Exploring Islamic Feminism

November 29, 2000 // 11:00pm

Islamic feminism, a phenomenon that became increasingly discernable in the 1990s, continues to spread following the turn of the new century. At this still early stage, it is useful to map the contours of emergent Islamic feminism.

It is a global phenomenon that is not restricted to any geographical region. Its bravest campaigns have been conducted in Asia and Africa, while some of the boldest discursive articulations of Islamic feminism have appeared in the diaspora and convert communities in the West.

If Islamic feminism is a recent phenomenon, Islam and feminism have an association dating back to the 1890s. At that time, Egypt was an important pioneering site of feminism in the Muslim world, where what would later be recognized as a "feminist consciousness" arose in the context of encounters with modernity. Muslim women and men used Islamic reformist arguments to break the linkage of Islam with repressive practices imposed in the name of religion. This paved the way for changes in women's lives and in the relations between sexes. Soon feminism became enmeshed in the rising discourse of secular nationalism which called for equal rights of all Egyptians, be they Muslim or Christian, in a free and independent nation. In short, feminism and Islam were allies.

Islamic feminism, like the secular nationalist feminism of its day, is a product of its time. Islamic feminism appeared on the scene in the wake of the spread of Islamism, or political Islam, and with the broader ascendancy of an Islamic religious and cultural revival. An examination of popular and scholarly literature leads to a basic definition of Islamic feminism as a feminism anchored in the discourse of Islam with the Qur'an as its central text, and exegesis as its main methodology. The core idea of Islamic feminism is the full equality of all Muslims, male and female alike, in both the public and private spheres.

Islamic feminism is more radical than secular feminism which called for equal rights in the public sphere but complimentary rights in the private sphere. Concerning the public sphere, Islamic feminists argue that women may be heads of state and imams, a claim that secular feminists never advanced. In the private sphere, Islamic feminists are challenging the conventional notion of male authority over females in marriage and the family. Islamic feminists also call upon all Muslims, including men, to live by the egalitarianism of Islam, something secular feminism side-stepped.

Although research and general observation indicate that the term "Islamic feminism" is coming into increasing use, its circulation is still limited and both the term and the idea remain controversial. It is also important to make a distinction therefore between Islamic feminism as a discourse, a mode of gender analysis, or an ideology, and Islamic feminist as an identity. Most of those who participate in the shaping of what can be viewed as "Islamic feminism" do not claim an Islamic feminist identity. There are indications, however, that there is some movement towards explicit acknowlegement of Islamic feminism. The shapers of Islamic feminism include the following three groups: those who are more fully oriented towards Islam (sometimes called "committed Muslims"), secular feminists, and former leftists.

Islamic feminism is manifested both as a global or universalist core set of ideas and as specific local forms of activism with their own particular needs and priorities. The Internet facilitates the dissemination of Islamic feminism's core ideas and the spread of information about local forms of activism. Examples of local forms of Islamic feminist activism include demands for women to hold the positions of judge, mufti (officials who issues religious rulings), and ma`dhun (an official who register marriages) in Egypt. Another example is the demand by both men and women in South Africa that women be permitted to share the main mosque space in parallel groups rather than being relegated to the back or an upper floor during congregational prayer. As the intellectual discourse of Islamic Feminism spreads, so too will these localized forms of activism.

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