Thursday, January 19, 2012

Does Islam Need Muslim Feminists?

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
Common topics discussed in the Islamosphere tend to appear and reappear cyclically. It’s like a wave that spreads through the many talented voices dedicated to grappling with the more “uncomfortable” discourses in our nuanced communities – where suddenly, Muslim bloggers are all talking about the same thing at the same time: the “beating verse,” hijab, gender segregation at mosques, hijab, women’s rights and roles, hijab, polygamy, hijab, menstruation, hijab, domestic violence, hijab, and on it goes.
This month the topic of choice is Islamic and Muslim Feminism – discussed here, here, here and here by people more brilliant than I.

This post was supposed to allow me to daydream myself into a faerie-tale discussion of the “perfect” mosque – but a reader sent an e-mail requesting my thoughts on the recent Goatmilk debate: Islam is incompatible with Feminism, and I decided to throw my two cents in.

Two respectable minds entered the debate – only one emerged victorious … though, the jury is still out, and will probably be out for a very long time on this very complex subject.

Debater Mohamad Tabbaa favoured the motion, and argued that Islam and Feminism are two different and irreconcilable ideologies:
Muslim feminists must now make the choice between the Islamic paradigm, which is centred around God, or the secularised modern theology, which is based almost exclusively around (white) men.
In his rebuttal, Tabbaa nuanced his arguments further with the idea that merging Islam into Feminism colonises “Muslim spaces and voices” and that, “Islam already has within its paradigm the language and tools with which to deal with women’s issues.”

Arguing against the motion, Katrina Daly Thompson took the position that there are some Muslims who simply don’t understand Feminism (just as there are Feminists who don’t understand Islam is open to interpretation) – and that Islam and Feminism are fundamentally linked:
Feminism and Islam both need Muslim feminists—Muslim men and women who believe in the full humanity of women—to fight against gender discrimination within Muslim cultures and spaces.
Guess which one I sided with.


Reading the articles and subsequent comments (with lots of eye rolling and victory air punching) started me thinking about my own feminism and how I view myself as a religiously-oriented, Muslim feminist.


Sometimes I like to imagine Feminism and Islam existing on a spectrum – with Muslim feminists on one end and “Islamic feminism” on the other. For me “Islamic feminism” refers to the idea that Islam is built on a foundation of social justice and equity that is clearly laid out in the Qur’an and prophetic traditions – an inherently religious, Divinely-guided, pro-female-empowerment ideology. Muslim feminism recognises the same by working within Islamic beliefs – but is expressively, politically and culturally varied – aiming to contextualise scripture that has been misconstrued by patriarchal systems. You could be an Islamic feminist, a Muslim feminist, both, or neither and recognise that women have rights within Islam.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying or still want to daydream. My thoughts on how to define the two and relate to myself are constantly evolving. The above paragraph cannot encompass the vast history, diversity and development of both Islam and Feminism within a Muslim context. And neither is *only* concerned with “women’s issues” – but includes righting the wrongs of classism, racism, discrimination, oppression, and more. I also believe that there are a variety of understandings, extremes and interpretations along the spectrum – and when reduced to intention, you can imagine both sides working toward similar goals.

Depending on the topic at hand I can find myself at either end – occupying spaces that make sense to me – allowing me to feel comfortable reconciling my faith with whatever I have perceived as offensive to my rights as a Muslim woman.

A Muslim feminist may adhere to traditional feminist notions of social justice and equity, just like a believer in “Islamic feminism” may adhere to traditional Islamic notions of social justice and equity. So, if both sides work toward the same goals and base their ideals on similar sources, why would there ever be an impasse between the two?

Being known as a Muslim feminist has its share of interesting conversations. There are some feminists (Muslim and non) who believe that by wearing the headscarf, I’m participating in and validating a patriarchal construct aimed at monitoring women’s bodies and supports arguments for the exclusion of women from the public sphere. That my reasons of “spiritual identity” and “tradition” empower misogynists and are tainted with the hijab’s historical memory of privilege and slavery.

