Rebecca Chopp, Kecia Ali, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Women, Marriage, and Religion
Over the last four decades, women’s roles have changed dramatically — at home, in the work force and in religious institutions as well. In America, resistance to this is often couched in religious terms. Where there is a backlash against feminism and its repercussions, it is often embodied in religious practice. Host Krista Tippett speaks with three devoutly religious women who also call themselves feminist.
Kecia Ali is senior research analyst for the Islam section of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Rebecca Chopp feminist theologian; president of Colgate University in Hamilton, Ny.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen evangelical Christian feminist; professor of philosophy and psychology at Eastern University in St. David's, Pa.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith, public radio conversation about belief meaning, issues, and ideas. Each week, we focus on a different theme asking writers, thinkers, and theologians to discuss how religion shapes everyday life.
Today, three perspectives on women, marriage, and religion in our time. Over the last four decades, women’s roles have changed dramatically at home workforce, and in religious institutions as well. In America, resistance to this is often couched in religious terms. Where there is a backlash against feminism and its repercussions it is often embodied in religious practice
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The head of every woman the man. Now that is clearly true in the case of every married woman. She is to me is to be in subjection to her husband. That is the plain teaching of Ephesians five. She is to be under the authority of her husband.
MS. TIPPETT: Today on Speaking of Faith, we’ll be in conversation with three devoutly religious women who also call themselves feminist. That is a very broad label as we’ll hear. It suggests at heart a passion for the rights and concerns of women. And the three voices of the hour reflect the way feminism as an movement has evolved in recent decades. They’re less interested in criticizing men and patriarchy, they’re more engaged in balancing the tremendous upheavals in marriage and family and society in our time, and they insist that women need partnership with men to do that. We’ll hear from Kecia Ali, a Muslim feminist and scholar, a young wife and mother. Also Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, who has been studying women’s roles and advocating for women’s rights over four decades. She is also an evangelical Christian. First, Rebecca Chopp the President of Colgate University. By academic training, she is a feminist theologian.
REBECCA CHOPP: I grew up in an era where “Leave it to Beaver” defined the norm for all of my existence, and I expected to find Wally Cleaver, and I thought I’d have nine kids. She only had two and that would’ve all been fine by the time I went to college. it was pretty apparent to any bright young girl of my era that the rules had changed.
MS. TIPPETT: Since the 1970s, Rebecca Chopp has been studying the ways in which changes for women affect institutions like marriage and the Christian church. She begins by pointing out that both institutions have transformed themselves many times in history. For example, because men and women had shorter lifespans in nineteenth century America, the average marriage lasted less than ten years. As a result, multiple marriages, step parenting and blended families were American norms well into the twentieth century. Only in the 1950s did American culture adopt a new ideal of stable, long-lasting, nuclear families. That ideal may persist in our time, but it’s reality has disintegrated. I asked Rebecca Chopp how her knowledge of history helps her see new ways forward.
DR. CHOPP: Anyone who studied the history of the Christian church for the history of marriage realizes that there is no “a tradition.” That is that tradition has manifested itself in many different forms and ways. I mean think about medieval Christianity versus Puritan Christianity. Think about the marriages of the medieval period in the marriages of the 1920s in this country, very different forms. So yeah, my position is that we’ve got to find for this generation. the institutional form that works for people.
MS. TIPPETT: People often talk about the crisis in marriage and in an address that you gave at a major conference on marriage at Emory, you and others listed the outlines of that crisis and the dramatic changes, women working outside the home, a third of all children under three spending thirty-five hours or more in daycare, the changes in divorce, the skyrocketing rates of divorce, all of these things. And then you noted, to some, the order has become disorder. How do you think about what’s happening and how to make sense of it and move forward with it? Where do you start?
DR. CHOPP: You know, I think, one: you’ve got to start just in a kind of basic common sense view that the physical and social and cultural forms of marriage have themselves shifted, as I always like to tell my students and others, once you invent the birth control pill and you have its wide acceptance in use in this country, you have radically transformed the basic foundation and cultural form of marriage because all of a sudden that which grounded marriage, which continued most marriages, around which most legal sanctions were developed for marriage has changed dramatically. Because now people have a choice about whether to have children, when to have children, and how many children to have. And you can take any number of changes, such as that, although that’s the most profound.
