Feminism in Muslim Societies

By Miri -

Both Islamic feminism, as well as feminism in Muslim dominated societies are often considered oxymorons. In the eyes of many in the West, Islam and Muslim societies are synonymous with gender inequality and oppression. At the same time the need to “liberate the oppressed Muslim woman from her plight” has and continues to serve as a pretext for colonial and neo-colonial interventions by Western states, whether within or beyond their national boundaries. Western feminists frequently support these measures, such as the French government's ban or limitation of women from wearing forms of veils in public areas. These feminists clearly fail to see that the denial of religious freedom and to cultural identity constitute a form of oppression in itself and negates the right of Muslim women to choose for themselves. 
Muslim reactionaries, on the other hand, often attack feminist ideas for being imported ideologies from the West, instruments of imperialism and an assault on their cultures, which in turn serves to solidify Western stereotypes. In that sense those two supposedly opposing forces have been playing into each other's hands, while totally ignoring the voices of those they purportedly have set out to support, i.e. women in Muslim societies, who have nevertheless persisted and stayed the course. 

Contrary to common Western perception, the introduction of Islam in the 7th century improved the status of women considerably by recognising women's full personhood. Practical changes included the prohibition of female infanticide, the view of marriage as a contract (rather than as a status) which necessitates women's consent and which consequently also entitled them to file a divorce, a notion that is still absent from Catholicism, for example. Furthermore, women were granted property rights, including inheritance rights. In the rest of the world, including in Western societies, women were not entitled to such rights until centuries later. 
Due to this progressive potential inherent to Islam, religion has always played a central role in the different forms of feminisms, both Islamic and secular, that women in Muslim societies have constructed throughout history. Both Islamic and secular feminism emanated in the late 19th century from within a context of nationalist and anti-colonial struggle as well as independent state building. In the following I will give a brief overview over the two forms of feminisms, bearing in mind however, that they should not be seen as mutually exclusive categories and secular and Islamic feminists have always worked together and continue to do so in order to achieve shared goals. 

Secular Feminism in Predominantly Muslim Societies 

The first feminist meeting in Hoda Sharawi's home
Due to their secular outlook, feminists in Muslim societies seem to be similar to their Western counterparts, yet also secular feminists have created their very own movements, suiting their own societal and cultural backgrounds. Those movements mainly emerged as social movements within a national, or pan-Arab context and were predominantly action oriented. 
One of the pioneering Arab feminists was the Egyptian Hoda Sharawi (1879-1947), who effortlessly worked against restrictions on women's movements and dress. She organised lectures for women on topics of their interest, helped leading women's demonstrations during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and in 1923 became the founder and first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union. One of her most daring acts was probably her publicly removing her veil. 

The women of Nabi Saleh, always at the forefront of the protests, Oren Ziv/Activestills
In Palestine the struggle for women's rights was always deeply entrenched with the fight against the different occupation forces and women have always played a vital role in popular struggles, such as the First Intifada. 
Palestinian women organise themselves in a number of ways, including committees at the local and the national level, unions and clubs, addressing issues pertaining to women's welfare and women's rights. The double burden of life under Occupation and the struggle against patriarchal ideas and practices did however often create and continues to create tensions in terms of priorities. While many stress the importance of national liberation, others point at the experiences of other anti-colonial movements, such as the Algerian one, in which women played an essential role, but were pushed back into their traditional roles once independence was established. 

Islamic Feminism

Islamic feminism predominantly manifests itself as a new interpretation of Islam and gender, grounded in the classic Islamic methodologies of “ijtihad”, the independent intellectual investigation of religious texts, and “tafsir”, the interpretation of the Qur'an. By re-reading the Qur'an and other religious texts from a female point of view, Islamic feminists aim to highlight that much of the classical interpretations, which found their way into Islamic jurisprudence, was based on men's experiences, male-centred questions, and the overall influence of the patriarchal societies in which they lived. Islamic feminists insist that the Qur'an itself affirms the principle of equality of all human beings and argue that the practice of equality of men and women (and other categories of people) has been impeded or subverted by those patriarchal ideas and practices. 
The first explorations of religious texts, mainly by male scholars, preceded the formation of a formal feminist movement and date back to the medieval ages. The first woman to engage with Qur'anic exegesis was the Iranian Fatimih Baraghani, better known as Tahirih, who would later become an important figure of the Babi faith, a religious movement which would break from Shi'a Islam. Tahirih was executed for her revolutionary thoughts, her famous last words being:”You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.


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