Muslim women and scholars think it does - spiritually and sexually.
We're sitting in a stylish club, ArRum, in Clerkenwell, central London. Firelight is flickering on the leather sofas, there is contemporary art on the walls and delicious "fusion" food on the table, but what distinguishes this club from its many neighbours is that it is Muslim, there is no alcohol on the menu and downstairs there's a prayer room. The stylish place conveys a complex ethos - modern, yet true to its Muslim identity.
A suitable setting, then, chosen by the six Muslim women who agreed to meet me to discuss Islam and the position of women. All university graduates, all in their mid-twenties in careers ranging from journalism to teaching, all have chosen in the past few years to wear the hijab (a scarf wrapped tightly around their heads to conceal every wisp of hair). Most strikingly, however, all of these women fluently and cogently articulate how they believe Islam has liberated and empowered them. The Islam they describe is a million miles away from that of the Taliban, let alone the Islam practised in many Muslim countries from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, but they insist - and back up their points with Koranic references - that the Islam they first discovered when they were teenagers is true to the Prophet's teachings. They don't need western feminism, which, they argue, developed as a reaction against the particular expression of western patriarchy.
Within the Koranic tradition and the life of the Prophet lie the rights and inspiration a woman needs to achieve her full potential - the challenge ahead is to educate Muslim girls and women so that they have that knowledge. They justify wearing the hijab, either as a public statement of their own spiritual quest, or of their political identity in a world where Islam perceives itself as under threat, or both.
Shagufta, the 25-year-old editor of the Muslim magazine Q News, was brought up in London, in a traditional Pakistani home where the emphasis was on cultural conservatism rather than piety. A marriage to a cousin from Pakistan was arranged for her when she was about 10. Her parents had no wish for her to continue her education, and her adoption of the hijab was her rebellion against this traditional cultural background. "When I first put on hijab, my parents were shocked," she says. They would have been happier for her to wear the Pakistani shalwar kameez and a loose headscarf. "But I found liberation in Islam. It gave me the confidence to insist on a good education and reject the arranged marriage. Islam made sense to me, and I could understand it, as opposed to what I had grown up with. Plus, it was compatible with being British - being a British Muslim, rather than Pakistani."
Shagufta was influenced by her friend Soraya's decision to put on hijab. Soraya's French Catholic/Muslim liberal background could not have been more different but, like Shagufta, she found in the Koran an affirmation of herself as a woman: "The Koran says that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, and that we are like a garment for each other to protect one another."
Again and again, the women emphasise these two themes, evoked in richly poetic Koranic metaphor: first, the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God (the most meaningful equality of all, they argue), and second, the complementarity of the sexes. As the Koran puts it, "I created you from one soul, and from that soul I created its mate so that you may live in harmony and love."
It is true that there is plenty of material in the Koran that is more egalitarian than the western Christian tradition, which was heavily influenced by the misogyny of Greek thought. Perhaps the most fundamental is that the Islamic God does not have a gender. Arabic may refer to him by use of the male pronoun, but he is never described as "father" or "lord" as he is in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, the Islamic God has characteristics that are expressly feminine; one of his most important "names" is al-Rahman (the All-Compassionate) from the Arabic rahma , which comes from the word rahim , meaning womb. In Islamic mysticism, the divinely beloved is female, unlike in Christian mysticism - for example, Bernini's famous statue in Rome of St Teresa of Avila is in love with the male Christ. As one Muslim women, Sartaz Aziz, writes, "I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam, because I was able to think of the Highest Power as one without sex or race and thus completely unpatriarchal."
Jasmin also escaped from an arranged marriage by discovering Islam. Her transition to full religious observance came after university, when she was working for a television company. "I went to Agadir on holiday, returned with a fantastic tan, but went back to work in a hijab. One week in a skimpy swimsuit, the next in a hijab. One of my colleagues couldn't understand. She was crying as she said to me, "One moment you were a sex kitten, the next you're all wrapped up. She thought I was repressing myself; I felt I had achieved liberation.
