ISLAMIC FEMINISM: A STATEMENT BY WOMEN AND FOR WOMEN IN ISLAM
AN ESSAY BY VANESSA RIVERA DE LA FUENTE
Whenever we talk of women in Islam, it is in two competing dominant discourses:
First, there is the “mainstream” or dominant narrative within Islam itself, which I call “Idealization of Inequality”. This holds that the Q’uran raised women from the condition of object in the pre-Islamic Arabia. Here, some tribes buried female infants alive and women were not viewed as members of society and therefore were not seen as equal or as possessors of rights. This is true: Qur’anic revelation broke the social organization of Arab tribal societies, and in so doing provided a new organization in which the condition of women was improved.
According to this view, feminism is alien to Islam and is a spurious and contaminating doctrine. However, this discourse neither explains the difference between the status of women in Islamic doctrine and their actual status in Muslim majority countries; nor provides concrete solutions to the problems of patriarchal inequality and violence that many Muslim women are subject to.
Second, there is a discourse of “Demonization” holding that Islam is to blame for the oppression of women and that the only way that women can escape this oppression is to leave the Muslim faith. In this discourse religion is viewed as an (if not the) obstacle to the enjoyment of women’s rights. Yet, this approach does not explain what happens to women who do not want to leave their faith or wish to assume one; nor does it provide a space for women who do not identify with Western feminist discourse.
Both discourses are rooted in patriarchy. In the first, women need no voice because the ” Q’uran said it all “. In the second, someone else comes and defines freedom “because they are oppressed”. These two positions assume that Muslim women are incapable of developing a language of emancipation for themselves, as individuals enunciation their own identities. In both, the subject of women in Islam and oppressed Muslim women are used to maintain patriarchal hegemony expressed in social control or political- cultural colonialism.
From the historical point of view, we can distinguish three stages in the development of Islamic Feminism. First, colonial and Western inspired feminism (especially in Egypt), which saw a rejection of religion as a means of achieving gender equality. Second, a shift in feminist discourse that took place during the 70’s and 80’s rejecting the universalist vision of “woman” common in Europe as totalitarian, allowing for the expression of other female identities that developed “outside” Europe. Third, the emergence of Islamic feminism during the 1990’s thanks to the publication of Zanan magazine in Iran, the development of postcolonial feminist theory and the contribution of scholars and academics like Fatema Mernissi and Leyla Ahmed. This essay concerns itself with the third, Islamic, stage.
The reading of the original texts and revaluing of historical data led some women and men to the realization that nothing in Islam justifies the situation imposed on women under the auspices of Islamic law or morality. Yet, most interpretations of Islam are not manifestations of divine will or a definitive social system; rather they are human constructs. These constructs were formed over time in a completely closed and patriarchal space, in which men bestowed credibility on the interpretation of texts, creating a male privileged ‘mainstream’ Islamic thought.
Islamic Feminism rejects the two dominating discourses by putting Muslim women and our ability to explain ourselves at the centre. Our reformist movement reclaims the legitimate role of women in Islam; and in so doing calls for full equality, regardless of sex or gender, in public and private life and through social justice, based on the Islam of the Q’uran.
Islamic Feminism recognises the Q’uran as the source of its development. According to the Qur’an, there is no gender differentiation in a Muslim’s relationship with God and the revealed message (the pillars of Islam) is directed to men and women equally. This is evident even in the Qur’anic revelation that makes gender distinctions:
“From those who practice good deeds, whether male or female, and is a believer, we grant you a life of pleasure and reward superior with what they have done” (Q’uran, 16:97).
“Never despise the work of one of you, man or woman, because you descend from one another” (Q’uran, 3:195).
Islamic Feminism believes that the Q’uran makes no distinction of gender or roles for men and women. Rather, it provides a way of life – Islam – which cements a source of guidance and inner development. The Q’uranic revelation encourages consistent ethical principles aimed at achieving just and cohesive societies, in which equality is important.
Islamic feminist hermeneutics relies on a series of ethical and cosmological principles recovered from Islamic thought:
Tawhid (oneness of all creation and not ranking among the creatures created based on qualities),
‘Adl (justice, as a cosmological and ethical concept, based on a balance between complementary attributes such as male and female),
Taqwaa (piety or consciousness of Allah: the Q’uran states that the only principle that distinguishes beings from others is its taqwaa)
Caliphate (individual responsibility to Allah and creation: both men and women are potential caliphs of Allah on earth);
Wilayat (the Q’uran states that men and women are protectors and accomplices from each other)
Shura (the believers, men and women are those who consult with each other and adopting consensual decisions, which excludes the obedience of women to men).
From this grounding, Islamic Feminism emerges as a reform movement based on the Koran focused on two areas. First, dismantling patriarchal interpretations of Islam not only for reasons of gender justice but also to recover the original meaning of revelation. Second, to break stereotypes associated with Islam in general, and Muslim women in particular.
After describing Islamic feminism, I think it is important to discuss its historically problematic relationship with other feminisms. Islamic feminism has consolidated in recent years, creating many movements in the public domain, while political events have made a conceptual definition – like the above – necessary. But this was not easy: while struggling with centuries of misogynist tradition at home, the attempt to unite with other feminisms have largely failed because of biases against Muslim women informed by the way we are pictured.
Importantly, as argued above, these biases and negative depictions are informed by both the belief that Islam is the cause of women’s oppression – leading to a universalist discourse of secularization – and the evocation of Muslim women as ‘submissives’ who require rescuing from ‘fanatical’ Muslim men. The former excludes all women who wish to remain Muslims from the discourse, while the latter discards the possibility that Muslim women are active subjects, able to explain themselves. Such thinking both leads to the belief, among Western feminists, that Islamic feminism does not exist, but more importantly, excludes any Muslim feminists from the dominant discourses.
Even though these problems exist, it is still essential to create links between different feminisms and Islamic feminism. Such links are just beginning to develop in Latin America. Research led by Professor Francirosy Campos in Brazil (2013), shows that for every 10 new converts to Islam in that country, around 80% are women: Islam is becoming a gender issue on our continent, and because of this the debate about gender in Islam will soon become a topic of interest to gender theory in general in South America.
And it is at this point, in view of the importance of uniting all feminisms, that I would like to bring to the table the concept of Gender Jihad. Jihad is an Islamic concept involving the struggle and process of freeing oneself from the spiritual oppression that prevents humans from developing to their full potential.
It is in this Gender Jihad, which includes all feminisms as diversities united around common values and purposes, that Islamic feminism provides a proposal for interaction. I do not think that God is a misogynistic, but there are some people who claim to speak for him, who do. The problem is not God but Patriarchy. Equally, in all other societies, whether Christian or Hindu, women’s main enemy is not religion but patriarchy.
This spiritual and plural activism united around the liberation of women, must be a common strategy for a common goal for all feminists and activists for women’s rights. Patriarchy oppresses all of us, no matter the frame and justification. Joining together, while recognizing our particularities and the different context of our claims, is necessary, in view of the global and organized reaction against women’s rights.
Women, employing our natural wisdom, can build sorority and overcome the patterns that are assumed unchangeable within feminism, so that we can discuss the principles that unite us: the search for spiritual meaning that animates us as human beings, the equal participation and commitment, the fight against all forms of oppression, from marital rape to the “trade” in women’s bodies.
Female identity, “being woman”, “being a free woman” is in a state of constant definitional development. No woman should be left out because alternative conceptions do not match the “mainstream” discourse. The modern world, through its scientific and technological progress, is narrowing the gap between human beings like never before. Let us women not be the ones who return to stagnation through disunity!
Artwork © REKHA SAMEER