Islam and Feminism: Feminism through Safe Islam?

The views expressed in this article are astutely insightful and courageous. They are badly needed to break the hegemonic discourse of celebrating the religious as the only participatory, emancipatory and indigenous path to realizing rights for women living in contexts where religion plays a salient role in their lives and the lives of their communities.  These views are brave because of the particular political-historical conjuncture in which they are expressed: a post-9/11 world in which Islamophobia and reactionary religious forces simultaneously thrive. Feminists aware of the prevalence of orientalist and racist discourses on women living in the Muslim world are wary of writing critically on the negative dimensions of religion, out of fear of feeding into or being interpreted as Islamophobic. Islamists (referring here to supporters of the Islamist state project) have been quick to condemn any critiques of the use of religion in society as driven by individuals who have sold out to the West and its values and “imperialist project”. Orientalist discourses may be ripe, but in many contexts, feminists are also practicing self-censorship where critiques of the religious in the political are concerned, out of fear of being hounded upon as being traitors.  Hence for Professor Sholkamy to flag some of the ways in which using religion for women’s empowerment can “induce stumbling when the pathway becomes more important than the destination” comes at a time when there is a desperate need to break out of this politically correct but inhibitive state of being.

Engaging with women’s rights through the prism of religious frameworks, references and the invocation of sacred verses and bits and pieces of religious jurisprudence has been hailed among many working in development policy and practice as the ideal means of winning gains for women’s equality through indigenous (read authentic),  participatory (read grassroots, populist) and culturally appropriate (read non-confrontational vis-a-vis the religious establishment and movements). The problem is, as the article points out, instrumentalization does not always work. Advocates for more gender just laws may have succeeded at passing the khul law, by claiming it derives from sacred religious text. But at the very same time, in the same parliament, they failed to justify their demands for changing the decree that requires Egyptian women to get permission from their husbands, fathers or brothers for travelling, by invoking religion. When they tried, they failed. And at the end, parliament changed the decree not because they were able to make a convincing case that it is supported by religious text but by arguing that the current decree violates the principle of citizens’ freedom of movement enshrined in the Egyptian constitution.

Sholkamy argues:

In pursuit of this agenda of finding a “Safe Islam,” western interventions are promoting an instrumentalist approach that favours conservatism and religiosity as a route to eastern minds and hearts. In the midst of so many passions, the distinctions between faith and politics can get lost. The assumption that all things religious are preferable to those that are not may become a hegemony, and so the authenticity and power of social justice as a cause is collapsed into a promotion of politics as a signifier of faith

The practical implications are that western policy makers and practitioners are inadvertently feeding into the politically oppressive environment in which difference and digression from what is established as “the religious norm” is met with intolerance and fanaticism. A good example is the way in which the great progressive reformist jurist Gamal el Banna, the brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan el Banna, is subject to the most vicious campaigns in the press and media for expressing different views on the nature of Islamic jurisprudence and offering alternative interpretations on gender relations and roles.

Another practical implication of the western contribution to the hegemony of the religious as the authentic, the credible and the non-antagonistic is the marginalization and indeed in some cases exclusion of voices of feminists within these countries who wish to use alternative frameworks as points of reference for advancing women’s rights. Invoking citizenship or human rights become automatically discredited as “western”, “secular”, “removed from the public”. In so doing, they are undermining these feminists’ contestational power and weight.

The truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as “safe Islam”. Islam in its diversity and plurality is subject to multiple interpretations, perspectives and points of departure within the traditions of jurisprudence. Which one becomes prevalent or embraced does not always depend on effectively and convincingly presenting the “more progressive” or “reformist” perspective but on power politics. My personal interpretation is that the khul law passed in Egypt not because it complies with Islam, but because the government put its political weight behind it and was hell bent on passing it. The fact that feminists could invoke other Muslim countries approval of khul helped but was not the decisive factor. Members of the ruling National Democratic party who constitute the majority of MPs in parliament and who openly did not favour the passing of the khul law were not won over with arguments on its religious compatibility but because they were threatened – according to the press at the time- with severe repercussions on their political careers should they not vote in favour of the proposed legislation.

Mariz Tadros
Institute of Development Studies

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