The second thing I think you have to then say is look, the 1950s family was probably always somewhat of an ideology. It doesn’t take much to go into parts of this country and realize that many people never had Wally and June Cleaver’s existence. A lot of religious communities have a different view of marriage. Different socio-economic structures had different views of marriage. I guess what I’m trying to do here is to begin to relieve the anxiety that somehow if the old order of marriage is gone all we are in is in complete chaos. Then I think you begin to look for best practices, to identify resources in religious communities and other cultural groups that would give us some new images of marriage. And I think many people are finding highly satisfying relationships and very good family structures. They’re new and they’re different. They are not what our grandparents had. But there’s a great sense that there is wonderful potential for a variety of family structures in this culture.
MS. TIPPETT: So you say, the pill is a watershed and that’s a pretty clear kind of argument. Is theology always catching up with social norms? Do you go back and say what does a religious perspective have to say about the pill as a watershed or do we just have to sort of fit this reality back into this tradition? Is that sometimes a difficult fit?
DR. CHOPP: Well, it’s a good question. Well religious traditions in Christianity and other religions are incredibly adaptive. I love to tell the story about teaching a class at Emory one time that was a class that introduced people to the study of religion. And we read books from Hinduism and Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, etc. At the end of the year, I asked the students ‘what was the book that seems strangest to them?’ And to my complete surprise, they picked one on medieval Christianity because it seemed weirder to them than that of nineteenth century Judaism or twenty-first century Buddhism. I mean it’s a really fascinating kind of experience. I also think we have to realize that many times, religious groups are on the forefront, take the Civil Rights Movement, there’s a good illustration of the religious community almost leading the way of social reform.
MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about where you find images of marriage and sexuality and family in Scripture and tradition that open up a religious imagination about this?
DR. CHOPP: I guess what I look for and what I get from the religious tradition is more religious substance of what it is to be human what it is to connect to God through others. And I understand that substance takes on new forms. I’ll go back to Paul Tillich, the person that so influenced me. He had a wonderful notion of Catholic substance and Protestant principle. How you have to have both. And what Tillich meant was at the Catholic substance was that God grasps human being in every time and place, but the form, the vessel, the treasure in earthen vessel, the vessel changes. There’s no one eternal form of a marriage or of a relationship. I take first Corinthians 13, a wonderful chapter of the New Testament often used in Christian marriages.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s on love.
DR. CHOPP: That’s on love, that’s right. It’s really, of course, if you read it biblically, it’s about how a community is to act to one another. But yes it fits for marriage. It also fits for our other relationships.
READER: If I speak in tongues of mortals and of angels but not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge. And if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And now, faith, hope, and love abide. These three and the greatest of these is love.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith. I’m in conversation with Colgate University president and theologian, Rebecca Chopp. We’re exploring women, marriage, and religion in our time. Marital breakdown has been linked to an array of social crises, including child poverty, educational failure, and teen pregnancy. In response, many religious communities have launched marriage support structures and pro- marriage and pro-family movements. Rebecca Chopp insists that the ideal of the 1950s American nuclear family failed for good reason, in part because it did not work for women or men, and was never a reality for many Americans. I asked her how she balances her essentially hopeful perspective with the social fallout of a high divorce rate.
DR. CHOPP: I think what concerns me greatly right now is an unstable communal environment, that is when people do so rapidly, when youngsters don’t grow up with a stable norm. I think they’re not getting clear models for what marriage should be about and for what parenting should be about. And it’s especially parenting that I find myself worried about and I think you know, as a society, we can’t tie the dads and moms down and say you got live in Omaha, Nebraska for forty years because it’s good for your kids. That’s not an work. We’re going to have to find communities to belong to that can have more open and explicit discussion about what constitute healthy relationships. What makes for good parenting. Those kind of norms and practices. So I think what we have to find ways to do is to render what was once just an unconscious norm much more conscious again. And it may be in religious communities. It probably will be a lot of it in religious communities.
MS. TIPPETT: What are your the places you turn in Scripture and tradition to think about divorce, the fact that it is more common now.
