Islamic Feminism Vs Islamic Feministic Theology

Islamic feminism has become the new popular adage for contemporary Muslim women. Western feminism as a gender equality movement began in the nineteenth century in which women stood up to demand equal rights with men which their religions or cultural traditions did not provide them. In Islam, Muslims believe that Allah (God) has given humans the rights that suit their gender (more on this theme later). However, while men have always achieved their rights, Muslim women, due to respective cultural practices, have often not been given the rights Islam promises them.

Thus, I feel that it would be appropriate to divide Muslim feminists  into two broad categories:

  1. Muslim women who demand the basic rights that Shariah (Law based on interpretation of Quran and hadith) has promised them but which are not given to them by their cultures or through Fiqh (Law that exists clearly in Quran and hadith); and
  2. Muslim women who enjoy secular rights or the rights Islam has given them but they go a step forward and demand equal rights with Muslim men.

While Muslims generally appreciate the efforts of Muslim women who fall into the first category, Muslim women who fall into the second category are usually not seen with a favourable eye by traditional Muslims who claim that “from the Islamic point of view, the question of the equality of men and women is meaningless … Feminism is an unnatural, artificial and abnormal product of contemporary social disintegration, which in turn is the inevitable result of the rejection of all trans­cendental, absolute moral and spiritual values.”‎[i]

Muslim feminist are actively reinterpreting Islamic texts and in some cases that is something which is required urgently. Contemporary Muslim women owe enormous gratitude to the feminist scholars for striving to reinterpret the texts with a female eye. Their argument is that the root of their misery lies in the fact that traditional interpretation of Quran is completely male-dominated and therefore favours men. However, women who reinterpret the Quran, like Amina Wadud[ii], “describe their project of articulating and advocating the practice of Qur’anically-mandated gender equality and social justice as Islamic feminism.”[iii]

While it is easy to agree that Quran should be reinterpreted to take a new look at Shariah and women should be given the rights that Quran actually mandates, it is not so easy to agree that Quran mandates “gender equality.” Women and men are clearly differentiated in Islam and there are attempts at gender equity rather than gender equality in the Quran. In Islam rights a person receives are based on their gender, religion and social status. Thus, a Muslim man is given some privileges that a Muslim woman is not given; similarly a Muslim woman has rights that a non-Muslim woman may not have under Islam. A free Muslim woman has far greater rights than an enslaved woman. But it does not mean that efforts of those who offer modern and women-friendly interpretations of Quran should not be appreciated. It is heartening to read that after centuries of male-dominated interpretations of the Quran, there are women and men who are coming forth to argue that Quran is not gender biased and does not given unconstrained power to men.[iv]

But over-enthusiastic interpretations sometimes dampen the efforts of those feminists who merely want the rights that are denied to them by society. Arguing against Fiqh is still tolerated, but the problem of Muslim feminists doubles when they reinterpret Shariah which has been entirely the domain of men. Interestingly, most people do not differentiate between the two distinct types of Muslim feminists resulting in mass rejection of feministic efforts.

It should be noted, though, that there is evidence to support the claim that although Islamic feminism got its name only in the early 1990s, Muslim women had begun demanding their rights as early as when the Quran was being revealed and codified. Indeed, a great many people believe that Aisha Bint Abu Bakr and even the Prophet Muhammad were feminists. It can be argued that Islamic feminism began in the household of the Prophet through the efforts of his wives and daughters.

This also calls for a differentiation in the terms: Islamic feminism (a commonly used term for the movement of ordinary Muslim women), and Islamic feministic theology (my coinage): for the sake of simplicity, those women who demand rights that Islam has promised them may be called Islamic/Muslim feminists, while those who ask for a reevaluation of Quranic interpretations may be called Islamic feministic theologians. There is virtually no known formal research done to differentiate the two types.

Early Muslim women were different from contemporary Muslim feminists in that they worked towards creating feministic theology: demanding that the Quran address women just as it addresses men[v]; creating the need for strict action against slanderers[vi]; establishing the practice of forbidding polygyny in marriage contracts[vii]; and asking that the Quran also commend the migratory efforts of women from Mecca to Yathrib as it commended the efforts of men[viii].

