Citation for Feminism

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Badran, Margot , Natana J. DeLong-Bas, Margot Badran, Natana J. DeLong-Bas and Els Vanderwaeren. "Feminism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Badran, Margot , Natana J. DeLong-Bas, Margot Badran, Natana J. DeLong-Bas and Els Vanderwaeren. "Feminism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


[This entry has three subentries:

Concept and Debates

Despite the tenacity of the belief that feminism is a Western concept, it is incontrovertibly not a Western invention: feminism/s have been developed by women within diverse cultures, religions, and societies around the globe on their own terms. Both Muslim and non-Muslim women in both East and West, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the present, have created, interpreted, and reinterpreted feminism as an expression of awareness that women have been subordinated and often oppressed and deprived of their rights in the family and society, as women, thus leading women to seek to change this. Muslim women have created two sorts of feminisms—secular and Islamic. Muslim women created secular feminism/s in parts of the East (Africa and Asia) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late twentieth century, women in both the East and West produced Islamic feminism. In Muslim societies secular feminism/s and Islamic feminism now exist side by side and are reenforcing each other and are increasingly merging.

Muslim women have historically articulated their feminisms, both secular and Islamic, from within Islam, critiquing the patriarchal versions of their religion and moving beyond constraints imposed upon them. Muslim women as secular and Islamic feminists in Africa and Asia have struggled in their own nations and cultures to redress the inequities of patriarchal domination and the deprivation of their rights. Muslim women as Islamic feminists in their new communities in the West confront patriarchal practices imported from their countries of origin and perpetuated as Islamic while at the same time they navigate the terrain of Western secular societies trying to secure rights important to them as Muslim women. Muslim women have sometimes participated in general feminist movements in the Western countries in which they live.

Muslim women as feminists in countries of the East, while operating within their own religious and cultural contexts, have often simultaneously embraced the universal ideals of human rights, citizens’ rights, and nations’ rights as compatible with and supportive of their feminisms. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, Muslim women have not been forced to choose between their liberation and rights as women, on the one hand, and their religion and cultures on the other. This is not to suggest that they have not often been pressured to accept a patriarchal version of Islam and society—in some places such pressures have been impossible for women to resist without being ostracized—nor that women were not made to feel treasonous for proceeding along their own more egalitarian path within Islam. Rather, it is to emphasize that there has been space for Muslim women—which they have used often against all odds and at great risk—to combat gender inequities in their societies.

Secular Feminisms in Muslim Societies in Africa and Asia (“The East”).

The feminisms that Muslim women, along with women compatriots of other religions, created in various parts of Africa and Asia in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century were nation-based. “Secular feminism” has been used to signify the feminisms developed by Muslims as citizens within in the context of nation-states rather than as Muslims solely within the framework of their religious community (ummah). (The term “secular feminism” mirrored the term “secular nationalism,” which included all citizens irrespective of religion in a polity not framed by religion but guaranteeing the freedom of religion.) Although there have been striking similarities in the contours of Muslim women's secular feminism/s in various nations, the plural is used in recognition of the distinctiveness of multiple nation-based feminist movements that have characterized Muslim women's secular feminist experience.

In the course of modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Muslim women, with female compatriots of other religions, became aware that they—specifically, women of the middle and upper classes—were restricted in their movements and deprived of opportunities as women. This became evident to them when they compared themselves with men of the same class and circumstances. Some men also questioned these practices, including, most famously, the Egyptian lawyer Qāsim Amīn, whose works The Liberation of Women (Tahrīr al-marʾah, 1899) and The New Woman (al-Marʾah al-jadīdah, 1900), sparked heated public debates about the issues, albeit according to a Western model of development. Drawing upon this awareness and Islamic modernist thinking then current, women began to understand that many imposed practices such as domestic seclusion, gender segregation, and face veiling (the form of veiling at the time) were not religious requirements as they had been made to believe, but rather were simply social customs. Women in Muslim societies in Africa and Asia reveal in their memoirs, essays, and stories that they were reacting against such practices, which they saw as restricting the opportunities for advancement that modernization offered. This would later be referred to as a rising “feminist consciousness.”

Women's involvement in national independence movements to free their countries from Western colonial rule, or in pushing for national reform in Turkey and Iran in the early twentieth century, first catapulted Muslim women into the public arena alongside women compatriots of other religions. Many more women appeared on the scene as feminist activists during processes of early postcolonial nation-building. Muslim women's secular feminisms emerged as organized social and political movements (unlike the future Islamic feminism, which arose as a new global discourse).