DR. CHOPP: I think divorce is experienced by many as a failure internally. I think that people who write about divorce far too often don’t understand the agony, the absolute agony that most people go through when they have to experience a divorce. I don’t think that many people run into it like, ‘oh, this is working. I’m chucking it.’ I think it’s usually years and years of lots of hard work trying to keep the relationship together and when it finally doesn’t having to choose this painful and often extremely costly process of divorce. So I guess I look a lot in the Scriptures more at the passages around brokenness and failure and the hope for, as Christians call it resurrection, transformation and healing. Coming from that, more than I do a simple passage about divorce because I don’t find the simple passages about marriage any easier to adapt than I do the divorce passages right now.
MS. TIPPETT: You have often said, and you repeated here, that the starting point for a conversation about marriages is really conversation about being human and what that means. I wonder if you’d reflect with me about what the flux that marriage is in in our time. What that might be teaching us about what it is to be human.
DR. CHOPP: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know if I have an easy answer. I think one thing that the durability of marriage shows us is that people long to belong. I had a person tell me one time that the deepest human desire is to be known by another. And I found that one of the most religious statements I had ever heard because I think in some ways you look at certainly the Jewish and the Christian scriptures, the two I know best, and it’s all about being known and knowing God, and through people who are face-to-face in a sense to another human being. So I think one thing that we can see and in a sense be in awe of, as one is in front of religious and holy things, is that the durability of marriage in this time, the fact that people still marry and long to marry is a real sign of how much we long to be known by another intimately over a long period of time. Not only in the big ways, but also in the small daily details of breaking bread and making sure the sink’s scrubbed down and all those important things.
MS. TIPPETT: Rebecca Chopp is the President of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. her books include Saving Work: Feminist Practices of Theological Education.
I’m Krista Tippett. Today on Speaking us Faith three views on women, marriage, and religion in our time.
READER: Genesis 2. “Then the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man. And he slept. Then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called woman, for out of man. This one was taken.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
MS. TIPPETT: Language like this goes in American wedding rituals. It comes from the second chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible which Christians call the Old Testament. It is the story of Adam and Eve. This biblical drama runs throughout Western literature and philosophy and Western culture as a whole. And for modern feminists both religious and nonreligious, it came to symbolize the way the Christian church long condemned women to submission in marriage and society. My next guest Mary Van Leeuwen is a social scientist and an evangelical Christian feminist. She says that the problem is not the story of Adam and Eve, but the way churches ha ve taken it out of context across the ages.
MARY STEWART VAN LEEUWEN We would never take a play by Shakespeare, a five act play by Shakespeare, and say hey ‘the battle between Macbeth and Macduff takes place in what, Act 4? Well, let’s save paper and students’ time and not look at Acts 1 through 3. They’re irrelevant.
MS. TIPPETT: So the Bible contains two distinct creation stories and Adam and Eve comes second. They don’t appear at all in the first story in the first chapter of Genesis. That is the account of God in the beginning, creating the heavens and the earth and eventually man and woman together as equals. Here’s that verse.
READER: “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created them male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” From Genesis 1.
MS. TIPPETT: Notice that God does not order the woman to have babies and stay home. Nor does he order the man to go out and work, dominating the public sphere as Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen points out, he commands them both to be fruitful and subdue the earth together. And as late as early American Puritan society, life and work were centered in the home and involved the whole family. It was a relatively modern phenomenon, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, that sharply divided the roles of men and women. After that Van Leeuwen says Americans, especially American preachers read new gender roles back into the Bible and taught them as divinely inspired. So I asked Mary Van Leeuwen how and why she thinks these stories still matter at all? And why reading them differently might shed a new light on the challenges of marriage in our time? First she wants to take on a problematic passage in the Adam and Eve story. This is the verse that is arguably quoted most often within debates about gender in modern churches, whether the issue is the role of women in marriage or their suitability as ordained clergy. It occurs at the moment of reckoning, in what theologians refer to as “the fall.” The moment when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. It’s Genesis 3:16
READER: “To the woman the Lord God said, I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing and in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
MS. TIPPETT: Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN I took a page from some earlier Christian and Jewish feminists who pointed out that if you’re looking at the account of the fall of humankind, that highly symbolic account of the fall of humankind in Genesis 3, you find — it’s a different fall out for Adam and for Eve. In that chapter, in Genesis 3 Adam is told that in the sweat of his brow is he going to extract food from the earth and that Eve is going to have pain in childbearing. People have read the pain in childbearing part back into creation. Or said, well there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s Eve’s punishment.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN In fact, even in Queen Victoria’s time, the Church of England was very hesitant about even endorsing her having anesthetics for some of her later children. To which her response, apparently was, ‘the church is run by men’ and she went ahead and had an anesthetic anyway. It’s interesting that there is a selective interpretation even of passages of that sort. They are not seen as being absolute for men, but often in history is seen as being more absolute for women.