However, this did not mean that early Muslim women always received what they demanded – when they demanded gender equity, they received it; but demands for gender equality were not always accepted, or perhaps it never occurred to those women that the two genders could have equal rights. For example, there is no known record of any early Muslim woman demanding that she too should be allowed to divorce her husband independently like her husband could divorce her, although in pre-Islamic Arabia this was a common practice. However, modern Muslim feminists like Ziba Mir-Hosseini believe that such inequality exists because of “classical fiqh and its conceptions of gender” making “men’s right to polygamy and unilateral divorce” part of Shariah by “modifying its harsh edges or providing new justifications for it.”[ix]

Quran was addressed to and understood by the Arabs of the 7th century. Early Muslim women as well as men helped in establishing certain rights for women in the Quran. These rights were progressive but more than that they were uniform. While in pre-Islamic Arabia the rights women received varied from tribe to tribe, after the advent of Islam, Muslim women received standardized rights. Today, in the 21st century, enormous socio-economic changes have taken place in the light of which, women’s rights must be revised to meet the demands of modern time. This requires the work of both Muslim feminists and Islamic feministic theologians.

Although a lot of research has been done and is being done currently in the area of Islamic feminism, there seems to be no reliable research on the history and development of Islamic feministic theology from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to date. This is also an area that I wish to explore in the introduction to my research thesis.

What do you think about this differentiation between Muslim feminists and Islamic feministic theologians? Does it make sense? Is it necessary to diffierntiate the two groups? Into which group do you think you fall?

Edited to add: This article is part of  my MPhil proposal’s first draft. I wanted to clearly differentiate  between Muslim Feminists (with its two subtypes) and Muslim Feminist Theologians (with its various subtypes) however I changed my topic later on. This is rather sketchy because this is not all I have to say on the topic. Hopefully, we can discuss this more later.


[i] Jameelah, M. (undated).The Feminist movement and the Muslim woman. Islam 101. Retrieved from the WWW on July 2, 2010 from http://www.islam101.com/women/jameelah.htm

[ii] Wadud, A. (1999). Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective. Oxford University Press: New York

[iii] Badran, M. (2002). Islamic feminism: what’s in a name? Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Issue No.569. Retrieved from the WWW on July 2, 2010 from http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/569/cu1.htm

[iv] Yuksel, E. (undated) Beating women, or beating around the bush, or … Retrieved from the WWW on January 28, 2010 from http://www.yuksel.org/e/religion/unorthodox.htm

[v] http://altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=73&tSoraNo=33&tAyahNo=35&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0

[vi] http://www.islamicnetwork.com/index.php/weblog/comments/seerah_of_the_prophet_hadithatul_ifk/

[vii] http://www.islamfortoday.com/shamima1.htm

[viii] http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=3&tid=10212

[ix] http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/sikand090210.html

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24 thoughts on “Islamic Feminism Vs Islamic Feministic Theology

  1. Marahm says:

    I’d go a step further and ask of any particular woman, why does she find herself in either category? I think the answer might depend more upon where she lives than how she lives or thinks. You might consider that a woman’s place of residence might actually dictate her stance on feminism.

    This description: “Muslim women who enjoy secular rights or the rights Islam has given them but they go a step forward and demand equal rights with Muslim men,” (category 2) confuses me somewhat. Muslim women living in the West already have equal rights with men. They do not have to demand them.

    I’ll have to think about all this.

    I must confess that when I became Muslim, I never once accepted that divorce, for instance, would be initiated by my husband and not me, if I so chose. I never once accepted that I would tolerate another wife. My becoming Muslim was pretty much underscored by the fact that I am American, and I knew I’d never have to give up these rights, regardless of what Islam said.

    • Metis says:

      Marahm, Thank you and welcome!

      I agree with that – where a woman lives has a lot of influence on her stance on feminism. A very dear friend thinks Muslim feminists are militant and aggressive and she doesn’t want to associate with such women and that is because she doesn’t *need* feminism.

      Regarding women who have secular rights – good question. I was thinking more about Muslim women living in liberal Muslim countries or even in the West who want the same rights within the religion as their men. I wasn’t clear. Even in the West there are women who are still complaining that they don’t have equal rights – women are paid less, short maternity leave, abortion etc. But I was thinking about Muslim women, let’s say living in England, who are given many rights by their country, but who for example may not be allowed to divorce their husbands if they wished because their Muslim families don’t believe in that. Even in many liberal Muslim countries women are given many rights under Islam but they are not entirely *equal* and feminists are demanding equality rather than equity. Women in KSA are silently asking for equal inheritance for years. They have resorted to sex change surgeries only so they could claim a larger share in inheritance! Women in the UAE still can not own property if they are single. In Pakistan a woman can’t divorce her husband and in Egypt she has to apply for divorce which is accepted only if she forgoes her dowry. I had such women in mind. Am I making sense?

