Islam and Feminism

Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship. Over the last two decades, scholars and activists have questioned the western credentials of feminism and claimed justice as a purpose and possibility that can be captured via religious routes. Religion provides women with an ethical framework and a moral foundation that recognizes their rights as individuals and as a collective, albeit redefining equality in the process. The mosque movement in Egypt has empowered women to find dignity, companionship and comfort through piety and conformity to a religious ideal and challenge the less-than-perfect world around them. Moreover by engaging with religion, Muslim women are able to redefine the tenets that have endowed Islam with an unnecessary bias for men; one which feminist scholars of Islam are certain is antithetical to the spirit and philosophy of our religion.

Such serious engagements are, however, quite separate and distinct from the popularization of religion as a veneer that enables anyone to get away with anything! Restoring the principles of equality and justice upon which Islam was founded is not the same as using religions slogans, appearances, and hegemonies to achieve political gains or affect policy changes. Religion as faith is all too often elided with religion as politics. Now politicians and policy makers, including international development experts, are seeking to harness the power of the divine. The rationale is simple: if people are driven by faith, then let us use faith to drive them towards social and political change.

The instrumentalization of religion, and of Islam in particular, is worrying and problematic. The promotion of religion as a route to social justice may, in the short-term, succeed but, in the long term, will make religion the arbitrator of politics and of social change. Movements for social justice that are marked by religion as their ultimate reference and at the core of their politics would, of course, find no problem with such a prospect. But I beg to differ. How can one judge whose interpretations and agenda correctly reflect the wishes and designs of God? How can one oppose or challenge a divine will? These are just two of the many difficulties that arise when one places all the social change eggs in the religious basket!

In Egypt, researchers and activists seeking to introduce changes in attitudes and practices relating to women’s rights and public health have sought to promote a religious approach that ‘reveals’ the progressive potential nascent in Islam. The Khol’ law which gives women the right to initiate divorce rests on a prophetic tradition that has been long known and ignored by scholars in which a woman asked the prophet (peace be upon Him) how to end her unhappy marriage. She was advised to return her bride-price to her husband as the only pre-condition for divorce. Women’s rights advocates lead by state sanctioned bodies, such as the National Council for Women in Egypt, invoked this incident to argue for a change in divorce laws. They were successful.

Recent efforts to pass a child rights law in Egypt that prohibits corporeal punishment, criminalizes female genital mutilation and explicitly bans early marriage for girls has also invoked Quranic and prophetic positions and evidence but has also faced harsh opposition in parliament specifically from the independents (Islamicists) and other opposition who are citing their own interpretations of religious texts to sanction female genital mutilation and early marriage as practices that insure female sexual modesty and are insistent on the parental right to discipline children, even if using physical censure to insure that children do not stray into delinquency! Whose interpretation gets sanctioned is a question of politics not of faith (El-Masry el-Youm newspaper p. 1, 5 March 2008). Using religion as the pathway to gender justice is not a smooth strategy. It can work well but can also induce stumbling when the pathway becomes more important than the destination!

Reforming Islam and Changing Muslims

There are several contending voices in the world of Islamic revival and reform. There is an ongoing revival for a number of authentic religious approaches from the past; a progressive one, a radical other, and a conservative third. All are equally historically authentic. It is one thing to revive and substantiate progressive interpretations as a religious goal but quite another to use religion to recruit supporters for regimes or reforms.

Taking the example of feminism, this means that feminizing Islam is one thing but Islamizing feminism is another. It means that integrating the interpretations and experiences of gender aware scholars will yield gains for women and men for generations to come. But that is a distinct project from sugar-coating political and social movements with religion so that they pass popular muster.

The pressure to agonize over religion comes from within the Muslim world and from outside it. Domestically, faith is now an identity and its trappings and external markers are given pride of place in daily life and in public spheres. The head-scarf and veil are as our national dress for women while prayer marks on men’s foreheads are springing up at near epidemic rates. In our everyday language, we continuously invoke the names of God and the prophet. All types of religious conformity are strongly encouraged and the arbitrators of social and political actions are religious scholars. Moreover, our most vibrant opposition movement is a religious one that has adopted the slogan of Islam is the Solution to such great success that our new constitutional amendments, hurriedly pushed through by the regime, have explicitly banned this slogan. This pervasive piety has attracted the attentions of feminists and of activists who seek to harness the power of piety to innovate and lift social burdens of gender oppression. Religious texts are used to substantiate women’s rights and freedoms. Female genital mutilation, birth control, sexual rights and rights to property and mobility, we are often reminded, are addressed by Islamic codes that favour women. Unfortunately, satellite channels, popular books and even some textbooks used in seminaries are not in accordance with this progressive interpretation. They are spreading a very different rendition of religious teachings.

When feminists try to use religion they are also promoting the idea that we should make our life decisions in accordance with standardized religious teachings rather than by appealing to a sense of equity or justice. This utilitarian approach may win over some people but it may precipitate a bigger loss; that is the loss of independent reason and the loss of faith as an absolute not instrumental passion. This is not to espouse a western rationalist approach that assumes religion to be a matter of private concern and rejects the idiom of religion as a vehicle for collective action. Actually, Sufism, a purely religious philosophy that is indigenous to Islam, has rejected the external trappings of the practice of faith as secondary to the personal and continuous struggle to attain enlightenment and true faith.

