Muslim Feminism is Here to Stay The Mutual Inclusivity of Feminism and Islam

As women who are not blind to misogyny, Muslim feminists bring into existence an alternative to secular feminism, which leaves out any form of religious reference.

‘It is not our different approaches to religion that divide society, but the negation of each person’s right to defend their diverse views and interpretations.’

— Sherin Khankan, Women are the Future of Islam.

Under the canopy of crystal clear light, the comforting warmth of a cup of black Lipton tea and the reviving breeze of rain that finds its way through the window and goes on forever, I place my fingers on the keyboard and begin to type in the words that have been eating away at me for quite some time; because I refuse to be on the blacklist of those who oppose Islam just for fighting for what naturally belongs to me.

Early in February, an article written by Khadija Sanusi,‘Between Feminism and Islam – My Personal Journey from Muslim Feminist to Muslimah’ had aroused the interest of so many Muslims, many of whom celebrated the writer as their ‘hero’, while hurling insults on those who presented dissenting views. The article, which challenged Muslim feminism on grounds of incompatibility with Islam, had based its findings on two extremely contrasting views, ignoring the plurality of views on what feminism means to diverse Muslim women and wrapping all Muslim women under one umbrella.

In the wake of cyber-bullying, I tried to reason the unbearable burning that comes with giving up my human rights just to retain my Muslim identity. For many weeks, my insides were in chaos, damp with un-cried tears. I’d been hurting, I’d never been one to be bullied into giving up something I feel strongly about. But I’d been labelled, cussed, and cast aside by friends for being the Muslim woman who isn’t humble enough to be silent about her rights. I knew Islam before I knew feminism. I never studied Islam through the lens of feminism, so when I decided to take on the label of ‘feminist’, it was with the knowledge not only of the inherent synergistic relationship between Islam and feminism but also of the plurality and polysemy of feminist ideology. Never had I once questioned aspects of Islam such as why Islam allows polygamy and not polyandry; why Muslim women are required to wear the headscarf or why a woman’s inheritance is half that of a man’s. I understood that the Qur’an is not a sexist text that privileges a particular gender and I understood the historicity and ontology of these provisions and the relativity of their legal consequences, which in itself already answered the question ‘why?’.

Identifying that feminism was once a tool wielded by colonial powers under the guise of ‘saving Muslim women’, I have decided to recognize the various ways in which this history haunts us today. And, then, to unlearn the mental impacts of colonialism and enable the emergence of new perspectives for progress to take place. As a Muslim woman, I believe that I have a ‘feminist’ heritage inherent in Islam, within a world of Islamic sources and entirely different from the corpus of Western feminism.

To be a Muslim feminist is to render useless the mantra that Islam gave women a theoretical set of rights that for thousands of years have remained unimplemented. To deny the synergistic relationship between Islam and feminism is to affirm that child marriage, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, all forms of domestic abuse and enslavement; rape culture; moral double standards and a denial of women’s fundamental rights to education, work, financial empowerment, divorce, child custody and a host of others; are compatible with Islam.

Feminism is Not Just a Name. It’s an Attitude!

What makes a name, if not the meaning given to it? Language experts affirm the polysemy of individual words, each meaning existing in its own right without one nullifying the other. They also identify the polysemy of individual ideologies within the meaning of a word. This invariably means that the meaning of a word can be further broken down into various meanings based on geographical or ideological contexts.

A definition of Muslim feminism is elusive because there exists a broad spectrum of views that can be summarized under this term, including widely divergent missions and views. The general meaning and spirit behind ‘feminism’ is the emancipation and liberation of women. And this is why whenever a group of women stand up for their rights, even without identifying with the ‘feminist’ label, they are quick to be identified by external forces as ‘feminists’. It doesn’t matter that an individual’s fight for equality is predicated on a different model; to be ‘pro - women’s rights’ is to be feminist. More specifically, Umaima Abu Bakr, professor of English literature and one of the founders of Muslim Feminism in Egypt, stated in an interview with Qantara:

The idea of Muslim feminism can be introduced as an ideological and epistemological project undertaken by Muslim researchers and specialists in Islamic studies, with the purpose of critiquing paternalism in Islamic heritage and building another, more equitable alternative.

