Reading Muslim Feminism What to Read on Feminism and Islam

Muslim feminism is still very much an understudied field—the texts in this reading list set a path for understanding the various forms of feminism amongst Muslim women.

Over the past few decades, the concept of ‘Muslim women’ has become politicized and ridden with stereotypes. As a group that constantly has to navigate the tension between notions of Islam that portray Islam as an essentially evil religion and the ‘Western’ view of Muslim women as oppressed, Muslim women from diverse parts of the world have raised their voices to clarify what modernity means to them while redefining the religious sphere. Women scholars from within and outside the Islamic faith are placing women’s rights issues at the centre of the ongoing debate on gendered Islam and multiple modernities.

True solidarity with women in the Muslim world, therefore, means focusing less on self-serving male leaders and Western stereotypes of the Muslim woman’s identity and paying more attention to the vigorous, often controversial debates taking place amongst Muslim women themselves.  Genuine allyship means acknowledging their diverse voices and ideas on how to advance their own cause. These voices, some of which are included in this reading list, cover a broad spectrum. From secular to religious, radical to liberal, and young to old. But they are united in their critique of the dominant Western view of Muslim women.

ASMA BARLAS
BELIEVING WOMEN IN ISLAM, UNREADING PATRIARCHAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE QUR’AN
2ND EDITION, TEXAS, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS, 2019 (AVAILABLE HERE)

While works by Riffat Hassan, Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud first come to mind at the mention of recommended Muslim feminist readings, Asma Barlas’ Believing Women in Islam, Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an exceeds my expectations in examining how traditional definitions of gender roles in Muslim societies might be re-envisioned. The author’s primary aim is to answer whether or not the Qur’an is a sexist text. This book challenges earlier methods of Qur’anic hermeneutics, buttressing the need to link divine ontology to divine speech. It argues that although the Qur’an recognizes biological differences, it does not promote a theory of gender dualism. Barlas concludes that the Qur’an was revealed into an existing patriarchy and has ever since been interpreted by adherents of the patriarchy. Therefore, it is necessary for Muslim women to challenge its patriarchal exegesis.

KATHERINE BULLOCK
RETHINKING MUSLIM WOMEN AND THE VEIL: CHALLENGING HISTORICAL & MODERN STEREOTYPES
LONDON, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ISLAMIC THOUGHT, 2010 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Until very recently, the bulk of the literature about the veil had been written by outsiders who do not themselves veil. This literature often assumed a condescending tone about veiled women, suggesting that veiled women are making uninformed choices, and portraying them as subservient to a patriarchal culture and religion. Katherine Bullock’s book presents an alternative viewpoint, offering a positive theory of veiling based on the thoughts and experiences of Muslim women themselves; the ones not frequently perceived by outsiders. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil digs deep into the history of colonialism associated with the negative Western stereotype of the veil. This book also includes a rich bibliography on topics related to Muslim women and the veil.

AYSHA A. HIDAYATULLAH
FEMINIST EDGES OF THE QUR’AN
OXFORD, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In this book, Aysha A. Hidayatullah explores and examines major feminist readings of the Qur’an that emerged in the late twentieth century. She integrates their collective ideas and methods and traces their common path as crucial to the evolution of the promising field of feminist exegesis. Hidayatullah argues that the efforts of feminist tafsir (exegesis of the Qur’an) scholars have arrived at a point of irreconcilable contradiction by making claims about the Qur’an that are not fully supported by the text. She also highlights the major problems of the authority of feminist interpretations of the Qur’an, questioning the viability of current methods of feminist Qur’anic interpretation and proposing a major revision of its interpretative positions.

ASMA LAMRABET
WOMEN IN THE QUR’AN: AN EMANCIPATORY READING
ENGLAND, SQUARE VIEW PUBLISHING, 2016 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading offers an emancipatory approach to the Qur’an. It proposes a re-reading of the entire Islamic tradition, in a way that embraces the full humanity and agency of women. Even though some of the author’s arguments are not strong or convincing enough, key parts of the book, especially the point that the Qur’an is in fact anti-patriarchal, are well-presented. In its Introduction, the text adopts an ideal standing between the conservative Islamic and the western Islamophobic approaches. The body of the book, however, is divided into two parts. In the first part titled, ‘When the Qur’an Speaks of Women’, Lamrabet offers alternative readings of Qur’anic narratives that involve an array of women. However, in the second part titled, ‘When the Qur’an Speaks to Women’, she challenges the claim that the Qur’an’s language is masculine, highlighting the examples of historical women who complained that the Qur’an did not address them. Lamrabet’s reclamation of the original Quranic status empowers Muslim women.