The pursuit of a language of engagement with Muslims inside and outside western societies is evident in confusions around feminisms, Islam and feminist Muslims. Feminism has had a very limited purchase amongst grass-roots movements in Muslim countries. Islamic political activism is wide-spread and popular. Feminists Muslims are an often-misunderstood group. There are women who believe in social justice, who adhere to Islam as a faith but who do not use it as a form of representation. They are a group that are sometimes dismissed as out of touch, western, secularists. Then there are those who are activists politically engaged in local and international politics who use their faith as an idiom of representation. In some cases, these groups are countering patriarchal ideological trends within religious thought and in others they are not. Activists who are seeking to establish the legitimacy of gender justice on religious grounds may be trying to realize feminist gains by appealing to religious sentiments or they may further the notion that choices have to be religiously recommended and sanctioned.

Reclaiming Religion

The gains of feminist Islamic jurisprudence and, more broadly, of women engaging with the religious establishment are tremendous. There are tens of scholars in Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere who are working in this field and who have created a legitimate counter-discourse within religious discourses specifically on women’s issues. It is unfortunate that few have stepped out of bounds and addressed religious jurisprudence as a whole. But some are beginning to step out of the home and harem of the private, personal, and sexual. One small booklet that was published in 2005 by the Women’s Renaissance Association (Gam’yiet El-Nahda el-Nisa’ya el-Khairya) in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia cleverly lists all the holy Quranic verses and Hadith that promote human rights and equality as well as responsibility and rationality and calls this The Rights of Muslim Women in Accordance with Shari’a not Tradition . Thus the booklet transcends the limitation of simply focusing on the bits of scripture that focus on women to argue for women’s rights as human rights. This is an example of daring to challenge traditional practices of exegesis.

It is important to challenge prejudices in jurisprudence, interpretation and law-making. Muslim men and women will work from within the mantle of religion to address these objections and this conservative rendition of religion. This trend of working from within is happening throughout the Muslim world. Turkey’s Modernist Islamic ruling party is revising the Hadith to weed out the intrusion of false Hadith and to re-interpret accepted Hadith, the interpretation of which is rooted in the distant past. The ruling party has the credentials to support such a bold move. A secular government could not and would not attempt such a radical revision of the prophetic traditions. As one commentator on the BBC described it, “Islam is having its reformation!”

Rethinking Engagement

Engaging with religion on its own tenets and structures of truth and rationality is a very different project to that of placing religion at the core of gender analysis and action. It is good to champion the feminine element in Islamic laws and practices to redress a historical injustice. This requires the involvement of scholars able to defend these new ideas and fend off regressive elements on the basis of sound religious scholarship and is a vital intellectual and philosophical development. Both developments do not imply, however, that religion becomes the route to social action and change. Rather, they suggest that what is needed is an un-apologetic and progressive engagement with social justice and citizenship rights that does not preclude or undermine anyone’s ideology or faith.

Whose Faith? Islam is Many Solutions!

Faith-based social movements do not have a monopoly on faith. They have a political program that should be valued on its merits and on its promise to deliver equity and justice. A progressive or liberating agenda for women could have a religious or other moral frame of reference. Women have a right to choose a religious identity as the public one with which they engage in politics. But imposing this choice on others who engage wearing a different ‘hat/veil’ is another thing altogether!

The right to choose our politics is one all women engaged in any struggle should safe-guard and promote. Even if a turn to religion appears to offer instrumentalist or pragmatic promise, there are many risks in pursuing this route as a way of addressing gendered injustices. The biggest risk is the loss of the idea of multiplicity and difference and the acceptance of changing gender roles and norms. If feminists appeal to faith to justify their demands they may be faced with a different but equally authentic religious interpretation that rejects gender justice.

People in Egypt may agree that Islam is the Solution but differ on who has the mandate and mission to implement that solution and assume the mantle of Islam. Islamist political movements have had the savvy ability to occupy this territory as self-proclaimed representatives. Others who do not employ religion as a political creed have never denied that they are Muslims but they may be rightly wary of using their faith as a vehicle for advancing social agendas.

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.

Hania Sholkamy
Social Research Center, American University Cairo

3 thoughts on “Islam and Feminism

  • May 11, 2010 at 11:04 am
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    This is an excellent piece, taking quite complex scholarly concepts into simple terms. I especially appreciate how it addresses the different strategies used by those who identify as Muslim and feminists and/or both – this is meaningful when you reflect on the very few Muslim female leaders in politics, education etc (without utilising historical Western feminism branches like liberal, radical etc).

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  • May 11, 2010 at 9:19 pm
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    Tour de force dear Hania.

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  • May 21, 2010 at 4:16 am
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    Women are problem areas in any and every patriarchy discourse. The feminine is a porblem in science, technology, history, sociology, media, architecture, defence, government and in short in the world at large. But we have to open up discourses to accommodate women. Hinduism was acutely anti women and Sati, widow repression and other such disabilities were heaped on women specifically in the areas of Goddess worship. But reformers came forth, intellectuals moved ahead, civil society was awakened and then religions were reformed. I do not see this happen in case of islam. The problem area of Islam is not that it is merely anti-women, but that it is closed to reforms and renaissance.

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