Al-Ahram Weekly Online
17 - 23 January 2002
Issue No.569
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Islamic feminism: what's in a name?

Islamic feminism is on the whole more radical than Muslims' secular feminisms, argues Margot Badran

What's in a name? What's behind a name? What is Islamic feminism? Let me offer a concise definition: it is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur'an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism is both highly contested and firmly embraced. There has been much misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and mischief concerning Islamic feminism. This new feminism has given rise simultaneously to hopes and to fears. We shall look at who is producing it, where, why and to what end.

FEMINISM: As it has been rightly noticed concepts and terms have a history -- and practices around concepts and terms have a history. The term feminism was coined in France in the 1880s by Hubertine Auclert, who introduced it in her journal, La Citoyenne, to criticise male predominance (and domination) and to make claims for women's rights and emancipation promised by the French Revolution. Historian of feminisms Karen Offen has demonstrated that since its first appearance the term has been given many meanings and definitions; it has been put to diverse uses and inspired many movements. By the first decade of the 20th century the term made its appearance in English, first in Britain and then in the 1910s in the United States; by the early 1920s it was in use in Egypt where it circulated in French and in Arabic as nisa'iyya. Yes, the term originated in the West, specifically France. No, feminism is not Western. American feminism is not French (as both Americans and French would loudly acclaim). Egyptian feminism is not French and it is not Western. It is Egyptian, as its founders attested and as history makes clear.

Feminisms are produced in particular places and are articulated in local terms. Creators and practitioners of women's history taking shape as a new field in the 1960s, and growing especially the during 1970s and 1980s, attested to a plethora of feminisms that had appeared in different global locations. Sri Lankan scholar Kumari Jayawardena's 1986 path-breaking book Feminisms and Nationalism in the Third World documented feminist movements that had emerged in diverse Asian and Middle Eastern countries and were located within local national liberation and religious reform movements, including movements of Islamic reform. Egypt as we know was a pioneer in articulating feminist thinking and in organising collective feminist activisms. Yet despite a large literature in many languages documenting these globally scattered feminisms, the notion that feminism is Western is still bandied about by those ignorant of history or who perhaps more wilfully employ it in a delegitimising way. Some still speak of a "Western feminism" in essentialist, monolithic, and static terms, belying a certain Occidentalist turn of mind or, perhaps, a political project aimed at adversely "framing" feminism. Feminism, however, is a plant that only grows in its own soil (which is not to suggest than any ideas or movements anywhere are hermetically sealed off).

ISLAMIC FEMINISM: The term Islamic feminism began to be visible in the 1990s in various global locations. It was from the writings of Muslims that I discovered the term. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini explained the rise and use of the term Islamic feminism in Iran by women writing in the Teheran women's journal Zanan that Shahla Sherkat founded in 1992. Saudi Arabian scholar Mai Yamani used the term in her 1996 book Feminism and Islam. Turkish scholars Yesim Arat and Feride Acar in their articles, and Nilufer Gole in her book The Forbidden Modern (published in Turkish in 1991 and in English in 1996) used the term Islamic feminism in their writings in the 1990s to describe a new feminist paradigm they detected emerging in Turkey. South African activist Shamima Shaikh employed the term Islamic feminism in her speeches and articles in the 1990s as did her sister and brother co-activists. Already by the mid-1990s, there was growing evidence of Islamic feminism as a term created and circulated by Muslims in far- flung corners of the global umma.

It is important to distinguish between Islamic feminism as an explicitly declared project, as an analytical term -- and Islamic feminist as a term of identity. Some Muslim women, as seen from the foregoing remarks, describe their project of articulating and advocating the practice of Qur'anically-mandated gender equality and social justice as Islamic feminism. Others do not call this Islamic feminism but describe it as an Islamic project of rereading the Qur'an, women-centered readings of religious texts, or "scholarship-activism" as it is referred to in the 2001 book Windows of Faith edited by Gisela Webb.

The producers and articulaters, or users, of Islamic feminist discourse include those who may or may not accept the Islamic feminist label or identity. They also include so-called religious Muslims (by which is typically meant the religiously observant), so-called secular Muslims (whose ways of being Muslim may be less publicly evident), and non- Muslims. Many Muslims use the adjectives religious and secular to label themselves or each other; other Muslims feel uneasy with these terms. It is important to historicise or contextualise the use of these terms as they do mean different things in different times and places. Also, it needs to be stressed that the terms religious and secular are not hermetically sealed terms; there are, and always have been, imbrications between the two.