MS. TIPPETT: I think women of my age in their forties and other generations around me, for me, feminism was a given, right? And the fruits of feminism. I never really thought that I couldn’t do anything that a man could do. But then the crunch comes when you get all the education, you have the professional accomplishment, but there’s still too much to do, right? I think early feminism, or what you say second wave feminism in the ’60s really had a critique of male patriarchy and needed in some ways to dismiss men in order to find their identity. But women like me really need men to be involved in order to really live with the fruits of that early feminism. I think I like your theological perspective because built into that is an idea that we were never supposed to be at odds.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN Well, yes. God blesses them, plural, and says to them, plural, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. He does not say to Eve be fruitful and multiply and to Adam subdue the earth. Now that I doesn’t mean that we have to push for complete androgyny in our roles, but when it does suggest to me is that any construction of gender relations that too strictly bifurcates that mandate so that women are only doing the “being fruitful and multipy” and men are doing the “subduing the earth” is going to run into trouble in the long run because it’s unjust, not just to women, but to men as well.
MS. TIPPETT: But we just have to remember that what you’re making might sound like a radical statement in terms of the kind of statements people might think Christian churches have made across the centuries.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN Yeah, well then these people have not read history. I have a colleague who is a church historian Peggy Bendroth at Calvin College who said that if she hadn’t first done historical work on women’s roles in the church in the nineteenth century, she would’ve been too discouraged to do it regarding the twentieth century. Because women in the churches, which are mostly what we would call evangelical churches. The mainline churches were mainly evangelical Trinitarian churches for the most part had many, many more roles for women than they did in the twentieth century. In fact, we even get funny sorts of situations in some fundamentalist churches that were actually started by women in, say the 1930s and ’40s, who in the 1990s would never dream of letting women stand up in the pulpit, even though the church was founded by a woman.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN And I’ve actually gotten some fundamentals ministers say ‘yeah, that does seem a little bit inconsistent doesn’t it?’ And I say ‘yes when you learn to do about it.’
MS. TIPPETT: So, you’re saying, go back to history and go back to the very beginning of your Bible.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN That’s right. Mm-hmm. Yeah. I’m not saying that we can bring in the new heaven and a the new earth by ourselves. Obviously, that’s ultimately God ‘s work. But we are called to engage in substantial healing. How do we do it? Now, some people want a list of a thousand rules that never change to answer a question like that.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. VAN LEEUWEN I don’t think is biblical to try to come up with a thousand roles like that. The rules come and go in Scripture. Some of them don’t come and go, right, like the ten Commandments and the great summary of the law. Alright? But there is enough diversity, for example, in gender relations in Scripture that you can’t — there’s no way that you can go through the Bible and say, okay this is what God meant once and for all.
MS. TIPPETT: Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of philosophy and psychology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Her books include Gender and Grace and My Brother’s Keeper
This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, we’ll return with Muslim feminist Kecia Ali and her perspectives on religion, women, and marriage. I’m Krista Tippett, stay with us.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio conversation about belief, meaning, issues and ideas. Today, “Women, Marriage, and Religion.”
Images of Muslim women have been much in the news in recent years, beginning with the photos of women in full-bodied burqas before the Taliban fell in Afghanistan in 2001. In some societies, Islam has been used to justify the oppression of women. My next guest Kecia Ali directs the Islam section of the Feminist Sexual Ethics project at Brandeis University. She did not grow up Muslim. She grew up nominally Christian, and then atheist, and converted to Islam in early adulthood. But before she was Muslim, she says, she was feminist. And from the first, she has worked to reconcile these aspects of her identity.
