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Islamic Feminisms

By:
Amina Wadud
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Islamic Feminisms

Historical Background

Islamic feminism, the radical methodological synthesis of Islamic thought and Muslim women’s lived realities, is the culmination of several historical and ideological developments from the moment of the first revelation of the Qurʾān until the present. It is unique to Islam and a part of historical debates and developments within feminism more broadly speaking.

The first word of revelation to the Prophet Muḥammad more than fourteen centuries ago was iqraʾ (read, or, recite). From the Qurʾān, an intellectual and ethical trajectory became fundamental to the development of multiple fields of philosophical and ethical thought, even as Islam spread to all corners of the earth. The Qurʾān also brought unprecedented attention to the well-being of women and girls, granting rights and dignities unparalleled in other sacred scriptures and social justice movements until its time. However, as early as the ʿAbbāsid period, this trajectory toward gender justice lost momentum even as the Islamic empire came into prominence and its intellectual developments reached a golden age.

The voices and experiences of women would yield to centuries of entrenched patriarchy and ultimately be relegated to near total silence. During the early and most influential and transformative developments of Islamic intellectual thought, when Islam’s basic paradigms were formed and legal theories were elaborated, women were mere subjects of the discourse and not its agents. In Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, one of the most pronounced areas of development, women would be discussed only in relationship to men and family. Fiqh would profoundly shape the modern Muslim women’s movements.

Because of the strong trajectory of gender justice in the sacred text and the Prophetic sunnah, some of today’s actors for gender reform assert that Islam is a feminist religion and the Prophet Muḥammad is a feminist. Yet other actors contend that Islam is irredeemably patriarchal and particularly misogynist. Most Muslim women, whether activists, scholars, or lay persons, are located in a wide array of perspectives between these two assertions. Understanding this vast array is central to locating the particular evolution of what is now called Islamic feminism.

As the Islamic empire developed toward its intellectual golden age, men’s experiences, perspectives, and agency became the unchallenged representation of all that it means to be Muslim. It is a short step from this male-centrality to patriarchy. Patriarchy has continued uninterrupted from long before the foundation of Islam, through all of its historical developments, and persists globally today. Although patriarchy is not unique in Muslim thought, it became indispensable within Islamic discourse, impacting all internal movements, including the reform movements to end colonialism and enter into the global phenomenon of the nation state.

Impact of Colonialism on Islamic Law

Under colonial rule the mechanisms of Islamic law were forced into positive law models. Classical Islamic jurisprudence is open-ended, context specific, flexible, and eclectic. Decisions on how to consolidate a wide corpus of legal materials from well-established Muslim court systems spanning a thousand years had to be transformed into codification that could be adjudicated in colonial legal systems and in the form of positive law. Colonial rulers allowed Muslim personal status laws to be retained as a reflection of Muslim cultures and religion. However, this forced the vast Islamic legal corpus to lose its flexibility and contextual interdependence (Mir-Hosseini, 2009). The emerging Muslim-majority nation states aspired for independence from colonial rule and developed independent constitutions that offered equality between citizens. Although women fought as hard as men to end colonial rule, the promise of equality did not manifest. Women’s equality was exempted whenever it seemed to contradict codified Muslim personal status laws which came to stand for Islam itself (Badran, 1995).

The Impact of Western Feminism

Islamic feminism is both indebted to and challenged by mainstream Western feminisms. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote her seminal book, The Second Sex (1945), she highlighted the central ethical problem. Whenever a reference to “human” is exclusive to male humans, it is radical to rethink all notions of humanity in such a way as to include women. This is the fundamental idea of feminism as an ethical project.

Much of Islamic ethics and epistemology was built upon the presumption of the male Muslim. Islamic feminism makes a radical proposal that women are fully human and do not defer to or depend upon men for their humanity because Allah has granted it to them—with dignity—at the time of creation. Whether by nature or nurture—they were deemed insufficient, irregular, and even deviant. While early Muslim women liberation fighters did not develop substantial theory and methodology for their struggles, they did lay the foundation for all waves of the Muslim women’s movements.

The First Wave

In the early part of the twentieth century the first wave of modern Muslim women’s movements, led by elite educated Muslim women, challenged unequal legal status between women and men despite their mutual participation in national liberation movements (Ahmad, 1992). The shift from nationalism to women’s liberation could be considered the predecessor to feminist movements, although the word “feminist” was not often used. Instead, the focus of such movements was on the well-being of women and girls in the context of the newly emerging nation states. The resources galvanized to shape the discourse of this early movement came from both intra-Islamic sources as well as from the existing suffrage movements in other parts of the world.

The Second Wave

The second wave of Muslim women’s movements would coincide with two pivotal events. In 1979 the success of the Iranian Revolution marked the most fervent period of a new ideological trend: political Islam or Islamism. In that same year the United Nations launched CEDAW (Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). Without reference to any particular religion or culture, CEDAW would assert itself as part of the universal claim for human rights, including specifically, women’s human rights (Mir-Hosseini, 2013 and 2012).

Meanwhile, political Islam also launched a global movement impacting all aspects of Islamic discourse. Political Islam is a modern movement, spawned by the emergence and globalization of the nation state, which purports to establish clear territorial boundaries for a homogenous citizenship. The ideological basis of that citizenship has been contested by non-homogenous groups within those borders, but constitutionalism frames the legal category of citizenship.

