Emancipation through a new reading of the Koran

Moroccan physician and author Asma Lamrabet is one of the foremost representatives of Islamic feminism in North Africa. She urges Arab women to follow their own path, distinct from Western feminism, in order to liberate themselves from male paternalism. Claudia Mende spoke to her in Rabat

By Claudia Mende

Ms Lamrabet, as an Islamic feminist you call for a "relecture", a new reading of the Koranic texts in the spirit of equal rights for men and women. Are people in Morocco interested in your work?

Perhaps it's only a minority who are interested in my work. But compared with 20 years ago, much more attention is being paid to these issues today. Back then, nobody in the Arab world would listen to us. It was mainly academic groups in the West that initiated this work. Many representatives of Islamic feminism live in the West due to the lack of freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Today, however, I am seeing a big interest at universities and in general among young people in Morocco. They want to know why the official religious institutions in our country are not prepared to answer their questions. These institutions still cling to a traditional understanding of the Koran and reject ijtihad, the independent interpretation of the Koran and the hadiths. Unfortunately, these traditionalists are very influential in Morocco.

Are they hindering any reading that fits today's social realities?

Yes, and that's why things are progressing so slowly. The traditionalists are in the majority. But when it comes to women's rights, even progressive and liberal forces take a conservative stance; even secular intellectuals are not necessarily on the side of women.

Asma Lamrabet (photo: private)
Asma Lamrabet no longer wears a headscarf. She says: "Secular, Western feminists criticised me severely in the beginning. They did not want to accept a practising Muslim woman – who at the time wore a headscarf – talking about women's rights! But that, too, is a form of patriarchy, a female patriarchy. They have no right to dictate what I can or can't demand."

You deconstruct male claims to superiority and the lack of freedom for women as non-Islamic. Which issue do you consider particularly difficult?

All of these issues are extremely important. In every religion, sacred texts have traditionally been interpreted by men in a very rigid manner. However, some of the misogynistic regulations in Islam do not even have any basis in the Koran. For example, in the Arab world you will find a rule that women need a guardian (wali), i.e. a father or brother, to make important decisions for them. Yet neither the Koran nor the Sunnah, the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, says anything about this. The wali is purely a product of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence. Such regulations must not be allowed to persist. People think that these are divine rules, but that's simply not the case. Fortunately, in its new family law passed in 2004, Morocco eliminated the requirement that women need a wali.

Despite this new and in many respects liberal family law, conservative attitudes towards women's rights still predominate in Morocco. What is the reason for this?

The Moroccans are not implementing the new family law. Even educated Moroccan women do not know about their new rights. The situation is similar with the new constitution of 2011, which gives citizens more political rights. This is because there has been no "reform of mentality", which can only be achieved through more education. We must convey to people that equality is not something abstract, but in fact part of our Islamic frame of reference. The Islamic world is being asked to choose between modernity and Islamic traditionalism. We have to put a stop to this, because the whole Arab world is suffering as a result and young people are no longer on board.

What do you mean by that?

The younger generation is lost between modernity and a tradition that they are not allowed to question. In our countries, we are adopting Western technology but rejecting the philosophy of modernity because it allegedly violates Islam. This is wrong and we must tell young people so. Otherwise, even the best laws are useless.

But today's young Moroccan women lead different lives to their mothers.

Yes, they lead different lives, even if they wear a headscarf. For many, the headscarf is liberating, because it allows them to go out, work or get involved in an organisation. But despite this outwardly conservative appearance, there is still much to be done because sexual harassment on the streets is a massive problem, and many men still have the habit of bossing their sisters and wives around and telling them how to dress. We have yet to achieve the freedom to dress as we like – and that includes the issue of the headscarf too.

Women protesting against gender-based violence in Morocco on International Women's Day 2018 (photo: picture-alliance/AA/M. Houbais)
Women protesting against gender-based violence in Morocco on International Women's Day 2018: more than 50 per cent of Moroccan women have been subjected to violence in some form, according to a report by the country's National Observatory on Violence Against Women. Those under the age of 30 and without paid work are the most vulnerable, Morocco's national security body reported.

Even though the 2011 Moroccan constitution guarantees men and women equal rights, women are still disadvantaged, for example in terms of inheritance.

The new constitution does indeed stipulate in Article 19 that men and women enjoy equal rights. And yet these rights are limited by existing laws. This is not acceptable, because we have a legal ambiguity here. We can't talk about equality and at the same time restrict it. This is both a legal and political problem.

