In the last twenty years, Islamic feminism has been the subject of growing attention in the West. This interest can be situated in the larger post-9/11 context of looking for ‘Muslim moderated’ voices to contrast the rise of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ all over the world. It is in this sense revealing – and somehow ironic- that the term ‘Islamic feminism’ initially aroused much greater enthusiasm among outside observers than among scholars and activists who ostensibly seem to better fit the definition. Although some of the scholars who initially resisted the label of ‘Islamic feminists’ have now embraced it (wadud 2011) – the term remains to this day highly controversial. This article intends to provide the readers with a brief definition of the what came to be known as Islamic feminism, an analysis of its main values, methods and goals, and an outline of the debate that developed over the term.
Broadly speaking, Islamic feminism can be used as an umbrella term to define various projects that share the goal of empowering women from within an Islamic frame of reference. Like other (post)modernist progressive religious discourses, Islamic feminism is text-centred; its call for gender equality and reciprocity is based on a rigorous interpretation of Islamic primary sources, especially the Qur’an. In emphasizing the importance of reclaiming female agency in interpreting Islamic primary sources, Islamic feminism invokes a redefinition of religious authority that challenges the monopoly of traditional scholars and institutions in interpreting religious sources. Through a re-reading of Islam’s primary sources, Islamic feminism aims firstly at deconstructing the traditional and patriarchal interpretations that highlight superiority of men over women, and then at producing new readings that can be used as part of an emancipatory agenda for the establishment of gender equality.
If a place and date of birth of Islamic feminism were to be identified, a good choice could fall on post-revolutionary Iran in the 1980s. This period was marked by the wearying war with Iraq and the progressive ideological stiffening of the government established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although the Iranian women had actively participated in the revolutionary movement – called to revolt by ayatollah Khomeini himself – one of the first moves of the newly founded Supreme Judicial Council was to declare all previous “un-Islamic” legislation suspended, and to promulgate new ‘sharia-based’ codes of law that included numerous rules that are at odds with the principles of gender equality. Islamic feminism developed in close correlation, and in open controversy, with the gender policies adopted by post-revolutionary Iran; for this reason, it has been defined the “unwanted child” of political Islam (Mir- Hosseini 2006).
Since its very beginning, Islamic feminism has been praxis oriented. Scholars of Islamic feminism are committed to making gender justice a reality not only at the level of theory and interpretation but also at the grassroots level. The hermeneutical work is aimed at rendering religious knowledge the basis for social transformation; projects are developed through an intense collaboration between scholars and activists, linking theory to praxis and exegesis to political activism. Twenty years after its appearance, Islamic feminism has become a transnational movement, whose vehicular language is mostly English; this global character, however, must not make us forget how the priorities of research, the methodologies of analysis and the strategies of action adopted by the various scholars and activists around the world can vary greatly from place to place. While operating independently on different projects, some groups strive for greater effectiveness through networking on both the local and international level. To mention but two of the international networks, the London based Women Living Under Muslim Laws was founded in 1984 and has since then promoted exchange programs, organized international meetings, and produced detailed reports on a large variety of subjects and contexts (www.wluml-org). More recently in 2009, the Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam launched the Musawah (“equality” in Arabic) initiative (www.musawah.org), which has since then developed several capacity building projects, carried out international meetings, and published various reports and papers, as well as a widely praised anthology on “Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition” (Mir Hosseini et al. 2015).
Moving on to the heated debate over the definition “Islamic feminism,” it has to be noted that since the very beginning the term has provoked strong reactions from scholars inside and outside the Muslim world. Opinions can be divided into two broad groups: one formed by those who support the term, more or less enthusiastically, the other by those who vehemently oppose it, who often come from very different backgrounds. In this regard, it is worth noting that many secular feminists and patriarchal Islamists raise objections paradoxically similar, arguing that the values of religion and feminism are incompatible and therefore that the term “Islamic feminism” is an oxymoron. However, it could appear paradoxical that sometimes it is those who are generally considered to be “Islamic feminists” that refuse the term most passionately.
This controversy is perhaps best captured in the well-known discussion between Margot Badran and Asma Barlas published in Kynsilehto 2008. While Badran strongly supports Islamic feminism as a tool of analysis, Barlas -author of the widely praised Believing Women in Islam: Un-reading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (2002)– is adamant in refusing the label. She explains her resistance as the result of
a displacement of frustration with real, live, feminists, all of them white. Although I’m sure they were and remain well-meaning, many of them seemed utterly blind to the racial politics of speaking for women of colour like myself and that too in our presence, as if we didn’t exist. Anyone who has been silenced in the name of sisterhood can understand how strange and difficult that is, and it wasn’t until I read black feminists like bell hooks that I could give voice to my discomfort at being seen as the Sister Other. (…) [But] I’ve always been committed to concept of sexual equality, which is at the core of feminist theory. (Barlas 2008:17)
Barlas clearly stresses that it is not the idea of gender equality that she refuses, but rather what she calls the “Western master narrative of feminism,” which is the result of the enduring legacy of colonialism. This narrative, which is reflected in popular culture, media, and even in the politics of international development institutions, still stereotypes Islam as a misogynist religion, and depicts Muslim women as powerless victims who need to be ‘saved’ by the West. This rhetoric, cynically summarized by the Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak with the sentence “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1992) is familiar to anyone who has studied the history of British and French colonialism. Indeed, both these empires strategically used the ‘woman question’ for the moral justification of imperialist attacks on Muslim countries and to claim an inherent superiority of the West over the Muslim ‘Other’. This hypocritical exploitation of feminist arguments for colonial purposes did not end, however, with the collapse of the British and French Empires. On the contrary, as Lila Abu Lughod among others has shown, the rhetoric of “imperial feminism” is still manifest in the propaganda campaign that accompanies the so-called “War on Terror,” which justified the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan on the pretence of liberating women (Abu Lughod 2002).