The discourse that Muslim women elaborated in the course of their feminist militancy served the goals of their collective agenda. Their secular feminist discourse was a composite of gender-sensitive articulations of Islamic modernist, secular nationalist, and humanitarian discourse. The central tropes of Muslim women's emergent secular feminisms were liberation and rights: liberation from patriarchal domination and winning the practice of their intrinsic rights. (Liberation and rights were the parallel concerns of Muslim nations suffering colonial domination and deprivation of their sovereign rights.)

Secular feminism focused primarily on the public sphere, or society, which its protagonists saw as “the secular sphere” (or sphere of the nation) wherein they claimed gender equality. First-wave feminists understood the private or family sphere as “the religious sphere” and accepted the prevailing patriarchal family structure within which women and men had separate but unequal roles that were held to be religiously ordained. (In countries where Muslims and Christians together pioneered as feminists, both accepted the framework of the patriarchal family of their respective religions, but it was only Muslims who campaigned for family reform.) Secular feminists acknowledged a public/private split and, while working to effect change on the public and private fronts simultaneously, accorded priority to the public or societal sphere as a strategic choice. Later Muslim women, as second-wave secular feminists, would challenge the notion of the patriarchal family as “Islamic.”

Muslim women's feminisms were launched from the starting point of their own lives as women. Their secular feminisms began as gendered Islamic reform projects that disentangled religious prescription from social custom to clear the way for change. Muslim women's move into the “secular” public space of the nation was supported by religious arguments. The Islamic scrutiny to which Muslim women, as incipient feminists, subjected practices said to be so ordained, such as female domestic seclusion and face veiling, and their moves to reject practices they discovered not to be ordained by religion, would be a hallmark of Muslims’ secular feminisms. The future feminist Hudā Shaʿrāwī recounted in her memoirs that a group of women (of whom she was the youngest member) meeting in a weekly women's salon in the 1890s in Cairo discussed how face veiling was not a religious requirement, as they had been made to believe. Later the Lebanese scholar of religion Naẓīrah Zayn al-Dīn—tutored at home by her father, also a religious scholar—exposed face veiling as un-Islamic in her book Sufūr wa-al-Hijāb (Unveiling and Veiling), published in 1928 and aimed at a wider audience.

As a pioneer of women's independent, organized feminist activism, the feminist movement in Egypt was in many ways prototypical of secular feminist activism elsewhere in the Muslim world in the first half of the twentieth century. Women also experimented in public activism in Turkey and Iran, but in these countries the state largely co-opted women's independent feminist struggle. In Egypt the first set of feminist demands were presented by the teacher and writer Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣif (known by the pen name Bāḥithat al-Bādiyah) to the Muslim Nationalist Congress in Cairo in 1911, at the height of the national independence struggle. Delivered in absentia because women were not then permitted to appear in public before men, the demands included women's freedom to attend congregational prayer in the mosque and their access to all areas of education and work they might choose. In 1923 Muslim and Christian women under the leadership of Hudā Shaʿrāwī formed the first explicitly feminist organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union, through which they agitated for education, work, and political rights for women, campaigned for reform of the Muslim Personal Status Code, and fought to end legalized prostitution (with support from the Islamic establishment at al-Azhar University). They also provided health services to poor women and trained them in income-generating work, believing health and economic well-being to be a prerequisite to women's advancement. In 1948 Durrīyah Shafīq founded the Bint al-Nīl (Daughter of the Nile) Union, reaching women more broadly throughout Egypt, especially through literacy programs. In 1945 women established the Arab Feminist Union in Cairo as a regional organization through which Muslims and Christians could jointly further their demands.

From the final third of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, rising second-wave feminists in the Muslim world turned their attention to issues of the woman's body, sexuality, and violence against women. In Egypt in 1972 Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī, a feminist physician, writer, and founder of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (1984), published a book in al-Mar’a wa-al-jins (Woman and Sex), attacking various forms of violence against women, including obsessive concern with women's virginity, which often lead to psychological trauma, domestic bodily abuse of women, and the sexual exploitation of women for commercial purposes. The Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi, in Beyond the Veil (1975), drew attention to the oppressive consequences for women of the common belief that women were omnisexual beings who produced fitnah (chaos).

