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Environmental Activism

By:
Melinda Krokus
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Environmental Activism

Unquestionably, activism among Muslim women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has centered on gender relations and women's rights. Yet a ten-year follow-up in 2005 to the women and environment section of the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action of the United Nations Conference on Women has shown that women all over the world still face a lack of decision-making power, little to no input on environmental policies and programs, and limited access to natural resources. Muslim women are particularly central stakeholders in the environment, as they manage scarce resources and their families suffer from environmental health problems due to, among other factors, lack of infrastructure, air and water pollution, ill-managed natural-resource extraction (oil in Nigeria, rock quarries in Palestine), and even the legacy of nuclear testing in Central Asia by the former Soviet Union.

Broadly conceived, environmental activism includes conscious lifestyle changes aimed at improving environmental conditions, raising public awareness of environmental issues through a variety of media, and forming grassroots, nongovernmental, and community-based organizations that can respond directly to local environmental crises. As with women's lives in historical texts, women's creative and subtle responses to ecological crises have gone largely unnoticed and undocumented. Despite these constraints, Muslim women at all levels of society have contributed to and developed theoretical, practical, and policy solutions to environmental issues.

Theological and Theoretical Support.

Whether the prevailing Islamic worldview emphasizes God's transcendence or immanence, individuals are instructed to act moderately, justly, thankfully, and in good measure (mīzān) (Qurʾān 6:141, 7:31, 36:73, 38:26, 54:28, 55:8). In light of a perceived global environmental crisis, Muslim women have turned to their holy book and the traditions (aḥādīth) of the Prophet Muḥammad to inform, guide, and support their environmental activism. Muslim scholars were a vital part of the religion-and-ecology movement that began to develop in the 1980s and 1990s. They brought gender and human rights to the forefront of discussions on environmental issues, contributing to broader issues of ecological justice.

Nawal Ammar, whose recent work focuses on domestic violence in Muslim communities, contributed to early theological discussions of religion and ecology by calling for a retrieval of Islamic fundamentals before formulating a new theology. She, along with a number of other Muslim scholars, including Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Mawal Izzi Dien, outlined Islamic approaches to the ecological crisis by drawing on Qurʾānic notions of stewardship (khalīfa), trust (amanah), and oneness of God (tawḥīd), as well as on established legal regulations (fiqh, sharīʿa) regarding waste reduction, overconsumption, and equal exchange. Central to her argument that the oneness of God can be the basis of a “deep relational perspective on natural and social ecology” is that Muslims too must claim a share of responsibility for the current environmental crisis, address issues of disempowerment in their respective sociopolitical contexts, and reassess the ideological need to protect their culture from Western encroachment. Interested in an “action-oriented ethic toward the environment,” Ammar calls attention to and encourages the practice of ḥayāʾ, or dignified reserve, a neglected economic and political principle that she sees as largely responsible for the gender disparity in the distribution of resources at the root of the ecological crisis.

The Pakistani ecofeminist Tahera Aftab has also turned her attention more recently toward broader issues of gender and policy development after writing specifically on women and ecology in the 1990s. With a clear link to ecofeminist conceptions of a strong relationship between women and the environment, Aftab outlines the intimate connection of degradation of gender and ecology in indigenous Muslim contexts. Yet Aftab avoids the theoretical problem of equating women with nature (and hence men with culture) by pointing to the concrete connection between policies that oppress women and subsequently destroy the environment. Drawing on historical South Asian sources from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, she finds Muslim women publically engaged with the local environment and its preservation. Aftab points directly to policies restricting women from actively participating in community life as the major factor in the environmental destruction of the following centuries.

Policy.

As individuals, Muslim women have been professionally engaged with environmental issues since the 1960s and 1970s. However, it was not until the 1990s and the turn of the twenty-first century that a more persistent, organized environmental activism took hold. Environmentally active Muslim women are meeting some of the same challenges as such women all over the world. The following are examples of women who illustrate trends of combining professional disciplines with policy formation, community activism, and data collection of women's “gendered knowledge” of local environments.

Azizan Baharuddin approaches sustainable development, a term heavily laden with Western assumptions, as a path to de-imperialize colonialist legacies in Muslim lands and thought. As a professor at the University of Malaysia and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research in Malaysia, Baharuddin sees one aspect of this legacy in the strict academic separation of the humanities, especially religion, from science. She exposes how both areas have suffered from this divide first by pointing to the disregard of Islamic principles and ideas in science, which renders it complicit in environmental degradation, and then by criticizing how religion is still primarily taught by taqlīd (imitation), which produces a quiescent fraction of its dynamic potential if coupled with other fields of knowledge. She determines that environmentally sound policy will emerge from truly interdisciplinary collaboration and scholarship.

The Hisaar Foundation in Pakistan is dedicated to providing water, food, and security and was cofounded by Simi Kamal, a Cambridge University–trained geographer. Kamal describes the Pakistani ethos as consisting of a weak sense of civic responsibility and a strong hands-off notion of philanthropy. Coupled with an attitude that environmental concerns are “technical” or “political” issues that are out of citizens’ hands, this ethos has made organizing grass-roots activism a challenge. In response, the Hisaar Foundation directly engages women through its sponsorship of the Women and Water Network, which introduces the concept of gender and integrated water-resources management to both men and women in chapters throughout Pakistan. The Women and Water Network has, since 2010, networked with the Women's Parliamentary Caucus in hopes of ensuring better representation at the provincial and national levels.

One of the first in a burgeoning number of nongovernmental organizations in Iran, the Women's Society against Environmental Pollution, founded by Victoria Jamali and Mahlagha Mallah in 1995, has branches throughout the country educating political officials and women of all backgrounds about pollution and related issues of water and land conservation. Iranian women too face the global divide separating women's voices from government support and equitable policy. Massoumeh Ebtekar is perhaps the closest link to parliamentary support in Iran. A former head of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization (and a former vice president of the Republic of Iran), she is currently the president of the Center for Peace and the Environment, a nongovernmental organization focusing on the connections of war and peace, the environment, and spirituality.