KECIA ALI: For someone who has considered herself a feminist since she knew what the word meant, I can’t really say that everything made sense immediately. There were some sticking points for me. There were some sticking points in the Qur’anic text and more particularly, there was a big sense that somehow there was just something about Islam that was different. And how could you be a feminist and a Muslim? And how can you reconcile those two things? Because it was absolutely necessary for me to reconcile them if I was going to convert. And the reality is that I don’t think I have made my peace with everything contained in Islamic religious texts and certainly not with everything that transpires in Muslim communities. But the rest of the world isn’t a feminist paradise either, and I found the overall core of Islam, the overall core of the Qur’an’s message to be so convincingly egalitarian that the rest seemed to be, in some sense, just details.
MS. TIPPETT: As Kecia Ali worked to reconcile her Islamic faith with her concerns as a woman she found herself drawn to the wisdom of early Islamic jurists, especially from the ninth century. This was a period of intellectual ferment in Islam and lively debate on how the revealed law of the Qu’ran could be applied to changing social realities. Here’s an example of one such text.
READER: “Al-Shafi‘i, may God be merciful to him, said the book of God great and majestic and the sunnah of the messenger of God, peace be upon him, indicate that the man must support his wife. Al-Shafi‘i said if it is among her rights due from him that he support her and it is among his rights to derive enjoyment from her and if it is that each one of the spouses has a corresponding right over the other spouse what the husband has user right over the wife and what the wife has is a right over the husband. This implies that if the man cannot find the means to support her, he should not have the right to retain her , deriving enjoyment from her and keeping others away from her, compelling her to make do with him alone and preventing her from moving about the town while he does not find the means to support her. Thus, if he cannot find the means to maintain her, she should be given the option between staying with him or separating from him.
MS. TIPPETT: I asked Kecia Ali, why she, as a 21st-century feminist felt compelled to engage in ancient scholarship.
MS. ALI: Well, if you’re Muslim, then revealed law has to govern your life. You have to figure out when it’s literally applicable and when it’s not, and there has not been a tremendously sophisticated 21st-century, or even 20th century attempt to do that. But the further back you go, up to a certain point, to the ninth century, the tenth century, the twelfth century, you find people really engaged in systematic reflection on the sources of law, the Qur’an, and and also the traditions of the Prophet, to attempt to really faithfully figure out what rules can be deduced from them to regulate Muslim lives and Muslim families and communities. And so while I don’t necessarily think that the rules that they came up with in the ninth century are necessarily applicable to me in the 21st century, since so many other things are different. Nonetheless, there hasn’t been a comparable attempt recently and I think that we have to really engage with what theese, I guess founding fathers is an overused term, but I think it applies here with what these people did because so much of the past practice of the community derives from that of so much of its legitimacy and its authority.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me how your study of these sources is illuminating the questions that you find really important today in terms of women in Islam in relationship with men in marriage, sexuality, and divorce, this sort of complex of issues.
MS. ALI: The thing that’s most striking to me in reading these texts from the ninth century is that their understanding of marriage and the family is very different than what most conservative Muslims talk about today. You find people writing things about the Muslim husband and father who goes out and earns a living, and supports his dependents, and as such has these responsibilities. And can the Qur’an can tell us that when it says men are qawwamun in relation to women. They are breadwinners or they’re protectors or they’re maintainers — that’s not how he early jurists understood this. A man had an obligation to support his wife because she permitted him to control her mobility and she made herself sexually available to him. That’s the legal understanding of this. And the jurists interpret scriptural passages and prophetic traditions to that end. Now, a man has an obligation to support his children also, for a variety of other reasons but wife and children are not a unit as dependents in this nuclear family. They’re talking about something very different when they talk about marriage and family. And today I think we’ve just failed to recognize that it’s a very different relationship. Now, none of this takes into account the fact that in many places in the Muslim world, historically, and especially today, women earn incomes, particularly in the lower classes. And often those incomes are very necessary to support their family. So even this rhetoric of male providership does not necessarily reflect the situation on the ground, as it were.