Summarily, Muslim feminism can be said to be an active movement for women’s rights premised on Islamic scholarship. To many people, the term ‘Muslim feminism’ exists as a contradiction; a demonstration of a broad-minded and reformist change bringing together movements of secularization and Islamization. By waging a war against the misogyny manifest among Muslims and against the Islamophobia manifest in secular feminism, Muslim feminists combine the political and the religious in a way that dismantles unequal relations between genders and de-culturalizes Islam .

The voices of Muslim women are getting louder every day. This has been made possible through a process of decolonization and acquisition of Islamic knowledge. As well as through a new wave of female Muslim scholarship, which is fostering academic, political and religious discourse surrounding the oppression of Muslim women and the progressive mechanisms which can help to tackle these oppressions. From Riffat Hassan who says the Qur’an is the ‘Magna Carta of human rights’ to Tamara L. Gray who is reviving the female voice in scholarship by establishing an Islamic institute of learning exclusive to Muslim women; and Farhat Hashmi who is reawakening the true spirit of Islam by facilitating a better understanding of the Qur’an through her tafsir, in contrast to rigid and confrontational styles of proselytizing. Female Muslim scholars are changing misogynistic narratives.

Using these resources, Muslim feminists are able to claim their God-given right to identity and agency and to maintain multiple self-awareness both as women and as Muslims who are wrapped within multiple layers of oppression. In Egypt for example, the activism of Muslim feminists gave birth to the Alexandria declaration—a document on the rights of women in Islam that upheld equality as one of the integral concepts defining male-female relations in Islam and established women’s political and economic rights as equal to those of men.

Muslim feminists in the ultraconservative northern Nigeria, under the leadership of Fakhrriyyah Hashim, who convened the #ArewaMeToo movement in February 2019, have also opened the eyes of many unschooled women to their God-given rights. The #ArewaMeToo movement gave birth to the ‘Mayafi Initiative’, which aims at addressing the menace of sexual and gender-based violence through rural advocacy by mobilizing young people and unschooled women to be agents of change in their communities.

Essayist and writer, Sada Malumfashi, also recently brought to the limelight, a history of Hausa feminist writings, many of which were authored by Muslim women who had no access to formal education to rebel against their communities’ misogynistic culture.

In Sudan, women at the forefront of the anti-regime resistance who fought against Khartoum’s militarism for decades laid the foundations for Sudan’s ongoing revolution. 22-year-old Alaa Salah, whose photograph was taken while chanting in front of a crowd of protesters in April 2019, has been tagged the ‘symbol’ of the Sudanese revolution. However, women before her had rebelled against the regime’s noxious practice of using religion in its subjugative campaigns to suppress dissent.

In the words of Alaa Salah:

They imprisoned us in the name of religion, burned us in the name of religion … killed us in the name of religion. But Islam is innocent. Islam tells us to speak up and fight against tyrants … the bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of the people.

These distinct movements actively repel the oppression of Muslim women on regional levels but collectively strive towards creating a better world for diverse Muslim women to live in.

Many Muslim women around the world, however, still lack access to these resources either due to a denial of their rights to education and, by extension, intellectualism. Or by getting limited access to a variety of scholarly resources, and being coerced into accepting religious dogmatism on the precept that any allusion to equality is a path to damnation.

In Sherin Khankan’s words:

The voices of women have been silenced through centuries of man-made traditions, and we are saying, no more, enough is enough, we are going to take our rightful place in the Muslim world. We are reclaiming the place that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave us in the seventh century, and we are going to be part of the solution.

Muslim feminists rise along with women who refuse to make a choice between ‘the active path of liberation’ and their ‘belonging’ to Islam both as a religion and a way of life. As women who are not blind to misogyny, Muslim feminists bring into existence an alternative to secular feminism, which leaves out any form of religious reference. In this sense, Muslim feminism is not just a name; it’s a pressure movement. One that shows an affirmation of the existence of misogyny within Muslim communities and takes up arms to fight it exclusively within the framework of Islam. To be a Muslim feminist is to be an activist, bringing into enforcement the theoretical framework of rights grounded in Islam. This is the mechanism through which subordination is questioned, rights are appropriated, and autonomy is acquired on a religious level. Muslim feminists, collectively and individually, refuse to interiorize their thoughts and soften their words to conform to masculine expectations. They agree that equality is inherent in Islam and that their rights are being sat upon by self - imposed authorities. Naturally, there are divergences on many issues, but these differences do not undermine the legitimacy of collective struggle.