ANITTA KYNSILEHTO
ISLAMIC FEMINISM: CURRENT PERSPECTIVES
TAMPERE PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE OCCASIONAL PAPER NO. 96, 2008 (AVAILABLE HERE)

This anthology of essays emerged from a seminar organized in Tampere, Finland in August 2007. It presents a multiplicity of contexts and social realities of women’s movements within an Islamic framework. The book portrays different ways of understanding what constitutes ‘Islamic feminism’ in the wider context of debates about gender and religiosity.

ZIBA MIR-HOSSEINI
MUSLIM WOMEN’S QUEST FOR EQUALITY: BETWEEN ISLAMIC LAW AND FEMINISM, CRITICAL INQUIRY JOURNAL, VOL 32, NO 4, PG 629-645
CHICAGO, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2006 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In this essay, Ziba Mir-Hosseini asks a series of critical questions, including if justice and equality are cardinal principles in Islam, and why these values are not reflected in the laws regulating gender relations and the rights of men and women. She argues that Muslim societies are trapped in a web of two contrasting versions of Islam. The first is an absolutist vision that focuses on the past and the second is a pluralistic and progressive vision moving towards democracy and human rights. By looking critically at legal traditions, Hosseini argues that feminist Islamic scholarship is trying to unearth the truth that had always been present: the equality of women and men.

AZZA BASARUDIN
RE-DEFINING FEMINISM/S, RE-IMAGINING FAITH?: MARGOT BADRAN ON ISLAMIC FEMINISM
AL-RAIDA, VOLUME XXII, NOS. 109-110, SPRING/SUMMER 2005 (AVAILABLE HERE)

 In ‘Redefining Feminism/s, Re-imagining Faith?’Azza Basarudin interviewed historian Margot Badran, on the concept of Islamic feminism and how it offers a holistic solution for women activists who aren’t interested in separating religion from their struggles for equality. This interview, published in Al-Raida Journal, touches on themes such as the comprehensive definition of Islamic feminism; the role of ‘Ijtihad’ (rereading and reinterpreting the Islamic sacred texts) in Muslim women’s activism; the question of who has the right to speak for and about Islam; naming and labelling, especially when the word ‘feminist’ has become associated with colonialism and imperialism in the Muslim world and the future of Islamic feminism. This interview is invigorating and a delight to read.

ZORA HESOVA
SECULAR, ISLAMIC OR MUSLIM FEMINISM? THE PLACE OF RELIGION IN WOMEN’S PERSPECTIVES ON EQUALITY IN ISLAM
GENDER A VYZKUM / GENDER AND RESEARCH, VOL 20, NO 2: 26-46 (AVAILABLE HERE)

This research paper examines two extreme Western views of ‘Islamic feminism’. The first view often dismisses the activism of Muslim women as an oxymoron for plastering a religious (patriarchal) adjective to an emancipatory feminist project. The second hails Muslim women’s activism as a path to a liberal, reformed Islam. The paper presents these views as the reason why many Muslim feminists refuse to use the term ‘feminist’ or why they even outrightly reject feminism. Ultimately, many Muslim women activists acknowledge the term as controversial. To better understand how religious and secular discourses coexist in ‘Islamic feminism’, this collection of essays explores and analyses the place of religion in women’s activism.

ZIBA MIR HOSSEINI, MULKI AL-SHARMANI, JANA RUMMINGER
MEN IN CHARGE?: RETHINKING AUTHORITY IN MUSLIM LEGAL TRADITION
OXFORD, ONE WORLD PUBLICATIONS, 2015 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, scholars from distinct disciplines explore the reasons behind the discrimination against women in Muslim legal tradition. The book explores the emergence of ideas on gender equality as a challenge to Muslim legal tradition during the 20th century. It also discusses the different ways of interpreting the concept of qiwamah (male guardianship) in the Quranic verse 4:34, and how these ways of interpretation have been developed over ten centuries. The book also explores the reasons why prophetic reports have traditionally been ignored in feminist Islamic movements. Finally, the book provides the most intimate experience of the concepts of qiwamah by giving voice to women themselves with the goal of building more progressive legislation. This is a fantastic book for everyone interested in looking into the role of feminism in shaping thoughts and actions in Muslim communities.