MS. TIPPETT: In our minds I believe in this country we have certain images of women in Islam. There are some obvious things which seem to jump out as the problems and one of them would be the veil. You actually note in this article I read that wearing traditional dress in some Muslim cultures is not a continuation of tradition, but sort of a new trend, that I’m inferring also has new meanings that are modern. Talk to me about that.
MS. ALI: Really, I think that traditional dress, the hijab is perceived as being this ever-changing nonnegotiable and all important component of Muslim women’s lives, and in fact the reality is that for many people it still is absolutely vital. I was at a conference recently and when the issue of wearing hijab came up, one of the other panelists essentially said that denying the necessity for women to wear hijab is tantamount to a apostasy. Now apostasy is a tremendously serious issue for Muslims. It’s not something to be taken lightly. And what bothered me most was not so much that this was raised, as that it, in fact, ignited the most passionate and the most ardent, and the most enthusiastic and interested and engaged, and longest exchange of any topic that had been raised at this conference that was ostensibly about the Prophet Muhammad.
MS. TIPPETT: And the people who were engaged, were these Muslim women or Muslim men and women?
MS. ALI: Well, this was a man who made the remark, but of all the Muslim women virtually at the conference wore hijab and actually none of the three scholars on the panel did, which was what prompted the question in the first place from one of the audience members. But the women had a slightly different perspective, their perspective was, and many of them approached me privately following the session, was that yes, it has to be a choice for women to make. Yes, it’s something that is a difficult choice to make. It can also be tremendously rewarding to do it. But that this is not the most important thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you wear a hijab?
MS. ALI: I do not.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. ALI: And that wasn’t an easy decision also. I do dress modestly and I think that for myself the determination that I have is that living in the United States in the 21st century the criterion for modesty are different and that the point of the Qur’anic injunctions is to make women’s appearance less the focus of attention and women’s bodies less the subject of sexualization and commodification and head covering in the United States, to me, seems to attract more attention. On the other hand, I have plenty of close Muslims friends who do cover their hair and it’s not an issue between us.
MS. TIPPETT: Kecia Ali. She is senior research analyst for the Islam section of the Feminist Sexual Ethics project at Brandeis.
The Prophet Muhammad was a married man several times over. I asked Kecia Ali how this living model of marriage in Islamic tradition shapes her modern experience of family and marriage.
MS. ALI: The Prophet Muhammad had a number of wives. Although he was married to one woman for a very long period of time, about twenty-five years, according to traditional accounts. And she’s the mother of all his surviving children, four daughters, and in fact she was his only wife, during that time she was his first wife. And many Muslim women today saw that is really the model that we need to be most concerned with. That is the partnership marriage that gives us the best indication of how The Prophet lived and behaved as a husband. On the other hand, what most of the Qur’an talks about and what most of the traditions that deal with The Prophet and his wives talk about are his subsequent marriages because that was the time when he was leading a community in Medina and consolidating alliances with other clans and with other tribe. And those were the marriages that were really central in cementing those kinds of relationships between Muhammad and other community leaders and other prominent men within and outside of his tribe. And the marriages of his daughters to some of those men also helped cement those ties.
MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t it also interesting that he had four daughters.
MS. ALI: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: It is. I mean, I knew that but when you said it, it was a striking image to me.
MS. ALI: Well, very much so. And I think that particularly as daughters, this is off the topic of marriage a little bit, but there is a tremendous amount actually in the Qur’an and in the prophetic tradition about recognizing the worth of daughters. Of certainly, not killing them because that was at least according to the Qur’an, a practice of the pre- Islamic Arabs. Female infanticide was practiced in the Qur’an condemns that in the strongest possible terms. It also condemns men being joyful at the news of the birth of a son and saddened at the birth of a daughter. And it says if your choice is between female infanticide and being saddened at the birth of a daughter, but joy for the birth of son, that’s an evil choice, having to decide between those two extremes. You should be joyful, the implication is, at the birth of a daughter, so there is definitely a strong sense in which this preference for sons over daughters is not recognized and not legitimated by the foundational texts of Muslim tradition. Although, of course it continues to be practiced in many places of the Muslim world, as well as many other places.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and at this period in which the prophet was consolidating his civic and political leadership then, he was married, multiple marriages
MS. ALI: He was married to nine women.
