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Feminist voices in Islam: promise and potential

November 22 2012




Religion is back in public space, and the thesis that modernization means the privatization of religion has been seriously questioned. Some religious and feminist dogmas need re-examination. What do ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ or ‘feminist’ mean in today’s contexts?

Islam and feminism are often perceived and portrayed as incompatible. There is a plethora of literature and a host of arguments, both in the media and in academia, to show this is the case.

The first problem with such arguments is that both ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ are ‘essentially contested concepts’– a term that I take from the philosopher Bryce Gallie who coined it for those concepts that have ‘disagreement at their core’ – such as ‘religion’, ‘social justice’, ‘work of art’ and ‘democracy’ – these are evaluative concepts that involve endless disputes about their proper use on the part of their users. In other words, they mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Both Islam and feminism are the subject of multiple discourses and widely ranging perspectives that can be addressed at different levels.

Another problem with arguments about incompatibility is that they do not take account of realities; they mask global and local power relations and structures, within which Muslim women have to struggle for justice and equality.  We need to start by asking some basic questions: Whose Islam? Whose feminism? Who is speaking for Islam? Who is speaking for feminism? These questions remain unaddressed in most debates, whether in academia, media or activist forums.

I want to make a plea for more clarity and honesty, and to point to the rhetorical and political side of the debate on relations between Islam and feminism, which has become a front, a battlefield, for unstated agendas and identity politics.

Many women feel an ambivalence towards either the feminist or the religious aspects of their identities. It is this ambivalence, I argue, that is most often the subtext of the debate. The vexed relationship between feminism and religion often springs from the common, implicit assumption that feminism can only emerge and flourish when religion is removed from the public space. The development of feminism in Western contexts was to a large extent shaped by the privatization of religion, which became one of the main tenets of feminism, seen as a prerequisite for the development of a feminist movement and consciousness. But that correlation between the privatization of religion and the growth of feminism seems no longer to be valid. In Jose Casanova’s words, the process of ‘deprivatization’ of religion has become a relatively global trend, while simultaneously we are also seeing the emergence of new feminisms.

We are at the threshold of a new phase in the politics of religion, state and gender, both globally and locally. The salient feature of this phase is that it starts from the unmasking of the global and local power relations and structures within which Muslim women have to struggle for justice and equality. This struggle is as much theological as it is political, and it is hard and sometimes futile to ask when theology ends and politics begin. Rather than the abstract notion of ‘gender equality’, it is now women and the feminist quest for justice in a just world that occupy centre stage.


I understand ‘feminism’ in the widest sense: it includes a general concern with women’s issues, an awareness that women suffer discrimination at work, in the home and in society because of their gender, and action aimed at improving their lives and changing the situation. There is also an epistemological side to feminism; it is a knowledge project, in the sense that it sheds light on how we know what we know about women, family and religious tradition, including laws and practices that take their legitimacy from religion; this knowledge enables us to challenge, from within, the patriarchy that is institutionalized in a legal tradition.

As for ‘religion’ more generally, the English word ‘religion’ is full of ambiguities. Those who talk of Islam, or indeed of ‘religion’ in relation to Islam, often fail to make a distinction, now common, when talking of religion in other contexts, namely between faith (and its values and principles) and organised religion (institutions, laws and practices). The result is the pervasive polemic/rhetorical trick of either glorifying a faith without acknowledging the horrors and abuses that are committed in its name, or condemning it by equating it with those abuses.

In many ways, it is the notion of Shari‘a that is the problem. We all think we know what Shari‘a is, yet its meaning is widely contested. In the Western context, and for some Muslims, Shari‘a has become synonymous with patriarchal laws and cruel punishments; with polygamy, stoning, amputation of limbs. Yet, for the mass of Muslims, Shari‘a is the essence of justice, while for others, Shari‘a is a powerful political ideology. In Muslim tradition, however, Shari‘a is generally a theological and ethical concept more than a legal one.

For the sake of clarity and honesty we need to be mindful of two crucial distinctions, and to make them part of our language. The first is that between Shari‘a and fiqh. Shari‘a, literally ‘the way’, in Muslim belief is the totality of God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Koran. Fiqh, literally ‘understanding’, is the science of jurisprudence, the process of human attempts to discern and extract legal rules from the sacred sources of Islam – that is, the Koran and the Sunna (the practice of the Prophet, as contained inhadith, Traditions) – and the ‘laws’ that result from this process. What we ‘know’ of ‘Shari‘a’ is only an interpretation, an understanding; fiqh, on the other hand, as in any other system of jurisprudence and law, is human and mundane, temporal and local. Any claim that a specific law or legal rule ‘is’ Shari‘a, is a claim to divine authority for something that is in fact a human interpretation. Without this distinction, reinterpretation and legal change become difficult or impossible.

The second distinction is between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’, or between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’. ‘Islamism’, as I have defined in print, is no more or less than ‘political Islam’ – a commitment to public action to implement what Islamists regard as an Islamic agenda, commonly summarized in slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’ or ‘Return to Shari‘a’. ‘Islamic’, on the other hand, when attached to another ism such as feminism, means merely finding inspiration and even legitimacy in Islamic history and textual sources. Many people so inspired prefer to call themselves, if anything, ‘Muslim feminists’. In other words, there is no necessary association of ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ with ‘Islamism’ or political Islam, nor any necessary association of ‘feminism’ with lack of religious faith or inspiration.