An intensifying focus of feminist attention was wife-beating and the bodily harassment of women. In Turkey in the late 1980s activists struck back at the habitual public molestation of women in the Purple Needle campaign. They marched to protest wife battery, which was seen by many as condoned by Islam and in 1990 opened the Purple Roof Shelter for Women for victims of abuse. Young women in eastern Turkey embarked on a campaign against wife-beating through the organization VACAD they created in 2004, with branches throughout the area to combat domestic violence. Other countries, ranging from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, have since founded shelters for victims of domestic violence and in some cases have begun national awareness campaigns designed to raise public attention and discussion of the issue.

Honor killing is a brutal cultural practice that feminist activists have been fighting as a heinous injustice from Mediterranean countries to Pakistan and among some Muslim immigrant communities in Western countries, using the language of human rights. When honor killing was transported to Muslim communities in the West, it was claimed by perpetrators—and readily believed by non-Muslim Western observers—to be Islamic. However, although honor killings do occur in some Muslim countries, it is a tribal and cultural, rather than “Islamic,” practice limited to certain countries, some of which have begun to address the issue seriously. In eastern Turkey, for example, VACAD and Ka-Mer (established in 1996) have fought against honor killings. In Jordan the journalist Rana Husseini first drew attention to the issues surrounding honor killings in 1994, particularly what she perceived to be lack of institutional seriousness about the problem. Her coverage of the problem led not only to a campaign to change the laws allowing lighter sentences for those convicted of honor killings, rather than prosecuting them as murder, but also resulted in a landmark address to parliament by King Hussein in 1997, emphasizing women's rights.

In the 1970s and 1980s Muslim and Christian women in Egypt and Sudan fought for the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM). Although this is a cultural phenomenon found mainly in countries along the Nile, it has been commonly seen as Islamic, and activists accordingly mobilized both religious and human rights arguments to combat it. In the 1990s the practice, which Islamists were then proclaiming to be religious, was on the upsurge and also appeared in immigrant communities in the West. Although it has therefore been important to fight the practice through religious argumentation, secular feminists have also employed medical and psychological argumentation against the practice, noting its detrimental effect on women's health and well-being, as well as highlighting the complications it can produce in childbearing.

To confront the urgent matters of the body and sexuality, Muslim women and men from the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia formed the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, as a transnational solidarity network of activists and academics. The coalition was cofounded by Women for Women's Human Rights, which was established by the Turkish therapist and feminist activist Pinar İlkkaracan in 1993 and was at the forefront of issues of sexuality. The coalition confronts the full range of these issues around sexuality, drawing on multiple discourses to combat deeply entrenched regressive thinking and related discrimination and violence.

In the 1980s and 1990s secular feminists focused renewed attention on the reform of Muslim family laws, agitating for gender equality, as opposed to the proposed “Islamic” alternative of gender inequality typically referred to as “complementarity.” Under the leadership of Marieme Helie Lucas, they organized the transnational network called Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) in 1984. Along with engaging in solidarity actions and advocacy campaigns, WLUML undertook extensive research of laws—statutory, customary, and Islamic—in some twenty Muslim countries in Africa and Asia from 1991 to 2001 and published a handbook called Knowing Our Rights. Among the organizations that have been part of WLUML are Shirkat Gah, which Farida Shaheed helped found in 1975, Ain o Salish Kendra in Bangladesh, founded by the lawyer Salma Sobhan in 1986, and Baobab for Women's Human Rights in Nigeria, created in 1996 and led by Ayesha Imam.

Shirkat Gah and the Women's Action Forum, founded in 1981, fought against injustices to women arising from the institution of the Hudood Ordinances, criminal and penal law based on Sharīʿah in Pakistan, by employing Islamic and human rights arguments. Later (after the rise of Islamic feminism), secular feminists and Islamic feminists would join forces in the battle against the iniquities of ḥudūd.

From the late 1970s the gains Muslim women as feminists had made during the first two-thirds of the century were threatened by the spread of conservative political Islam in the Muslim world following the rise to power of an Islamist state in Iran and Islamist movements in other countries which set out to reimpose many patriarchal practices that had all but disappeared. Calls were made for women to retreat from the public sphere and return to their “proper place”—in the home. Secular feminists, who had historically placed their feminism in the framework of an enlightened Islam, did not wish to be drawn into argumentation structured by those who deployed a patriarchal interpretation of Islam to control women. Eventually it would be necessary to combat Islamist patriarchal encroachments, an, to do this effectively, a new feminist language was required. With the spread of Islamism, feminists were buffeted between autocratic secular states and increasingly radicalized Islamist movements, finding themselves stranded between secular and “Islamic” patriarchies.