Some who engage in the articulation and practice of Islamic feminism assert an Islamic feminist identity from the start. These include contributors to the Iranian journal Zanan, South African exegetes and activists, as well as women belonging to the group "Sisters in Islam" in Malaysia. Others, and these include many of the key producers of Islamic feminist discourse or new gender-sensitive Qur'anic interpretation, have been reluctant to identify themselves as Islamic feminists. Yet, some have changed their positions in more recent years. In the past, Amina Wadud, the African-American Muslim theologian and author of the landmark 1991 book Qur'an and Woman adamantly objected to being labelled an Islamic feminist. Now she shows less concern if others identify her as such; what is important to her is that people understand her work. But, Wadud does bristle when she is slammed as a "Western feminist." In the preface to the 1999 Oxford University Press edition of her book, she decried the pejorative use of both "Western" and "feminist". This devout Muslim woman asks: so what's wrong with being Western? (Let us not forget that there are large and growing numbers of Western Muslims, or Muslims in the West of whom Wadud is one). As for discrediting feminism, she snaps back: "No reference is ever made to the definition of feminism as the radical notion that women are human beings." American based theologian Riffat Hassan of Pakistani origin has also come to accept the Islamic feminist designation, concerned most, like Wadud, that her work be understood.

The first feminist meeting at Huda Sha'rawi's home

GLOBAL PHENOMENON: Islamic feminism is a global phenomenon. It is not a product of East or West. Indeed, it transcends East and West. As already hinted, Islamic feminism is being produced at diverse sites around the world by women inside their own countries, whether they be from countries with Muslim majorities or from old established minority communities. Islamic feminism is also growing in Muslim Diaspora and convert communities in the West. Islamic feminism is circulating with increasing frequency in cyberspace -- to name just one site: maryams.com.

Globally, English is the major language in which Islamic feminist discourse is expressed and circulated. At the same time, it is expressed in a large number of languages locally. In order to do Qur'anic interpretation and closely read other Islamic religious texts, mastery of Arabic is essential. Yet since English is used as the common language of Islamic feminism, the terminology available in that language is also used. And with the spread of Islamic feminist exegesis, many Arabic loan words are entering English, such as ijtihad, which is fast becoming a household term.

Islamic feminism transcends and destroys old binaries that have been constructed. These included polarities between "religious" and "secular" and between "East" and "West." I stress this because not infrequently there are those who see Islamic feminism, or the recognition of an Islamic feminist discourse, as setting up or reconfirming polarities. In my own public lectures and writings, I have argued that Islamic feminist discourse does precisely the opposite; it closes gaps and demonstrates common concerns and goals, starting with the basic affirmation of gender equality and social justice. Suggestions or allegations of a supposed "clash" between "secular feminism" and "religious feminism" may either be the product of lack of historical knowledge or, as in many cases, a politically motivated attempt to hinder broader solidarities among women.

The pioneering secular feminisms in Egypt and other Arab countries have always had space for religion. The founding Egyptian feminist discourse was anchored simultaneously in the discourse of Islamic reform and that of secular nationalism. Secular feminism (often called just plain feminism) made Islamic arguments in demanding women's rights to education, work, political rights along with secular nationalist, humanitarian (later human) rights, and democratic arguments. When feminists plead for changes in the Muslim Personal Status Code they obviously advanced Islamic arguments.

Islamic feminism advocates women's rights, gender equality, and social justice using Islamic discourse as its paramount discourse, though not necessarily its only one. Islamic feminist discourse in Iran draws upon secular discourses and methodologies to strengthen and extend its claims. Wadud in her women-sensitive interpretation of the Qur'an combines classical Islamic methodologies with new social science tools and secular discourses of rights and justice while retaining a firm and central grounding in Islamic thought.

For many years in my talks and writings, I have discussed how Muslims secular feminists' discourses always included religious discourse and in more recent years, while observing a new Islamic feminism in the making, also noted the imbrications of religious and secular feminisms. My recent article "Locating Feminisms: The Collapse of Secular and Religious Discourses in the Mashriq" published in a special 50th issue of the African Gender Institute's journal Agenda makes this point. Likewise, do Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini in their publications, and Miriam Cooke in her new book Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature, as well as others.

