Briefing: Islamic Feminism

Submitted by Anon on 12 October, 2007 - 10:23 Author: Sarah Ley

This article will attempt to explain and define Islamic feminism, positioning the emergence of Islamic feminism within a wider political context and finally raising some questions which might help us to consider how we, as socialist feminists, might think about/ relate to Islamic feminism.

First of all it is necessary to just reiterate the distinction between Muslim feminists — women who either come from Muslim backgrounds or continue to be practising Muslims, and who also consider themselves feminists — and Islamic feminists. They might both critique traditional Islam from a women’s rights perspective and seek to reconcile the two, but Muslim feminists probably draw their feminist arguments from elsewhere, e.g. from secular traditions of feminism.

An example of this might be the organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises, which is made up of predominantly French-North African women who seek to tackle sexist attitudes within their own ethnic/ religious communities.

Islamic feminists, on the other hand, specifically ground their vision of women’s rights within an Islamic framework and see the practice of (their particular interpretation) of Islam as an essential route towards their own emancipation. They argue that Islam contains many values which they, as feminists, wish to draw on, and also that it is their religion which provides them with the strength and vision to fight for their rights as women.

One of the major areas of scholarship and campaigning for Islamic and Muslim feminists in various parts of the world is Muslim Personal Law or Family Law — which includes three main areas — marriage, divorce and testation.

Muslim majority countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afganistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Some Islamic feminists have opposed MPL outright, others (e.g. Canadian Council of Muslim Women) have argued that a reformed version, based on substantial input from women and which does not discriminate against women is possible.

Whether we agree with these critiques of MPL or not, I think its important to note that the Koran and other aspects of the Islamic religion (particularly the bits that we most strongly oppose such as the outlaw on homosexuality) are contested and up for debate within Islam itself — and that Islam cannot be characterised simply according to its most conservative parts, even if its these parts that are currently in the ascendant.

One sort of official representative of Islamic feminism seems to be the International Congress of Islamic Feminism. This seems to be made up primarily of female Muslim academics, theologians and human rights activists.

Their main focus has been to mount a campaign against what they call “a 10th century version of sharia law which they condemn as justifying corporal punishment, domestic violence, dress codes that restrict freedom and highly chauvinistic family laws”

“Islamic feminism declares that this alleged ‘Islamic law’ is not ‘God’s law’…but a human creation codified centuries ago in the context of societies in which women were considered to be the property of men…Islamic feminism affirms that true Islam contains important elements of liberation and calls for the recovery of those elements as a framework for social emancipation.”

One of the areas in which a self-conscious brand of Islamic feminism is most evident is in academia, particularly, it seems, in the west. Margot Badran is a women’s studies professor in North America and has played a leading role in defining and identifying Islamic feminism as an important movement.

She puts forward a diffuse definition, which sees Islamic feminism as a movement taking place outside the boundaries of academia. But her definition also blurs the distinction that I pointed out above between Muslim feminism and Islamic feminism.

“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 circulating with increasing frequency in cyberspace — to name just one site: maryams.com.”

Badran is among those Islamic/ Muslim feminists who also seek to point out that there is a long history of women fighting for their rights in the Muslim world, and that the notion that feminism is somehow a western import or that religious and secular feminist discourses haven’t always interacted, is a myth.

Finally, there is one other sort of Islamic feminism that we might identify. This is when young Muslim women, usually born and brought up in the west, spectacularly reject sexist western standards of femininity and embrace what we would see as conservative Islamic values as liberating.

One example of this is an article I found on an Islamic feminist blog entitled My Body is my own business by Naheed Mustafa, www.jannah.org/sisters/naheed.html

She is a Canadian university student from a Muslim background who, after a period of being bulimic in her adolescence, has chosen to wear the full veil. She says,

“Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed.”

So, having gained a sense of what Islamic feminism might consist of, what issues and questions might it raise for us as socialist feminists?

First of all I think we can all agree that a liberal reformist desire to reinterpret Islamic belief to support, rather than deny, women’s rights, is a sensible enough desire for those women who identify as Muslims.

It’s also important, as I already mentioned, to recognise that these elements within Islam exist and that we should not characterise it as a monolithically conservative religion any more than we characterise all Jewish people as orthodox West Bank settlers.

I also think that it’s necessary for us to recognise that religion has in the past and does today play an important part in motivating women to enter the political sphere and demand their rights. And, since we accept that there are many different kinds of feminism, not all of which we agree with, we can also acknowledge that ever since its inception feminism has been influenced by religious discourses.

However, I want also to point out some theoretical problems Islamic feminism.

Firstly, the notion of Islamic feminism being more appropriate to and more meaningful for women from Muslim backgrounds or women from Muslim majority countries because it counterposes its own vision of feminism against so-called “western values”.

Abdenur Prado says: “You can’t apply the ideas of a 19th century English suffragist to the life of a 21st century Morrocan woman.”

We might ask, is there such a thing as “western values”, or are these universal values?

At the same time, is it not necessary to recognise that Anglo-American feminism was developed around the notion of white (and often middle class women) and might not speak to, for example, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants living in Whitechapel? Is the development of a different kind of “Islamic feminism” necessary to solving this problem?

A second issue I have is to what extent is it possible to reinterpret Islam according to a feminist perspective — do you not at some point come up against some fundamental tenets which resist reinterpretation? Why do we look to a particular text (developed by a patriarchal society hundreds of years ago) to give us our rights?

But there are also some practical questions that arise. Firstly, why are people feeling the need to identify themselves as Islamic feminists now? Is this a new thing? Would these women simply have called themselves feminists from Muslim backgrounds before? Does this reflect a rise of the power of religion which entails a desire for feminists to legitimate their demands by placing them within a religious context?

Would we characterise the underground women’s movements in Muslim majority countries such as Iran as “Islamic feminism” bearing in mind that probably most of the women involved would in some sense identify as Muslim?

As socialist feminists (most of whom are probably atheists) how do we make links with feminists from different political perspectives? Does our critique of religion alienate women who combine a strong faith with a commitment to women’s rights?

Do we recognise enough the ways in which, since the nineteenth-century, feminist critiques of women’s treatment in Muslim majority countries have been bound up with and used to justify imperialist ventures? Do we still place a disproportional emphasis on women in the Middle East, perhaps influenced by the wider discourse of western imperialist feminism?

Finally, we might ask how class comes into it? Is Islamic feminism mainly about better off women who have financial security carving out a space for themselves within Islam, comparable to liberal feminists in the west carving out a space for themselves within capitalism?

Is it enough, however, to appeal to women on the grounds of being working-class when at the same time religion forms an incredibly important part of their identity — whether we like it or not?

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