Therefore, there is a rejection of any form of generalization on the basis of what a few may think to be true, affirming that as a collective, the specific views of one or a few cannot represent all. Muslim feminists also reject the nullification of their feminism as being incompatible with Islam. They are against the universalization of Western feminist ideology and the wrongful claim of it being the foundation upon which Muslim feminism is built.

The Mutual Inclusivity of Feminism and Islam

It was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls.

— Noble Qur’an, 30:9, Yusuf Ali Translation

In an interview with Middle East Telegraph correspondent, Carla Power, titled ‘What the Koran really says about women’, Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi on being asked about the position of feminism in Islam said, ‘Feminism wants justice for women. Where Muslims aren’t doing justice for the women, these movements will come’.

He also went ahead to acknowledge that men weren’t reading the Qur’an properly, stating that ‘they just use it for whatever point they want to make, coming to it with their own ideas and looking for verses that confirm what they want to hear.’ Akram’s book, AlMuhaddithat, is challenging the notion that Islamic knowledge is male-centered by bringing out the works of thousands of female Muslim scholars who have been hidden from Muslims. ‘I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,’ said Akram.

Anti-feminism writers like Zara Faris argue that Muslim feminism is incompatible with Islam, asserting that most Muslim feminists are only Muslims to the extent allowed by feminism. Such writers are prone to generalizations, forgetting that feminist Muslims are not a monolith in the understanding and practice of their religion and that Islam today has various branches and offshoots. I particularly appreciate that Nour M. Goda, American anti-feminist speaker, recognized the multiplicity of Muslim feminist ideology, negating the idea that Muslim feminists are one and the same in their understanding and practice of Islam. Zara Faris’ assertion that feminism constrains Muslim feminists ignores the diversity of Muslims subject to their interpretation of religious texts. An oversight Ziba Mir-Hossein highlights in her book, Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism, in stating:

A mono-lithic view of Islam still dominates both popular and academic discourses. Too often we hear statements beginning ‘Islam is’,‘the Koran says’, or ‘according to Islamic law or sharia’. Too rarely do those who speak in the name of Islam admit that theirs is no more than one opinion or interpretation among many. The holy texts, and the laws derived from them, are matters of human interpretation.

In Islam, there is no monopoly of Ijtihad (independent reasoning); and, according to Asma Barlasin her book, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, if we need to keep in mind the historical contexts of the Qur’an’s revelation in order to understand its teachings, then we also need to keep in mind the historical contexts of its interpretations in order to understand its conservative and patriarchal exegesis.

A 1994 study conducted by Fawzi El Sohl and Judy Mabro,‘Muslim Women’s Choices: Religious Belief and Social Reality’, states that the roles and status of women in Muslim societies, as well as patriarchal organizations and sexist relationships, are a consequence of a myriad of factors, most of which have nothing to do with religion.

The Qur’an itself in Chapter 39:18 acknowledges its own polysemy and confirms that some meanings are better than others. For example, it praises ‘Those who listen to the word and follow the (best) meaning in it,’ clearly indicating that a plurality of meanings can be derived from the Qur’an, not all of which may be equally good.

Consequently, George Hourani, in his book, Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, notes that it is not really the language in which the Qur’an’s teachings are communicated that matters but the need for us ‘to ascertain’ their meanings by making use of our own reasoning and intellect. Sherin Khankan, in her 2018 book, Women are the future of Islam, affirms that the Qur’an and Sunnah encourage all men and women to seek knowledge from the sources; both do not demand the blind repetition of a dogma. Hence, Muslim women from diverse backgrounds are increasingly re-opening the gates of Ijtihad against the wishes of those who declared the gates closed.

However, just like ‘male’ scholarship,‘female’ Muslim scholarship is highly varied, with a wide variety of scholars discerning different interpretations and analyses of religious texts. Thus, it is counterproductive to raise the interpretations of a particular group of women over others in a bid to disparage female scholarship and Muslim feminism.

Equality in the Qur’an

There are several verses in the Qur’an that suggest that the Qur’an is not a sexist or gender-based text. For brevity, I have selected these two:

The believers, men and women are awliya, one of another: They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers; practise regular charity, and obey God and God’s Apostle, On them will God pour God’s mercy; for God is exalted in power, Wise.