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Margot Badran Updated by Natana J. DeLong-Bas

Nature of Islamic Feminism

Islamic feminism first surfaced as new discourse (not as a social movement) simultaneously in the East and West near the end of the twentieth century. Beginning necessarily within the framework of Islam, Islamic feminists have critiqued the patriarchal versions of their religion, which are often claimed by authorities to be “Islamic,” along with their concomitant constraints imposed upon women, in favor of trying to secure the rights that are important to them as Muslim women and which they see as inherent in their understanding and practice of their faith. This has been true in both Muslim-majority countries and Western countries where Muslim women live as minorities.

This new Islamic feminism has transcended national boundaries, making it a global feminism for a new age. Islamic feminism started as a new interpretative effort by women scholars and intellectuals, and some men, who had embarked on woman-sensitive rereading of the Qurʾān and other religious sources. Their recovery of the gender-egalitarian voice of scripture spread instantaneously around the world via the Internet.

Women—and a few men—in the Islamic Republic of Iran were among the pioneers of Islamic feminist discourse; they circulated their ideas of a gender-just Islam in a journal called Zanān, founded by Shahla Sherkat in 1992 and one of the first in which the term “Islamic feminism” was used. Other early sites of nascent Islamic feminism included Turkey, where some disaffected Islamist women were moving away from the constraints of patriarchal political Islam; Egypt, where some religiously identified women sought to ground a discourse of women's liberation (they were uncomfortable with the term “feminism”) firmly in the Qurʾān; Malaysia, where professional and activist women challenged gender injustice in the name of religion; and South Africa, where antiapartheid activists were turning their attention from the newly won liberation of their country to the liberation of their Muslim community, particularly questioning the full meaning of “social justice” and insisting that gender justice must necessarily be a part of it. Meanwhile in the West, specifically in the United States, Muslim scholars elaborated what others came to call Islamic feminism, which was circulated widely through the Internet by Muslim women's and progressive Muslim groups.

Islamic feminism seeks rights and justice for women and men in all aspects of their lives. It is based on a rereading of the Qurʾān and sunnah (the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muḥammad preserved in the ḥadīth) and revisiting fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Ijtihād (independent intellectual investigation of religious sources) is the methodology of Islamic feminism, and, more specifically, tafsīr (interpretation of the Qurʾān) which has taken two forms: a close reading of the scripture as text, and a dynamic dialogue with the scripture, such as Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Nimat Hafez al-Barazangi, Riffat Hassan, and Nasr Abū-Zayd have undertaken.

Islamic feminism articulates the principles of gender equality and social justice, shifting from an earlier primary focus on rights and liberation, as found in the Qurʾān. It is more radical than secular feminisms in enunciating full gender equality across the public/private spectrum in keeping with its understanding of a holistic Islam. It does not accept, as secular feminisms had done until more recently, the patriarchal model of the family in which complementary but unequal gender roles are understood to be religiously ordained, but rather it promotes an egalitarian model of the family. Islamic feminism, moreover, demands gender equality not only in the secular part of the public sphere but in the public religious domain, insisting on women's Islamically licit access to the religious professions and ability to publicly perform religious rituals. Islamic feminism conceptualizes a public sphere inclusive of the religious and the secular, rather than equating the public sphere solely with the secular. Islamic feminism disrupts the binary oppositions of East/West, secular/religious, and public/private, and it supports the separation of religion and state.

Two seminal treatises considered to be foundational texts of Islamic feminism are Qurʾān and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective, in which the African-American theologian Amina Wadud laid the groundwork for a Qurʾānic exposition of gender equality and social justice, and “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʾān, in which the Pakistani-American scholar Asma Barlas deconstructed the patriarchal takeover of Qurʾānic egalitarianism.

In Islamic jurisprudence, the legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini and the lawyer and legal scholar Azizah al-Hibri have produced compelling critiques of fiqh. Importantly they have made clear that Sharīʿah, commonly translated as “Islamic law” and thought to be sacred and immutable, is simply the product of human thought and consequently subject to change. Focusing attention on ḥadīth, Fatima Mernissi and, later, the Turkish religious-studies scholar Hidayet Tuksal have used traditional Islamic methodology to expose widespread misogynist ḥadīth as spurious.

