Women in European Islam

The longer Muslims live in Europe and experience its powerful cultural trends, the more they are likely to acquire the common attitudes toward gender and sexuality. This cultural ambience will promote demands for statements of religious doctrine that will accommodate new sensibilities.

One major trend profoundly affecting Europe is the expansion of religious education among women. In traditional Muslim societies, conservatives like India's Deobandis were deeply suspicious of women's involvement in religious life because they saw women as overly sympathetic to superstitious practices and even to syncretism. In some measure, the conservatives were correct: an Islam with women leaders is likely to change its emphases, if not always in directions that Westerners would approve. While remaining firmly within the boundaries of orthodoxy, Muslim women in Europe have made much use of the rich educational opportunities open to them. Women have become the mainstays of the Islamic Studies courses that proliferate in many colleges and in which they often constitute a majority of students. Though the courses teach orthodox mainstream Islam, the fact that women are conspicuously gaining expertise in Islamic thought is bound to have long-term consequences. We think, for example, of the sweeping changes in American Christianity and Judaism that followed the first ordinations of women into the clergy and the huge influx of women into seminaries.

It would in theory be quite possible for progressive religious thinkers to call for a thorough reformation of attitudes, to differentiate between those values based on the teachings of Islam and others based on particular cultures—to point out, for example, just how many customs popularly seen as Islamic in fact derive from the traditions of Egypt or Pakistan. Affirming that such a move might be possible, even some very prominent conservative scholars have made startling gestures toward promoting women's equality within Islam, by reexamining the scriptures and trying to purge beliefs that are "merely cultural." In 2006, Sudanese Islamist Hassan al-Turabi argued that nothing in Islam prohibited women from becoming imams or clergy, and he suggested that rules about female modesty demanded covering the chest, not the face or head. ("You keep hearing hijab, hijab, hijab . . . When these words are distorted, they mislead people.") He also favored permitting Muslims to marry Christians or Jews without insisting on the spouse's conversion. If an al-Turabi could make such an astonishing statement, then it would not take much effort to imagine some future Islamic council in Europe being at least as broad-minded.47

In the last forty years, some millions of Africans and Asians have moved from traditional-minded societies dominated by Islam to European nations that differ from them in virtually every basic assumption about social arrangements and political structures, and that were themselves making an epochal transition in their own sexual mores. Against such a background, it is inconceivable that conflicts should not have erupted. Rather than despairing or seeing culture clashes as irreconcilable, we might rather be impressed at just how much convergence of values and beliefs has occurred.

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