Sex outside marriage is still a criminal offence.

This archaic law dates back to the colonial era but what is worse is that Moroccans actually believe it to be Islamic. Those who want to abolish it are told that they are interfering with something sacred. We have to start decolonising our minds even more.

No religion allows sexual relations outside marriage, but this is a moral issue between the individual and God. It is absolutely unacceptable for police in Morocco to drag people out of their homes because of this. This does not happen in other Arab countries. But at least we are having many more debates about this law today than we did ten years ago.

People here claim that equality is a Western value that is not compatible with our culture. That is wrong, because equality is also inherent in our Islamic principles – and I would like to stress that point. It is a universal value. Every context has its problems, but we share values with the rest of the world such as equality, independence, autonomy and the dignity of the individual.

Two years ago, your call for a just inheritance law cost you your position as chairperson of the "Rabita al Mohamadya des Oulémas", a kind of think tank for a more modern Islam. Why all the fuss?

My demand was not new, but the "Rabita" was afraid I was making this demand in its name. This is why conservative elements in the institution wanted me to officially give up my position. I refused. I can't say the opposite of what I say in my books. Many people were against me at that time, and some Salafists said I was no longer a Muslim. That's why I had to leave. It is astonishing how heatedly such issues are debated in Morocco, while the Salafists and other religious groups do not concern themselves with much more serious problems such as social inequality or political issues.

Cover of Asma Lamrabet's book "Women and men in the Qur'an" (Source: Palgrave Macmillan)
Asma Lamrabet has written a number of books on the subject of women and the Koran. Says Lambrabat: "some of the misogynistic regulations in Islam do not even have any basis in the Koran.[…] Such regulations must not be allowed to persist. People think that these are divine rules, but that's simply not the case."

And yet Moroccan Islam is state-controlled.

I think it is fundamentally right that the state manages Islam. Otherwise everyone would say something different, and the extremists could go into the mosques and spread their messages there. Morocco has traditionally embraced the moderate Islam of the Sufis and of tolerance. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to women's rights, this form of Islam is very conservative. Salafists may take a more extreme stance, but in terms of women's rights, the official Islam and Sufi Islam are equally conservative: women should stay at home, men are the superior sex – they all espouse that viewpoint.

Morocco is the only Arab country to have female religious guides in mosques, the so-called mourchidates. Are they not changing things?

In the West, many thought the mourchidates were female imams, but that's not the case. The mourchidates do valuable social work in the mosques, for example on increasing women's literacy, but they don't question the patriarchy. In religious matters, they are very traditional, partly because they are paid by the state.

Religious offices are reserved for men. Are you in favour of female imams?

Not a single passage in the Koran prohibits female imams, so the religious establishment has no credible answer to this question. On the contrary, the Prophet Mohammed expressly allowed a woman who knew the Koran very well to work as an imam. So the Koran supplies arguments in favour of female imams and not against them. In the end, there are no theological reasons for not allowing female imams, it's a specific mentality that opposes it. Many men have problems with the idea.

It sounds as if your demands are in line with those of Western feminists.

Secular, Western feminists criticised me severely in the beginning. They did not want to accept a practising Muslim woman – who at the time wore a headscarf – talking about women's rights! But that, too, is a form of patriarchy, a female patriarchy. They have no right to dictate what I can or can't demand. For me, there are several feminisms; there is, for example, the feminism of liberation in Latin America, Black feminism in the USA – so why not an Islamic feminism?

Is there not a greater openness among feminists today?

That's gradually changing, yes. Today, there is a greater willingness to listen to Muslim women who want to emancipate themselves through a new reading of the Koran. If I lived in France, my feminism would be different, but I am Moroccan and Muslim, that is my background. The secular feminists in Morocco who never took an interest in religion and therefore lacked arguments against political Islam now understand this too. Western feminists must give other women the choice of how they want to understand their own brand of feminism. You should not presume to speak for us and force on us a model that is not our own. After all, we know our problems better than you do.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Asma Lamrabet, born in Rabat in 1961, is one of the foremost voices of Islamic feminism in North Africa. In her book "Islam et femmes – des questions qui fâchent” ("Islam and Women – Questions That Infuriate"), published in 2017, she exposes misogynist regulations in the Islamic world as being a result of a patriarchal interpretation of the Koran. After many years of wearing a headscarf, she recently stopped doing so.