Islam and Feminism: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism?Hania Sholkamy begins: ‘Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship’, and goes on to warn us of the perils of faith-based feminism. While concurring with the essence of her critique of political Islam’s gender discourse, I suggest that the ‘troubled relationship’ has changed, and this change is actually due to the rise of political Islam, which has opened a dialogue between feminism and Islam.
But before I go any further, some clarifications are in order. Both ‘feminism’ and ‘Islam’ are contested concepts, that is, they mean different things to different people and in different contexts. In other words, we need to start by asking: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism? These questions are central to Sholkamy’s critique, but remain implicit and unpacked in her essay.
Let me start by stating my own position on the concepts at issue. As both a scholar-activist and a Muslim woman, I am a committed participant in debates about gender equality in law. My academic discipline – anthropology – enables me to observe my own participation in the debate, but I do not claim to be a detached observer. I understand ‘feminism’ in the widest sense: it includes a general concern with women’s issues, an awareness that women suffer discrimination at work, in the home and in society because of their gender, and action aimed at improving their lives and changing the situation. There is also an epistemological side to feminism; it is a knowledge project, in the sense that it sheds light on how we know what we know about women’s rights in religious law, enabling us to challenge religious patriarchy from within.
As for ‘religion’, I concur with Sholkamy that those who talk of Islam, or indeed of ‘religion’ in relation to Islam, too often fail to make a distinction now common when talking of religion in other contexts, namely between faith (and its values and principles) and organised religion (institutions, laws and practices). The result is the pervasive polemic/rhetorical trick of either glorifying a faith without acknowledging the horrors and abuses that are committed in its name, or condemning it by equating it with those abuses. Sholkamy rightly notes the confusion of meanings in the English word ‘religion’, though it might be better to avoid a deceptive chalk vs cheese contrast between ‘faith’ and ‘politics’ and rather to note that a term (Islam or the Arabo-Muslim din, as much as the English ‘religion’) that can encompass faith and belief, legal traditions and discourses, and organisational structures and positions, has political and rhetorical potential – not least in slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’; or, the version in other contexts: ‘return to Sharia’.
For in many ways it is the notion of ‘Sharia’ that is the problem. In modern times, when nation-states have created uniform legal systems and selectively reformed and codified elements of classical Islamic law, and when new forms of political Islam have emerged that use Islamic law as an ideology, one of the main distinctions in the Islamic tradition has been distorted and elided. This is the distinction between Sharia and fiqh. In Muslim belief Sharia is God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Fiqh, jurisprudence denotes the process of human endeavour to discern and extract legal rulings from the sacred sources of Islam, that is, the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet, as contained in Hadith, Traditions). This distinction, which underlies the emergence of the various jurisprudential schools in the tradition, and, within them, a multiplicity of positions and opinions, has immense epistemological and political ramifications. It allows contestation and change; it enables us to separate the legal from the sacred, and to ask basic questions such as, how do we know what the Sharia is? How do we know what we know about gender rights in Islam? Who says what ‘Islam’ says or mandates? The distinction is therefore crucial to the arguments of committed feminists who choose to locate their feminism within Islamic tradition.
Let me turn to two relevant issues that I feel have been lost in the debate, and neglected in Sholkamy’s argument. First, the linkage between the religious and political dimensions of identity in Muslim contexts is, in my view, one of the key issues that Muslim women confront in their struggle for equality. This linkage is not new – it has its roots in the colonial era – but it took a new and distinct expression in the 1970s with the resurgence of Islam as a political and spiritual force. With the end of the colonial era, the rise of secular and despotic regimes in Muslim countries and their suppression of progressive forces left a vacuum that was filled by Islamist movements. These movements, strengthened dramatically by the success of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, accelerated with the subsequent perceived defeat of communism. But it was not until the rise of the neo-conservatives in the USA, and their response to the events of 9/11 – in particular the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 – that Muslim women found themselves in the crossfire. Both invasions were partially justified in the name of ‘freeing Muslim women’; and US neo-conservatives and rightist parties in Europe have noisily promoted women of Muslim backgrounds such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, who openly voiced criticism of what they understood as Islam.
The second issue is how political Islam, like other ideologies, carries the seeds of its own mutation. One of its neglected and unintended consequences was to give rise to a new feminism that is native to Islam. This did not happen because the Islamists offered an egalitarian vision of gender relations: they did not. Rather, their defence of patriarchal rulings as ‘God’s Law’, and as promoting an authentic and ‘Islamic’ way of life, brought the classical jurisprudential texts out of the closet, and exposed them to increasing criticism; their very agenda – ‘return to Sharia’ – and their attempt to translate into policy the patriarchal gender notions inherent in those texts provoked many women to greater activism. A growing number of women came to question whether there was an inherent link between Islamic ideals and patriarchy, and saw no contradiction between their faith and their aspiration for gender equality. Using the language of political Islam, they could free themselves from the straitjacket of earlier anti-colonial and nationalist discourses and sustain a critique of the gender biases in Islamic law in ways that were previously impossible.