      Your last paragraph really interested me. That is a huge issue in Muslim countries – divorce is initially a mere pronouncement (not initiation) and men are actually divorcing women via text messages! A woman has to initiate it and there are several steps in the procedure. Polygamy is still practiced quite actively in the Middle East and the first wives are not even asked or told.

  2. Sara says:

    Before you even asked the question I was going to comment and say I’m an Islamic feministic theologian! But I would say I’m a bit of both actually – I do believe Islam has given women certain rights that just need to be taken (or men need to allow us to take them) but I also believe traditionalist interpretations are male-centric and patriarchal. Guess it depends on the area.
    Great post!

  3. Sara says:

    Also, Marahm said the following: “Muslim women living in the West already have equal rights with men. They do not have to demand them.”

    This is not necessarily the case. In many Western countries, women do not have equal rights with men. Even when they DO, they still have to demand them and fight for them. Here in Holland, a very progressive country, women often get paid less than men.
    Moreover, rampant sexism is everywhere, in the West or East, even though it is obviously worse in some countries. This means that women are always in a battle against patriarchy, whether one lives in the West or not.
    My understanding of Islamic feminism is that God has given us rights that men later took away through patriarchal interpretations, fiqh, shari’ah and hadith. In the same way, many Western countries may have equal laws and rights, but does this always work out in practice?

    • Metis says:

      Yes! That is how I feel too and hence said to Marahm that “Even in the West there are women who are still complaining that they don’t have equal rights – women are paid less, short maternity leave, abortion etc.”

      Feminism is required everywhere, IMHO.

  4. Lat says:

    I fell for the first type of category and upgraded to the second one 🙂

    To me the first one is like a stepping stone.If women feel that their rights have been granted and satisfied with just Islamic feminism then it’s fine.It would be fine,really.When you don’t,then you have to go a bit further to prove your viewpoints by standing your ground.I think this is what happened to some Islamic feminist like female imam issue.There’s no point arguing for scrap food when you know you’re not getting any.So jump onto the plate itself in order to be heard,listened and get the rights we want.

    I too believe our social circumstances do come into play like mentioned above.
    “…perhaps it never occurred to those women that the two genders could have equal rights..” This issue is still an ongoing one so not limited to 7th century Arabia 🙂

    “…although in pre-Islamic Arabia this was a common practice.” Muslim women ‘banned’ to just divorce men at will perhaps had to do with hadiths that say that muslims should not be acting in accordance with how polythiests do.The concept that Muslims should be different and they should stand out from them like the dressing for a example,may be a result of it.

    I would love for you to share your research on Islamic feminisic theology cause I believe we can learn a lot more from the past history of Islam during the prophet’s time.I was also disappointed from the hadiths lack of muslim women views on topics that affect womens’ lives the most.

    • Metis says:

      Thank you Lat for a good laugh in your first two paragraphs 😀

      What I meant with pre-Islamic women being able to divorce was this: various modern historians including Nikki R. Keddie (Women in the Middle East: past and present) write that just like some pre-Islamic Arabian tribes practiced female infanticide and unlimited polygamy and abuse of women , there were also tribes in which women practiced polyandry out of choice, and freely and easily divorced their husbands. With the advent of Islam, social laws became standardized so that ALL Muslim men and women had to follow the same laws. In matrilineal heathen tribes women could divorce a man by uttering “I divorce you” thrice, or they changed the direction of the entrance to their tent indicating that the man was not welcome into the family anymore.

      After Islam, verbal divorce became the right of only the man. Out of the ten verses in the Quran referring to divorce (4:35; 4:125-130; 65:1; 2:228; 2:232; 2:229-230; 4:20; 33:49;65:2; 65:4) only two verses deal with women wanting to divorce from their husbands and both encourage reconciliation which is seen as better than divorce. Moreover, if a man *wants to divorce* his wife he can do so without appointing a judge but if a woman wants to *attain* divorce then she has to go through a procedure.

      One important aspect of Islam in Arabia was the setting of standard law since earlier Arabs had neither standard law, nor was it ever written down. That law is now applied to all Muslims which is why we are having this discussion. I am sorry that I have been consistently so confusing in this post! I hope I clarified some points.

