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One of the rare books I didn’t read in French first (and as such cannot vouch for the translation), Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Qu’ran: An Emancipatory Reading is a short (just under 170 pages) and uplifting read. The book is definitely an interesting contribution to scholarship on women in Islam, and i found it quite digestible and enjoyable.
I have neither the scholarship in Islam nor the mastery of language to offer any in-depth criticism of Ms. Lamrabet’s exegesis or analysis, and I don’t think this review should be about that anyway. The tone of the book is such that it can be read by a broad audience (so kudos to the translator for that), and the length of the book is such that I don’t think it is meant to be a definitive work on anything; rather, this book is a starting point for discussion(s). So if you are looking for me to confirm or deny her explanations of the Qu’ran, I am not going to do that, because it is not my place and not really the goal of this review
So as a simple casual reader and a (Muslim) woman, I was already drawn in by the introduction, Especially given that this book was first published in French (and would presumably be read by a French/Francophone audience), I loved how the tone was set right in the introduction: Ms. Lamrabet talks about the status of women in Islam, making a distinction between interpretations coming from a “rigid, conservative Islamic approach” and a “Western, Islamophobic and ethnocentric approach.” Yes please.
Then there was a sly clap back aimed at the media and their darlings who talk about/for Muslim women, where she points out (page 6),
“it is sad to note that Muslim women who are rebelling against the alleged ‘diktats’ of the religion are those the most heard and given the greatest amount of airtime…this is not surprising in and of itself, since the only acceptable or even expected critique in Western circles today is that which challenges the Islamic tradition.”
Tell me more, Ms. Lamrabet, tell me more.
The introductory chapter, “In the Beginning” tells the story of Adam and Eve, with the author pointing out that the language of the Adam and Eve story is not gendered and states on page 12 that there is “ no qu’ranic affirmation which specifies that the Adam of this initial creation was male and even less that Eve was drawn from one of his ribs!” This is a change from the more historically accepted accounts of Eve being created from Adam’s rib, for example.
After the introduction, the book is divided into two large sections: “When the Qu’ran Speaks of Women” and “When the Qu’ran Speaks to Women.” These sections are then divided into smaller sections telling stories of or about women in the Qu’ran.
Section One is divided out into stories of Balqis (the Queen of Sheba), Sarah and Hagar, Umm Musa and Asiah, and Maryam. Of these, I especially loved Ms. Lamrabet’s analysis of Balqis. How did we get from having a powerful female leader like Balqis thousands of years ago to women being denied even political participation today? On page 28, Ms. Lamrabet notes,
“The description which the Qur’an makes of this woman head of state is in and of itself an undeniable refutation of all the allegations of the hyper-emotionalism of women who are said to reason less well than men due to the hyperemotivity of their personality and who, according to the same logic, cannot lead, politically speaking, an entire people!”
In Section Two, Ms. Lamrabet goes through occasions in the Qu’ran which involve: “Responding to feminist demands”, “Encouraging women’s social preparation”, “Female political refugees”, “The political participation of women” and “When God listens to the secrets of a woman.” Of these I enjoyed a point made in the section regarding women’s social participation (page 105):
“Islamic history is replete with stories which illustrate the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet was a community of men and women and that they worked together side by side for the good of all, without losing themselves in secondary considerations.”
She develops this in the next paragraph:
“How have we arrived today at the point of developing impulses for separation between the sexes in all social congregations, in the name of Islam, and imagining extraordinary strategies to separate feminine and masculine spaces with the objective of proving that the social act in itself is very Islamic? We obsessively hold to appearances when what should actually be Islamic is our behavior towards one another.”
Preach. I have a major problem with gender norms being used to control or stop women’s behavior, as if we are the ones who need to be behaving “more.” How can we reconcile platitudes about Muslim women being given their rights with these same men using so-called Islamic tradition to shut us down by not even allowing us to sit at the table?
The conclusion left me with something else along the same lines to think about that really stood out (page 161): “How could the earliest Muslim women have acceded to these spaces of freedom, of knowledge and power, fourteen centuries ago when today they are forbidden access to these same spaces in the name of this same Islam?” This is something I have wondered about in the past, often times upon hearing the stories of Aisha and Khadija. Aisha had an obvious place amongst men which modern Muslim women do not always enjoy. I felt this again reading the story of Balqis in the first half of the book. If these are our female Muslim role models, then why are we being told today not to occupy the very spaces they did and that wanting that kind of role for ourselves is in itself unIslamic? Surely there is a middle ground between rejecting orthodoxy and rejecting Islam in order to reclaim our place.
In closing, I liked this book and thought it was a fun, thought-provoking read. If you are a woman, like me, who is tired of people coming up with the whole “Islam gave women all their rights” argument (which Ms. Lamrabet addresses at several points throughout the book) to shut things down when practice says otherwise, this book will cheer you up. Some criticisms exist of Ms. Lambrabet either avoiding or glossing over problematic topics in the Islamic tradition (like polygamy, although I think she has been reasonably clear on that topic in a number of sources), or of her methodology being weak. As such, people looking for drier or deeper subject matter may be disappointed, but as I mentioned above, I don’t think the endgame of this book is to change the world but rather to start a discussion on the place of women in our religion beyond platitudes of “Islam gave women their rights, what more can you ask for?” And Women in the Qu’ran is a good place to start that discussion.
A copy of this book was graciously provided by Kube Publishing for consideration.