Islam and Feminism: Response to Hania Sholkamy

Dear Hania,

I hear you saying two main things: First, feminists (in this case Egyptian) are making a mistake when they use religious terms of reference to advance their agenda of gender justice. You argue that when Egyptian feminism, as a political project, makes such instrumental use of religion, it can never win the contest of authenticity since different religious interpretations can make equally successful claims to truth, yet some of these interpretations may sanction the very same gendered forms of injustice that the feminist project is struggling against. Second, you seem to be saying that it is problematic when ‘standardized religious teachings’ become the public standards upon which people are expected to make their life decisions and are accordingly judged.  Despite its immediate gains of some societal support, the religious pathway to social justice, you argue, has the downside of resulting in undermining “independent reason,” and even “faith” that is divorced from political sentiments and interests. This political use of religion, you worry, is responsible for the emergence of oppressive and exclusionary identity politics. However, you distinguish the above-mentioned feminist project that uses religion as a tool of politics from a philosophical and an intellectual one which engages epistemologically with religious tradition and in the process arrives at valid and progressive interpretations (that are just to women). You see merit in the latter project, which you say, is driven not by a political agenda of social change but a religious goal of interrogating the tradition on its own turf and by using its own methodologies.

I have two comments to make and will do so by using family laws as an example of a domain in which engagement with religion has been part of feminist efforts to bring about just legal rights for women. In family laws, the question, I would argue, is not whether or not using religious-based arguments to pursue a feminist agenda may be useful and politically prudent in the short-term but costly and counter-productive in the long run. In all Middle Eastern countries with the exception of Turkey, family law is based on the doctrines of Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Of course it would be simplistic and inaccurate to say that these modern laws are the mirror reflection of the doctrines of Islamic jurisprudence or the teachings of sacred texts.  The codification process of these laws, being part of the project of modern state building and subject-making in the region, produced narrow and centralized codes which not only lacked the legal pluralism of early schools of Islamic law, but also in some cases contradicted guiding principles of the sacred texts and included elements from colonial European laws. Notwithstanding the genealogy of present-day Muslim family laws, they remain substantially based on Islamic jurisprudence.  Moreover, many Middle Eastern states and their citizens profess a preference for family laws that are based on religious teachings. Therefore, one could conclude that engagement with religious knowledge in the realm of family laws is necessary. But the more important and relevant question, I believe, is whether this engagement is inherently risky or problematic.  It may appear to be so when we fail to unpack and de-homogenize what we mean by ‘religious’ or, to be more precise, what we mean by engagement with religious tradition.

My first point, then, is that engagement with religion in a feminist reformist agenda can take multiple pathways to gender justice. The key word is ‘multiple.’ And some of these pathways will be more successful than others.  Here I think it is important to note your distinction between two kinds of projects:  one which sugar-coats its reform language with religious arguments and one that engages systematically and comprehensively with the religious tradition.  I agree that there is such a thing as a questionable use of religion to advance feminist agendas.  However, the problem with it, I think, is not that it is opportunist but that it is often incoherent and unsystematic so it ends up being an unpersuasive and ineffective strategy.  I think this kind of poorly informed and partial use of religious arguments makes feminists unable to address opposing religious counter-arguments.  A good example is the pick-and-choose approach of using religious texts to restrict polygyny, but then not knowing what to do with the Quranic verse regarding wife beating; or using a particular religious argument to expand women’s access to divorce, but then being forced to ignore the verse regarding men’s ‘guardianship’ over women.  But I venture to add that this challenge does not arise from the supposedly unwinnable contest of the ‘most authentic religious interpretation,’ but rather from the lack of feminist efforts to engage in a larger systematic and comprehensive way with religious tradition.