  5. mariam says:

    salam, I think I belong to two categories depending the issue, sometimes first one , sometimes second category!!:-)
    honestly I dont like categorizing people( as you explained) , because Islamic Republic is always categorizing: good hijabi , bad hijabi women- those who are commited to us(goverment),those who are not commited ………. list continues.maybe because of that I have a bad feeling toward categorizing!? from another hand , puting an ordinary muslim woman in one of remot areaes of Iran ( who is seeking divorce from her abusive husband with difficulty) in one category and puting a muslim woman with PHD in US ( who all of his diffucult is reaserch) in another category , dont make a good feeling in me. maybe I am wrong , I dont know!! but one thing is clear for me , althought you and I, have different ideaes toward different issues ( like other readers) both of us want something same, because of that I am here , isnot it?:-):-)
    mariam-Iran

  6. Zuhura says:

    I definitely fall into your second category, though I don’t like the label “theologian” which implies an academic knowledge of the Qur’an. I am a Muslim and a feminist but not a theologian, so I prefer the label Muslim feminist or feminist Muslim. Although I do realize there are women who fall into your first category, I would not call them feminists. There can be no equity without equality. And with regard to women’s rights in the West, we may have equal rights under the law (with major exceptions such as family planning issues), but we most certainly are not treated equally in practice.

    • Metis says:

      Would you call Wadud and Barlas ‘theologians’? How different do you think you are from them? I understand that you are not a scholar of the Quran and they are but you also interpret the Quran for yourself and actually may disagree with them on some points. Just because they are scholars of the Quran, does it mean that we should accept all their interpretations? – like we are told often.

      I definitely believe that we are given equal rights under law in the West but that (like you said) we are not treated equally. I mentioned that in the comment to Mahram. How do you think that sad fact affects the arguments of Muslim feminists?

      • Zuhura says:

        I haven’t read Barlas yet, but I would call Wadud a theologian. That doesn’t mean I have to accept her interpretations, it just means that interpreting the Qur’an is her profession and she has developed more skills in that area, whereas for me it’s a personal interest.

        I saw that many people had responded to Mahram on that issue (and I will respond more to her below). I just wanted to add my thoughts on that. My own opinion is that the Qur’an establishes equal rights for men and women, and that the fine legal details show how progressive Islam was at the time and place when it began. The Qur’an establishes a baseline for progressive treatment of women, not a limit. If we follow the spirit of progressiveness rather than the legal details, we can use Islamic principles to aid in the fight for women’s equality, in the West and elsewhere. In other words, feminists must fight for women’s equality, and those feminists who are also Muslims can find support for that fight within the Qur’an.

  7. Marahm says:

    OK, I guess I am in the minority, thinking that women in the West are treated equally. Perhaps, as you suggested, Muslim women are reluctant to exercise their rights because of family pressure and/ or the precedence of religious belief over law.

    Sara mentioned that women still get paid less than men, at least in Holland. I would ask whether that statement is true for men and women doing the same job for the same employer, or whether certain jobs are generally more available to women and therefore pay less.

    I see that here in the States, certain types of work, traditionally done by women, pay much less than jobs traditionally done by men, regardless of qualifications. However, if a man enters into a job usually done by women, he will also get the low salary.

    My own profession is a case in point. I am a Clinical Laboratory Scientist. Years ago, only women entered this profession. It needs a B.S. degree, and pays less than many other allied health professions. During the last twenty years, more and more men have entered the field, and the salary has increased for both men and women equally.

    However, my brothers, who are not college educated, work in the automotive industry, where traditionally, men have dominated. Their salaries are two and three times mine.

    So, equality of salary has more to do with what career field a woman enters, at least here in the States. If she wants to sell cars, she’ll make as much money as her male colleagues, and both of them will make more money than a man or a woman with a four-year science degree.

    • Zuhura says:

      Mahram, it’s true that the types of jobs in which women are employed in the States affects their income vis-á-vis men. However, in many fields men are paid more than women even in the same positions. For example, in academia (my field), men tend to get paid more for the same positions, and because of the way raises work, over the years these disparities grow over time. Some research suggests this is because women are not taught how to negotiate for higher salaries when they are initially hired. And in my observations, male professors also are more likely than their female colleagues to seek out and get offers from other universities which they use to negotiate higher salaries; women are less likely to do this because they don’t want to (or can’t) move their families.

  8. Metis says:

    Marahm,

    See? This is why I enjoy your words so much and value your opinion. That is such an interesting perspective. I never thought about that. I also never thought about the reasons Zuhura mentioned for why men may be paid higher than women in the same category.

    It might interest you both that in the ME and especially in the UAE and KSA, women are paid a lot higher than men in the same position in some sectors! Women taxi drivers earn more than men because they are so few and highly in demand. Women also earn more in marketing and HR. They also demand higher salaries and negotiate harder than men so either give up or give in. Another major reason is that Arab men are more likely to be lazier than women and so in the UAE at least there are more unemployed men (out of choice and habit) than women. Some don’t ever show up to interviews and live off state support.