The theoretical basis of Islamic feminism is the gender-sensitive analysis of religious sources which the creators of these analytical works place in the framework of the intellectual endeavor of religious reinterpretation. Muslim women as secular feminists recognized this as a feminist endeavor and called it “Islamic feminism.” Those who wrote the path-breaking texts of Islamic feminism did not identify themselves as feminists (except for Mernissi), but as scholar-activists. Eventually, however, many came to accept, though not to prefer, the designation of their work as “feminist” and themselves as feminists. The issue of identity and the term “Islamic feminism” have been hotly debated. Given the volatile environments in which Muslim women now find themselves, most women who think and act as feminists tend, for political and pragmatic reasons, not to use feminist terminology, or to employ it guardedly.

A pioneering organization that exemplifies the combined intellectual and activist work of Islamic feminism is Sisters Islam (SIS), founded by professional women in Malaysia in the 1980s, supporting the rights of Muslim women within an egalitarian framework of Islam. SIS reached out to the broader Muslim community by disseminating booklets on subjects such as the equality of women and men and the Islamic view opposing wife-beating. SIS also connected with the broader transnational community of Muslim women, a practice that was to be a hallmark of Islamic feminism. In 2009 SIS launched a global movement for equality and justice for women living in Muslim contexts, Musawah, which hosts training sessions for women leaders from around the world, led by progressive interpreters of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, with the goal of challenging the use of religion to justify discrimination against women.

Islamic feminism in Indonesia from the start reached out to rural areas through organizations such as the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies, founded by the activist Lily Munir, and the NGO Rahima, spearheaded by Kyai Muhammad Hussein. These organizations promote egalitarian Islam through curriculum revision in the grassroots Islamic boarding schools (pesantrens) found throughout the country.

Muslim activists employing Islamic arguments, as Pakistani feminists had done earlier, continue to fight injustices arising from ḥudūd laws. A landmark victory was achieved in Nigeria where ḥudūd laws had been recently instituted in several northern states. Two secular women's organizations, Baobab and the Women's Rights and Protection Association (est. 1999), supported two women condemned to death for zinah (adultery) in lower Sharīʿah courts by providing them with legal support to appeal the cases in the higher Sharīʿah courts; after studious examination of fiqh, these appeals led to acquittals.

Jurisprudential arguments were also used successfully in Morocco. Feminist activists from many associations, such as the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (est. 1985), the Union of Feminine Action (est. 1987), and the Democratic League for Women's Rights, in long years of struggle, employed democracy and human-rights arguments and, in the final round, stepped up Islamic feminist arguments. Relentless campaigning by the activist women, particularly through the One Million Signatures Campaign, played an important role in achieving the overhaul of the Mudawana, or Family Law, in 2004, which is now the most egalitarian Sharīʿah-based family law in the Muslim world and the only explicitly Islamic law that provides for dual headship of the family, by wife and husband. The success of Morocco's activists inspired Iranian women to launch their own One Million Signatures Campaign to educate the Iranian public about discriminatory laws against women and their impact on women's daily lives, and to seek reforms to them. A victory of another sort was won in Yemen in 1997, when women activists across the ideological spectrum banded together, mobilizing the discourses of secular feminism and Islamic feminism to stave off the enactment of a new Family Law.

Muslims in the West as immigrants, new citizens, and converts are employing Islamic feminist discourse as they move forward with their new lives in the communities they are building and in society at large. Women need advice on a wide range of legal matters. In the United States, Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights was created in the late 1990s by Azizah al-Hibri to provide such advice and to develop woman-sensitive Islamic jurisprudence. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW, est. 1982), which is concerned with issues of gender and the interface between their Muslim and Canadian identities, fought a proposed change in the Arbitration Act in Ontario that would have made legally binding outcomes of family disputes that were mediated in a religious community. They argued that the existing Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected the equality of citizens and that that equality would be jeopardized by the legalized use of any religion (which could be defined in a patriarchal way) in mediating family disputes. The CCMW asserted that Canadian laws were compatible with the egalitarian principles of Islam and succeeded in defeating the bill that could have been detrimental to all women.

The problem of wife-beating that was a concern of secular feminists continues to be tackled by Islamic feminists. In Spain, when an imam published a book declaring that beating one's wife is sanctioned by scripture, Muslim women's organizations, comprising immigrants and converts, including the Asociación An-Nisa, Asociación Cultural Inshal-lah, and Asociación Baraka protested and successfully sued the imam, who was convicted for incitement of gender violence, which is prohibited by the Spanish constitution. It was ruled that his personal interpretation did not constitute the only possible reading of the Qurʾān.

