Internalization of colonialism and Muslim feminism

Ahmed (1992, p. 178-179) argues that “the internalization of colonialism and of notions of the innate superiority of the European over the native- the colonization of consciousness, in short- could complicate feminism.” This is true. However, another fact in tandem with this is that even the earliest forms of Islamic feminism appeared in a post-colonial Muslim world because of the “internalization of colonialism.” It is no coincidence that all the early Islamic/Muslim feminists were either born in a colonised Muslim world or were European educated women and men (often bilingual) who claimed to “be progressive about gender, sexuality, ritual, law, or other questions of Islamic reform… in the face of naked hatred from outside” (Knight, 2013). Impact of colonisation can be gauged from the example that although Iran resisted being colonised in the 19th Century it lost part of its territory to Russo-Persian and Anglo-Persian Wars where Western influence set its roots giving rise to political and social unrest. It was in such a socio-political scene that  Fatimih Baraghani was born (who later converted to Babism), the “first woman to unveil and to question both political and religious orthodoxy” (Nafisi, 2003). Baraghani was succeeded by other gender reformers like Huda Shaarawi, Muhammad Abduh, Aisha Abd al-Rahman, Qasim Amin (whose work is now considered by modern Islamic feminists as andocentric and colonist [Ahmed, 1992]), Fatma Aliye Topuz, Nezihe Muhiddin, Halide Edip Adivar, Hind Nawfal, Nazira Zain El Din, and Labiba Shamtin all of whom were born in the colonial and post-colonial era and were influenced by the European colonist thought. It is no wonder then that for the conservative Muslims who opposed both colonialism and gender reform “”feminism” became linked to colonialism and Western imposition, having to defend Islam as a sign of identity of Muslim societies against every “external” current, as if justice for women was a cause unrelated to Islam” (Quiroga, 2012, para. 6).


Similarly, I believe that globalisation, Wahhabism, and the explosive growth of Islam that has reached the West has reinvigorated Islamic/Muslim feminism which has been influenced by both globalisation and the critical thinking skills that Western education emphasizes (Hassan et al. 2010). Two commonly held beliefs exist in the Muslim community: 1) the belief that every edict in the Quran is timeless; 2) and that every statement in the Quran is a religious law. These beliefs have given rise to the need for some modern Muslims (often called by others and themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ Muslims) to indulge in new theological debates that either build upon or negate the existing discourses by classical scholars of the Quran like Qadi ibn Arabi, Ibn Katheer, Muhammad al Tabari and others. Most Islamic feminists who attempt to reinterpret the Quran are either Western or have been raised/educated in the West, and fault the classical interpretations for their “patriarchal slant” (Barlas, 2002; Wadud, 1992; Hassan, n.d; Mir-Hosseini, 2012; Shaikh, 1997). Their argument is that although Quran was revealed in 609 AD, it is a text of guidance for all people of all times, hence contested verses (particularly Quran: 4:34; 4:3; 2:222; 4:11-12; 24:31) must have always had a progressive and feminist intent but were misinterpreted by patriarchal scholars to control women. Where the vast majority of Muslim and Islamic feminists today are either Western or have been educated in the West, ironically many of their opponents come from similar socio-political backgrounds like, Maryam Jameelah, a Jewish convert to Islam who became the second wife of a Jamat-e-Islami member and emigrated to live in Pakistan from where she wrote that, “Never has moral corruption and social decadence menaced mankind on such a universal scale as is the case now. The adoption of feminist ideals degrades humans lower than the animals” (Jameelah, n.d). In between the progressive and the conservative Muslims is another group that rationalises gender and Islam slightly differently.


While there are many feminists who blame ‘patriarchal interpretations’ of the Quran for the “oppression of Muslim women”, there are other feminists who believe that some injunctions in the Quran were revealed for a specific time and a specific people, and that not every edict in the Quran is a religious command. For instance, Muhammad Abduh “radically” distinguished between Ibadat (the principles or doctrines of worship) and Muamalat (laws and commandments concerning social relations, customs and mores). Ibadat according to Abduh were constant, universal and unchanging like Tawhid (monotheism) and Salah (prayer), while Muamalat were not constant and depended on  the cultural context in question. Such a view allowed Abduh to explain the unnecessity of polygamy in the modern world (Abduh, n.d., P. 117). Similarly, Wadud (1999, p. 55) tries to explain Hur-al-‘Ayn as “something specific to the Jahili Arab… (that) demonstrates the Qur’an’s familiarity with the dreams and desires of those Arabs” (emphasis mine). Wadud rationalises that, “If we take these mythological depictions universally as the ideal female, a number of culturally specific limitations are forced on the divergent audiences of the Qur’an” (Ibid). These feminists have demonstrated an acceptance and  approval of cultural relativism, and acknowledge that the first audience of the Quran was remarkably different from us that must have required some time and cultural bound Quranic decrees – the Muamalat. 

What type of feminist are you – the one who thinks Quranic interpretations are patriarchal or the one who thinks there’s a difference between different laws in the Quran? And what do you consider as the reason you are a feminist?


5 thoughts on “Internalization of colonialism and Muslim feminism

  1. Metis says:

    I haven’t put together the bibliography; if anyone is interested I’ll make the effort 🙂

  2. seema says:

    we all shod support this cause

  3. Saba says:

    I’m of the second type. I think the basic principles of all religions are the same and those are the ones that will never change. Things like Tawhid, or the moral instructions. But the ordinances should change.

    First approach isn’t very efficient. There are verses in Quran that are very explicit and its not their “interpretation” that causes problems for women’s right. I don’t think the first approach is very helpful to Islamic feminism, because the “more fair” interpretations can be easily “beaten” by the non-feminist Muslims (there are enough Hadith to support the less fair interpretations, and the verses are generally written in that way, otherwise wouldn’t become controversial at all)

  4. […] Meti’s Blog on Muslim Feminists: Two commonly held beliefs exist in the Muslim community: 1) the belief that every edict in the […]

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