    It is a difficult situation for the governments of these countries because women don’t want to have more than two children as they can’t handle large families (the usual number of children in a typical Khaleeji household is 6-9) with full time work. The governments are failing to spur the men to work and instead are now giving huge incentives to men to marry more than once to increase the population. This in turn has increased the rate of divorce because an independent woman doesn’t want a co-wife either.

  9. sarah says:

    I would definately describe myself as being in the first category. I am British and my parents are converts (both English) so I am a born Muslim but culturally I am ‘Western’. I have never felt I was less or unequal to men in my religion. I understand and agree that the laws of Islam are not equal but I believe this is due to men and women operating primarily (according to Islam) in different spheres. According to the laws of Islam women are primarily responsible for the upbrining of children and care of the home whereas men have the responsability of providing economically for the family.

    This is a very traditional set of roles which does not suit everybody but then Islam does not mandate that a woman cannot work so I believe that the laws regarding men and women are not literally equal but neither are they oppressive or degrading to women and I have no need to change them. If the laws need changing to make actual equality (and not equity) then women must also take responsability for finance and men must work more in the home. Those areas where women have a percieved advantage (in that her money is her own, etc and that she does not have to pay for her upkeep) should also been changed so that her property must be shared with the husband – otherwise equality is not just. Can we percieve a Muslim society where polyandry is practices and men and women have a right to four partners in marriage? How would it be decided which laws need changing and which are fine as they are? Could men and women ever reach a concensus on this point?

    As per divorce, in my community men are not granted a divorce just by declaration. We have a comittee which oversees all marital issues and grants divorce certificates. Men and women have equal right to initiate divorce and be granted one even against the wishes of the spouse. This is equal for men and women. Men must go through this board and cannot get a divorce by declaration alone. Similarly, we have no marriage contracts where the women stipulate requirements. We only declare the amount of the dower and the consent of the bride. So in this aspect I believe I do have equal rights to the men in my community.

    Also, women and men have seperate organisations and both are equal. The women’s section is in control of it’s own finance, planning and activities and does not have to consult or inform the mens section.

    Sorry for the long post but in my experience as a Muslim I have not found myself unequal to men nor have I so far found a law which I diagree with so i would definately fall into the first category.

    • Metis says:

      “As per divorce, in my community men are not granted a divorce just by declaration.”

      That is very good! What community are you referring to, Sarah? That is quite an excellent view that I support completely.

  10. Marahm says:

    Well, I am surprised and enlightened to hear of the different realities prevailing in sectors with which I am unfamiliar. Zuhura’s comment reflects the constant concern that women have with respect to their families. The woman is, indeed, responsible for the bearing and raising of the children, and most women will put family needs above personal needs. Employers, of course, must look out for the workplace first. We may see new arrangements in the future, solutions which do not usurp the woman of her biological fate and responsibility, yet protect the needs of the workplace.

    Metis cites the power of supply and demand with respect to salary as well as who gets the job.

    The phenomenon of men being lazy and women being ambitious is interesting. That topic seems to need a study of its own!

    Maybe I’m not a real feminist, because I believe that the woman has a genetic predisposition and to take care of kids and family, while the man is programmed to roam and hunt. That doesn’t mean I believe that women should not be allowed to do anything else. No, I would love to see women thinking up more creative solutions to the problems of having (or wanting) to work, while still meeting the needs of the family first.

    Personally, I believe the extended family would provide such a framework. Here in the West, families would have to deliberately plan to grow as extended, rather than individual. It would need a lot of cooperation.

    • Metis says:

      Marahm, I will post about this more later but wanted to add here that I too think on similar lines as yours although I have never not worked and can’t imagine life as a full-time housewife either. Work makes me think actively and I thrive on it.

  11. sarah says:

    Metis, I am an Ahmadi Muslim so we have a Qadha board which administrates all marital disputes and divorces as well as other financial disputes, etc.

  12. […] scripture in their own way so in some ways they behave like Muslim women whom I earlier called “Islamic feminist theologians” (the process Wadud calls Islamic Feminism), but these women are not Muslim feminists.  Women […]

  13. sana says:

    I wish I was sure and knew which category I belong to. It would save me a lot of pain and headache. People accuse me of using religion to my advantage where I only pick and choose stuff that I feel is appropriate. I am not very good with speaking my mind clearly and making them understand my point in an efficient way. Inshallah that will change soon. Till then I am just a feminist. Great post. I always await your posts eagerly. Thanks.

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