Muslim women also face problems relating to the importation of brutal practices, such as honor killing, into their new communities in the West. These practices are understood in their countries of origin to be simply the products of custom but are passed off in the West, by their perpetrators, as Islamic. Accordingly Muslim women in the West use Islamic feminist discourse against honor killings. L’Associazione delle Donne Marocchine, under the direction of its founder Souad Sbai and in collaboration with others opposed to the practice, took the lead in fighting honor killing in Italy.

The mosque and other forms of sacred space are central in feminist efforts to realize an egalitarian Islam. Issues manifested mainly in the West, but which also appeared in South Africa, concern women sharing main mosque space with men and giving khuṭbahs (sermons), and, more specifically to North America, women acting as imams leading mixed congregations in prayer. The theologian Amina Wadud led the way in South Africa by pioneering what was called the “pre-khuṭbah” talk in a mosque in Cape Town in 1994, which occasioned women entering the main mosque space for the first time. A decade later Wadud acted as imam, leading a congregation in New York in prayer and delivering the khuṭbah. This activist move provoked a debate on the lawfulness of a woman acting as imam before a mixed congregation of women and men, in which readings of the ḥadīth and jurisprudence texts in favor of the practice were widely circulated. In Saudi Arabia, where feminist debate goes on behind the scenes, women were catapulted into public protest when they were told that women would be removed from the broader area around the Kaʿbah, called the maṭāf. Their protest in the press, in which they quoted from the Qurʾān to support their determination not to be shunted away, was echoed by an outcry from women in other parts of the Muslim world. The matter was resolved when it was officially announced that the removal would not take place.

In the contemporary global ummah, the distinction between secular feminism and Islamic feminism today is increasingly blended in concepts and actions. This was perhaps seen most visibly in the strong presence and leadership of women from all backgrounds during the Arab Spring and in some of the nonviolent civil protests that occurred in the years before it. In some cases, direct reference to Islam was made to support the quest for gender equality in issues ranging from access to stadiums to watch live soccer games (Iran) to demanding changes in the government (Kefaya, the “Enough” movement, in Egypt). Muslims as feminists who accept gender equality and social justice as core principles of Islam and seek to implement them include those who announce their feminism publicly and many more who think and act as feminists but without declaring their attitude openly.


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Margot Badran Updated by Natana J. DeLong-Bas


Islam and feminism are generally presented as diametrically opposed and incompatible. The agonizing relationship between feminism and religion is manifest in discussions about Islam. Until now people of faith have not occupied a comfortable position in feminist circles, as they follow ideals that are located in a tradition that historically assigns to women a subordinate status. Yet, there are among Muslim women and feminists ideas about Islamic feminisms.

A brief discussion about feminism in relation to Islam is inevitably restricted to a few broad subjects. The present outline does not imply a depreciation of all local manifestations and evolutions of feminism and Islamic feminism in the various Muslim countries. The premise is that, notwithstanding the internal contradictions and differences in realizations, successes, and methods in each country, there seems to be a certain unity and solidarity between the women's movements. From this point of view, this article summarizes the origins of feminism in Muslim societies, its impact, and the emergence of a religious, that is, Islamic, feminism.

The rise of women's movements in the Middle East can be described in several phases. First comes a phase of awakening: the status of women becomes an issue, existing social habits are questioned, and women's organizations are created. In the second phase the fledgling women's activism is inserted into the nationalist struggle. The third phase takes place in the new states: women assist in and/or collide with the reconstruction of states. Generally speaking this gave rise to the creation of two feminist movements in the Arab world: a first stream is Western-oriented and secular. This movement attracted mainly women from the upper and middle classes. In the first years of the independent states, this was the dominant movement. Not infrequently this silted into a form of state feminism. The second movement is anti-Western, in which one tries to frame the feminist goals within one's own Islamic framework. This movement has become increasingly popular since the revival of Islam. This format is, of course, also a gross generalization. These phases did not necessarily happen successfully, but often simultaneously. Moreover, not all phases occurred in all cases.

A First Feminist Flow in Muslim Societies: Western-Oriented and Secular.

The first steps of women's activism coincided with the development of various reform movements, either secular or within Islam, which arose in the nineteenth century. The first feminist Middle East text is attributed to Qāsim Amīn (1863–1908). In 1899 he wrote The Liberation of Women, in which he stresses that the degradation of women in Islamic countries, which had increased over the course of centuries, did not have its origin in Islam but had been adapted from the views and customs of people who had subsequently become Muslims. Feminist historians today find his ideas on women already in Women of Islam (1896) written by the Turkish feminist Fatma Āliye Hanim (1864–1936). It is, however, the work of Amīn that led to the beginning of the feminist debate in the area. His writings found their way to other countries of the Middle East and fueled the discussion there, too. Although the discussion about women was initiated by men, controversies in the Egyptian press between women can be found as well (e.g., in 1892 about women's suffrage).