There are, however, other efforts taking place that are driven less by an agenda of gender justice than by an interpretive project to engage with the religious tradition. These efforts are relevant to feminist goals and can have substantive impact on their outcomes.  I would say, for instance, that the work of Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Muhammad Khalid Masud, and Khaled Abu Fadl offer a critical yet religious-based approach to religious tradition. This approach is above all grounded in a coherent and systematic engagement with sacred texts and Islamic jurisprudence, while at the same time addressing questions that are pertinent to gender justice and social change.  In other words, there is a place for a serious and thoughtful engagement with religion in a political agenda that seeks gender justice. Such engagement need not be instrumental or inescapably trapped in the polemics of authenticating its religious interpretations.

A recent example of such engagement, to which you refer, is the success of Egyptian religious scholars  and feminists in passing the khul law.¹  This was accomplished through the use of careful and methodical religious arguments.  These arguments affirmed women’s religious right to khul by appealing to the intended purpose of the Quranic verse on khul (i.e. to give Muslim women a way out of an unwanted marriage); and by invoking the incident in which Prophet Mohamed automatically granted khul divorce to a woman who came to him, complaining that she no longer wished to continue living with a husband whom she did not like although he had not wronged her.  The proponents of khul law, moreover, highlighted the distinction between jurisprudence as the human efforts of early jurists to arrive at an understanding of the doctrines of sacred texts on the one hand, and the divine intentions of these texts, on the other. This distinction is important because those who opposed the law on religious grounds based their argument on the majority opinion of early jurists which makes the granting khul divorce conditional on the approval of the husband.

But by arguing persuasively that the opinions of early jurists were the outcome of a historically situated human endeavor, the proponents of the new law showed that these opinions were contextual, indeterminate, and subject for reinterpretation. When the constitutionality of khul law was contested in front of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court on the basis that it violated the Shari’a, the latter being the main source of Egyptian legislation according to Article 2 of the country’s constitution, the court upheld the law by invoking the distinction between jurisprudence and Shari’a as well as applying the principle of distinguishing between texts with definitive and binding meaning and those with indeterminate meanings.

There remains considerable opposition to khul because of societal norms that see divorce only as a man’s prerogative as well as a wide-spread misunderstanding of khul both as a legal procedure and as a religious option that is sanctioned to Muslim women.  But the important point is that that khul law has been passed not only because reformers were able to mobilize the support of the government and make concessions to indignant parliamentarians, but also because they were able to make substantive religious arguments that were systematic and coherent.  This, I suggest, exemplifies a case in which not all interpretations can make equal claims to religious authenticity.

My second and last point is concerned with the distinction you make between the ‘political’ and the ‘religious.’  I am not sure why you would not call a project that aims to “revive and substantiate progressive interpretations as a religious goal” a political one? Is it because it is not driven by a specific feminist agenda? Is it ‘religious’ but not political  because it is not trying to win over supporters as you say, but rather is  interested in an epistemological endeavor that seeks to interrogate the religious tradition to which it belongs? But I would counter-argue that a critical and earnest engagement with Islamic religious tradition (i.e. its knowledge, knowledge-production methodologies and history, etc.) is inherently political because a central part of this tradition involves a body of laws, opinions, and interpretations that are meant to guide how the adherents to this faith structure their lives and relations with one another. In other words, even if such an interpretive project is not driven by a specific political agenda, its outcomes are always implicated in the politics of social change. So if we agree on the merit of a project that seeks to contribute to its religious tradition by critically engaging with it and reforming it; and if we also concur that the knowledge and opinions that result from this endeavor impact the way we think and make laws about how men and women should relate to one another; then the pertinent  question becomes not how and why we should keep the ‘religious’ out of the ‘political,’ but how and in what contexts the two interplay in a manner that equally advances gender justice as well as the genuine pursuit of religious truth.


  1. One such scholar is Abdel Moty Bayoumy, Professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University and member of the Islamic Research Academy, the Al Azhar institution which reviews draft laws to decide upon its accordance with Islamic Shari’a.

Mulki Al-Sharmani
Social Research Center, American University Cairo

One thought on “Islam and Feminism: Response to Hania Sholkamy

  • July 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm

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