The reality and future of Islamic feminism

What constitutes an “Islamic feminism”, and where is it headed?

Women protest in Cairo
While women's issues in the Islamic world are being addressed, the central issue of what "equality" means and how it is expressed go largely ignored [EPA]

In some Muslim circles, the “f” word (feminism) raises as many tensions as eyebrows, immediately conjuring images of the dominating, angry, family-hating woman. But like other images that come to mind upon mention of any label – including the image of the oppressed woman that often comes to mind when one hears “Muslim” – this gut reaction is based on stereotypes that may be true in a very specific historical and social context, but does not hold water when compared to a larger reality, and therefore does not justify the hostility that follows. While popular Islamic rhetoric touts the liberation of women with the coming of Islam over 1,400 years ago, to continually return to this story does nothing to alleviate women’s suffering today except by going back to the beginning, starting with Islam’s foundational text, the Quran.

So what is “Islamic feminism”, how is it evolving, and who are the players? Dr Margot Badran, a graduate of al-Azhar University and Oxford University, defines “Islamic feminism” thusly:

…a concise definition of Islamic feminism gleaned from the writings and work of Muslim protagonists as a feminist discourse and practice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeking rights and justice within the framework of gender equality for women and men in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all insan (human beings) and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions, and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh) conceptualising a holistic umma in which Quranic ideals are operative in all space.

This is an important distinction. “Islamic feminism” is not simply a feminism that is born from Muslim cultures, but one that engages Islamic theology through the text and canonical traditions. A distinctly “Islamic” feminism, at its core, draws on the Quranic concept of equality of all human beings, and insists on the application of this theology to everyday life. Stemming from this basic definition, we encounter a plethora of different interpretations, movements, projects, and personalities, creating feminisms that have diverse faces. Often, women’s issues are trivialised into whether or not to wear the veil or shake hands with men outside their family, and while larger issues, such as domestic violence, are being strongly addressed, the central issue of what “equality” means and how it is expressed go largely ignored. For example, domestic violence is wrong because it creates pain and suffering and is unjust, but the central belief of a man’s right to rule over his wife is not always part of this discussion.

Teaching what counts

This year, the theme of the  3rd Annual Graduate Student Islamic Studies Conference was “Reconstituting Female Authority: Women’s Participation in the Transmission and Production of Islamic Knowledge”, and it was here that the future of Islamic feminism was well represented.

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No workshops were wasted on the technicalities of veiling or tired arguments about Islam liberating women through the prohibition on female infanticide or the right of women to inherit (which were not totally obeyed even during Muhammad’s lifetime). Instead, workshops and the students who presented them demonstrated the complexity and diversity of women’s movements, new and old, in the Muslim world. In “The Miracle of Bibi Fatima: Vowing and Women’s Authority” presented by Summar Shoaib, women passed down stories of Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, appearing and helping other women with special prayers. In such contexts, women pass on special religious knowledge in a matrilineal tradition that functions as a venue for religious activism. Storytelling becomes a means of strength that provides a foundation and support for women, both through the kinship ties forged by the act of storytelling and the history and tradition that is passed on.

Keynote speakers Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Kathleen Moore, and Asma Sayeed, spoke about inclusivity, the right to and need for personal moral authority, and the history of women in Islamic juristic traditions. The “pure and simple” Islam in which women’s issues are sugar-coated with apologetics or streamlined as tertiary and menial was nowhere to be found. Instead, students and teachers spent time remembering history that is often mentioned only in passing or through a few key historical figures, cliche rhetoric, and simplistic, ahistorical arguments. Held to standards of scholarship, this diverse group of students, through their intellectual pursuit of the past and discourse concerning the future, were a small, but important, part of the continual lineage of female scholarship in Islam.

They were examples of the sundry array of “Islamic feminisms” throughout the Muslim world. Women in all these contexts are encountering the tradition based on their respective cultures, needs, priorities, and resources, creating a well-rounded picture of a global movement in which women create their own path to knowledge and move forward with it. In some contexts, this means addressing fundamental rights such as freedom from violence, while in others women carve out their own space and find room to challenge traditional dogma, rediscovering Islam’s feminine history and room for future discourse, and in yet other contexts, by creating an inclusive space to pray, worship, and be with God. One such example is that of Ani Zonneneveld, a musician and co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, who promotes peace and social justice by creating inclusive mosques and expressing egalitarian ideals through Islamic music as a means of worship.

Impacting not only women, but society at large

An Islamic feminism is arguably an inherently culturally competent one, since Islam in general is a deeply diverse tradition and allows for flexibility depending on contextual realities, so long as core Islamic ethics are not violated. How those core ethics are defined will vary depending on the context, but the attempts at definition will help spark a larger discussion that may eliminate the apologetics and address the root causes of the issues at hand. It is in such debates that Islamic feminists, rather than relying on tradition or a proliferated feminism – such as a specifically Western feminism – insist on a return to the Quran and employ principles of contextual and rational analysis that disputes traditionally accepted beliefs about women through the very rhetoric by which they were formed.