MARIAM KHAN
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BURQA: MUSLIM WOMEN ON FAITH, FEMINISM, SEXUALITY AND RACE
LONDON, PICADOR, 2019 (AVAILABLE HERE)

When asked what it means to be a Muslim woman in today’s world, mainstream media is quick to respond, ‘It’s all about the burqa’. The book, It’s Not About the Burqa is an anthology of essays written by Muslim women with diverse backgrounds. It is edited by Mariam Khan in response to former UK prime minister, David Cameron’s rather offensive opinion that ‘Muslim men are radicalized because Muslim women are traditionally submissive’. The book includes conversations about diverse definitions of what it means to be a Muslim woman in today’s world by addressing issues of feminism in the Muslim community, representation, mental health, gendered Islamophobia, racism, and sexuality among others. Each author offers a new and refreshing perspective while opening our minds to accommodate broader opinions on issues affecting Muslim women around the world. Honest, passionate and completely persuasive, the Muslim women in this anthology speak for themselves without a filter and against the backdrop of a conventional narrative that has frequently marginalized and fetishized us.

KECIA ALI
SEXUAL ETHICS IN ISLAM: FEMINIST REFLECTIONS ON QUR’AN, HADITH AND JURISPRUDENCE
OXFORD, ONE WORLD PUBLICATIONS, 2006 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Conversations around sexual ethics in Islam often spark heated debates, especially around issues such as wives’ sexual duties, divorce, homosexuality, and extra-marital sex. In Kecia Ali’s ground-breaking work, she asks how one can determine what makes sex lawful and morally right in the sight of God. Exploiting both original and interpretative Muslim texts, Ali critiques traditional and more modern commentators alike to produce a balanced and comprehensive study of a subject both sensitive and urgent. It makes an invaluable resource for students and interested readers.

SUSAN CARLAND
FIGHTING HISLAM: WOMEN, FAITH AND SEXISM
MELBOURNE, MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS, AUSTRALIA, 2017 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Born out of frustration with deeply entrenched biases held by both Muslims and non-Muslims against Muslim women, Susan Carland finally wrote her book, Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism, as a doctoral project. By interviewing 23 women for the book, she provides insights into how a minority group of practicing Muslim women are challenging sexism and seeking to redress the gender imbalance in Islam in the West.

AMINA WADUD
QUR’AN AND WOMAN: REREADING THE SACRED TEXT FROM A WOMAN’S PERSPECTIVE
OXFORD, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1999 (AVAILABLE HERE)

No compilation of readings on Muslim feminism can be complete without mention of the classic work of Amina Wadud; Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. In the book, Wadud proposes a series of ground-breaking ideas, such as linking feminism to the idea of tawhid or God’s unicity in Islam and concluding that patriarchy is incompatible with the theory of the oneness of God in worship and in Lordship. Her brave, fearless writing makes what might have otherwise been considered a dense, academic topic a very interesting and compelling read.

ZAHRA AYUBI
GENDERED MORALITY: CLASSICAL ISLAMIC ETHICS OF THE SELF, FAMILY AND SOCIETY
NEW YORK, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In Gendered Morality, Zahra Ayubi analyses constructions of masculinity, femininity, and gender relations in classic works of philosophical ethics. Looking into foundational texts by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, Nasir-ad Din Tusi, and Jalal ad-Din Davani, she questions how these thinkers came about the idea that the ethical human being is an elite man within a hierarchical ecosystem built on the exclusion and suppression of women. Feminist scholars have often argued that philosophical underpinnings of the notions of sex and gender in Islamic law are inspired by an Aristotelian hierarchical view (Aristotle’s view of the natural superiority of men over women) as opposed to the egalitarian Qur’anic ontology. Ayubi’s position, however, is that the scholarly propositions were not based on Aristotelian philosophy alone, but that this philosophy informed jurists’ and Qur’an interpreters’ understanding of the Qur’an in the classical era.