MS. TIPPETT: Nine women OK.
MS. ALI: Nine women at the time he died.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s another red flag.
MS. ALI: That’s a huge problem.
MS. TIPPETT: Now I want to know how you think about that problem. How you put it into perspective to worry about or not to worry about.
MS. ALI: Well the first thing is I think polygamy, polygyny, specifically, having more than one wife, has ever been a huge problem in the Muslim world for the simple reason of demographics. You cannot have polygyny as the norm because they simply aren’t four women, which is the limit that the Qur’an puts on the number of wives for any man but The Prophet, you cannot have a society where you have eighty percent women and twenty percent men, and every man has four wives. It just has not historically work that way. Polygyny has been restricted to wealthy men, for the most part, through most of its history. It’s not necessarily limited to the Muslim world in the sense that you find polygamous marriages many other places in Africa, for example. And you find really de facto polygamy or polygyny in lots of places. Wealthy white American men, for example, taking mistresses. For example, the practice of Trophy Wives. Divorce the first wife who supported you through graduate school and marry your graduate student once you’ve become the professor. Or the wife who supported you through medical school and then you marry a nurse. I mean, this happens in our culture. And what happens is the first wife was divorced. When polygamy is practiced in the Muslim world what often happens is the second woman is married, but the first wife is not divorced. That all said, I would not want my own marriage to be polygamous. And obviously living in the United States that’s not a big issue for me, but it would be potentially if I lived other places in the Muslim world.
MS. TIPPETT: You mentioned that there was a dower amount in your marriage contract. I mean that just sounds old-fashioned in American ears. But it has more significance than that doesn’t it, for you?
MS. ALI: Well it’s a legal requirement for Muslim marriage. And to tell you the truth, I wanted to simply waive it and have just a symbolic amount and my in-laws insisted that that would not do, that it would be very embarrassing not to have dower. And so I had a cash amount as well as gold jewelry that was given to me by my husband.
MS. TIPPETT: Right and this is something is given to the wife from the husband. From the husband and it’s her sole property, and he has no control over what she does with it, and it’s very, very important for a lot of Muslim women as a means of securing a certain amount of financial independence. Now it’s also possible, although this was not the case in my marriage, to defer part of the dower ’til death or divorce. And that is, if the husband divorces the wife without her assent, then she gets — I’ve seen contracts, for example, for a quarter million dollars deferred dower.
MS. TIPPETT: Sort of like a Muslim prenuptial agreement that is tilted toward the interest of the woman.
MS. ALI: That’s very much what it is.
MS. TIPPETT: Muslim feminist Kecia Ali. Today on Speaking of Faith we’re exploring three different feminist perspectives on women, marriage, and religion in our time. Kecia Ali has been talking about Islamic tradition and women’s lives. I asked her how she has come to understand the overriding ethos of Islam towards marriage and the relationship between men and women.
MS. ALI: The Qur’an says [Speaking Arabic] “revere your Lord who created you from a single soul.”” [Speaking Arabic] “and created from it its mate” [Speaking Arabic] it’s literally created from her, because soul is a feminine word in Arabic, her mate [Speaking Arabic] and from them spread [Speaking Arabic] many men and women. So this is a very important verse. It’s the first verse in the chapter of the Qur’an entitled “Women” surat an-nisa’. It puts God first and foremost, “revere God.” Maybe it puts humanity’s worship of God first and foremost. Then it says “who created you from a single soul and created from this soul its mate,” its spouse. Now, many translations of the Qur’an say God created man from a single soul and created his wife, but that isn’t what the Qur’an says. In fact I was once at a wedding where the man performing the ceremony read this verse in Arabic and then said and the English translation of this is “God created Adam” [laughs] “and out of Adam created Eve.”
MS. TIPPETT: Did you stand up and say something?
