This was a recent conversation between two Hindu guests at my parent’s house:

1: What is the reasoning Muslims give in support of polygamy?

2: Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said that a man can marry up to four women if he can treat them equally. Treating equally probably referring to their material needs. In addition, the Prophet himself had many wives and in society men outnumber women.

I waited before responding to see if the second guest was going to give the complete explanation behind the polygamy issue, and when he didn’t, I explained to the first guest that not all Muslims support polygamy, and use the same verse referred to above to prove that since it is impossible to treat four wives equally, Islam is actually against polygamy.

This little conversation brings up so many issues for me. Firstly, a friend had told me some time before that the guest no. 2 was very learned about both Islam and Hinduism, so it was hard to argue with him about these issues. Well, the thing is, most Bangladeshi Hindus know a thing or two about Islam, since we live in a Muslim majority country, so I’m not ignorant either. Knowing about Islam doesn’t mean just knowing about how conservative Muslims justify patriarchal traditions or violence against “infidels.” Fully knowing about Islam, or anything else, means knowing about different interpretations of the same text. Once upon a time, I thought I knew about Islam too, when in fact, I only knew about the hateful rhetoric conservative Muslims spewed. Thanks to what I learned later from feminist Muslims and liberal Muslims, I now feel like I truly “know” Islam, and other religions for that matter, even though I’m not adept at quoting suras or verses or anything.

When I was still quite ignorant on the issue, a Muslim friend told me, “Blame Muslims for all the negative portrayals of Islam, not Islam itself. Islam is perfect.” At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant. Like many feminists, I thought that the problem lied in the ideology, whether Islam or any other religion, not the interpretation. That view changed while learning about female religious leaders in a Women’s Studies class. I found a quote by a Christian feminist preacher that went along the lines of, “The religious establishment is patriarchal – get over it. Every secular establishment is patriarchal too, and yet feminists fight to change things in the workplace, in politics, etc. By shunning religion instead of reforming it, we feminists deny ourselves valuable spirituality instead of reclaiming what’s rightfully ours from patriarchal religious people.” Unfortunately, I lost the link to this gem of a quote that changed my life, and I can’t find the link. But the knowledge will be with me forever.

I finally realized what it meant to criticize Muslims, but not Islam, for the crimes some Muslims commit. Islam gets a bad rep for oppressing women and holding women back, and yet, for every verse in the Quran or Hadith that is misused to justify women’s oppression, there are many more verses that support women’s equality. Islam gave women the right to inherit and own property, to marry with prenupital agreements (!), and divorce if those are not met. Were those rights equal to the rights given to men? No. But progressive Muslims argue that Islamic law represents progress towards an equitable society, not the final word on laws as countries like Saudi Arabia interpret it to be. That argument is not created out of thin air. Islamic jurisprudence is not static, but a process where new interpretations of the law override previous ones. The Quran itself is said to have several layers of meaning (I think seven), so it does not make sense to accept conservative Muslims’ interpretations as “literal” and shun Islam as some oppressive philosophy.

There’s another solid reason why feminists should stop thinking of religion as patriarchal bullshit. Think of it as a perpetuation of the “boys will be boys” attitude. In this case, the attitude is that “religious people will always be oppressive, or violent, or illogical.” That’s just not true! We’re missing a valuable opportunity to collaborate with other feminists in changing religions and making them more equitable. Demonizing their belief systems and morals just alienates them. Instead, we need to recognize the similarities between the struggles of Christian, Muslim, or Hindu women to reconcile their feminism and spirituality, just as many secular feminists struggle to reconcile their cultural identities or careers with their feminism. Do we stop calling ourselves Americans just because our government does many things we don’t agree with? You get the point.

Now, when feminists or progressive people mistakenly shun all religions, I can see where they’re coming from. I’ve made the same mistakes not too long ago. But when people of one religion claim that their religion is so equitable, and so kind to women, while other religions are not – now that’s stupid. But I’ll save that for my next post.