The liberation of Muslim women has for several centuries been on the agenda of Western governments and Christian missionaries. It has been utilized as justification for military campaigns ranging from the nineteenth century Barbary Wars in North Africa to the recent war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This Western agenda has produced a backlash unleashed by traditionalists and Islamists against Muslim women engaged in liberalizing traditions and customs pertaining to gender relations in Muslim societies. They are accused of being complicit in Western efforts to undermine Islam. Meanwhile, advocacy for women’s rights is increasingly being built into Islam itself, as evidenced by a growing international feminist movement spiritually and intellectually rooted in the faith.
The liberalization of laws governing women’s lives in the Muslim world has been the project of a select group of both Muslim men and women for over a century. Their efforts have increased opportunities in education and employment for women. They have brought about changes in legislation regarding personal status laws that affect the lives of Muslim women in such areas as divorce, polygamy and the legal age for marriage. The greatest changes have been implemented in the two secularist states of Turkey and Tunisia. Their crowning achievement is the election of several Muslim women as head of state: Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khalida Zia and Shaikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia.
Islamic feminism is the latest phase in the struggle for women’s liberation in the Muslim world. While some have dismissed the term as an oxymoron, it has become the identity of choice for some Muslim scholars and activists both in the United States and overseas. It was coined in the 1990s, in the milieu of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, whose slogan was “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” The conference challenged traditionalists and Islamists who saw a necessity to defend Islamic societies against what they perceived as the renewed Western agenda to undermine Islamic societies after the collapse of the Soviet Empire by promoting such “abominations” as premarital sex, abortion and the gay lifestyle.
Islamic feminism has been applied to the work of a group of scholars in the American academy who seek to address the role of women from within the heritage of Islam. They include Amina Wadud, Riffat Hasan, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas and Nimat Hafez Barzangi. They also include the first woman to translate the Qur’an into English, Laleh Bakhtiar. Their efforts fall in contrast to the activism and advocacy of other Muslim women who seek change through recourse to secular ideas as well as those who attack the faith as misogynist at its core. Asra Nomani and Irshad Manji are seen by some as representatives of the former category, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan as examples of the latter. Instead, the Islamic feminists have sought to reconcile the religion with feminism. They do not question the validity of the Qur’anic text as eternally valid guidance for all humanity, but have reservations about the patriarchal interpretations characteristic of traditional societies.
Their discourse requires a re-examination of the Qur’anic text, which had been the private domain of male scholars. They have scoured the narratives of the life of the Prophet Muhammad for parallels to be promoted as models of liberation. They have challenged Islamic jurisprudence derived from patriarchal readings of the Qur’an, examining legal precedents and court decisions in order to reconstruct history. Some have focused on reinterpreting Qur’anic verses used by traditional scholars to formulate laws that discriminate against women, especially in a marriage context. Their revised interpretations affirm the grounding of women’s rights in the immutable Qur’an, rendering it a divine mandate for humanity, impervious to misogynist attacks. They have dubbed their efforts a “gender jihad.”
These efforts have resulted in the emergence of an attractive feminist lifestyle that is both modern and Islamically validated. It is an alternative to a secular liberal feminism criticized as succumbing to the changing whims and values of a West that has declared war on Islamic cultural values — and an alternative to the constraining dogmatic adherence of Muslims to traditionalism. These feminists believe that Islam as a dynamic and inherently flexible faith calls its believers to reinterpret its teachings to address changing times. They affirm that the Qur’an is the pioneering text; unlike other scriptures it promotes women’s rights. They resolutely refute all allegations that its text defines an Islamic society that favors a patriarchal system privileging men over women.
In the process they have developed a Qur’anically grounded platform of liberation based on a select number of verses. They affirm that the Qur’an clearly states that man and woman were created from one soul. Thus the Qur’an does not sanction the submission of one gender to the other. Others have grounded their feminism in the core teaching of the Qur’an about divine justice and compassion that are the essential characteristics of God and thus incumbent on human beings. God’s justice would not tolerate unjust (and unequal) treatment of women. For others, equality is the essential core of the Islamic faith; it is the essence of tawhid, the oneness of God and the oneness of the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims. Still others ground the equality in the concept of khilafa, God’s commission to humans — both male and female — to be his agents on earth, to nurture creation, to construct a civilization and to bring forth a just society.
While the scholars are producing theological and exegetical reflections on various verses of the Qur’an in order to bolster their claims, globalization and the revolution in communications has made it possible to create activist Islamic feminist networks that collaborate on various projects. These include national organizations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) in Malaysia and BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, both of which came into existence in response to the re-Islamization policies of the 1990s that increased segregation in society. Their goal is to provide counterarguments to impede policies that could roll back liberalized legislation that benefited women.
Globalization has also fostered transnational organizations. Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has focused its energies on the project of reforming the laws of Muslim states in order to make them accord with the “spirit of the Qur’an.” In a London conference they sponsored in 2002 on “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms,” they discussed the growing tide of religious fundamentalism among Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims that were eroding the rights and freedoms of women. They were alarmed that “the Vatican, Syria and Iran have voted consistently on the same side of international forums. They noted that collaboration with other individuals and organizations who share their concerns, whether religious or secular, has proven helpful to their cause. They count among their recent achievements the promulgation of the Moroccan Civil Code, the new draft of the Family Code in Indonesia, and the divorce laws in Egypt.
Several International Islamic Feminist Conferences organized by the Junta Islamica Catalana of Barcelona have brought the various groups together. During their first meeting, participants reaffirmed a Muslim woman’s right to freely access the mosque. These conferences bring together various theoreticians and activists to reflect and strategize; they also energize and spur them on to work to restore what they believe to be the original intent of the message of Islam.
In the post-9/11 environment, ordinary Muslim women have found themselves propelled into the limelight as the representatives of Islam. A growing number of professional women began wearing the hijab (headscarf) and attending mosque functions. Some mosques organized study groups to reflect on Islam in the modern world and how it can be presented to fellow Americans. Several Islamic organizations issued guidelines to their constituents to engage women in their activities. See for example the Islamic Society of North America’s “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.” This increased engagement on the grassroots level has built on the advances of the Islamic feminist movement and undoubtedly will inspire further work in years to come.
Yvonne Haddad, Ph.D., is Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Professor Haddad’s fields of expertise include twentieth-century Islam; intellectual, social and political history in the Arab world; and Islam in North America and the West. She is the co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.
Tags: Amina Wadud, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas, Asra Nomani, Ayan Hirsi Ali, gender and Islam, Interpreting the Quran, Irshad Manji, Islamic Society of North America, Laleh Bakhtiar, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Riffat Hasan, Wafa Sultan