Islamic Feminism

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Islamic Feminism

The term Islamic feminism was first used in the 1990s. It is not certain who coined the term. Nor is it evident that those who first used it were aware of the explosive impact that the juxtaposition of these two words was to have. Rather than imagining and promoting a revolution in the heart of Islam, these women in Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and some Asian Muslim communities were merely describing what they and others like them were doing. They were challenging the misogyny that they saw to be essential to the projection of a newly politicized Islam.

Defining "Islamic Feminism"

To understand Islamic feminism, both words have to be examined separately and then together. The epithet "Islamic" situates a person somewhere on the continuum between a cultural identity that is Muslim and coexists easily with secularism and occasional expressions of religious observance on the one hand, and Islamist, which describes a way of life committed to fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state. "Feminist" refers to a consciousness that women are unjustly treated simply because they are women. This consciousness may, but need not, be galvanized into action to do something to change this unjust system (see introduction in Badran and Cooke).

"Islamic feminist" describes the speech, action, writing, or a way of life committed to gender justice and also an engagement with Islamic epistemology as an expansion of a faith position rather than a rejection of it. At the same time that they address themselves to this discourse and derive from it rhetorical strategies to construct a resistant identity, these women are struggling with and on behalf of all Muslim women and their right to enjoy with men full participation in a just community. Justice and citizenship, however defined, would not be borrowed, modern accretions but rather ideals integral to the spirit underlying the founding Islamic community. More recently, Islamic feminism has been described as broadening the scope of Western feminism because of its emphasis on community and belonging.

By the late 1990s, when the term Islamic feminism had become current, it came under scrutiny (e.g., Moghissi). What did it mean to want to be a member of a religious community considered to be patriarchal in its norms and values and, at the very same time, to demand respect for oneself as a woman with inalienable rights? Was it false consciousness to believe that such a position might be empowering?

Some Muslims and non-Muslims were writing dogmatically about Islamic feminism, calling it an oxymoron without meaning. They protested that organized religions, and particularly Islam, are unremittingly patriarchal, misogynist even. It is misguided to hope for a woman-friendly interpretation of foundational texts and laws that would allow for a transformation in attitude toward women's roles in society outside the domestic space. Some might go further to claim that proponents of Islamic feminism were merely ignorant. Either they had not read the Koran and sunna (the life of the prophet Muhammad, codified in the Traditions), or if they had, they did not understand what they had read because, despite the wide diversity of the Muslim world, "the cultural articulation of patriarchy (through structures, social mores, laws and political power) is increasingly justified by reference to Islam and Islamic doctrine" (Shaheed, p. 79).

Others, mostly Muslim women, conceded that there were women who were calling for women's empowerment within the context of a well-understood Islam, but that they were not feminists. They might look like feminists, act like feminists, but feminism would not be the right term to use. When asked for alternatives, they might come up with suggestions like "womanist" or "remaking women" (see Abu-Lughod), or they would deny the need for a single term to describe their actions and demands. Many of these women are particularly critical of non-Muslims when they describe a person, a behavior, or a language as Islamic feminist.

Clearly, there are some sensitivities involved in the word feminism when used to refer to the language and behavior of Muslim women. What is the problem with the term? Do Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist feminists face the same conundrum? Probably not because for them the term feminist is not as imbricated in recent experiences of European, colonial domination as it is for Muslims living under the yoke of the Christian civilizing mission of European colonialism. During the nineteenth century, British and French colonizers in North Africa and West and South Asia claimed to be especially concerned about the welfare of women in the societies they had invaded and occupied. Deploring barbaric practices like female genital mutilation, sati (Hindu women's self-immolation on their husbands' funerary pyres), veiling, and women's seclusion, white European men made it their business to save Arab Muslim women from their men. Some scholars, such as Leila Ahmed, have pointed to these men's hypocrisyfeminists abroad, they were tyrants at home. Furthermore, they have revealed their cunning, for by pretending to protect indigenous women, they were separating them from their men. Thus, they were better able to control them and, by extension, rule their men. Feminism became deeply enmeshed in colonialism.

The Modern Era

Muslim women activists at the turn of the twentieth century were careful to distinguish their behavior, language, and appearance from those of their Western sisters. Always speaking within an observant Muslim context, they demanded education, employment opportunities, control over their lives (for example, marriage choice) and over their bodies (to veil or not to veil). They insisted that their demands were not what European women wanted. Above all, they honored their religion, their husbands, and their fathers, and all they wanted was to bring up intelligent sons. They argued that the call for unveiling indicated a desire to gain access to institutions that would make them better wives, mothers, and Muslims; it would not destroy the moral fiber of their society by encouraging promiscuity, widescale divorce, and the kind of immoral European society contemporary religious authorities were denouncing.

Many of these early activists on behalf of women's rights, such as Nazira Zayn al-Din, a Lebanese writer of the early twentieth century, prefaced their demands with claims about their qualifications to do so. They were pious Muslims, daughters of pious Muslim men (a surprising number were daughters of Islamic clerics). By the 1930s women throughout the Muslim world were gaining rights unimaginable only thirty years earlier. It became acceptable to call oneself a feminist, although the term Islamic feminist was never used, as though the Islamic part was assumed.

Then in 1979 a radically conservative Shiite Islamic revolution was waged and won in Iran. Bazaar, university, and women came together to expel the shah with his Western friends and worldview. The women put on veils to mark their Iranian identity, a kind of nationalist uniform. When the ayatollahs came to power, they decreed the wearing of the veil to be part of the new establishment look. Women who wanted to work in government or even only appear in public had to don the chador. Islam came to represent the restitution of authentic norms and values in a society corrupted by its overidentification with the West (a term was coined, gharebzadeghi, "west-toxification").