God hath promised to believers, men and women, Gardens Under which rivers flow to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in Gardens of everlasting bliss. But the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of God; That is the supreme felicity.

Noble Qur’an 9: 71–71 (Yusuf Ali Translation)

In her 1988 book, Knowing One Another: Shaping an Islamic Anthropology, Merryl Wyn Davies explains the first verse stating that the Qur’an makes clear that men and women are ‘awliya’, one of another. The Arabic word, awliya, means friends, guardians, protectors and custodians and in this context, it is implied that men and women are ‘friends’ and ‘protectors’ of one another, terms not used to describe two unequal individuals. She further points out that,‘There is a mutuality in the relationship which should be characterized by love and mercy and it has a moral and spiritual basis to be expressed in actions that cover the whole spectrum of existence’. Asma Barlas also expresses that the Qur’an’s description of men and women as awliya of one another facilitates a mutual acknowledgement of individuality and distinctiveness and reveals that they are equal in God’s sight, bearing witness to the fact that sexual differences are irrelevant in defining moral agency or voice. It is clear from these analyses that despite the patriarchal culture surrounding Muslims, the Qur’an demonstrates the equality of men and women.

According to Riffat Hassan, in her book, An Islamic Perspective in Sexuality, the Qur’an does not create a hierarchy in which men are placed above women, it also does not pit them against one another in a confrontational relationship. In order to be men’s awliya, women must have the freedom, right and authority to be able to guide them and be their custodians. In essence, the concept of mutual custody and responsibility presumes an organization of male-female agency that does not favour men.

Majority of Muslims, however, continue to read hierarchy, inequality and differentiation into the Qur’an by drawing a demarcating line between the moral and social realms. These Muslims argue that the Qur’an treats men and women equally in terms of morals and spirituality but differently and unequally in the social realm by giving them different kinds of rights in marriage. They state that Islam preaches sexual equity and not equality, deliberately disregarding that moral and social realms are entwined and inseparable,and that it is only moral decadence that makes anyone assert superiority over another in the social realm.

Regarding the separation of the moral and social realms as a justification for gender inequality, Asma Barlas hits the nail on the head when she writes:

… considering that ibaadah, the core of Muslim praxis and of moral individuality (taqwa) is the highest expression of the value of human equality and is not subject to change, how logical is it to argue that women and men are each other’s equals in the sight of God but that women are unequal to men in the sight of men?

Under the ‘Qawwam’ clause, Muslim men have assumed a position of authority and dictatorship over women, asserting that it is the duty of women to obey unconditionally even when it means giving up their rights. The position of Qawwam in the context of marriage is no more than a ‘caretaking’ position. Scholars who know the true position of Islam have interpreted this to mean men’s ‘maintenance and protection’ of women by virtue of being the breadwinners while women nurture the children. The obedience of wives to their husbands in this context is very conditional and rests upon the fulfilment of the duty of Qawwam which does not only entail ‘provision’ but also ‘protection’ against ‘all forms of injustice and violence’. Considering the historical context of this Qur’anic provision where Muslim families thrived on the singular income of the husband, this is, arguably, a fair arrangement.

However, the reality today is that many men do not fulfil the duty of ‘Qawwam’ and still expect women to be relegated to the background. Families no longer thrive on the singular income of the man. Thus, based on the inherent equality of the sexes in Islam, the subjection of Muslim women to domestic ‘enslavement’ while having to work and look after the children is simply oppression and inequality.

Past scholars like Imams Maalik, Ash – Shafi’i and Abu Haneefah have acknowledged that domestic chores are not a duty of Muslim women. To ignore this fact is a divergence from the exemplary character of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), who, according to the Qur’an, is the human portrayal of Islam. Historically, the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) upheld the rights of Muslim women while serving his household and doing his own chores. Even when he was the singular provider for his large family, each of his wives had her own separate quarters with maidservants that helped with all the domestic labour. He was the definition of the true Qawwam.

Here to Stay

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

Noble Qur’an, 49:13, Yusuf Ali Translation

At the core of Muslim feminism is the principle of ‘Al–Musawa’—the full equality of human beings (‘insan’). This principle must be rolled out, not only in theory but also in practice. In the absence of any mechanism put in place by Muslim communities for the enforcement of this principle geared towards ensuring social justice both within the public and the private spheres, I conclude that Muslim feminism is here to stay

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