Posted by Joshua on Friday, October 8th, 2010
The Qubaysiyat are Feminists
by Serene Taleb-Agha
For Syria Comment
October 4, 2010
Serene Taleb-Agha hiking near Swaida in spring when the poppies and dandelions are in bloom
Last week you posted an interesting contribution entitled, “Women and the Rise of Religious Conservatism.” I disagree with the claim that religious women, and the Qubaysiyat in particular, are only out to perpetuate traditions of female subjugation. I believe your audience deserves to hear another side of the story.
The author of the article chose to publish anonymously. Living in Syria myself, I can see why one might want to keep their name out of the limelight. At the same time, all of us bring our own experience and inevitable bias to this issue. I’m going to take a different approach and be frank about my own background.
I’m a Syrian woman, raised in America in a practicing Muslim family – I don’t say a conservative family because that means something different, but I am getting ahead of myself. I’ve lived in Syria for several years and have dabbled some with the Qubaysiyat. Several members of my family have gone beyond dabbling with the Qubaysiyat. If that does not qualify me sufficiently to speak about them, we will just have to wait for a Qubaysiya to defect from the higher ranks of the organization and speak openly to the media. This has yet to happen. Their secretiveness is well known.
I will agree that among the Qubaysiyat, there is social pressure, there is conformism, and submission to a strict code imposed by the “anseh” with little encouragement for discussion or dissent, though that may vary a bit depending on the temperament of the particular “anseh”. What I contest in the previous article written by anonymous is the suggestion that the Qubaysiyat espouse patriarchy. They are actually quite feminist, even if that feminism doesn’t always fit Western norms.
The mere fact that the Qubaysiyat is a completely woman-run organization attests to this. In more traditional religious organizations, the leader is a male shaykh. But the Qubaysiyat always look to a female to guide them. Furthermore, they are now writing their own religious books – you could call them their “text books” – to study from, whereas in the past they used to rely exclusively on male authors. They encourage their members to pursue higher education, to work outside the home – particularly in education or professions such as medicine.
When it comes to matters of Islamic law, they are mostly traditional, but I believe it is a matter of time before they begin to contribute their own opinions on legal matters. And ultimately, law doesn’t cover everything. They espouse giving to their husbands what is their due, but doing their other activities when he’s not around. At one gathering, I heard an anseh mention, “You don’t need to tell your husbands that you come to these gatherings.” In fact, one big clue to how anti-patriarchal they are is that so many of them, particularly the ones higher up in the organization, do not marry, and that a lot of conservative Damascene men do not like the Qubaysiyat. They view them as a threat to their control over the family, because their wives are perceived to have another allegiance outside of the direct family unit.
If you want to talk about true conservatism, it is the old model of the wife, who simply stayed at home in ignorance, cooking, taking care of her children, and relying completely on her husband for knowledge about the world and religious matters. The Qubaysiyat are a step above that. And it’s not just the Qubaysiyat who reject patriarchy. One non-Qubaysi religious teacher I heard at a mosque told her audience, “We are always lecturing our daughters about how they must prepare for marriage and what they must do once they’re married. The result is that they begin to worship their husbands instead of God.” Patriarchy is more a result of ignorance than religion.
Incidentally, I’ve met several Syrian women who have removed their hijab against their family’s desires, and none ever used feminist reasoning to argue their actions. Instead they “want to appear modern” or “want to find a husband” or think the hijab looks ugly. Conversely, when women choose to adopt the hijab, It is not a valid assumption that they have turned their backs on secular feminism. More likely, they have turned their backs on a conservative life that is only adorned with a modern veneer.
I have also met many Syrian women who have put on the hijab against their family’s desires (and their family’s reasoning also tended to revolve around “beauty” or “being modern”.) Oftentimes the women who do so are members of the Qubaysiyat. Subjugation and societal pressure works both ways.
The Qubaysiyat are not without their weaknesses. The primary problem that the Qubaysiyat and almost all other religious groups in Syria have is with their relationship to authority. The older scholars, living and dead, are seen to be practically infallible. Instead of going back to the original sources of Islamic law – the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet – they defer to the authority of one scholar or another. But I’ve come to see that this problem with authority is not just a symptom of practicing Muslims, but of Syrian society as a whole. Whatever institution you go to, whether religious or secular, one invariably encounters a boss. Around him are arranged his underlings who are powerless and have absolutely no say. They are submissive and too afraid to think for themselves. I’ve seen this kind of relationship between students and school teachers, between employees and business owners, between government clerks and officers. In my opinion, submissiveness to authority is one of the biggest social ills we struggle with.
The solution for Syrian women, Qubaysiyat and others, is to return to the sources of our respective religious traditions. We must bypass the many generations of scholars — almost all of them male — through which our religion is filtered. Then we will have a much more dynamic and independent society. We might not endorse all the options of Western secular feminism – and it is our right as an independent nation not to do so.
I will not reply extensively to the other poster’s claims, except to point out his or her errors concerning the codification of the Quran. It is a matter of historical record that the Quran was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet, and if it was not brought together in one volume until a later date, that only points to the nature of the Quran. It is meant to be constantly on the tongues of its followers. It is to be dipped into and consulted depending on the need or current circumstance, rather than a book that is read from beginning to end.