In the early twentieth century, among intellectuals in Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, the status of women was connected with the idea of modernity. The status of women was seen as a barometer for the modernity of the state. Reformers argued in favor of education for women and attacked traditional social practices such as arranged marriages, polygamy, and concubinage. Critical voices resounded from both secular and Islamic angles. The call for more women's rights was part of a larger societal change, due to the influence of and contacts with the West, the transition from a rural to an urban society, industrialization, and commercialization. The masculine calls for reform to modern states were not always so woman-friendly. They wanted skilled and educated women in order to educate their children and to acquire social recognition. According to these reformers the role of women was acted out mostly in the home, which explains why the concern of men for the development and education of women was attacked by some women. Others used this discourse to their own advantage and took it up to a certain extent. However, regardless of the motivation, the debate created new openings and opportunities for women. The controversy about motives facilitated, for example, the emergence of a separate women's press throughout the Middle East, including women's magazines and newspapers of different type, with a feminist content and scope. The growth of the women's press was an important step in the dissemination and communication of ideas, although this important step was limited to a relatively small audience of literate women from highly urbanized areas.

The first women's organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were essentially charitable organizations. They focused on improving the health of women, religion, and literacy. Their activism has played an important role, as many of the later feminist pioneers took their first steps in such charitable organizations. They gave women experience and political visibility. As a result of colonialism and imperialism, a strong nationalist movement emerged in the Middle East and triggered organization and activism. The women's organizations in the Middle East saw their efforts in the light of defending and strengthening national culture and family values. Unlike Western feminism, there is a strong link with the national struggle. Nationalist activism offered women an opportunity to act outside the closed world of women, under the flag of patriotism. Women's activism was in itself a feminist act. Yet the idea within the women's movements in those days was to realize women's rights as a natural part of general civil rights. Only in a second phase did they try to add explicit feminist demands to the agenda. Nationalism was a double-edged sword for women: on the one hand it liberated and emancipated women, but on the other hand, it limited them. Feminist demands were always subordinated to nationalist requirements. The role of women remained neatly enclosed within the boundaries of national ideology.

Although women had contributed to the fight for sovereignty, this was not rewarded when the state was created. The creation of a new state was often based on the idea of the citizen as a man or a woman, which made the explication of women's rights, in theory, obsolete. Independent women's movements were silenced. Only the state-controlled organizations survived. This was a pernicious development for the evolution of feminism. In Turkey, for example, obtaining certain women's rights from the state weakened the independent women's movement. Feminism was synonymous with state feminism, and independent grassroots movements were discouraged. There was no broad-based growth of feminism that took into account the requirements of different women. Women from lower classes or from rural areas were easily overlooked. The only ones who benefited from state-imposed women's rights were a small elite of highly educated, wealthy women who were not representative of the whole female population. This gave feminism a negative connotation as an elitist, distant, and inauthentic movement. Feminism seemed to be imported from the West, it had grown from a Western ideology, and it had little relevance to women from the Middle East. And instead of being considered a result of modernization, an emancipated woman was considered to be a “Westernized” woman.

The Second Feminist Flow: A Religious Feminism for the Liberation of Muslim Women?

Since the 1970s there has appeared the idea of Islam as a medium for change in the Middle East. As an alternative to the difficult relationship with modernity, Muslims propose an Islamic modernism that makes a distinction between modernization and Westernization. Modernization is associated with technology, science, and a higher standard of living. This aspect is usually desired and welcomed with open arms. Westernization, on the other hand, is usually rejected, because it is connected to the problems of Western culture, such as promiscuity, erosion of family and community, and drug and alcohol abuse. The alternative offered by Islamic modernism considers Islam as a dynamic and progressive religion that allows reinterpretations and adjustments to the modern age. The image of women under Islamic modernism proposes an ideal Muslim woman as devout, virtuous, and kept apart. This idealized image serves as a symbol of the difference from the Western woman. The symbolic utility of women has political and religious leaders mobilizing women for their movements. Women are taught Islam, used as propaganda, mobilized in street actions, and encouraged to wear Islamic dress. Muslim modernists pay great attention to women and to how women should behave in order to function properly.

