The Emergence of Islamic Feminism

Abdulkhalig Elsir

Islamic Feminism is a movement that strives for recognition of the role of women in Islam and full equality for all Muslims. It advocates for women’s rights, gender equality and social justice within the Islamic framework. The movement draws heavily from the secular and non-Muslim feminist discourses. The methodology used highlights the deeply rooted inequality in Islamic teachings and questioning the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic exegesis as a strong indication of such influence. 

Islamic scholars defending women’s rights 

By tracing historical attempts to “modernize” Islamic theology, we find that addressing women’s rights was not only women’s business. Many prominent scholars contributed. Ibn Rushd, the famous Islamic philosopher of the 12th century, was one of those who articulated the equality of women in all aspects of life. However, it is worthy to note that Ibn Rushd has been labelled, by Orthodox Islam, as a heretic and corrupted Muslim, if not an apostate. Nevertheless, his contribution in highlighting women’s issues is an indication of how women’s position in the social context was a vibrant issue during his time. 

Ibn Asakir, a prominent Islamic historian who also lived in the 12th century, tells us about the positive situation of women of his time. Ibn Asakir mentions that women’s education at that time was normal to the extent that they were enrolled in formal education. Interestingly, Ibn Asakir mentioned that he himself was taught by around 80 women throughout his life. 

Although it is not the purpose of this article to trace all men who contributed to women’s rights issues, it is worth mentioning some great names whose literature defending women’s rights is still inspiring and acts as important references for contemporary Islamic feminism. In Egypt, we find the influence of Qasim Amin. His book The Liberation of Woman (1899) positioned him as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. Muhammad Abdu was also considered a most radical reformist in Family Status Law. 

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) and his protégé, Mumtaz Ali, in 18th century India, were regarded as the founders of Islamic Modernism in India. Mumtaz Ali’s book Rights of Women, even by today’s measures, is one of the most influential books that handle the issue of women’s rights. 

The Tunisian Islamic scholar Tahir Haddad’s remarkable book Our Woman in Islamic Law and Society, is regarded as one of the most courageous attempts of his time in articulating a new interpretation of women’s rights. 

The commonality shared by all those thinkers, despite their historical differences, is that they consider improving and recognizing women’s rights as an Islamic obligation and a societal necessity. This shows, on one hand, that female issues are as old as Islam itself while, on the other, it speaks of their importance. Interestingly, the 12th century was one of those times when women’s issues had a central position among other social issues. This is not a surprise if we knew that in that century the influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic culture in general - and Islamic theology in particular - was strong. It is worth remembering this when discussing contemporary Islamic feminism and how the influence of globalization has pushed the issue of Muslim woman’s rights to new boundaries. 

Women’s rights – a genuine Islamic value 

Returning to Islamic feminism, Isobel Coleman mentions in her book Paradise beneath Her Feet that Muslim feminists consider women’s rights not as a Western or a secular imposition but as a genuine Islamic value. Addressing controversial issues like Personal Status Law, sexuality, marriage and dress codes are priorities in the discourse about Islamic feminism. However, their approaches are diverse. In the trial to achieve an elusive middle ground between the demands of their religion and the needs of modernity is where the thoughts, ideas and struggle of Islamic feminism take place. Many scholars attribute the rise of Islamic feminism to the influence of globalization while some, like Coleman, consider it a product of social and political change in the Islamic world. 

There was an Iranian reformist who preceded all contemporary Islamic activists in the way she tackled such controversial issues in the 19th century. Tahirih, the Iranian poetess, wasn’t influenced by modernism and held her own innovative and controversial ideas. Her contribution to Qur’anic exegesis and rejection of polygamy and the veil were astonishing even by today’s measures. Tahirih argued that all the interpretations of these issues are merely restraints imposed on women by men. Not surprisingly, she paid with her life as a result. Her last words before her execution were an indication of awareness of her mission: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women”. 

Current Islamic feminists’ approaches vary due to cultural, political and social differences. The more conservative a society, the more modest their demands, and vice versa. Not surprisingly then you will find that the highest demands of Islamic feminists in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is to get driving licenses and to reduce guardianship. On the contrary, those who live in more liberal societies or were born and grew up in the West have approaches that are more sophisticated and their demands of gender equality are more ambitious. 

Outstanding Women Feminists 

Fatima Mernissi, a prominent Moroccan sociologist, considered one of the most influential Islamic feminists of recent times, belongs to the latter category. Mernissi devoted her academic and intellectual career to criticising and questioning the classical patriarchal interpretation of Qur’an and Hadith (the sayings and teachings of Prophet Mohamed). She also highlighted the gap between theory and practice in modern Islamic countries when it comes to women’s rights. Mernissi argues that, while the constitutions give women full equality as citizens, the Personal Status Law deprives them of these rights and treats them as sub-humans. Like many of those who belong to the radical school of feminism, Mernissi thinks the liberation of Muslim women comes only if an end is put to the male monopoly of Islamic theology. 

Seeking equality in the mosque was a radical step taken by Amina Wadud, a most controversial Islamic feminist of our time. Wadud, a converted black-American, spent most of her academic career studying and teaching Islamic theology. She came up with the term “gender jihad” by which she means the struggle to achieve the equality “promised” in the Qur’an. According to Wadud this is not going to happen unless women confront and break the conventional norms and teachings of classical Islam. She exhibited her conviction when she addressed mixed-sex congregations giving a sermon in South Africa in 1994 and by leading Friday prayers in the United States in 2005. These actions broke with established Islamic law, which allows only male Imams in mixed-gender congregations, and triggered Muslim juristic discourse about women as Imams. 

From what we have seen, the debate around Muslim women’s rights is deep-seated in the history of Islam and continues. However, with the rise of Islamic feminism since the second half of the 20th century, the issue of women’s rights has reached more sophisticated levels. Many factors contributed to that. First of all the rise of political Islam and the threat it poses to women by sending them back to the era of harem. Secondly, the social, cultural and economic impacts of globalization, which has caused a huge movement of Muslims to Western countries and, as a consequence, worked to turn the values of democracy and human rights from things that were seen as Western values, to universal ones. This in turn questioned and challenged the values of Muslim migrants, especially values that relate to women’s rights.