The Turning points

There are  two recent turning points in the politics of religion, law and gender, both globally and locally. 1979 is the first of them. In that year the UN General Assembly adopted CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), which gave a clear international legal mandate to those advocating equality between men and women, and to the notion of women’s rights as human rights. 1979 was also the year when the Iranian Revolution brought an end to a US-backed monarchy and introduced an Islamic Republic. This marked a zenith in the revival of Islam as both a spiritual and a political force.

The decades that followed saw the concomitant expansion, globally and locally, of two equally powerful but opposed frames of reference. On the one hand, the human rights framework and instruments such as CEDAW gave women’s rights activists what they needed most: a point of reference, a language and the tools to resist and challenge patriarchy. The 1980s saw the expansion of the international women’s movement and of women’s NGOs all over the world, including Muslim countries. By the early 1990s, a transnational movement further coalesced around the idea that violence against women was a violation of their human rights, and succeeded in inserting it into the agenda of the international human rights community. In their campaigns, they made visible various forms of gender-based discrimination and violation rooted in cultural traditions and religious practices. Protection from violence became a core demand of women’s human rights activists.

In Muslim contexts, on the other hand, Islamist forces in Iran and some other countries—whether in power or in opposition—started to invoke Islam and Shari‘a as a legitimizing device to reverse the process of reform and secularization of laws and legal systems that had begun earlier in the century. Tapping into popular demands for social justice, the Islamist rallying cry of ‘Return to Shari‘a’ led to the (re-)introduction of laws that conformed with traditionalist Islamic jurisprudence, notably regressive gender policies, with devastating consequences for women: compulsory dress codes, gender segregation, and the revival of cruel punishments and outdated patriarchal and tribal models of social relations.

By the early 1990s, the conflict between these bitterly opposed isms found a kind of resolution in the emergence of a new gender discourse that came to be called ‘Islamic feminism’. I was one of the first scholars to use this term to speak of a new gender consciousness and discourse that emerged in Iran a decade after the popular 1979 Revolution that brought the Islamists into power. As the term gained currency in the late 1990s, most of those defined by academics and journalists as ‘Islamic feminists’ rejected either the ‘Islamic’ or the ‘feminist’ part of the term. If they came from a religious background and addressed women’s rights within an Islamic frame of reference, they wanted to avoid any kind of association with the term ‘feminism’; their gender activism was a mixture of conformity and defiance. If they came from a secular background and addressed women’s rights from within broader feminist discourses, they rejected being called ‘Islamic’, even although many of them located their feminism in Islam. Those associated with political Islam took contradictory positions and made confusing statements with respect to gender equality. For them, the wider project of gaining power and establishing an Islamic state took priority over equality and democracy.

I have argued that what I called ‘Islamic feminism’—feminism that takes its legitimacy from Islam—was the ‘unwanted child’ of political Islam; it did not emerge because the Islamists offered an egalitarian vision of gender relations. They did not. Rather, their agenda of ‘return to the Shari‘a’ and their attempt to translate into policy the patriarchal gender notions inherent in classical jurisprudence, provoked women to increase criticism of these notions and spurred greater activism among secular feminists, who were now internationalised and had the legitimacy of international human rights law on their side.

A second turning point has been the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, with the politics and rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – both partially justified as promoting ‘democracy’ and ‘women’s rights’ – the subsequent revelations of abuses in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, and the double standards employed in promoting United Nations sanctions. All these early 21st-century developments, reminiscent of the earlier European ‘Civilizing Mission’, have dented both international human rights and feminist ideals. The gap between these ideals and the practices of their proponents has increasingly invited accusations of hypocrisy, and has not only eroded the moral high ground that the West claims, but made a hollow mockery of lofty concepts like democracy, freedom, human rights and women’s rights.

Realism and Dialogue

Debates then started to move, and advocates of both ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ have come down from their high ideological positions—they had to moderate their claims by looking at the realities on the ground. They have had to acknowledge that gross injustices have been carried out in name of both Islam and feminism; that we need to separate ideals from practices; that we must not compare the ideals of Islam with Western practices, nor the ideals of feminism with Muslim practices; that there is a concord between the feminist search for justice and the Islamic principle of a just world and justice for all.

This new realism has changed the terms of the debate, and shifted the politics of ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ to a level where an honest and constructive dialogue has become possible. It happened because it was becoming manifestly evident to many that both ‘feminism’ – now commonly identified with international human rights law and its politics – and ‘Islam’ – now often reduced to Islamists and their slogan of ‘return to Shari’a’ – were failing to deliver their aims. Feminists demanded justice for women, and Islamists demanded justice for the world. This brought the realization, for those committed to justice for women in a just world, that there was no other option than to bring Islamic and feminist perspectives together, which opened the way for a new engagement, a meaningful dialogue between Muslims and feminism. But a true dialogue is only possible when the two parties treat each other as equals and with respect; otherwise it would be a dialogue of the deaf. To enter a dialogue, we should be ready, first to listen to the other’s arguments, and secondly to change our position if appropriate.

It is my view there is no magical instant cure for the painful wounds of the past and present, but there is always a way to begin to address them. We must learn the art of addressing the past without being its victims. For me it is here that feminist voices and scholarship in Islam have something to offer. They can enable feminism to look again at its own troubled relation with religion and to re-examine its dogmas, now that religion is back in the public space, and the thesis that modernization must bring the privatization – or even demise – of religion has been seriously questioned. We all need to ask: What does it mean to be ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ or ‘feminist’ in today’s context? Isn’t the theological political, as with the feminist understanding that the personal is political?

Originally published by Open Democracy 

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