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From Biological Sex to Politicized Gender

The Qur’an not only undermines traditional configurations of patriarchy, but also ‘modern’ understandings of the term. By modern patriarchy, Barlas refers to those discourses and practices that justify gender inequality on the grounds that men and women have different biologies.138 The central question that Barlas poses, then, is as follows: does the text politicize biological sex, prescribing specific social roles for men and women? Though the Qur’an, she concludes, ‘recognizes sexual differences, it does not propagate a view of sexual this chapter, Wadud and Barlas both explicitly reject identifying as feminists. See also my discussion of terminology—under the subsection ‘Language and its Discontents’—at the beginning of Chapter 4.

138 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 1.

differentiation; that is to say, the Qur’an recognizes sexual specificity but does not assign it any gender symbolism.’[1] To put it in simpler terms, the text does not depict males and females in terms of social characteristics—masculinity and femininity—outlining a normative, gendered division of labour.[2] Paralleling Wadud’s emphasis on taqwa (piety) as the sole measure of human merit,[3] Barlas writes that the only type of differentiation that the Qur’an makes is ‘ethico- moral’, and thus irrespective of one’s anatomy.[4] In her hermeneutical emphasis on distinguishing between biological sex and politicized gender, Barlas has clearly been influenced by feminist theory (despite her rejection of identifying as feminist, as we will see later in the chapter). This critical distinction between sex (‘the biological fact’) and gender (‘the social fact’) was an intellectual breakthrough in the 1970s, undermining the usage of anatomical arguments to rationalize women’s subjugation.[5] Womanhood and femininity, feminists argued, were not innate qualities stemming from women’s physical makeup but constructed categories, produced through socialization, through lived experience. To quote the famous words of the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’[6] This is not to imply, however, that one is an autonomous agent, free to simply choose whichever gender one desires. As the American feminist Judith Butler has noted, while gender is socially construed—a verb rather than a noun, a doing rather than a being—it is a performative act that is closely regulated by a complex web of power relations that not only discipline the subject who takes on gender roles, but actually create and recreate this subject through the very act of doing, hence problematizing notions of a self-aware, self-existing agent.[7]

  • [1] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 266.
  • [2] For a pioneering study of how masculinities are constructed in Islam, seeAmanullah De Sondy, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities (London: Bloomsbury,2014), in particular Chapter 3: ‘The Failed Search for a Single Qur’anic Masculinity’.
  • [3] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 36-7.
  • [4] Barlas, ‘Texts, Sex, and States’, 102.
  • [5] R.W. Connell, Gender (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 33-4.
  • [6] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 267. Itis worthwhile noting here that the first edition of this landmark book was published in1949, and thus predates feminist theoretical distinctions between sex and gender,biology and sociality.
  • [7] Judith Butler, ‘Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire’, in Feminisms, eds. Sandra Kempand Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 285.
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