By Zohra Batul
September 8, 2018
Feminism is a contested term and there are
wide varieties of feminists with diverse ideologies such as radical feminists,
liberal feminists, and Marxist feminists and so on. Often times, their
provenance is from the West. Broadly, these strands of feminism advocate equal
right on the basis of the equality of sexes. According to Cathy Caprino,
“Feminism, at its core, is about equality of men and women, not sameness.” The
debate around feminism and gender equality has become a thematic topic of great
interest to academics and scholar far and wide.
However, there is another discursive trend
that is emanating. The reference here is to Islamic feminism. In this domain,
interesting work is coming out on feminism and gender equality. This includes
the work of Saba Mahmood, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed and many more.
Their work pertains to Islam, Quran and women rights, religion, politics,
secularism, and veiling, and so on and belongs to the category called Islamic
Islamic feminism can be described in simple
words as the reading of the Quran and other religious texts from women’s
perspective. This phenomenon is not simply feminism that is borne out of Muslim
culture, but one that engages with Islamic theology and the holy text. It has
become a global movement since the 1990s after Muslim women scholars started
turning to the Quran and the prophetic traditions (hadith) to argue that women
are fully human and equal to their male counterparts in Islam.
Islamic feminism provides an alternative to
western feminism and insists that we need an indigenous notion of feminism
owing to the different history, culture, and traditions Therefore, on the one
hand, they challenge the western epistemology on the other; they are less alien
for Muslim women who are looking for reconciliation between their religious
faith and gender equality.
It is impossible here to discuss the work
of above-mentioned scholars in detail but I will briefly offer an overview some
of the major themes of Islamic feminism. Before proceeding further, I would
like to mention that the purpose of this essay is not to approve or condemn any
of the above mentioned scholar’s view. I only wish to highlight and introduce
their work as an alternative to mainstream feminists, as their work has been
under-studied in the feminist discourse.
Starting with Saba Mahmood, she
interestingly, in her famous work, “Politics of Piety” insists scholars to
consider women’s agency outside of secular liberal frameworks. Her work focuses
on the mosque movement started by Muslim women in Egypt from different socioeconomic
backgrounds to teach one another Islamic principles and teachings by holding
public meetings in mosques. She claims that their action is challenging the
historically male-centered character of the mosques. Mahmood also maintains
that the movement of Egyptian women demonstrates a form of agency unknown to
the liberal or western feminist scholarship. The writer , in her work, also
reveals the inadequacy of the liberal notions of rights, agency, and freedom
for understanding complex life-worlds of religious people. Mahmood’s work
offers a powerful counter to and critique of western feminists who portray
Muslim women as a victim of their own culture and religion.
Leila Ahmed’s work primarily focuses on the
role of women in the Muslim world and attempts to highlight the stereotypes
about them. She condemns the Western stereotypes and misogynist views against
Islamic culture and what she calls “the primitiveness of Muslim culture.” Ahmed
traces the linkage between Islam, women, and progress from the western point of
view in which the veil and treatment of women symbolize Islamic inferiority.
She claims that this colonial account is biased against Hijab (veil) as it is
seen in Arab narrative as a sign of resistance, in which the veiling came to
symbolize the dignity and validity of indigenous customs, particularly related
Asma Barlas, on the other hand, doesn’t
prefer to call herself a feminist, as many feminists condemn Islam as a
patriarchal religion. She also argues that being a feminist itself needs a
great deal of clarification. According to Barlas, the Quran does not support
patriarchy. She argues that the Quran supports equal martial and spousal rights
and does not differentiate between genders. The main theme of her work is that
women can struggle for equality from within the framework of the Qurans
teachings, contrary to what both conservative and progressive Muslims believe.
Although there is a lot of diversity from
within Islamic feminism, one common theme among them is the idea of gender
equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all human
beings. Their work is really valuable as a starting point for women working on
gender in Muslim majority society. South Asia and Muslim majority states of
Middle East face issues that are much complex and different from the West.
These scholars’ bring to us a very significant point that piety and feminism
can intersect in unexpected ways in Muslim societies unknown to the western
societies. Moreover, it shows that women’s agency and right can draw on both
religious and secular resources.
Zohra Batul a PhD scholar of political science at Jamia Millia Islamia is