MINAKO SAKAI & SAMINA YASMEEN
NARRATIVES OF MUSLIM WOMANHOOD AND WOMEN’S AGENCY, ISLAM AND CHRISTIAN–MUSLIM RELATIONS
ROUTLEDGE; TAYLOR AND FRANCIS GROUP, 2016 (AVAILABLE HERE)

 In this anthology, Minako Sakai and Samina Yasmeen compiled and edited essays by Muslim women from diverse backgrounds. These essays revolve around one crucial question: ‘Are Muslim women passive objects in the construction of their societal roles?’ The book highlights the social realities and expectations of Muslim women, which are as a matter of fact, diverse and contextual. The book also examines the agency of Muslim women in negotiating their roles both in the private and public spheres. Compiled as a special issue of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, this anthology of essays offers fresh perspectives in a wide range of economic, socio-political and cultural contexts.

HAIFAA A. JAWAD
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN ISLAM: AN AUTHENTIC APPROACH
LONDON, PALMGRAVE MACMILLAN PRESS LTD, 1998 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Within the context of a Muslim world where women have long been subjected to both cultural and political oppression, Haifaa. A Jawad’s The Rights of Women in Islam highlights in detail the socio-economic and political rights of women in Islam. Her book is a useful addition to the rich and growing body of literature on the question of women’s rights in Islam.

NIMAT HAFEZ BARAZANGI
WOMAN’S IDENTITY AND THE QUR’AN: A NEW READING
FLORIDA, UNIVERSITY PRESS OF FLORIDA, 2004 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Forgoing the usual debates and methodologies, In Woman’s Identity and the Qur’an, Barazangi steps into new grounds by rejecting the use of gender as a unit of analysis. Instead, she offers a bold new perspective, focusing on the spirit instead of the ‘letter’ of the Qur’an, by introducing the Qur’anic concept of Taqwa (moral discernment). Barazangi emphasizes the openness of the Qur’an as a text across time and space; one that cannot be limited to any singular interpretation, including that of the very first generation of Muslims, whom she argues did not fulfil the gender mandate of the Qur’an. Her book frees the reader from being bound to the interpretations of any group at any given time. Barazangi’s work is really important as she places emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the Qur’an, which according to her, takes precedence over any existing body of Qur’anic interpretations.

ZIBA MIR-HOSSEINI, KARI VOGT, LENA LARSEN AND CHRISTIAN MOE
GENDER AND EQUALITY IN MUSLIM FAMILY LAW: JUSTICE AND ETHICS IN THE ISLAMIC LEGAL TRADITION
LONDON, I.B. TAURIS AND CO LTD, PALMGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2013 (AVAILABLE HERE)

The book, Gender and Equality in Muslim Family Law, is an anthology of essays from renowned Muslim scholars and experts, women’s rights activists from various parts of the world and anthropologists who have carried out fieldwork in family courts. It examines how male authority is sustained through law and court practice, the consequences for women and the family, and the demands made by Muslim women’s groups. Seeking to create a case for women’s full equality before the law, the book examines the construction of the concept of Qiwamah (male guardianship) in Islamic tradition and proposes a structure for rethinking Islamic law and traditions in ways that cater to modern realities.

MARGOT BADRAN
FEMINISM IN ISLAM: SECULAR AND RELIGIOUS CONVERGENCES
OXFORD, ONE WORLD PUBLICATIONS, 2009 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In this book, Margot Badran presents the feminisms that Muslim women have created, and examines Islamic and secular feminist ideologies side by side, weaving together historical data collected from more than four decades of analysis of feminisms in the Muslim world. To Badran, secular and Islamic feminism constitute two parallel but intersecting modes of feminism, despite a general belief that the two are antithetical. She concludes with the notion that ‘secular feminism is Islamic and Islamic feminism is secular’.

