Islam and Feminism: Response to Hania Sholkamy

I have read with interest Hania Sholkamy’s essay on Islam and Feminism and accompanying responses from scholars in different disciplines. I would like to enter the conversation as a historian.

Sholkamy starts her essay with the assertion that ‘Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship’. Let’s unpack this. The patriarchal representation of Islam, or as its advocates put it, “Islam” has indeed been troubled by feminism. And feminism has been troubled by patriarchal incursions into Islam. From the moment Muslim women began to articulate their feminism they drew inspiration from Islam – the Islam that challenged the patriarchy of the society into which it was introduced and societies into which it spread. With this version and vision of Islam it can be affirmed that that ‘Islam and feminism have had a positive relationship’.

I wish to refute certain misconceptions about Muslim women’s feminisms: that the newer discourse of Islamic feminism is “native” and that preceding feminisms were western and un-Islamic. Islamic feminism which brought ground-breaking hermeneutic power to gender analysis forms part of a silsila or chain with the feminism Muslim women first generated in diverse locations a century ago, referred to as secular feminism or simply feminism, which continues to do crucial gender work to this day. Apparently some get put off by the term “secular feminism” which simply connoted a local or national feminism inclusive of all citizens whatever their religion and which built upon and extended the discourses of Islamic modernism and secular nationalism (promoting the sovereignty and integrity of the territorial nation-state composed of equal citizens). Muslims’ secular feminism and Islamic feminism have both drawn upon Islam in support of women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice. They are both equally “native” or part and parcel of indigenous culture and religion. Why therefore do many persist in telling the story of Muslims’ secular feminism through the words of its detractors who trashed it as alien, un-Islamic and a form of western cultural imperialism?

The two feminisms have done somewhat different although mutually important work. Islamic feminists generated an incisive hermeneutics to argue for full gender equality within the family. Secular feminists, who advocated equality for women in society called for reform within a patriarchal model of the family that endorsed complimentary gender roles inspired by Islamic modernist Shaikh Muhammad ‘Abduh. Unable to conduct their own tafsir, because they did not possess the tools, they stopped short of endorsing gender equality in the family. The exception that proved the rule was Lebanese Nazira Zain al-Din (educated by her father, a renowned religious scholar), a forerunner to and pioneer of what was later identified as Islamic feminism, who did confront the complimentary model of the family in her 1928 book al-Sufur wa al-Hijab (Unveiling and Veiling) in which she also attacked the contention that the niqab and female domestic seclusion were religious imperatives. Egyptian feminists Malak Hifni Nasif, Nabawiyya Musa, and Huda Sha‘rawi (to mention three of the better known), and the less known Ihsan al-Kusi, invoked Islam to support their calls for change and activist initiatives. Among these they demanded that women have access to mosques as they did in the early days of Islam (1911), the right to move about in the public sphere, right to education, right to health, right to work, political rights, and reform of the Muslim Personal Status Code. In Egypt, and elsewhere, the pioneers of Islamic feminism boldly and simultaneously demonstrated loyalty and support to their gender and nation cum religion, within a context of colonialism and quasi-independence. The historical record and the voluminous paper trail feminist Muslims have left from day one attests to this. By carefully checking out history perhaps the canard that women had to choose between betrayal (to selves and gender) and betrayal (to nation and religion) can finally be put to rest. Women, however, in the past as now, have had to be brave. We today can certainly be grateful so many were.

Both secular and religious answers are needed today to combat patriarchal institutions and practices that have coexisted in secular and religious guises and are promoted by those who still tenaciously cling to their power and privileges. Working within narrow understandings of the secular and the religious, and with the notion these are polarized categories rather than seeing that they are porous and dynamic and construct each other, only subverts the struggle for justice and equality that Islam promises and nation-states with Muslim majorities and minorities claim to seek. By airing her worries and concerns Sholkamy, as I see it, is urging us to take stock.

Margot Badran
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Georgetown University, and St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn

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