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Why do we need Islamic Feminism?

By Latifa Akay

Why do we need Islamic feminism? 









In a world where many people are still perplexed as to why there is a need for feminism, the question of why we need Islamic feminism is particularly pertinent. Maslaha is currently producing a resource on Islamic feminism as part of our ‘I Can Be She’ project in the run up to Women’s History Month in March.

Women’s History Month, which this year celebrates women of ‘character, courage and commitment,’ is a convenient occasion to interrogate conventional narratives of the past. Whether these are in relation to war, the arts, science or national trajectories – a common denominator will inevitably be the perceptible absence of women. Yes we have history. But what of ‘herstory’? Is the question feminists have long been asking. Such thinkers highlight the need to read between the lines, listen to silences and make visible the invisible. Accordingly, Women’s History Month can also be a time to shine a spotlight on the efforts of women reassessing assumed ‘truths’ of the past in order to secure step forwards.

Maslaha’s ‘I Can Be She’ seeks to empower young Muslim women and challenge misperceptions and prejudice both in non-Muslim and Muslim circles about women’s rights in Islam. The multitude of negative stereotypes about women and Islam however make this easier said than done.

While the mainstream media would have us believe that Islam is inherently misogynistic and that the term ‘Islamic feminism’ is an oxymoron, Muslims across the world frequently defend hierarchical constructions of gender relations in the name of the divine. The result of this is that many women seeking to secure alternative narratives of gender rights feel they have to compromise or deny their faith.

The advent of Islamic feminism over recent decades has been an important step to assuring Muslim women that the religion they believe in and live their lives by does not patronize them, nor does it discriminate against them.

This dynamic trajectory of thought has operated to persuasively redefine the issue of discriminatory Muslim family laws justified under the guise of ‘sharia,’ not as a problem of Islam but as a problem of patriarchy. Looking back and unveiling the social construction of family laws and the subjective ideologies, political, sociological, economical and historical factors that informed these has been key to such efforts. This is close to our aim at Maslaha of alleviating social problems – in this case relating to gender stereotyping, sexism and the subordination of women – by fostering a greater understanding of Islam from cultural and historical perspectives.

Muslim feminist and reformist scholars, men included, have offered gender sensitive readings of Qur'anic texts and brought to light the ways in which the transfer of Qur'anic revelation into jurisprudence was heavily influenced by the patriarchal milieu of the time. In doing this they have illustrated how human mediators of Islamic law have all too frequently made interpretations on gender that negate Islam’s innate sense of social justice. More recent efforts, for example the global network Musawah, have taken important steps in bridging the gap between theory and activism, arguing that the attainment of de jure and de facto equality and justice for Muslim women is both possible and necessary.

In short Islamic feminism offers a potent set of tools with which to unpick patriarchal power structures and alleviate discriminatory practices that have been broadly institutionalized in the name of religion. Importantly the fact that it operates from within an Islamic framework means it holds more legitimacy than secular feminist efforts which are often rejected among Muslim circles as neo-colonialist ventures.











At the same time Muslim feminists are faced with a different set of problems. Firstly they themselves are frequently demonized by other Muslims as, in the words of one scholar,‘ orientalist occidentals,’[1] and secondly, secular feminists often consider religion as diametrically opposed to their mandate and fail to see how allegiance to the former can be compatible with a drive for more egalitarian notions of gender equality.

Scholars such as Ziba Mir-Hosseini however have argued that ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ should be seen as contested concepts and that to essentialize otherwise effectively operates to deny the reality of women’s lives. This increasingly accepted realization has opened the door for new conversations, which for the first time make the lived realities of women their focus.

Muslim women have a right to their religion, but also to feminism, which does not necessarily have to be associated with secularity.

While the notion of interrogating narratives of the past or presenting new ones may sound simple, this has not been the case for women. As the scholar Fatima Mernissi noted over two decades ago, ‘delving into memory, slipping into the past, is a closely supervised activity, especially for Muslim women. A passport for such a journey is not always a right.’[2]

Muslim women are increasingly claiming this right back with the realization that if history is left as the realm of men, then the present, and inevitably the future, can only offer much of the same. Women’s History Month is a useful time to remember this and to bring to light the ways in which Muslim women are working to seal a passport to a better future. Their efforts have and will continue to involve ‘character, courage and commitment.’


[1] Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi ‘Purdah and the Status of Women’ (1991)

[2] Fatima Mernissi,  'The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam' (1991)