Some of the specific goals are the same as those articulated earlier by secular feminists, such as changes in various national Muslim personal status codes. Other earlier feminist demands have long since been realised in many places. Often, when secular and Islamic feminists try to work together for common goals, they are inhibited or pulled asunder by competing political forces as happened in Yemen following the successful drive by a coalition of a wide spectrum of women to prevent a regressive Personal Status Law from being enacted in 1997.

CONSTITUTING A DISCOURSE: How is Islamic feminist discourse being constituted? This issue includes what some Muslims are calling Islamic feminist theology (for example a young Lebanese researcher, Hosni Abboud, who is examining the treatment of Mary in the Qur'an -- the only woman mentioned by name in the holy book. The basic argument of Islamic feminism is that the Qur'an affirms the principle of equality of all human beings but that the practice of equality of women and men (and other categories of people) has been impeded or subverted by patriarchal ideas (ideology) and practices. Islamic jurisprudence, fiqh, consolidated in its classical form in the 9th century, was itself heavily saturated with the patriarchal thinking and behaviours of the day. It is this patriarchally-inflected jurisprudence that has informed the various contemporary formulations of the Shari'a. The hadith, the reported, but not always authentic, sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohamed, have also been often used to shore up patriarchal ideas and practices. Sometimes the hadiths, as just suggested, are of questionable provenance or reliability, and sometimes they are used out of context. Thus a priority of Islamic feminism is to go straight to Islam's fundamental and central holy text, the Qur'an, in an effort to recuperate its egalitarian message. Some women focus exclusively on the Qur'an (Amina Wadud, Rifaat Hassan, Saudi Arabian Fatima Naseef); others apply their rereadings of the Qur'an to their examination of the various formulations of the Shari'a (Lebanese Aziza Al-Hibri, Pakistani Shaheen Sardar Ali); while others focus on re-examining the hadith (Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, Turkish Hidayet Tuksal).

The basic methodologies of this Islamic feminism are the classic Islamic methodologies of ijtihad (independent investigation of religious sources), and tafsir (interpretation of the Qur'an). Used along with these methodologies are the methods and tools of linguistics, history, literary criticism, sociology, anthropology etc.

In approaching the Qur'an, women bring to their readings their own experience and questions as women. They point out that classical, and also much of post-classical, interpretation was based on men's experiences, male-centered questions, and the overall influence of the patriarchal societies in which they lived.

FEMINIST HERMENEUTICS: The new gender- sensitive, or what can be called feminist, hermeneutics renders compelling confirmation of gender equality in the Qur'an that was lost sight of as male interpreters constructed a corpus of tafsir promoting a doctrine of male superiority reflecting the mindset of the prevailing patriarchal cultures.

There are many ayaat (verses) of the Qur'an that seem to declare male/female equality. One is Al- Hujurat: "Oh humankind. We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other [not that you may despise one another]. The most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you [the one practicing the most taqwa]." Essentially, ontologically, all human beings are equal, they are only distinguished among themselves on the basis of their rightful practice or implementation of the fundamental Qur'anic principle of justice. Hence there is no contradiction between being a feminist and being a Muslim, once we perceive feminism as an awareness of constraints placed upon women because of gender, a rejection of such limitations placed on women, and efforts to construct and implement a more equitable gender system.

Feminist hermeneutics distinguishes between the universal or timeless basic principles and the particular and contingent, or ephemeral. In the case of the latter, certain practices were allowed in a limited and controlled manner as a way of curtailing behaviours prevalent in the society into which the revelation came while encouraging believers or placing them on the path to fuller justice and equality in their human interactions. Feminist hermeneutics has taken three approaches:

1) revisiting ayaat of the Qur'an to correct false stories in common circulation, such as the accounts of creation and of events in the Garden of Eden that have shored up claims of male superiority;

2) citing ayaat that unequivocally enunciate the equality of women and men;

3) deconstructing ayaat attentive to male and female difference that have been commonly interpreted in ways that justify male domination.