"The attention I got from the other sex changed. Instead of a sexual approach, they had to take an interest in what was in my head and in my personality, rather than my body. Sometimes, when I flick through a fashion magazine, I think of taking off the hijab, but it passes quickly. Too many women exert power through their sexuality, and that's degrading to women. It's a form of enslavement."
The importance of each of these women's decisions to wear the hijab leads quickly to a heated discussion about where and how and why one expresses one's sexuality. All the women agree that this is one of the biggest sources of misunderstanding between western feminists and Muslim women. They do not wish to express their sexuality in public, and believe that its proper place is in the privacy of an intimate relationship. Sexuality is not to be used to assert power but to express love, they add. What they hotly deny is that veiling, and modesty in public, is a form of repression. It is not about shame of the female body, as western feminists sometimes insist, but about claiming privacy over their bodies. The Moroccan writer, Fatima Mernissi, ponders on how, in the west, women reclaiming their bodies has led to the public expression of their sexuality, whereas in Islam it is about modesty. The associations with shame and repression stem from the influence of the Christian tradition's hostility to sexuality and hence women, and the legacy of confusion and guilt that has bequeathed western society. Islam, on the other hand, has a healthy honesty and acceptance of human sexuality, which is evident in a wealth of detail in Islamic jurisprudence, they argue.
Dr Tim Winter, a Muslim convert and Cambridge lecturer, probably one of the most respected Islamic scholars in Britain, corroborates the assertion that Islam does not accept the mythology of Eve seducing Adam, and thus triggering the Fall and the endless cycle of death and procreation. According to Christian thought, sex was the result of human beings' fallen state and was traditionally regarded with distaste; celibacy was promoted as a sublimation of sexual energies in pursuit of God, epitomised by Christ's celibate life.
Nothing provides a sharper contrast with that model of holiness than the life of the Prophet Mohammed, who took 12 wives after the death of his first wife, Khadija. His love for his wives and sexual relationships with them are referred to in the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). One reference even extols the Prophet's virility, revealing how he could visit all of his wives in one night. This, says Dr Winter, makes him a full, complete man, closer to models of holiness such as Krishna or a Jewish patriarch such as King Solomon with his many wives.
Indeed, one of the injunctions on a husband is that he must sexually satisfy his wife; the Prophet recommends foreplay, and a great Islamic scholar, Imam Ghazali, warned men not to come too quickly. As Mernissi points out in Beyond The Veil, Islam always understood that women's sexuality was active, while western Christianity socialised women into accepting sexual passivity - the "lie back and think of England" approach. The latter, argues Mernissi, was a way of internalising in women the control on female sexuality that men wanted; Muslim cultures used external controls of segregation and male authority.
Back at ArRum, the women say that, for them, the affirmation of women's sexuality in Islam renders pointless many of the battles fought by western feminists. They have no need of Madonna-style exhibitionism to assert the power of female sexuality. Indeed, one woman said that the one achievement of feminism that she admired was to break down the restrictive passivity of Victorian perceptions of female sexuality.
Aisha and Khadija come out as the two top Koranic role models for these women, and both are quoted as examples of the prominence of women in the development of Islam. Khadija, the Prophet's first wife, was old (40) by the standards of the day when she proposed to the 25-year-old Mohammed. His first believer, she was his sole wife and a close adviser until her death. It was only then that the Prophet took other wives; he married several older widows, but Aisha was much younger than the Prophet, highly intelligent and assertive. There are several stories of how jealous she was of the Prophet's other wives and of how much he loved her. He died in her arms, and she became one of the first teachers of Islam after his death.
All the women I interviewed roll off a long list of hadiths and Koranic verses to support women's rights: the right to education; the right to work and their right to keep the money they earn, while men must use their earnings to look after their womenfolk; property rights; in one school of Islamic thought, women don't have to clean or cook for their husbands unless they are paid for it (wages for housework long before the 20th century thought it had invented it); the fact that the Prophet, according to Aisha, was something of a new man, and used to clean and sew when he wasn't praying; and then there is the praise lavished on the emotional qualities engendered by motherhood of nurturing and patience, with the Prophet's repeated injunctions to honour your mother.
