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'The Double Bind': Susan Carland on Islam and feminism

by Matthew Beard
26 May 2017
Can Islam and feminism work together to fight sexism? Sociologist Dr Susan Carland thinks so. She interviewed a range of Muslim women fighting for women's rights within Islam. She spoke to Matt Beard about their stories and the lessons they provide.

From an outside perspective, Islam and feminism seem to have a complicated relationship. The hijab, women like Malala Yousafzai being shot for trying to attend school, practices like honour killing and genital mutilation are often the base of criticism of Islam as being oppressive to women.

Yet millions of Muslim women remain committed to their faith, and publicly defend Islam against charges of sexism. For instance, in a recent episode of ABC's Q&A, television presenter and Muslim woman Yasmin Abdel-Magied stated her opinion that "Islam is the most feminist religion", citing property ownership and women not taking their husband’s name.

Sociologist Susan Carland, who is also a Muslim and a feminist, has recently published a book about Muslim women fighting against sexism. Contrary to the widespread perception of a fraught relationship between faith and feminism, Carland thinks women’s rights and Islam are compatible.  

It's possible to be Muslim and advance women's rights

"A woman can be a fully practicing Muslim and care very much about fighting against sexism”, says Carland. Yet both within and outside Muslim communities, Carland found a prevailing view that Muslim women fighting for women’s rights “cannot exist or should not exist”. She says such women are either seen as inconceivable because of the inherent contradictions between feminism and Islam or they’re considered ‘bad’ Muslims who are misrepresenting the religion.

Carland’s research suggests these women not only exist but that they believe themselves to be acting in harmony with the true teachings of their faith, rather than the male-dominated interpretations of Islam most people are more familiar with.

People cannot wrap their heads around the idea that if one person does something, it’s not necessary that all Muslims agree with it.

Some of  Carland's reserach subjects have been met with staunch opposition from within their communities while others have found allies who support their work – including male partners, Imams and others. Many also believe the tools for fighting sexism exist within Islam, not outside of it.

Many of the women interviewed in Fighting Hislam mount faith-based arguments for their cause and don't believe themselves to be updating or reforming Islam but returning it to its roots. For them, Islam has been distorted because it has typically been controlled by men.

Carland says, “there are 1.4 billion ways to be a Muslim”, speaking to the strong tradition of personal interpretation in Islam. Some of Carland's interviewees suggest this tradition has allowed men to interpret the Q’uran in ways that protects their social, marital and religious authority. But other interpretations are possible, she notes.


Fighting Hislam suggests the problem might not be with Islam itself, but the lack of scholarly interpretations which take the experience, rights and needs of women seriously.

Asking Muslims to condemn things is counterproductive

"It’s so hard to get past this idea that Islam and Muslims are a monolith", says Carland. "People cannot wrap their heads around the idea that if one person does something, it’s not necessary that all Muslims agree with it."

"The assumption is that they’re all one and the same and so they all support each other and all think the same thing", concludes Carland.

This, for Carland, explains the familiar calls from politicians and media commentators for Muslims to publicly condemn a range of things, including sexism, honour killings, terrorism and Sharia law.

It’s not unusual for people to abuse me for the so-called lack of rights for women in the Muslim community when I know they couldn’t give a stuff about the women’s rights in general.

But  Carland sees good reasons why Muslims aren't as outspoken as some might like. She describes what she calls "the double bind", wherein Muslim women are stuck between a rock and a hard place when fighting sexism.

"Say a Muslim woman wanted to speak openly about domestic violence in her community. If she speaks publicly, she can be reinforcing this stereotype that all Muslim men are wife beaters, that all women are victims who are always downtrodden at the behest of their husbands...", Carland says.

"And then if they don’t speak publicly about it, the non-Muslim community are like 'why are you in denial about these domestic violence problems?', 'why do you support patriarchy?'"

In either case, many of Carland’s interviewees felt the pressure either to speak or remain silent interferes with the fight against sexism being undertaken in the most effective way possible.

Our judgements about Islam are often inconsistent

For Carland, non-Muslims will always tend to view Muslims as the Other. The tendency to relegate Islam as "monolithic" is a way of transforming Muslims from people into abstract entities who are unlike us. It keeps them distant and different.

This also explains why some parts of the public are critical of Muslims no matter what they do. Indeed, Carland finds feminism is often used hypocritically, as a weapon against Islam.

"It’s not unusual for people to abuse me for the so-called lack of rights for women in the Muslim community when I know they couldn’t give a stuff about the women’s rights in general in Australia. It’s amazing how strongly feminist they become when the issue is about Muslims", she says.

The Ethics Centre recently explored the application of law on topics like religious dress or genital mutilation. We asked whether some laws single Islam out for special attention. Readers were divided, but Carland's comments make clear the way many Muslims feel about non-Muslim expectations. Are we being fair or reasonable?

Islam is a tricky topic for feminism

Although recent forms of feminism - called 'third wave' feminism - have taken big steps toward being more diverse, feminism still tends to struggle with religion. For instance, many prominent feminists wanted to exclude pro-life women's groups from the recent 'Women's March' in Washington DC.

Carland thinks looking at how feminism deals with religion is instructive. "Even though feminism is a broad church and there are lots of different types of feminism . . . there are times when we can privilege a liberal view of feminism", she says.

"That’s an important thing to keep in mind because it suggests there is only one way for a woman to be free... that bumps up against problems for women who do have a religious tradition for example, or when we get into issues like the hijab."

Instead of driving through patriarchal landmines, nego-feminism goes around them to try to bring people with them

Carland thinks we should be careful about infantilising women who make choices that don't conform to the liberal way of thinking.

"Even if a woman says ‘I like [wearing the hijab], it’s part of my identity to resist the commodification of my body’, there’s the argument that ‘you’ve just got Stockholm Syndrome' ...which is incredibly infantilising."

Imagine reversing the argument and you'll see why Carland takes issue with feminists speaking in this way.

"It's like me saying to a woman in a bikini ‘don’t tell me that’s your choice. You’ve just internalised patriarchal male gaze. You've been made to feel that this is the only way you have any value as a woman...' A woman in a bikini would no doubt find that deeply offensive and say 'how dare you make those assumptions about me – you don’t know the reasons why I make the choices I do'."

"Why do we find that problematic in one direction and not the other?"

There's no one way to fight sexism

In her research, Carland came across the idea of "nego-feminism". The idea originates in the work of Obioma Nnaemeka, an African feminist who saw women in African cultures negotiate and compromise to achieve their goals, rather than fighting every battle no-holds-barred, like liberal feminism often does.

"The term means ‘no ego’ feminism and 'negotiating' feminism... Nego-feminism is much more gentle, more interested in negotiating. Instead of driving through patriarchal landmines, nego-feminism goes around them to try to bring people with them", explains Carland.

Nego-feminism is no 'better' than liberal approaches in Carland's mind but it may be more effective in some contexts. It typifies the approach taken by many of the Muslim women working within their communities and can be effective in the right circumstances, even if it might seem too apologetic by Western feminist standards.

Ultimately, for Carland, that's what matters. It’s not about how you fight sexism; it’s about whether you’re making progress.

Dr Susan Carland is a lecturer in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and the author of Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism. Follow her on Twitter.

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