From Iran the movement to re-Islamize Muslim societies spread and encountered the Sunni thrust of Saudi Arabia. The language and symbols of a newly invigorated Islam came to dominate public space. Women were central to this transformative process. Women in public had to look and act in such a way that they confirmed the Islamicness of that space. Religious authorities issued pronouncements on what women should and should not do. The rules and regulations increased and tightened. Interpretations of foundational texts based on flimsy evidence or on proven misogynist interpretations from the early centuries of Islam, like those of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Jawzi, came to assume a new importance in the public practice of the religion.

Interpreting the Role of Women in Islam

By the mid-1980s women were realizing that they were going to have to assume responsibility for interpreting foundational texts if they were to hold on to rights for which their mothers had fought and that they were seeing erode under their very eyes. If they did not stop the advance of an Islamic movement that systematically targeted women's established rights and liberties, then no one would. In fact, they were wrong, because men soon joined these women. Farid Esack in South Africa raised the banner for what he called "gender jihad," and in Iran, in the heart of what was thought to be the beacon of conservative Islam, some male clerics were opposing their colleagues' antiwomen legislations.

Political and religious context, and also the Muslimness of the dominant culture, determined whether the new veiling was radical or conservative. Some women in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia adopted the veil and strict Islamic dress codes and then called for women's rights even as they condemned Western practices and norms. They were thus able to do what before had been forbidden, namely to gather publicly in large numbers and listen to "charismatic, wealthy women, knowledgeable in religion and shari'a" (Yamani, p. 279). Other Muslim women in non-Muslim societies, such as France, put on the distinctive headscarf in order to draw attention to their religio-cultural identity. Muslim women in secular Muslim Turkey suffered the same opprobrium as their Muslim sisters in France.

The Islamization of knowledge accompanied the new veiling movement. From Indonesia to Morocco to the United States, women and men turned to the Koran, sunna, and Islamic law to collect evidence about the emancipatory nature of the religion and its founder Muhammad. The women around Muhammad were invoked as models for contemporary women: strong, intelligent, integral to the emergence of the new faith in seventh-century Arabia. His wives Khadijah and Aisha, the warrior Nusayba who saved his life in battle, his daughter Fatima, and his granddaughter Zaynab proved that from the beginning Islam was a religion unusually open to women and supportive of their rights.

Sociologists, historians, literary scholars, engineers, and physicians started to retrain themselves to become proficient in religious sciences. They studied hermeneutics and applied their new knowledge to the law and its foundations. Some, such as Amina Wadud-Muhsin, focused on the Koran and in a manner characterized by some as "textual fundamentalism," deconstructed sections word by word to produce positive meaning out of the most apparently negative passages. Others chose the Traditions, the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad reported by his Companions and down the generations through chains of reliable authorities. Fatima Mernissi showed how shaky was the witness of two of the most authoritative Companions, especially in what they reported the Prophet to have said about women leaders.

Teams of women collaborated on transnational projects to examine aspects of Islamic law that had negative repercussions for women. In 1982, Sisters in Islam based in Malaysia was among the first organizations to coordinate efforts on behalf of women who wanted to be good Muslims and strong, public women. Founded in 1986 by the Algerian Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas, Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) launched their Women and Law Project in 1994. Their goal was to establish a transnational feminist network that would ensure the wide dissemination of reliable information about women's rights under Islamic rule. The Iranian Mahnaz Afkhami established in 1998 the Women's Learning Partnership that produced manuals to educate women about their Islamic rights to inheritance, education, choice in marriage, choice in appearance, and protection from violence ranging from rape in marriage to honor killing. All are mobilizing on behalf of the implementation in their countries of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

By the late 1990s this feminist labor was happening everywhere, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women were studying in Tehran and Qum in women's colleges of Islamic jurisprudence and law. In Saudi Arabia women preachers were educating women in schools, colleges, and public meeting places about women's religiously guaranteed rights. They were teaching audiences how to interpret key texts for themselves in order that they not remain ignorant puppets in the hands of manipulative men. Mosques became important rallying places for women's learning circles. Feminism as a term associated with the West and its imperial projects in the lands of Islam once again became suspect. Those most opposed to its use produced a rhetoric uncannily mimetic of that of their foremothers.

However, this worldwide movement of activists struggling for the rights of women within a well-understood Islam attracted those who had not previously projected themselves as particularly religious. In Iran, journalists writing for the feminist journal Zanan celebrated the marriage between Islam and feminism. Far from apologizing for their use of the word feminism, they underscored the importance of its connections with European-American feminisms and their sociopolitical underpinnings and rigorous methodological and theoretical framing. They were proud to be both Muslim and feminists and they announced that they were Islamic feminists. This is the context in which the first Muslim woman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who defended women's and children's rights throughout the toughest times of the Islamic regime, emphasized that her work had been conducted within an Islamic framework.

Ebadi is not alone in Iran or elsewhere. More and more women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, are recognizing the dangers of a political Islam that targets Muslim women and Western institutions and then justifies this violence in religious language. They are fighting back with the goal of restoring meaning and efficacy to the word justice by emphasizing law. They do not see religion alone as the cause for violence and injustice, but they do believe that religion rightly understood and applied may be the key to a better future.

See also Anticolonialism ; Colonialism ; Fundamentalism ; Gender: Gender in the Middle East ; Human Rights .


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Miriam Cooke

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Islamic Feminism

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Islamic Feminism