As an example of a new interpretation of the Qur'an, we can look at sura (chapter) four, verse 34. While fundamentally equal, humans have been created biologically different in order to perpetuate the species. Only in particular contexts and circumstances will males and females assume different contingent roles and functions. Woman alone can give birth and nurse, and thus, in this particular circumstance, a husband is enjoined by the Qur'an to provide material support as indicated in 4:34, "Men are responsible for (qawwamun) women because God has given the one more than the other (bima faddala), and because they support them from their means." Wadud-Muhsin, Hassan, Al-Hibri, Naseef, etc. demonstrate that qawwamun conveys the notion of providing for and that the term is used prescriptively to indicate that men ought to provide for women in the context of child- bearing and rearing. It also does not necessarily mean that women cannot provide for themselves in that circumstance. The term qawwamun is not an unconditional statement of male authority and superiority over all women for all time, as traditional male interpreters have claimed. The women exegetes thus show how classical male interpretations have turned the specific and contingent into universals. I do not want to get into an exegetical battle here and now but rather to indicate Islamic feminist interpretative moves. Concerning the masculinist argument that men have authority over women, while deconstructing particular ayaat such as the above, the exegetes also draw attention to other ayaat affirming mutuality of responsibilities as in sura nine, verse 71 of the Qur'an which says that "The believers, male and female, are protectors of one another."

TO WHAT END? Islamic feminism serves people in their individual lives and it can also be a force in improving state and society. As far as Muslim women in Western diaspora communities and in Muslim minority communities are concerned, second generation Muslim women are often caught between the practices and norms of the original home cultures of parents who migrated from Middle Eastern or South Asian countries, and the ways of life in their new countries. Islamic feminism helps these women untangle patriarchy and religion; it gives them Islamic ways of understanding gender equality, societal opportunity, and their own potential.

On the other hand, Islamic feminist discourse is equally relevant in predominantly Muslim countries. It constitutes a different statement of the views of the people and their understanding of and attachment to their religion and culture, by attempting a strong and Islamic articulation of gender equality.

In re-examining the Qur'an and hadith, Islamic feminists are making cogent arguments that Islam does not condone wanton violence against women, promoting the notion that violence against women is indeed anti-Islamic. This alone will not put an end to violence but it is one among many weapons against it. The Malaysian group "Sisters in Islam" is one among many that have decried violence against women perpetrated in the name of Islam in a pamphlet they distributed widely. South African Saadiya Shaikh has also completed a study on the subject and is currently looking at notions of sexuality in Islamic religious texts.

Islamic feminism on the whole is more radical than Muslims' secular feminisms have been. Islamic feminism insists on full equality of women and men across the public/private spectrum (secular feminists historically accepted the idea of equality in the public sphere and the notion of complementarianism in the private sphere). Islamic feminism argues that women may be heads of state, leaders of congregational prayer, judges, and muftis. In some Muslim majority countries, Muslim women function as judges, some as prime ministers, and one is a head of state. Thus Islamic feminism stands to benefit us all, Muslims of both sexes, as well as non-Muslims living side by side with Muslims everywhere.

It seems important to focus on the content of Islamic feminism, on its goals, and not to get bogged down with distracting issues about who has the right to think/analyse and to speak. Let us not be too defensive or proprietary about Islamic gender equality, about Islamic feminism. The way I see it, Islamic feminism is for all.

Islamic feminism is a feminist discourse expressly articulated within an Islamic paradigm and behaviours and activisms inspired by it are enacted in Islam's name. Some of the Muslims talking about Islamic feminism were among the producers of the new discourse, or activists inspired by it. Other Muslims, as scholars, writers, journalists and public intellectuals, commented on Islamic feminism, entered debates, and wrote about while standing outside the emergent ranks of Islamic feminists. Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatima Mernissi is a well-known example, and, moreover, one of the earliest to articulate Islamic feminism without taking on an Islamic feminist identity.

Drawing from the history, and more contemporary observation, of Egypt with its pioneering feminist movement, I would like to stress again that Muslim women's feminism has been a feminism within Islam, that is it has articulated itself within an Islamic framework -- though not within that framework alone, since this feminism has also articulated itself within nationalist, humanitarian/human rights, and democratic discourses.

The distinction between (secular) feminist discourse and Islamic feminist discourse is that the latter is a feminism that is articulated within a more exclusively Islamic paradigm (but even this is complicated). This is not to suggest (or create) a binary between secular feminist and Islamic feminist discourse but rather to point to the discursive categories mobilised. There are imbrications of the secular and the religious in both discourses.

The author is senior fellow at the Center for Muslim- Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, specialising in women and gender in Muslim societies. This article is taken from her recent talk at the American Research Center in Egypt.

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