However, modernization has changed women's lives during the years of Western authority and in the contacts with Western society. Many women enjoyed teaching, having a career, traveling, and coming into contact with Western feminist ideas. This interaction with a much more diverse group of individuals than just the family group has led to a growing resistance to the prevailing ideal woman. Women are strengthened by modernization and education. Education has induced them to question Islamic interpretations. Today, women in the Middle East challenge the public view of the position of women in Islam. Their attitudes toward Islam are diverging: from turning their backs to Islam and religion in general, to accepting Islam while rejecting some aspects of the organized religion and the religious leaders’ authority, or even to openly discussing Islamic sources and interpretations. The latter ones seek their own interpretations of Islam that better reflect women's rights, and they refer to male dominance in history and Qurʾānic interpretation.

Access to holy books and religious sources of their respective traditions—due, inter alia, to better and higher education for women—induces Muslim women to understand better the broader historical context of some texts that have reinforced gender inequality. A growing number of Muslim women understand they are excluded from total participation in society, not because this is prescribed by Islam but because Islam appeared in a strongly patriarchal social context. In line with this, feminists consider interactions between men and women as being imposed not by religion but by social praxis often legitimized by religion. Gradually a gender discourse has arisen which is “feminist” in its aspiration and demands, yet “Islamic” in its language and sources of legitimacy, meaning that women have acquired the words and the method—that is, the intellectual weapons—needed to criticize those who speak in the name of Islam. Doing so they achieve new frames of reference to reformulate Islamic concepts and laws.

This new discourse has been labelled Islamic feminism, a term that continues to be contested and is considered controversial. Questions such as, “Can we put the emerging feminist voices in Islam into categories? ” and “Can we generate a definition that reflects all the differing positions and approaches of so-called Islamic Feminists?” show up in reflections on what “Islamic feminism” is. Examining the dynamics of Islamic feminism and the discourse about how opponents depict them might help us to understand. What is clear is that, as with other feminists, their positions are local, diverse, multiple, and evolving.

In its attempts to make a “change,” feminism unavoidably confronts the established patriarchal power. Since the beginning of Islam, women's roles in religion have been circumscribed by the power and control of men, the ʿulamāʾ, as guardians of religion, formulators and interpreters of laws, and judges. The “new” feminism—which is called “Islamic feminism”—has focused on the field of Qurʾānic interpretation (tafsīr) and has successfully uncovered the Qurʾānic egalitarian message. Scholars such as Azizah al-Hibri (1997) and Afsaneh Najmabadi (1998) emphasize in their arguments the gender-inclusive language of the Qurʾān (which has disappeared in the corpus of tafsīr that clearly defends male superiority and patriarchal culture). Amina Wadud (1992) and Leila Ahmed (1992) relate, in their reasoning, more on Islamic virtuous women as examples for humanity. With access to holy scripts and religious sources of their respective traditions, women acquire insights into the broader historical context of certain texts that work to the disadvantage of gender equality.

In order to be part of a pluralistic women's movement, Muslim feminism seems to emphasize the notion of empowerment and to use a rights discourse. Sherin Saadallah (2004) considers this a tactical change within the feminist movement, which allows it to incorporate Muslim feminism into a feminist project. Metaphorically, feminism can be compared to a plant that is trying to find, in every society and in every community, fertile soil without sealing itself off hermetically. Currently, several scholars agree on the plurality of feminism. And, in particular, since it has become visible that women's movements worldwide are concerned about the same themes, the will to gain independence and to empower women is at the heart of every Muslim feminist project. Finally, in this line the usefulness of the acquired knowledge must be taken into account. The rereading of the Qurʾān and its reinterpretations are based on the reformist model. According to critics this does not lead to reinterpretations at the level of social sciences. This is much larger and is about paying attention to the jurisprudential texts in which the rules of the Qurʾān and the sunnah—and thus, also regarding the oppression of women—are elaborated. The daily bodily harm or psychological assaults are prescribed in texts that function as Qurʾānic explanations. Most of the feminists, however, do not pay attention to those fiqh books, which are full of realities constructed by males and which overleap “real” life. Pieternella van Doorn-Harder (2006) disapproves, therefore, of the use of bombastic language about all the freedoms that the Qurʾān is supposed to promise women, especially when those same women are living in daily oppression and mistreatment. Relevant Qurʾān interpretations and interpretations that wish to stand in the middle of women's lives should therefore pay attention to the jurisprudential books. Only those interpretations that are rooted in both the Qurʾān and jurisprudence and that take as a starting point women's daily experiences might be able to bridge the gap between ideals and realities.


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Els Vanderwaeren

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