Muslim Women Redefine Feminism

Marginalized by both a patriarchal society and the narrow confines of Western feminist discourse, Muslim women around the world are developing their own form of activism, writes Jules Cretois.

al-monitor Women watch a whirling dervish perform a traditional dance on the famous Al-Moez Street, considered the largest open museum of historical Islamic monuments in Egypt, in Cairo, March 16, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

Topics covered

muslim, feminism, arab

Apr 4, 2013

More and more Muslim women have recently been making their voices heard, demanding more rights and putting forward a new vision of women in Islam. This article sheds light on a feminist movement that is as surprising as it is forward-thinking.

La Fabrique, a French publishing house, published a book with a red cover and the striking title: Islamic Feminisms. Zahra Ali, a 26-year-old French-Iranian woman, is working on a thesis dealing with the women's movement in Iraq since 2003. She coordinated the publication of this collection of texts, which are penned by women from Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan and Morocco. The book, which starts with a traditional basmala (incantation), has already become a go-to piece on the subject. It might sound like the result of two decades of discussions carried out under the label of “Islamic feminism,” but it remains a starting point, because the intellectual project remains open and the fight is raging now more than ever.

'Liberated' Muslim females

In the 1990s, the term "Islamic feminism" made its appearance in different parts of the world and in various contexts. In 1992, Shahla Sherkat, an Iranian who took part in the revolution of 1979, published the first issue of a feminist magazine, "Zanan" (meaning women in Farsi). The magazine is now banned. In 1996, a Saudi woman named Mai Yamani published "Feminism and Islam," a book that went down in history. In Turkey, academics believe a new type of feminism has emerged that is nourished by faith. Meanwhile in the West, female activists freed themselves from secular feminism and jointly asserted their female rights as Muslims of foreign origin.

Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan woman who has started a project that involves examining and critiquing both sacred and profane texts. Determined to obtain full equality without abandoning their faith, many Muslim women — who are no longer satisfied with traditional Islamic discourse — have begun to dismantle the edifice of religious patriarchy.

According to those who follow the Islamic feminist movement, female Muslims see two things standing in the way of their emancipation. On the one hand, they find a conservative Islam that prevents women from having access to religious knowledge and hampers the achievement of the equality prescribed by the Quran. On the other, there is what they call "colonial feminism," which was born in the North and was laced with Orientalism. This type of feminism dictates to the women of the South the manners and framework of their emancipation, arguing that it is impossible to be both subject to God and freed from the power of men. “These are two essentialist discourses, which, ironically, come together and share the same definition of Islam and the same definition of feminism,” Ali jokes.

Forward-thinking discourse

By focusing their discourse and thoughts on the field of religion, Muslim feminists abandon classical Western discourse and reject this approach. This idea is summarized by Asma Lamrabet, a Moroccan university student, in "Islamic Feminisms": “Muslim women have come to accept discriminatory acts supposed to be established by God, whereas they simply result from human interpretations that became sacred with time.” The project is extensive. It consists — in theory — of revising the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudential law), practicing ijtihad (intellectual effort), differentiating universal verses from those whose scope is only temporary, and distinguishing the text of the Quran from its application on the ground.

These practices led Ali and her female colleagues to draw radical conclusions. Hanan al-Laham, a Syrian activist who interprets Islamic texts and works as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, called for ijtihad to solve the difficult question of inheritance. These women have concluded that the framework in which the distribution of inheritance was designed in Islam is no longer compliant with our times. Hence, it must be amended to create more equitable inheritance.

Influential women

Yet the contours of this movement are still unclear and the voices within it do not always agree. This is evidenced by the diverse work of Ali.

This movement has no charter, no affiliates, no prioritized claims for this vast enterprise, but rather texts, discussions and sometimes conflicts that have not received media coverage and that — according to Muslim feminists — are part of the same dynamic.

As Ali concedes, Islamic feminism is partly connected with academia. But researchers and academics working on this issue are not always locked in their ivory towers. They host numerous events: For example, Oumaima Abu Bakr, an Egyptian university professor from Cairo, organized a major international meeting on Feminism and Islamic Perspective in March 2012.

From these meetings arise publications and websites in a variety of languages, which are more accessible than the obscure academic work in English or Arabic.

This overview would not be complete without mentioning several of the groups that work to defend women’s rights. These include the “Women Living Under Muslim Laws” network, or the very active Malaysian Association, “Sisters in Islam,” which for the past 20 years has been challenging the conservative political class. All of these activists and researchers eagerly await developments in Muslim societies, if they themselves are not directly involved in them.

Ziba Mir Hosseini is an Iranian intellectual who is the co-founder of the International Musawah Group, which seeks equality within the Muslim family. In a passage included in "Islamic Feminisms," Hosseini explains how she has attended the trials of a number of women involved in spontaneous revolts demanding more consideration.

Ali, who lives between London and Paris, believes that young women are becoming more involved in communal and religious associations in the West. There are many examples of Muslim revolts over the past two decades: Yemen, Indonesia, Pakistan ... A new international thought is accompanying this transnational anger; Islamic feminism seems to have a bright future ahead of it.

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