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:
- 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
- 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