Women's involvement in environmental nongovernmental organizations has been boosted by targeted funding from international organizations. In 2006 the Africa Muslim Environment Network was founded by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation with funding aid from the World Bank. Maimuna Mwidau was named secretary general to the Africa Muslim Environment Network, to lead in the organization's main objective of confronting poverty and environmental degradation in Muslim Africa by implementing projects with a commitment to Sharīʿah law, balancing women's and men's contributions to the projects, and promoting bottom-up resource allocation. Mwidau admits to varying opinions within the network, and its progress to date is unclear—an indication of the cultural complexities of their international backing, goals, and objectives.

Practical Activism.

In many regions, women, as household managers, have inadvertently become activists by managing scarce and polluted resources. At this time, such online resources as Muslim environmentalist blogs are the best for learning about this type of local activism. Where lack of technology and limited literacy inhibit online access, the twofold result is resounding silence by these hidden activists and a lack of exchange of pertinent environmental and grassroots information. Green Prophet (greenprophet.com) is one important online resource reporting on environmental activism in the Middle East and North Africa region. Their writers repeatedly make connections between gender equity, human rights, and the environment, and give voice to otherwise silent stories. One such story highlights two Jordanian Bedouin women chosen by their community to attend a six-month course at Barefoot College in India to be trained in solar-energy technology in order to reduce a village's reliance on kerosene. Education has been a critical component in mobilizing action and transforming Muslim organizations.

Saudi Arabia has several examples of women leading environmental activism. Fatin Bundagji, a member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and a former director of Women's Empowerment and Research, founded the environmental advocacy group Muwatana as a result of an initiative dedicated to restoring and protecting a beloved stretch of Jeddah coastline. Naqaʾa Environmental Enterprise was founded by a team of young university women consciously fulfilling their Islamic duty to preserve the environment. They provide environmental-impact assessments and sustainability programs promoting green practices in business.

Environmental activism in the Muslim diaspora historically has been associated with community or religious institutions. In recent years, leading up to 2012, Muslim environmental organizations have proliferated in the United States and Europe, including, among others, the DC Green Muslims in Washington, D.C.; the Minnesota Ecological and Environmental Muslims; and Wisdom in Nature, located in London and Brighton. Similar Egyptian youth-led environmental organizations have focused on permaculture and urban agriculture, recycling, bicycle use over the use of automobiles, antinuclear campaigns, climate workshops, and sustainable green architecture. Though these groups maintain a high level of women's participation and leadership, gender is not their focus. Nonetheless, online blogs consolidating information on green Muslims worldwide effectively make the connection (see the blog “A World of Green Muslims”).

Radio broadcasts, because they are technologically widely accessible and offer a format for limited literacy, are a popular medium in Muslim communities. Daniel Nilsson DeHanas's examination of the “Women's Hour” broadcast on London's Muslim Community Radio aims to show the sociological relationship between “religiously conservative Muslim women” and environmental advocacy. By using Islamic terminology and linking to Islamic practice such behavior changes as conserving energy, minimizing waste, and supporting ecologically friendly, fair-trade products, these women become agents of change through what DeHanas calls the “sacralization of environmental discourse” (p. 149). Although DeHanas observes that the Muslim environmental agenda is partially motivated as a diplomatic entry to broader cultural conversations, environmental agendas worldwide have shown that issues on these agendas are integrally connected to a host of other social and political concerns.

Considerations for the Future.

DeHanas points out the “distinctly gendered” environmental message emerging from a framework of complementary gender roles. While obliged at times to make bargains with the patriarchy, Muslim women activists have added the environment to an already full agenda addressing gender disparities in education, civil rights, law, and physical and structural violence. They are challenging patriarchal interpretations of the Qurʾān that read women out of their roles as stewards (khalīfa) of the earth. And they have a multifarious approach to activism that draws theoretical support from Islam and ecofeminism, develops policy with scientific tools, and directly responds to water shortages or illnesses due to pollution with local and culturally specific knowledge. The overall consensus is that there continues to be a great need for strong leadership and access to information and training in order to increase women's participation in environmental advocacy, especially among rural, illiterate women, who are often the critical stakeholders in ecological degradation.

Bibliography

  • Aftab, Tahera. “Text and Practice: Women and Nature in Islam.” In Women as Sacred Custodians of the Earth? Women, Spirituality, and the Environment, edited by Alaine Low and Soraya Tremayne, pp. 141–158. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002.
  • Ammar, Nawal. “Ecofeminism in the Egyptian Context.” Civil Society 20, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 1–7.
  • Ammar, Nawal. “An Islamic Response to the Manifest Ecological Crisis: Issues of Justice.” In Visions of New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, edited by Harold G. Coward and Daniel C. Maquire, pp. 131–146. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
  • Coleman, Isabel. Paradise beneath Her Feet: How Muslim Women Are Transforming the Middle East. New York: Random House, 2010.
  • DeHanas, Daniel Nilsson. “Broadcasting Green: Grassroots Environmentalism on Muslim Women's Radio.” Sociological Review 57, no. 2 (October 2009): 141–155.
  • Foltz, Richard, Fredrik Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin, eds. Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, 2003.
  • Kassam, Zayn R., ed. Women and Islam. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010. This book focuses generally on Muslim women's activism in social and national contexts, many of which intersect with environmental issues. One chapter addresses gendered epistemologies among Muslim women in Ethiopia and ecospirituality.
  • A World of Green Muslims.” aworldofgreenmuslims.wordpress.com.
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