MS. ALI: I didn’t. I bit my lip. But it was killing me to do it. So this to me is fundamentally how we have to understand marriage as the pairing of a male and female, and that concept of pairs and the concept of being created of the same soul and for each other is tremendously important. I think that any discussion of marriage has to begin there. The Qur’an also says spouses are garments for one another and it says men and women are each other’s [Speaking Arabic], friends or protectors. So those verses provide a very important starting place. On the other hand, the Qur’an also has some verses that regulate specifics of marriage and divorce that seem to give men some type of advantage over their wives. For example, there is a verse that says women have rights from men like the rights that men have from women and men have a degree above them, or a degree against them, or an advantage over them. And people have discussed a lot what it is that that degree is. Is it simply that men have greater financial resources? Is the degree one of preference or is it one of responsibility? People have gone back and forth over this for years and years and years, and centuries and centuries. But the basic relationship is one of reciprocity and mutuality tempered very much by hierarchy. And that hierarchy is there in the Qur’anic text. The question then becomes, is it essential and is always applicable? Or is it subject to change if historical circumstances change.
MS. TIPPETT: This way that you wrestle with the texts, and find your way through them, and apply modern realities and the circumstances of your culture to these ancient teachings, do you think that yours is a particularly American way of being a Muslim woman? Do you feel that Muslim women in other countries and cultures are also wrestling with these the subjects in the same way, are able to do that?
MS. ALI: Oh absolutely. I think that in fact there are many who have given it far more profound thought than I have, who have done really incredible work. There are women writing in the nineteenth century, in Egypt, in the women’s press dealing with some of these kinds of issues. I think that any complicated text like the Qur’an admits numerous interpretations and one is absolutely a patriarchal one and there is also I think an equally plausible, feminist or at the very least egalitarian reading. And I think that from that perspective, you know, we have to be willing to allow conversations about these kinds of issues to take place within the Muslim community and not simply dismiss them.
MS. TIPPETT: You have three children, right? Is one or more of them a daughter?
MS. ALI: Mm-hmm. I have two girls and a boy.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. And I’m curious if they also are aware of some of these, let’s say stereotypes about Muslim women that are out there in our culture and if you talk to them about your work, and if they are already thinking on these things themselves? They’re pretty young aren’t they?
MS. ALI: They are young. The oldest of seven and so I think that they’re really aware yet of all of the kinds of stereotypes about Muslim women that permeate much of American culture. I do things like, for example, not use a pronoun when I’m talking about God, things like that because I think that children do particularly create mental pictures and I think that becomes much less possible if you don’t talk about God. And so they say things like, I was thinking of someone, with my four-year-old and you know, one of the first question that comes up is male or female. And I asked her male or female and she said ‘well neither’ because she was thinking about God. God was the person she had thought of. And she couldn’t put a gender to God, which was phenomenal to me that at least at that very basic level, I have had an impact in thinking about how she thinks about God, so you know, she’s four. We’ll see in future years.
MS. TIPPETT: Kecia Ali is a senior research analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics project at Brandeis University. On our website at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find links to her work. Earlier in this hour, you heard evangelical Christian feminist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and Colgate University president Rebecca Chopp.
In our world, we have dramatic images of religion resisting changes in women’s lives but that’s not the whole story. The women you’ve been listening to, along with many others, are engging the complexity of their lives in faith, with intelligence and creativity. They insist that feminism is not only compatible with but blessed by sacred text and teachings. At the same time, as they engage those teachings, they reframe the meaning of feminism. They are pursuing a conversation involving women and men for the sake not only of women’s rights, but for the good of marriage, all kinds of families, and children. They suggest that religious feminism may distinguish itself in the way it drives beyond issues of gender, to the deepest religious task of asking what it means to be human.
We’d love to hear your reflections on women, marriage, and religion. Please write to us at [email protected]ith.org. You can also contact us through our website speakingof faith.org. While you’re there, you’ll find book and music links, relevant links, and complete audio of this program as well as our previous programs. Special thanks this week go to the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory University, a Pew center for excellence. On the Speaking of Faith website, we’ve posted links to transcripts and projects of the center’s conference on marriage, sex, family, and the religions of the book. You can also call Minnesota Public Radio at 1-800-228-7123.
This program was produced by Brian Newhouse and Kate Moos. Our technical director is Mitch Hanley, web producer Dan Mitchell, associate producer Judy Stone Nunnelly. Marge Ostroushko is managing producer. Speaking of Faith‘s, executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.