Desperately Seeking Liberalism

bensonMy editor at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson, recently released Does God Hate Women;  co-authored with fellow philosopher Jeremy Stangroom, the book is an exploration of the misogyny inherent in religious scripture and practice.

Last week Ophelia went on Radio 3 to debate the book with Humera Khan who, according to her website, is ‘one of the most important Muslim voices speaking and writing in Britain today’ and ‘a pioneer in the struggle to have faith-based identities – especially that of Muslims – recognised’. Ophelia was also up against Madeleine Bunting, a writer who, at least on a political blog, needs no introduction.

The debate begins around 23:30 minutes in and is well worth listening to – and be quick, because it’s only up for another couple of days. What’s great is that Rana Mitter, the moderator, seems really clued up and asks hard questions with a Paxmanesque zeal.



Isn’t there a fundamental point that there’s a patriarchal centre of religion that doesn’t really change?


There’s clearly evidence of patriarchy across all religions, and that’s because men have always tried to control female sexuality. But to get from that to the conclusion that ‘God hates women’ I find that absurd, you might as well ask, ‘Do men hate women’ and clearly there are a lot of nasty misogynist men out there but there are nice men as well.


The title, of course, is metaphoric, and it wasn’t meant to be taken literally.


I disagree with Madeleine, personally I can only talk with any confidence on Islam as a religion, is that the root of it I don’t believe there is patriarchy, I believe that in a sense patriarchy or matriarchy can evolve according to circumstances and people put values and meaning and can perpetuate oppressive systems, it doesn’t mean to say that I think there aren’t oppressive systems and there is a lot of oppression in the Muslim world.


That’s a very interesting abstract point, Humera, but isn’t the reality of the history of let’s say Islam, in practice there has always been patriarchy, where is the Islamic matriarchy?


Well, if you go to Indonesia, you find some tribes in Indonesia and other countries, you do find some matriarchies, and also if you look in Britain, in some Muslim communities, they are quite driven by women, you do find that the men have very little role in the family. We have a lot of work to do in questioning the way the texts have been interpreted and sometimes women have been excluded from the public space and you could argue that women have been hurt by misinterpretation of religion.


Ophelia, isn’t there something in that argument that religion provides a public space that women can occupy?


I suppose there is, but that space comes at a terribly high price, what Humera says is true enough, but what she’s saying when you read between the lines is that this is an extremely minority phenomenon and that the overall picture still is one of patriarchy and of basic misogyny and of people resisting change.

Later, we return to this theme:


I find it hard with these kinds of discussions because people like Ophelia always come from a Eurocentric tradition –


But Islam is universal, like all religions, isn’t it?


When we’re trying to unpick what’s happening in society today, you know the violence, the negative – I mean, not all patriarchy is bad.


What is the plus side of patriarchy?


Well, I’ve had this discussion with many people, who say that patriarchy actually can work where there’s justice, where people are negotiating –


Give us an example of a situation where that would be the case.


Well, we have to define patriarchy first, I mean, not the general term –


Briefly, I fear –


(starts talking very fast)

That men have a role where that role is outside the home and they negotiate it, but they have equal role in making decisions and democratic decision making, for the well being of the family and the well being of the community and they share certain values, and that’s what I’d say, in the same sense you have matriarchal societies that do that, I’m not advocating any of them, all I’m saying is that there’s possibilities that people can negotiate them.


So Ophelia, could there be a good patriarchy, is that something that could come into your model?


No, it isn’t, patriarchy I think by definition really does refer to a form of inequality and I just don’t think there is a plus side to inequality.

There’s one particularly good point made by Mitter to Khan:


Aren’t these sorts of arguments that yourself and Madeleine Bunting use just an attempt by religious people to find a liberal narrative that isn’t really there?

Got it in one.


One Response to “Desperately Seeking Liberalism”

  1. From An Angle « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] quotemining, annotating and contextualising in a desperate search for a liberal narrative that isn’t actually there. And this in a time when there is so much enlightenment and beauty in the written word as a whole: […]

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