But there are other parts of Koranic tradition that, to a western eye, seem deeply shocking. By some accounts, Aisha was only nine when her marriage to the Prophet (who was then in his fifties) was consummated. Or that, although the Koran insists that a man should treat all his wives equally, the Prophet admitted that he had a favourite, Aisha. Or the controversial incident when the Prophet glimpsed the wife of his adopted son and, after she had been divorced, he married her. Worst of all to a sceptical western eye, the Prophet often invoked God to explain such incidents.
This is very sensitive territory for devout Muslim women. For believers, the Prophet's life was perfect and according to God's plan. They haven't the freedom to develop the critical analytical tradition of western feminism, which has been so important in understanding how patriarchy has influenced religious, legal, moral and political systems. So, either they offer long explanations (such as that Aisha's age was due to the custom of the time and was probably not much different from the Virgin Mary's), or they acknowledge there are some things that they find very difficult. As one woman put it, "When I read about the Prophet's life, I feel it is unjust: he favoured one wife over another, and that makes me uneasy. I haven't found a scholar who can explain it, but I believe in a just God and the wisdom of the Prophet, so I take it on trust. That's faith. To have real knowledge of Islam is to study it for a long time; eventually, I might find an interpretation that satisfies me."
These are the sort of explanations that simply fail to convince a sceptical western mind. Perhaps one of the hardest things for a woman to accept in the Koranic tradition is polygamy and, indeed, many of the women I spoke to conceded some unease here. Although some were prepared to consider a polygamous marriage, they all confessed that it would be very difficult; one married woman had even included a prohibition on a second wife in her pre-nuptial contract (a Koranic invention that is mutually negotiated and can cover everything from housework to the frequency of sex). They had various explanations for why the Koran allows men to take four wives, such as the need to provide for war widows in a nomadic warrior culture. With the advent of the welfare state, such arguments are hard to sustain, as several of the women admitted.
Dr Rabia Malik, a psychotherapist, sometimes finds herself in the difficult position of having clients who want to take another wife: "Usually, the first wife doesn't satisfy them intellectually or sexually, and they start to think of taking a second wife, and I try to help them find solutions within their existing relationship."
Both Dr Malik and Humera Khan, founder of the women-run organisation An-Nisa, believe that the Koranic conditions on polygamy are so hard to meet that they virtually rule it out: only those men who can treat their wives equally are allowed more than one. But the fact remains that polygamy, though by no means the norm, is practised in all Muslim countries. Mernissi believes that this is an explicit humiliation of women, because it asserts that one woman can't satisfy a man; interestingly, Mernissi, a stout critic of certain aspects of Islam, is regarded with some suspicion by many of the women I spoke to.
Dr Winter takes a different tack, defending polygamy by arguing that it is widely practised in the west, from Bill Clinton to Prince Charles. It is, he says, simply more cruel in the west , because all the "wives" bar one are deprived of legal status and dignity. Controversially, he insists that "men are biologically designed to desire a plurality of women... and will always do so".
Such gender stereotypes (which are guaranteed to infuriate most western feminists) peppered all my interviews. The Muslim women I spoke to happily talked of women as being "more emotional" and men as "more rational". This was not the result of socialisation, but of nature, and western science was only finally catching up with Koranic insight into the profound differences and complementarity of the sexes. But they denied that this meant that women had to stay at home and men go out to work - they pointed out that many Muslim women work, both in the UK and abroad. The point was that equality did not mean the same in the two cultures, so that the preoccupation in western feminism to achieve and compete on equal terms in the public sphere was a response to the west's own history of seeing women as inferior. What the vast majority of women really want to do is to have and care for children, they said, and a genuinely equal society would be the one that honours that role and provides them with the financial resources to concentrate on it. After such responsibilities have been met (and, with the extended family, there are many to help with childcare), the woman is free to work. To Muslim women, equality means giving their femininity equal worth in the purpose of every human life - to know God. That's as possible in the domestic life of home and children as it is in the marketplace.
