism, patriarchy, and homophobia.
The dogmatic insistence of oppressive perspectives prevents some communities — whether they’re Christian, Muslim, and so on — from acknowledging problematic religious interpretation.
Instead, they use these interpretations to validate their own prejudices against gender and sexual minorities.
This minimizes the perspectives of religious allies. As a result, less-informed feminists risk regurgitating problematic interpretations.
A major reason why some Westerners insist — despite many Muslim communities arguing the contrary — that Islam is intolerant is because of pervasive Islamophobia.
Somewhat ironically, Islamophobia itself is a racialized form of intolerance characterized by prejudice against, hatred towards, and fear of Islam, Muslims, and ethnic groups perceived to be Muslim.
Generally, North American and European societies privilege Christianity. They also have a history of openly marginalizing other religious groups, especially those racialized as non-white.
In the US, for example, since at least the first Gulf War, and especially since 9/11, American attitudes towards Muslims have become increasingly hostile.
Indeed, America’s money-hungry, imperialistic culture “validated” the enslavement of Black people, genocidal manifest destiny, and the colonization of countries like the Philippines. Similarly, it now “validates” anti-Muslim oppression.
Political forces have sculpted the Islamophobic prejudices that we have been taught to consume. As a result, we support militaristic policies of predatory resource extraction, political and economic clientelism, and so on.
Equivalently, the influx of Muslim immigrants has heightened xenophobic and hyper-nationalist sentiments across Europe, especially as they are regularly blamed for the continent’s stagnant economy and pervasive unemployment.
In these contexts, therefore, Muslim communities are regularly characterized as the root of many social and political problems.
As a result, many non-Muslim Westerners continue to view Islam as dangerous and Muslim individuals and communities as violent and oppressive.
Furthermore, in the US, many also insist that, as it is supposedly a “Christian country,” Muslims are either foreign or un-American.
Many politicians and pundits alike point to domestic and foreign “Islamic terrorism” as evidence of the religion’s supposed danger and non-conformity to Western values.
However, when Christian terrorism occurs, these same pundits rarely blame Christianity.
Instead, they blame the individual, problematically labeling him — and it usually is a “him” — as “mentally disturbed,” an exception to the rule of Christian peacefulness.
Whereas we are taught that it is acceptable to oppress Islam, we are similarly taught that Christianity is the appropriate religion to follow.
Consequently, often only the most extreme Islamist rhetoric makes the news or trends on social media. This reproduces Islamophobia, as it showcases a vocal (though tiny) minority while drowning out the perspectives of the mainstream Muslim majority.
What Does the Myth Do?
Islamophobia promotes problematic interpretations of Islam amongst many non-Muslims. As a result, many — including non-Muslim feminists and allies — misunderstand Muslim experiences.
The limited and violent portrayal of Islam in the media has led many feminists to perceive Islam as anti-woman and anti-LGBTQIA+.
While these feminists might have intentions to advocate for individuals they perceive to be oppressed, they are building a resistance and movement based on stereotypes originally developed to promote a racist and capitalist agenda.
Such a perspective robs Muslim women and LGBTQIA+ individuals of their agency and transforms them into victims in need of saving.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is the French ban on headscarves. Starting in the early 2000s, in the “spirit of secularism,” France banned signs of faith in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions. Forbidden items included Christian crosses, the Jewish kippa, and Islamic headscarves.
However — and in an explicit expression of institutionalized Islamophobia and Judeo-Christian privilege — for the most part, only clothing associated with Islam has been policed.
Many French Muslim women decried the law. They argued that it violated their civil right to express themselves.
They also highlighted a racist double standard: Christianity — a religion mostly practiced by those racialized as white — was glorified. However, Islam — a religion mostly practiced by those racialized as non-white — was heavily demonized.
Complaining of state oppression and criticizing the false notion that one cannot be both Muslim and French, many resisted the law.
Indeed, many French Muslim women began wearing veils and headscarves when they had not previously done so in a demonstration of solidarity.
Many non-Muslim feminists, however, came out in support of the ban. Interpreting Islam as patriarchal, they explained away Muslim women’s responses as examples of internalized oppression.
Instead of perceiving them as feminists, many condescendingly suggested that these Muslim women were incapable of breaking their submission to men.
Of course, there were and are cases of women who veil not by choice, but because domineering fathers and husbands require it. And there are a few Muslim women who support the headscarf ban.
Nonetheless, fixating upon these cases while dismissing others devalues many Muslim feminist perspectives.
This is not to suggest that all non-Muslim feminists are Islamophobic.
However, when feminism is interpreted monolithically, sometimes even well-intentioned feminists risk reproducing Islamophobic (and consequently, white supremacist) perspectives.
By perceiving Muslims as victims of “Islamic patriarchy,” many fail to embrace people’s whole identity and person.
Interpreting Islam specifically — and religion more generally — as some kind of enemy prevents us from truly engaging with the people with whom we work.
Insisting upon particular articulations of feminism is exclusionary. This can be especially troubling to female and queer Muslims who rightfully anticipate allyship from feminists, but sometimes encounter antagonism or dismissal instead.
