Born in Iran and now based in London, Ziba Mir-Hosseini is one of the most well-known scholars of Islamic Feminism. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand she talks about the origins and prospects of Islamic feminism as an emancipatory project for Muslim women and as a new, contextually-relevant way of understanding Islam.
In recent years, a number of Muslim women's groups have emerged across the world, struggling for gender equality and justice using Islamic arguments. Most of them are led by women who come from elitist or, at least middle class, backgrounds. Many of them seem to lack a strong popular base. How do you account for this?
Ziba Mir-Hosseini: I think the majority of the women who are writing and publishing about what is popularly called 'Islamic feminism' are definitely from the elite or the middle class. But then, globally speaking, feminism has always had to do with the middle class, at least in terms of its key articulators and leaders. I believe that Islamic feminism is, in a sense, the unwanted child of 'political Islam'. It was 'political Islam' that actually politicized the whole issue of gender and Muslim women's rights. The slogan "back to the shariah" so forcefully pressed by advocates of political Islam in practice meant seeking to return to the classical texts on fiqh, or Muslim jurisprudence, and doing away with various laws advantageous to women that had no sanction in the Islamists' literalist understanding of Islam.
It was this that led, as a reaction, to the emergence of Islamic feminism, critiquing the Islamists for conflating Islam and the shariah with undistilled patriarchy and for claiming that patriarchal rule was divinely mandated. These gender activists, using Islamic arguments to critique and challenge the Islamists, brought classical religious texts to public scrutiny and made them a subject of public debate and discussion, articulating alternative, gender-friendly understandings, indeed visions, of Islam. That marked the broadening, in terms of class, of the fledgling Islamic feminist movement.
[See accompanying URL for full interview.]