As Humera points out, Islam is a home-centred, family-oriented religion that, given the central role of women in both, explains the power of women in Muslim society. Part of the reason why westerners often don't grasp this, explains Dr Winter, is because this home life is private. Muslim cities don't have the grand civic spaces of European cities; they have little alleyways and the vibrant family life takes place behind high walls. The debate about the balance between the private and the public sphere has become much more acute, he says, with the development of industrialisation and the men leaving the home to work long hours. Dr Winter is sharply critical of the west's resolution of the balance between private family life and public life, arguing that the home has almost become a dormitory where the exhausted two-career couple meet briefly, rather than a setting in which children and the elderly can thrive, and where there is a range of familial relationships.
The way in which the traditional segregation is breaking down is one of the most problematic issues in current Islamic thinking. Dr Winter believes that some form of segregation would benefit women in the way that single-sex schooling helps girls develop more confidence, and would help prevent the problems of marriage breakdown experienced in the west: "Segregation has proved a spur in Iran to employing more women, for example," he says. "They now have quotas in the universities so women can be taught by women." But he goes on to acknowledge that "the practice of early Islam did not mean strict segregation, and the historic record is of a more relaxed and open society".
Many Muslims argue that the Prophet's injunction that no one address his wives except through a veil is the model for relations between the sexes. Strict segregation with women confined to the private sphere has been the rule in most Muslim cultures, though rarely as extreme as under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Dr Winter admits that total segregation in the workplace is not practicable, so that leaves devout Muslims with a dilemma of balancing the woman's right to work and be educated with the need to keep to Koranic tradition. The women I met at ArRum all live with their families or relatives, yet they work in mixed environments and travel to attend study courses (they claim they are allowed to travel more than 50 miles from home without a male companion if they are studying Islam). They say they naturally prefer a degree of segregation, enjoying deeper female friendships, rather than the confusing ambiguities of friendships with men. But the result is intense pressure on the women themselves.
All the women I spoke to, without a moment's hesitation, dismiss the restrictions in the many Islamic countries that oppress women as unIslamic "cultural practices", for example women not being allowed to drive or travel alone in Saudi Arabia. Blaming Islam for practices such as female circumcision, they claim, is the equivalent of blaming feminism for domestic violence - it is linking totally unrelated phenomena. Again, the absence of a critical analysis of the tradition is striking, and there is no answer to the question of why, if Islam offers women a bill of rights, it has not liberated more women. The point, they reply, is that male chauvinism and its bid to control women exists the world over; it simply takes different forms, and when women are educated and know what Islam really means, they can fight back.
They refuse to accept that some of the provisions of Sharia law seem to institutionalise inequality, such as the rule that a woman's evidence must be backed up by another woman. Shagufta admitted that she could see how an outsider might find the idea of stoning adulterers to death, the punishment prescribed in Sharia, as horrific, but, as her friends quickly pointed out, it requires four witnesses to the act of sexual penetration to convict an adulterer - a standard of proof so exacting, they claim, that it would be virtually impossible to achieve.
What women such as Shagufta, Maha, Soraya, Fareena and Jasmin want is to return to the freedoms that Islam brought women in the 7th century and beyond, when women became prominent Islamic scholars, poets and thinkers."We need a reformation in this global community," said Fareena. "We need to go back to the Islam of the golden age from the 7th to the 13th century." Soraya recognises that this desire to return to the 7th century is paradoxically close to the avowed aims of the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups, but the struggle is over interpretations of what is the true Islam, and British Muslim women are all too well aware of how fragile their position is, defending themselves against criticism from all sides - both from the westerners who accuse them of being oppressed and from the traditional Muslim cultures shocked by their independence and "westernisation".
The biggest danger is of a backlash in which the position of women is politicised as it was under the Taliban, where women were not allowed to work or be educated. In such a context, Dr Winter says, women are repressed to salve the sense of Islamic pride wounded by western hegemony and the savage poverty of many Muslim countries. Women are the traditional symbol of honour, and find themselves subjected to restrictions to safeguard their (and the next generation's) contamination from western culture.
So there is a striking bravery in these British Muslim women in their struggle to understand what they see as timeless truths and apply them to 21st-century life. They assiduously attend home-study circles, travel to California and the Middle East for special courses, take up correspondence courses with Islamic scholars and read to deepen their knowledge of Islam, and they believe they are pioneering a spiritual renewal and a rediscovery of their faith that empowers women.