Reflections on the compatibility of Feminism and Islam

Analysis, posted 12.01.2010, from United States, in:

Countless volumes have been written on the issue of Islam and women, by Muslims as well as others. Indeed, the ‘Muslim woman’ question has, for long, occupied a central place in discourses about Islam. Interestingly, the vast majority of works on this furiously-debated question have been penned by men. For many male Muslim writers, the question of Muslim womanhood is critical to their understanding of Islamic authenticity. For non-Muslim scholars of Islam, it is a central trope in their critique of the religion. Caught between the two, the diverse voices of Muslim women themselves have received but scant attention in the debate.

Margot Badran is one of the foremost chroniclers of Muslim women’s struggles for gender justice. This latest book of hers explores broadly two types of women’s struggles for equality waged in different parts of the ‘Muslim world’.

The first, which she traces to the colonial period, is what she labels as ‘Muslim secular feminism’, through which Muslim women in different countries sought to assert their rights to education, employment and political participation. The arguments they put forward were, typically, secular, and presented as a means for the empowerment and advancement of the ‘nation’ and the ‘community’.

The second form of feminism is what Badran terms as ‘Islamic feminism’, which really emerged in a major way just a few decades ago. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed discussion of the forms, arguments and practical achievements of ‘Islamic feminism’.

Far from being the oxymoron that many might think it is, Islamic feminism, Badran writes, is an even more radical and forceful form of feminism than was Muslim secular feminism at one time. Unlike secular feminists, the Islamic feminists argue for women’s equality and gender justice wholly through the framework of Islam, broadly defined.

‘Islamic feminism, Badran states, is based on the firm belief in the fundamental equality of men and women as creatures of God, as stated in the Quran. Islamic feminists argue that Islam itself demands the life, both in the personal as well as pubic domains. This demand for equality, Badran says, extends even to the religious sphere, for instance, as regards mosque rituals. Badran backs her case by citing certain Muslim women scholars — Aminah Wadud, Asma Barlas, Riffat Hasan being only the better-known among them — who seem to argue on somewhat these lines.

Can these admittedly scattered voices — mostly of elite women, many based in universities in the West — be really taken to represent a social movement, in the true sense of the term? This is something that Badran does not deal with. The actual impact of the writings of these women, in terms of policy or legal changes or women’s mobilisation at the ‘grassroots’, is missing in Badran’s otherwise engaging narrative. Absent, also, is any substantial discussion about the internal Muslim critique of their writings, mainly, though not only, by conservative ulema and Islamist ideologues on precisely Islamic grounds. This is, needless to say, an issue of immense practical import in that on it hinges the possibility or otherwise of popular acceptance of their interpretations of the faith.

Besides these elite Muslim women, some of who may well insist on being called ‘Islamic feminists’, are a much larger number of others who, working within a broadly-defined Islamic framework, shun the label, seeing the term ‘feminist’ as being tainted by its association with the West. They see their struggle as one that aims to recover what they variously understand as ‘authentic Islam’, and not, as the title of the book suggests, ‘feminism in Islam’. They may not go so far as the elite women-scholars Badran describes as being at the cutting-edge of the development of ‘Islamic feminism’ in their demands such as, for instance, advocating women-led prayers for joint congregations or women muftis.

Yet, Badran seems to lump them together with the elite women-scholars, inadvertently homogenising what is admittedly a very diverse set of voices. Badran chooses to discuss these women as also representing forms of ‘Islamic feminism’, but, this, to my mind, does injustice to how these women see themselves and their struggles. Why impose categories on people against their will, one might ask? Why bracket them in boxes that they refuse to recognise? Why describe their struggles as ‘feminism in Islam’, when this is not how these women see themselves as promoting? If they see themselves as engaged in an ‘Islamic’, as opposed to an ‘Islamic feminist’ struggle, then why not let them define themselves on their own terms?

Despite these caveats, this book excels, and is bound to create more than just a splash in the midst of ongoing debates about the vexed ‘Muslim woman question’.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.