To appreciate this, we need to go back to the early twentieth century, to recall how and why the entanglement of feminism with the politics of colonialism faced Muslim women and Muslim reformers early on with difficult choices. At a time when feminism, as both a consciousness and a movement, was being shaped and making its impact in Europe and North America, it also ‘functioned to morally justify the attacks on native [Muslim] societies and to support the notion of the comprehensive superiority of Europe,’ as Leila Ahmed (1992: 154) among others has shown. Muslim women who acquired a feminist consciousness at the time, and sought equal rights for women, were under pressure to conform to anti-colonialist and nationalist priorities, as well as to the secularist and ‘modernist’ but despotic agenda of the new states. Contemporary western feminists could criticise the patriarchal elements of their own cultures and religions in the name of modernity, liberalism and democracy, but Muslims could not draw on these external ideologies or on internal political ideologies in their fight for equal rights. For both the colonialists and the modernising secularists, ‘Islam’ was the embodiment of a backward tradition that must be rejected or tamed in the name of progress. For anti-colonialists and most nationalists, ‘feminism’ – that is, advocacy of women’s rights – was a colonial project and must be resisted. Some scholars have argued that in the early twentieth century the border between Islam and feminism was not so clearly marked, and that women often tried to change traditional laws by invoking and relying on Islam’s sacred texts. But it was in this period too that women became symbols of cultural authenticity and carriers of religious tradition and way of life, which meant that any dissent on their part could be construed as a kind of betrayal, or could be silenced. Meanwhile, undemocratic Muslim ‘modernists’ gave a new legal force to the gender inequalities prescribed by classical Islamic jurists. As a consequence, many Muslim women faced a painful choice, as Leila Ahmed puts it, ‘between betrayal and betrayal’ (1984: 122). They had to choose between their Muslim identity – their faith – and their new gender awareness.
This dilemma has disappeared; by the early 1990s there were clear signs of the emergence of a new consciousness, a new way of thinking, a gender discourse that is ‘feminist’ in its aspiration and demands, yet ‘Islamic’ in its language and sources of legitimacy. Some versions of this new discourse came to be labelled ‘Islamic feminism’ – a conjunction that is unsettling to both many Islamists and some secular feminists, yet holds the potential and the promise for change (Mir-Hosseini 2006).
Sholkamy herself appears unsettled by the engagement of Muslim feminists with their religion and with their search for gender justice within Islam. She suggests that they will face ‘equally authentic’ interpretations of the sacred sources, and, unable to ‘oppose the divine will’, will be defeated by the impossibility of judging whose interpretations are correct. Is this not defeatist? Authority is not the same as authenticity. Contemporary Muslim feminists seek just such engagements with proponents of supposedly authentic but patriarchal legal traditions, convinced that their own arguments are better grounded in both those traditions and the sources of International Human Rights law, and above all that any Islamic authority that denies justice as it is understood today cannot be authentic and should be challenged (Mir-Hosseini 2009).For those of us committed to achieving justice for women in a just world, there is no other choice than to bring Islamic and feminist perspectives together. For me, and for many other Muslim women, this is the only option that we have in the present context where we are faced by an apparent choice between the devil of those who want to impose patriarchal interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts, and the deep blue sea of those who pursue a neo-colonialist hegemonic global project in the name of enlightenment and feminism.
A brand of feminism that takes Islam as the source of its legitimacy has a great potential to challenge both the hegemony of patriarchal interpretations of the Sharia and the authority of those who claim to speak in the name of Islam. Otherwise, Muslim women’s quest for equality will remain a hostage to the fortunes of various political forces and tendencies, as was the case in the twentieth century. The legal gains and losses of women in Iran, and now in Afghanistan and Iraq, testify that there can be no sustainable gains unless patriarchal notions of family and gender relations are debated, challenged and redressed within an Islamic framework.
We need to eliminate the dichotomy between ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ that continues to be a feature of the politics of gender among Muslims. This dichotomy – itself in many respects a colonial legacy – is both false and at times arbitrary, as Abdullahi An-Na‘im reminds us (An-Na’im 1995). But its implications are too grave and too pernicious to be ignored, especially in a twenty-first century context that is shaped by the politics of the ‘war on terror’. Many Muslims perceive this war to be directed against them once again. Such a perception – whether justified or not – not only puts them on the defensive and makes them more likely to cling to religious tradition, but it also erodes the credibility and moral high ground of secular and Western discourses.
Ahmed, Leila (1992) Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Newhaven: Yale University Press
Ahmed, Leila (1984) ‘Early Feminist Movements in the Middle East: Turkey and Egypt,’ in Freda Hussain (ed.), Muslim Women, London: Croom Helm
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba (2009) ‘Towards Gender Equality: Muslim Family Laws and the Shari‘a,’ in Z. Anwar (ed.), Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, Musawah: An Initiative of Sisters of Islam, accessible at http://www.musawah.org/background_papers.asp
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba (2006) ‘Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism’, Critical Inquiry, summer 32: 629-45
An-Na‘im, Abdullahi (1995) ‘The Dichotomy between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,’ in M. Afkhami (ed.), Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, London: I. B. Tauris
SOAS, University of London