MOHJA KAHF
WESTERN REPRESENTATIONS OF THE MUSLIM WOMAN: FROM TERMAGANT TO ODALISQUE
AUSTIN, TEXAS, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS, 1999 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Since the enlightenment of the 18th century, Western representations of Muslim women have been in terms of veiled, secluded, submissive, oppressed—the odalisque. In Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, Mohja Kahf compares this view with the Western representations of Muslim women during medieval and Renaissance times when European writers depicted Muslim women in exactly the opposite way as forceful queens of wanton and intimidating sexuality. This book is a very interesting read and sheds light on the factors responsible for the change in the West’s perception of Muslim women. In fact, the author draws a connection between the changing image of Muslim women and changes in Europe’s relations with the Islamic world, as well as to changing gender dynamics within Western societies.

ASMA LAMRABET
WOMEN AND MEN IN THE QUR’AN
LONDON, PALMGRAVE MACMILLAN PRESS LTD, 2012 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In Women and Men in the Qur’an, Asma Lamrabet explains that while the sacred text of the Qur’an reveals clear empowerment of women and equality of believers, such spirit is barely reflected in the interpretations. Lamrabet laments the current state of affairs where Muslim women are caught between a Western rhetoric that portrays them as submissive figures in desperate need of liberation and centuries-old, narrow-minded interpretations of the Qur’an that have become sanctified.

CELENE IBRAHIM
WOMEN AND GENDER IN THE QUR’AN
OXFORD: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, NOVEMBER 2020 (AVAILABLE HERE)

In Women and Gender in the Qur’an, Celene Ibrahim examines prominent gender-specific themes related to women in the Qur’an, such as female sexuality, female relationships, and female figures in the sacred text. One of her most notable findings is that there are no prototypical women in the Qur’an. Rather, the Qur’an provides a wide range of depictions of women, who figure as negative and positive models and ultimately serve the precise pedagogic aims of Quranic narratives. According to Ibrahim, the Qur’an invokes their agency in choosing to be good and bad examples, specifically to build a moral framework for its immediate audience, the early Muslim community.

MOHAMMAD AKRAM NADWI
AL-MUHADDITHAT: THE WOMEN SCHOLARS IN ISLAM
OXFORD, INTERFACE PUBLICATIONS LTD, 2007 (AVAILABLE HERE)

I have included Al-Muhaddithat in this list because his work is essential to understanding the role of women in Islamic society and the eventual decline of these roles. The book Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam is an introduction to a 40-volume biographical dictionary of women scholars of Islam. The early women, as described in this book, enjoyed high public standing and authority in the formative years of Islam. These women were not held back by the traditions of today. They travelled widely to obtain religious knowledge, attending the most prestigious mosques and schools around the world. Several documents found in the works of medieval male scholars contain detailed glowing testimonies of their women-teachers. The information summarized in this book is essential to a balanced appreciation of the role of women in Islamic society.

JONATHAN A.C. BROWN
MISQUOTING MUHAMMAD: THE CHALLENGE AND CHOICES OF INTERPRETING THE PROPHET’S LEGACY
OXFORD, ONE WORLD PUBLICATIONS, 2014 (AVAILABLE HERE)

Although this is not a feminist book, Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad is a very good resource in any Muslim feminist library. Few things provoke controversy in today’s world like Islam; the religion brought into the world through Prophet Muhammad. Thorny topics such as jihad, underage marriage, slavery and the oppression of women are associated with Islamic law. Jonathan A.C. Brown argues that while some of these claims are based on rumour, others are based on facts. In any case, he makes the case that most of the rulings found in Islamic law were not developed in the religion’s founding moments but over centuries by the clerical class of Muslim scholars. Misquoting Muhammad takes readers back in time through Islamic civilization and traces how and why such controversies developed, offering an inside view into how key and controversial aspects of Islam took shape.

Muslim feminism is still very much an understudied field. This reading list will go a long way in setting a path for curious minds to understand the various forms of feminism amongst Muslim women. Each recommended text provides insight into diverse thoughts and perspectives, not only on the evolution of Muslim feminism but also on the various theories and the regional and international contexts in which those theories are built. The efforts of Muslim women at de-culturalizing Islam and challenging religious patriarchy are still underway. Many new theories and propositions are expected to emerge in the coming years. The works of Barlas, Lamrabet, Wadud, Barazangi, Hosseini amongst others have infused the younger generation of Muslim women, students and scholars with a foundation strong enough to build upon

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