Prejudicially failing to fully embrace Muslim feminists creates a divide between queer and feminist communities. This divide has multiple consequences.
1. It prevents progressive Muslims from more actively engaging feminist circles and vice versa.
Consequently, non-Muslim feminists cannot benefit from the inclusion of Muslim perspectives. As a result, feminism itself risks reproducing Islamophobia and latent Christian privilege.
This is an issue of intersectionality.
We need to validate, value, and learn from everyone’s experiences and expressions. We should not place thought or ideas on a hierarchy.
Islam itself is inclusive. It insists upon the equality of all humans and argues for compassion and love over divisiveness and oppression. We can — and should — incorporate these perspectives within feminism.
2. This divide sends a message to LGBTQIA+ Muslims that feminism is not for them.
Instead of creating a safe, inclusive space, the divide rejects Muslim communities, reproducing the systematic exclusion that Muslims already encounter in North America and Europe.
As explained above, within Muslim and other religious communities there remains homophobia and transphobia. This can prevent some people, youth included, from having access to a safe space.
As a result, the access that female and queer Muslims have to feminist tools and communities becomes limited. When they could otherwise integrate feminism within the Muslim community more than they already are, they are instead left feeling alienated.
Should people have to choose between their sexual and gender identities on the one hand, and their religious, racial, and cultural identities on the other?
Feminism should be intersectional and embrace everyone’s identity instead of requiring people to conform. Isn’t conformity to a single, privileged standard the very thing that feminism is fighting against?
How can feminist circles more effectively and widely demystify the myth that Islam promotes intolerance and better engage Muslim communities?
Unfortunately, just as debunking the biological presuppositions of race and gender does not make racism or sexism any less painful, affirming that Islam is inclusive does not automatically eliminate the cissexism and homophobia expressed in its name.
1. Highlighting Islam’s theological inclusivity does effectively shift the conversation from one of religion to one of politics and society.
It is feminists’ responsibility to educate themselves about the groups they discriminate against, and the history of that discrimination, before jumping onto the “hater bandwagon.”
It is our job as feminists to ensure that we are not oppressive.
Therefore, we must interrogate the political and social factors that influence Islamophobia and the supposed intolerance attributed to Muslim communities.
2. This message, though, cannot only come from Muslim allies. Instead, it must come from Muslim feminists themselves.
We must take our cues on how to support Muslim feminists and LGBTQIA+ Muslims directly from the horse’s own mouth. Those of us who are not Muslims are not the experts on Islam. Muslims, however, are.
We must recognize that they are the leaders in this critical thought. We must read their writings, engage their ideas, and support their agency.
We must not silence them, speak over them, render them invisible, or patronize them.
Feminist messages are already being articulated by and amongst Muslim communities. However, the reluctance of some non-Muslim feminists to incorporate such perspectives prevents them from being more fully integrated into feminism more broadly.
As such, non-Muslim feminists must eliminate their divide with the Muslim community and better engage their Muslim counterparts.
3. Feminist circles must commit to improving their relations with people and communities of faith.
Clearly, some feminist groups are vocally antagonistic towards religion, suggesting that religion is inherently negative and oppressive.
Of course, most religions have marginalized women and LGBTQIA+ communities at different times and places historically. That cannot and should not be denied.
At the same time, however, religion has often been used as a tool to spread compassion and fight for human rights as well.
Consider, for example, the role of Catholic liberation theology to fight for economic justice in Latin America, or the role of both Islam and Christianity during the Civil Rights movement in the US.
Criticizing religion in general (instead of the political co-opting of religion) devalues people’s experiences of and identification with faith.
As a result, even feminist circles — which often brand themselves as being bastions of inclusivity — sometimes exclude religious voices and reproduce a narrow vision of feminism.
Consequently, many limit their interpretation of Islamic feminism to the woman who chooses to remove her veil, for example, instead of also considering the woman who chooses to put one on.
Of course, not all feminists or feminist organizations reject Islamic or religious approaches. Nonetheless, many Muslims perceive these spaces as either requiring atheism or only begrudgingly or condescendingly accepting religious members.
In order to combat this misperception and widen inclusivity, feminists would benefit from more actively welcoming and accepting people of faith. This, too, would diversify and increase collaboration with feminist partners.
As it says in the Al-Tabarani Hadiths, the Prophet Muhammad declared, “You will not be true believers unless you have compassion. I am not referring to the mercy that one of you would have towards his companion or close friend but I am referring to mercy or compassion to all.”
Islam rejects oppression, instead privileging the implicit equality of all humankind. Feminism does the same. In this sense, the two are natural partners.
The goals of Islam and feminism are to create cultures of acceptance. As such, both Muslim and feminist communities can and should embrace one another. Only then can each achieve the inclusivity for which they both so actively pursue.
Andrew Hernández is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is a public anthropologist and teacher. He is completing his PhD in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and he adjuncts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Baruch College (CUNY). Andrew bases his research out of West Africa and the Sahara, working on issues of human rights, labor, and religion. In his spare time, you can find Andrew placating his dog, Pip, who he’s convinced is an evil genius. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewHernann.
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