It was easy to assert that an Islamic intellectual and political framework should be used to develop the details of the Muslim nation state, rendering it an “Islamic state.” However, from one nation state to the next, no consensus has ever been reached over what makes it Islamic. Instead, it is a construct of those actors who have the authority to assert their perspectives. Nevertheless, women’s second-class citizenship was consolidated through the residual of recodified Muslim personal status laws, the culture of resistance to all things colonial, Western and modern, and the heightened sentiment that Islam should stand on its own terms (Badran, 1995).

The second wave of Muslim women’s movements is characterized by a wide range of diversity among Muslim women and a more pronounced entry of the term “feminism.” Like Islam, feminism entered the discourse and activism without being clearly defined. Sides would be taken, upholding a juxtaposition that had never existed before but, from this point forward, marked an irreconcilable opposition (Mir-Hosseini, 2011).

This juxtaposition left its mark on all discourse and activism for women’s rights for several decades. The single most defining feature of this opposition was a divide between Islam and secularism. The main claim of the Islamists was that such ideas as universal human rights and feminism were imperialist tools rendered to further ideological control over Muslim peoples. The main claim of the human rights agenda and feminist movements of the West was that secularism demands standards of evaluation above particular religions. The Islamists would further claim that as a way of life, Islam is above religion, above secularism, and superior to all other worldviews. Furthermore, Islam demands an Islamic state that is best suited to establish Muslim identity, authenticity, and authority.

The Third Wave

The third wave of Muslim women’s movements saw the rise of Islamic feminism (Badran, 1993). Today Muslim women have reached a critical mass. No matter their location in terms of class, ideology, or geography Muslim women have organized to challenge centuries of patriarchal control over their lives. They have become the agents of change and leaders in women’s movements. Still, they are not of a single voice. The greatest contention persists over how Islam and feminism are defined and whose definitions have authority and efficacy.

The two dominant voices, Islamism and secularism, both contend that it is not possible to have both Islam and feminism. Islam is regarded as irredeemably patriarchal and misogynist. Feminism is Western, secular, and even anti-Islam. For Islamists, there is wisdom behind Islam’s position on women. To contest that wisdom or just to choose the term “feminist” is an assertion that opposes Islam’s truth. By the time of this third wave, even among Muslims secular feminism simply rejected the use of anything called Islam to claim or arrest the course of full equality and human dignity for all women. This location held sway in global debates over CEDAW as it best corroborated the perspective of the architects of these international human rights instruments, where they preferred not to directly engage religion, Islam, and culture, leaving these to be defined by official state designations.

Islamic feminism entered this oppositional discourse with a trajectory that promoted the production of new knowledge in Islam. Inspired by the radical movement of historical Islam upon revelation of the Qurʾān, knowledge production in Islamic thought has always been highly prized. By the twenty-first century Islamic feminists argued that all classical Islamic thought was built upon presumptions of gender without an explicit category of thought and analysis. Islamic feminism entered the production of knowledge by re-reading the Qurʾān, offering gender inclusive tafsīr (Wadud, 1999). Its widespread and critical development led to gender inclusive interrogation of other Islamic disciplines. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Islamic feminist scholarship focused on gender as a tool for radical interrogation of all written sources, the laws they unfold, and the cultures that surround these laws. This knowledge production distinguishes Islamic feminism from other aspects of the Muslim women’s movement.

Moving Forward

Of course there is a wide range of Muslim feminists. Liberal Muslim feminists tend to deemphasize knowledge production, often choosing to borrow from intra-Islamic and non-Islamic resources. Secular Muslim feminists tend to accept patriarchal definitions and interpretations of Islam and its sources similarly to Islamists. While liberal Muslim feminists protest patriarchal definitions, they have often used knowledge production from Islamic feminists as well as from Western liberal discourses. Some secular Muslim feminists acknowledge faith as a personal choice but not for national and international policy matters.

One crucial contribution of Islamic feminism is the tawhidic paradigm. Built upon the foundational Islamic theology of monotheism, the tawhidic paradigm extends the implications of monotheism to social justice. Here, social justice must include equality and reciprocity. It confirms the belief in one unified divine reality and upholds the honor and dignity of all. The insistence on belief in the unity of Allah as elemental to justice and equality is unparalleled in much of Muslim classical thought. The tawhidic paradigm also challenges patriarchal ideas about leadership and authority, demanding a more democratic authority that allows greater agency to women and men over laws, policies, customs, and even ritual practices (Wadud, 2006).

This location of Islamic feminism motivated the establishment of a global network for reform in Muslim personal status laws called Musawah. Musawah connects Muslim women’s human rights organizations both within the boundaries of their nation states and in the context of global human rights programs. Using a unique combination of faith-based gender-inclusive knowledge production, grass roots advocacy, and democratic authority, Musawah is Islamic feminism in process, building a global community based on dynamic interactivity. It establishes a unique synthesis of Muslim women’s lived realities and Islamic primary sources—read with the critical lens of gender justice—while working within the legal framework of constitutionalism and the international human rights instruments (Musawah, 2018).

Conclusion

Islamic feminism is the culmination of Islamic historical trajectories, critical reformist scholarship, and local and regional grassroots advocacy to shape state and international agendas toward a realization of Islam as dynamic and interactive. It is pluralistic in perspective, thus able to join with secular and liberal Muslim and non-Muslim feminists, as well with Islamists who advocate a faith perspective for the well-being of Muslim women. It challenges centuries of patriarchal control over Islamic knowledge production and policy development by returning Islam to those who live it.

Bibliography

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  • Wadud, Amina. “What’s in a Name?” Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, edited by Amina Wadud, pp. 14–54. London: Oneworld, 2006.
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