Sadly, many western feminists not only failed to “confront[…] imperialism and its negative implications for democracy and feminist ideals” (Badran 1995) but often actively contributed to spreading the stereotype of the supposed inherently misogynist nature of Islam. The “global sisterhood” invoked by western feminists is in too many cases nothing more than the imposition of their own needs on non-western women, whose specific demands and dynamics of oppression are rarely taken into consideration. The history of non-Western Women’s Rights movement also attests the existence of an intimate link between feminist advocacy and anti-colonialist demands; a “double struggle” against imperialism and patriarchal oppression unknown to western feminisms that represents a common feature of several Women’s Rights movements in colonial and postcolonial contexts, as Sri Lankan feminist scholar Kumari Jayawardena has pointed out in her now classic book Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986).
That being said, Badran is right in stressing that even though the word “feminism” was coined in Europe, in France to be precise, feminism itself is by no mean a western concept or reality. On the contrary, “history attests that feminism is the creation of both easterners and westerners, of Muslims and those of other religions, of the colonized and colonizers, and of women of different races and ethnicities.” (Badran 2008:32). Moreover, the very idea of a monolithic “western feminism” is reductive and deceiving. While there are definitely some strands of feminism in the West -especially in the so-called ‘second wave’ – that have shown an imperialist and racist attitude, feminism in western countries is a complex phenomenon. Not only western feminisms include locally focused and “home-ground” movements, but in the last decades new discourses have started to emerge that are highly critical of the exclusive focus on gender that Chandra Mohanty described as the major aspect in mainstream, white, upper-class western feminism (Mohanty 1988). Building on the concept of intersectionality, as elaborated by black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), these new discourses call for a more comprehensive analysis of the multiple, interrelated dynamics of women’s oppression, one that also includes race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and other axes of identity, examining how they interact in reproducing and reinforcing inequality.
Ignoring this complexity and remaining blind to the ‘indigenous’ history of feminism in the Muslim world is problematic and even dangerous, because it plays into the hands of those (neo)traditionalists who discredit Muslim women engaged in feminist activities by accusing them of being the “fifth column” of western imperialism and a threat to Muslim identity and authenticity.
Then how to overcome the impasse?
Grounding on Fatima Seedat’s argument that “as an Enlightenment tradition, feminism comes to be similarly both inevitable and inadequate” as a tool for analysing the discourse of women in Islam (Seedat 2013), I suggest here that there is a strong need to reconfigure the contours of feminism and elaborate a new understanding of this concept, more comprehensive and cross-cultural, one that acknowledges the specificities of different groups of women and recognizes the varying forms of feminist praxis. I do not refer here to a “global sisterhood” built on the presumption of a universal womanhood that in practice reflects the reality of a particular group of women, but rather to an intersectional, non-essentialist “feminism” that recognizes cultural diversity, supports multiple feminist epistemologies, and pays attention to the specificities and particularities of women’s different context. The aim of this new understanding of feminism is to build “a common context of struggle which facilitates the formation of politically oppositional alliances and coalitions in the face of specific exploitative structures,” as South African scholar Sa’diyya Shaikh says, thus enabling “varying groups of women to share and learn from each other’s experiences, whether this is an exchange of feminist tools of analysis, or of varying ways of implementing activist initiatives, or simply an exposure to other forms of justice-oriented gender practices.” (Shaikh 2003: 154-155).
Abu Lughod Lila, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”, American Anthropologist, 104/3 (2002), pp. 783-790
Badran Margot, Feminism, Islam and the Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1995
Barlas Asma, “Believing women in Islam”: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān, University of Texas Press, Austin 2002
Crenshaw Kimberlé, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”,k Stanford Law Review 43/6 (1991), pp. 1241–99
Jayawardena Kumari, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, Zed Books, London 1986
Kynsilehto Anytta (ed.), Islamic Feminism: Current Perspectives, Tampere Peace Research Institute Occasional Paper no. 96 (2008)
Mir-Hosseini Ziba, “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism”, Critical Inquiry 32 (2006), pp. 629-645
Mir-Hosseini Ziba, Mulki al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger, Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, Oneworld, London 2015
Mohanty Chandra, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse”, in Feminist Review, 30 (1988), pp. 61-88
Seedat Fatima, “Islam, Feminism and Islamic feminism: between inadequacy and inevitability”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 29/2 (2013), pp. 25-45
Shaikh Sa’diyya, “Transforming Feminisms: Islam, Women, and Gender Justice”, in Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Oneworld, Oxford 2003, pp. 147-162
Spivak Gayatri, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press, Urbana 1988, pp. 271-313
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