Others tell me that Islam and Feminism are incompatible and are quick to point to cultural practices of child marriage, polygamy, segregation and human right’s violations in Muslim countries as proof that Islam is inherently misogynist.

On the other side, there are those who do not want to be associated with Feminism at all. Perhaps because they believe it’s rooted in a Western, secular philosophy, aiming to supersede Divine Will and the “perfected religion” of Islam. Maybe, as has been pointed out brilliantly by Katrina, they just don’t understand Feminism.

And while my views on homosexuality and gender equity (that everyone deserves equal access to God) sometimes shocks my more “traditional” friends  – we can at least find common ground when it comes to recognising women’s Divinely-guaranteed Islamic rights, with me standing by my sisters who find true spiritual fulfillment and happiness in traditional motherhood roles.

For whatever reason feminism is rejected, when a Muslim recognizes and holds on to the concepts of social justice and equity inherent in Islam, (in my mind) it’s proof that Islam and Feminism can be compatible and are in fact, a necessary partnership.

Finding a variety of scholarly opinions and debates on women and women’s roles in Islam is nothing new. This is why Muslim feminists are needed today to call people out on their misogyny and for believers in “Islamic feminism” to do more than just acknowledge that things have vastly changed from what God and the Prophet intended.


Shunning Muslim feminists because Feminism is somehow based upon a foreign, Western or secular philosophy that threatens to change Islam from within, belittles the capabilities that women have to interpret their religion for themselves. It also blatantly ignores the vast Muslim tradition of adapting “foreign” ideologies into how Islam is understood, interpreted and even practiced. From Greek philosophy and Marxism, to organ donation and gender reassignment, Muslim beliefs are constantly changing and adapting to contemporary social change and influence.

This for me, points to the wonderfully flexible, eternal nature of the religion.

If male scholars can interpret the Qur’an in light of popular culture or changes in medical advances, why can’t women be given a chance to voice their interpretations on topics that matter to us or allow people to shed light on the historical interpretations that empower women’s status?

Muslim feminists like Amina Wadud, Fatema Mernissi and Khaled Abou El Fadl are among today’s champions – going back to the historical sources, contextualising Qur’anic verses, prophetic traditions, and wading through the centuries of scholastic debate relating to women’s supposed duty to husbands, sexual practices, obsession with dress, women’s public participation, or female spirituality – in order to address the misuse of these sources in justifying everything from FGM to women’s biological and intellectual frailties.

This is something that very few Islamic scholars, who are apparently dedicated to helping women embrace their religiously-granted rights, may be willing to do. And when they do go back and really grapple with the sources to reveal “shocking” truths about the actual role of women, it’s couched in politically safe language of: “Well sure women can lead prayer. But the community isn’t ready for such a radical change. It would cause fitnah or discord in the community, so it’s best to remain silent on this matter for now and raise it when we’re all a little more mature.”

Now, a woman may feel absolute spiritual and personal fulfillment when praying behind a barrier and see no discernible inequalities between her position and that of the imam leading prayer. There’s an institution near me which teaches a woman’s worth is glorified when she is hidden, that her husband has physical, monetary and intellectual advantages over her, and that achieving spiritual fulfillment is empowered only through motherhood. Attending one of these sessions is like gathering at any feminist rally. While they unfortunately exclude many within the Muslim community, these women feel liberated, proud, and strong and see themselves completely in these particular interpretations of the sacred texts.

I am not so naive to think that either side of the spectrum never causes harm to the other. But creating a space for these voices to air their concerns and find validity is an important step.

The Qur’an is filled with examples of strong women. Muslim heroes like A’isha and Umm Salama kept the Prophet and his Companions in check. The early Muslim women demanded answers to questions pertinent to them. They demanded a presence in the Qur’an. And God answered them (33:35). That’s power.

Saying that women, any woman, is incapable of interpreting the Qur’an or demanding justice from God herself completely removes this power.

Of course Islam has within it the language and tools to deal with “women’s issues.” But we are continually left with serious situations where religion is justified in the oppression of women. That’s why we need Muslim feminists and their allies to help guide this language and tools toward empowerment and social justice for all.