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Being a feminist and a Muslim is something that is totally possible—you just have to use common sense and empathy.

By Sarah Khan

First of all, I want to be totally upfront. I was born and raised Muslim by liberal parents and stopped practicing the religion in my early twenties. I was also born and raised a feminist by the same parents and have only become more fanatical about my feminism as I grow older. My mother is a practicing Muslim feminist woman from whom I have practically no secrets.

That being said, up until about 15 years ago, I had never actually read a word of the Qur’an myself. Like many people who are raised Muslim, it was told to me and I blindly trusted the word of my elders. After all, Islam is all about blind faith, or so they tell you. It was my shit-disturbing father who liked to question religion who inspired me to question the religion with which I was raised; so in high school, I decided to find a new religion to follow—one that wasn’t as oppressive to women.

But my research revealed to me that Islam was that religion. When I finally read the Qur’an for myself for the first time, I was surprised to learn that what I had been told wasn’t at all how I interpreted what I read. Sure there were problematic parts—mainly the fact that daughters were to receive a lesser inheritance than sons—but it wasn’t as suffocating as I had been raised to believe.

I decided to try it out, but by my early twenties, I decided that it was disrespectful of me to only be Muslim when convenient. One of the main tenets of religion is dedication to it and paying lip service seemed so offensive to me. So I lapsed. But, I continued my research.

A few months ago, on a whim, I decided to read the Qur’an again, but this time the version I read was translated by a woman. Laleh Bakhtiar is a Muslim translator, author and clinical psychologist, and her translation, The Sublime Quran, had been sitting on my shelf for years. Bakhtiar’s translation is notable not only because she’s a woman but also because she does a straight word-for-word translation without any footnotes and without any commentary. 

She explains in her preface that the Qur’an is not a historic text; therefore, it needn’t any commentary (read: bias). It should be presented to the individual as is. She says that the Quran is meant to be long-lasting and transcend time, so it should be presented word for word and left to the readers’ interpretation. For years I’ve believed that all holy books ought to be left to individual interpretation, but most translations take liberties with the language and allow the translator’s bias to seep through.

In the translation of the Qur’an I read as a teenager, there were references to a man having permission to beat his wife with a strap no thicker than a thumb. This always troubled me and I was at a loss at how a religion that encouraged divorce if it were necessary (regardless of which gender initiated it) could encourage spousal violence as well. In Bakhtiar’s translation, there is not a single mention of anything relating to a man being allowed to beat his wife.

Most versions translate section 4:34 of the chapter titled “The Women” as some variation of the following:

“… and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them …”

The same section in Bakhtiar’s translation reads,

“And those (f) whose resistance you fear, then admonish them (f) and abandon them (f) in their sleeping places and go away from them (f). Then if they (f) obey you, then look not for any way against them (f).”

The “f” in parentheses appear periodically throughout the translation to differentiate between the masculine and feminine “they” and the italicized words are those that are not present in Arabic, but are needed in English for the sentence to be complete and comprehensible. It’s wildly telling to note that the famed passage that all anti-Islamists pull out to prove the religion is a misogynistic one actually means something completely different when translated verbatim from the Arabic. It supports the theory that many practicing Muslims have, which is that Islam itself is one of the furthest things from being misogynistic; Islamic culture, on the other hand, is rife with misogyny and excuses it by claiming to be God’s word.

Related: White Liberal Tokenization of Hijabi Women Is Putting Us In Danger

Most holy books also are happy to report that God made man first and woman was birthed from man via God. Turns out, at least in the Qur’an, this isn’t stated anywhere. Sure Adam is mentioned by name and the first human is referred to as a “he,” but the only part that specifically talks about the creation of man says, “… your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its spouse and from them both disseminated many men and women.” There’s no specification of who came first nor any indication that woman was made from man. It’s almost as if men were so jealous of cisgender women’s ability to give birth that they decided that they’d make it so that it was Adam who “birthed” the sex that would go on to birth the rest of humankind.

While there are still problematic parts in the Qur’an—as there are in any holy book—the idea that the holy book or the religion itself is to be blamed is rife with ignorance. Putting blame on an inanimate object for encouraging people to be assholes to each other is a childish cop-out; it’s the people who interpreted these words to mean awful things and lived their lives oppressing an entire gender and justifying it by saying that they’re just following orders.

Being a feminist and a Muslim is something that is totally possible—you just have to use common sense and empathy.

Featured Image: Kristian Dye, Creative Commons


Author Bio: Sarah Khan is a Toronto-based editor and writer, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency, and raging intersectional feminist killjoy. You can follow her on Twitter @sarathofkhan.


Sarah Khan is a Toronto-based editor and writer, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency, and raging intersectional feminist killjoy.

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