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Women’s rights in the Middle East

It may be said that the greatest task of the Islamic feminist is to separate culture and religion. This is perhaps a main reason for the hostility and anger with which this movement is met. In some Muslim contexts, challenges to traditionally held beliefs on authority are not met with intelligent and informed dialogue that is open to a continual search for truth and justice, but with suspicion and hostility by those who seek to declare a single “true” Islam dependent on the social structure supported by a gender hierarchy. It is basic sociology to understand that women are often the foundations of culture because they are the first teachers and often hold the closest bonds with the next generation. Therefore, the “stability” of society is often associated with women staying in their “natural and proper” places.

But this “stability” is not the stability of society, but of the hierarchy and therefore authority. Islamic feminism, as discussed earlier, is not in pursuit of a hierarchy with women at the top, but instead an egalitarian social structure in which character, good work, and piety – not gender – are the defining factors of social authority. Further, as Khaled Abou El Fadl argued in his address to the Santa Barbara conference, each human being is entitled to moral authority which cannot be actualised if they are prohibited from leading a full life. The hierarchal argument is that a “full life” would be had if only women accepted their “natural place”, but this argument totally omits the definition, and therefore needs, talent, and aspirations (whether that be astronaut or mother of 10) of women themselves. A “full life” cannot be defined for them.

At one time in Islamic history it was not uncommon to see learned or saintly Muslim women, and the presence of these women did not necessarily mean that they all agreed on women’s roles, just as we don’t today, but their existence created a more balanced and accessible theology with a greater degree of accountability. By reclaiming that history, women find their footing and support in Islamic feminine discourse.

Further, the struggles facing women do not only impact women, but all of society, as this is the arena in which greater abuses of Islamic theology are most evident. The authoritarianism of puritanical Islam that gave rise to radical movements like the Taliban has made it their special mission to totally control women, as seen with Malala Yousafzai, who was shot for promoting education for all children, especially girls. The same structures and core principles used to oppress women are used to promote terrorism and hatred in Islam’s name, and therefore the good that comes from confronting and challenging those structures goes much further than women alone.

The push for inclusive egalitarianism

Some, such as UC Santa Barbara conference organiser Samaneh Oladi, feel that the resurgence of women in Islamic fields of history and theology is happening organically as a grassroots movement in which women themselves are the agents of change.

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These organic movements see women working in communities and in social and institutional venues that use religion, rather than a secular understanding of human rights, as their framework for change. Slowly, this changing social demographic creates what is essentially a staircase to greater theological involvement. But this change is also happening politically, as Margot Badran explained to me, since states can play a role in retracting women’s transmission of Islamic knowledge.

To use her example, in the early 1960s when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser forced al-Azhar, the first Islamic university, to accept women, it was an effort to “dilute” the institution (make it more secular, alongside other efforts to do the same) and “take it down a notch” by accepting women, but instead created the opportunity for women to access traditional modes of Islamic learning that eventually lead to women scholars at the university. Likewise, with the gradual fall of authoritarian regimes in some Muslim majority countries, women are going back to school and challenging the rhetoric that oppressed them. This gives rise to organisations, legislation, and international efforts to free women from oppression through education, health care, and economic support. In the West, where the state cannot silence women’s religious authority, women involved in various efforts – from creating shelters for Muslim women, such as Muslimat al-Nisa in New York, to supporting female imams – meet social and institutional opposition, but continue the same pattern of engaging the text and Islamic theological tradition to counter religiously grounded arguments that women must be, in whatever way possible, subordinate to men.

Clearly, the realities of what “Islamic feminism” is, and how it is lived, are wildly complex, and that is as it should be. The reality of Islamic feminism is a global movement in which women turn to the Quran and Prophetic traditions to argue that women are fully human and equal to their male counterparts. How they express that and how far they take it is up to the women of those specific contexts.

Like secular feminist theories, what works for Muslims in Southern California may not work in rural Afghanistan, and neither can dictate “feminism” for the other. Islamic feminism is a process of evolution in which we start at the right to life and personal moral authority, and work forwards. There may be some who consider themselves “Islamic feminists” that insist on the restructuring of the hierarchy with women – rather than men – at the top, but these would be a minority. Rather, the hierarchy is inherently unjust and is best restructured into an inclusive egalitarianism that includes not only women, but all human beings who are ostracised or left out of traditional Islamic venues.

We do not need a new word to replace “feminism” to avoid the automatic gut-crunch that comes from the popular stereotypes, as it would be equally unjust to demand a new word for “Muslim”, but rather to allow ourselves to gain a more open and well-rounded understanding of what Islamic feminism is, who creates and forms it, and the complex and diverse ways they do so not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all humanity.

Whether organic or political, or by some other means, women are claiming their places in Islamic discourse and changing their reality, perhaps through a long established storytelling tradition or creating inclusive mosques, and certainly by returning to the beginning, the Quran itself. The future of Islamic feminism may see stronger social institutions and resources that support women and an end to the sugar-coating and apologetics, but most importantly, it may see a renaissance of female scholarship (which was never totally destroyed) in Islam that engages the text and tradition to continually seek justice alongside, not over, our male counterparts. If this is the direction we are heading in, then the future is bright indeed.

Rachelle Fawcett is completing her MA in Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary, has lived in Yemen and Egypt, and writes, speaks, and presents on Islamic feminism, cultural competency, pluralism, and critical theology.