Feminist voices in Islam: promise and potential

Published on openDemocracy, by ZIBA MIR-HOSSEINI, Nov. 19, 2012.

Religion is back in public space, and the thesis that modernization means the privatization of religion has been seriously questioned. Some religious and feminist dogmas need re-examination. What do ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ or ‘feminist’ mean in today’s contexts? Islam and feminism are often perceived and portrayed as incompatible. There is a plethora of literature and a host of arguments, both in the media and in academia, to show this is the case.  

The first problem with such arguments is that both ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ are ‘essentially contested concepts’– a term that I take from the philosopher Bryce Gallie who coined it for those concepts that have ‘disagreement at their core’ – such as ‘religion’, ‘social justice’, ‘work of art’ and ‘democracy’ – these are evaluative concepts that involve endless disputes about their proper use on the part of their users. In other words, they mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Both Islam and feminism are the subject of multiple discourses and widely ranging perspectives that can be addressed at different levels.

Another problem with arguments about incompatibility is that they do not take account of realities; they mask global and local power relations and structures, within which Muslim women have to struggle for justice and equality.  We need to start by asking some basic questions: Whose Islam? Whose feminism? Who is speaking for Islam? Who is speaking for feminism? These questions remain unaddressed in most debates, whether in academia, media or activist forums.

I want to make a plea for more clarity and honesty, and to point to the rhetorical and political side of the debate on relations between Islam and feminism, which has become a front, a battlefield, for unstated agendas and identity politics … //

… Definitions:

I understand ‘feminism’ in the widest sense: it includes a general concern with women’s issues, an awareness that women suffer discrimination at work, in the home and in society because of their gender, and action aimed at improving their lives and changing the situation. There is also an epistemological side to feminism; it is a knowledge project, in the sense that it sheds light on how we know what we know about women, family and religious tradition, including laws and practices that take their legitimacy from religion; this knowledge enables us to challenge, from within, the patriarchy that is institutionalized in a legal tradition.

As for ‘religion’ more generally, the English word ‘religion’ is full of ambiguities. Those who talk of Islam, or indeed of ‘religion’ in relation to Islam, often fail to make a distinction, now common, when talking of religion in other contexts, namely between faith (and its values and principles) and organised religion (institutions, laws and practices). The result is the pervasive polemic/rhetorical trick of either glorifying a faith without acknowledging the horrors and abuses that are committed in its name, or condemning it by equating it with those abuses.

In many ways, it is the notion of Shari‘a that is the problem. We all think we know what Shari‘a is, yet its meaning is widely contested. In the Western context, and for some Muslims, Shari‘a has become synonymous with patriarchal laws and cruel punishments; with polygamy, stoning, amputation of limbs. Yet, for the mass of Muslims, Shari‘a is the essence of justice, while for others, Shari‘a is a powerful political ideology. In Muslim tradition, however, Shari‘a is generally a theological and ethical concept more than a legal one.

For the sake of clarity and honesty we need to be mindful of two crucial distinctions, and to make them part of our language. The first is that between Shari‘a and fiqh. Shari‘a, literally ‘the way’, in Muslim belief is the totality of God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Koran. Fiqh, literally ‘understanding’, is the science of jurisprudence, the process of human attempts to discern and extract legal rules from the sacred sources of Islam – that is, the Koran and the Sunna (the practice of the Prophet, as contained in hadith, Traditions) – and the ‘laws’ that result from this process. What we ‘know’ of ‘Shari‘a’ is only an interpretation, an understanding; fiqh, on the other hand, as in any other system of jurisprudence and law, is human and mundane, temporal and local. Any claim that a specific law or legal rule ‘is’ Shari‘a, is a claim to divine authority for something that is in fact a human interpretation. Without this distinction, reinterpretation and legal change become difficult or impossible.

The second distinction is between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’, or between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’. ‘Islamism’, as I have defined in print, is no more or less than ‘political Islam’ – a commitment to public action to implement what Islamists regard as an Islamic agenda, commonly summarized in slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’ or ‘Return to Shari‘a’. ‘Islamic’, on the other hand, when attached to another ism such as feminism, means merely finding inspiration and even legitimacy in Islamic history and textual sources. Many people so inspired prefer to call themselves, if anything, ‘Muslim feminists’. In other words, there is no necessary association of ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ with ‘Islamism’ or political Islam, nor any necessary association of ‘feminism’ with lack of religious faith or inspiration.

The Turning points: … //

Realism and Dialogue:

Debates then started to move, and advocates of both ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ have come down from their high ideological positions—they had to moderate their claims by looking at the realities on the ground. They have had to acknowledge that gross injustices have been carried out in name of both Islam and feminism; that we need to separate ideals from practices; that we must not compare the ideals of Islam with Western practices, nor the ideals of feminism with Muslim practices; that there is a concord between the feminist search for justice and the Islamic principle of a just world and justice for all.

This new realism has changed the terms of the debate, and shifted the politics of ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ to a level where an honest and constructive dialogue has become possible. It happened because it was becoming manifestly evident to many that both ‘feminism’ – now commonly identified with international human rights law and its politics – and ‘Islam’ – now often reduced to Islamists and their slogan of ‘return to Shari’a’ – were failing to deliver their aims. Feminists demanded justice for women, and Islamists demanded justice for the world. This brought the realization, for those committed to justice for women in a just world, that there was no other option than to bring Islamic and feminist perspectives together, which opened the way for a new engagement, a meaningful dialogue between Muslims and feminism. But a true dialogue is only possible when the two parties treat each other as equals and with respect; otherwise it would be a dialogue of the deaf. To enter a dialogue, we should be ready, first to listen to the other’s arguments, and secondly to change our position if appropriate.

It is my view there is no magical instant cure for the painful wounds of the past and present, but there is always a way to begin to address them. We must learn the art of addressing the past without being its victims. For me it is here that feminist voices and scholarship in Islam have something to offer. They can enable feminism to look again at its own troubled relation with religion and to re-examine its dogmas, now that religion is back in the public space, and the thesis that modernization must bring the privatization – or even demise – of religion has been seriously questioned. We all need to ask: What does it mean to be ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ or ‘feminist’ in today’s context? Isn’t the theological political, as with the feminist understanding that the personal is political?
(full text).

(This article is based on a presentation given at Collectif féministes pour l’égalité CFPE, November 16-18th, 2012).


Pakistan acquits girl of blasphemy charges: Charges against Rimsha Masih of burning Quran have been thrown out after police accused cleric of framing her, on Al Jazeera, Nov. 20, 2012;

War in Gaza = War Over Natural Gas? 0n Washington’s Blog, by blog owner, Nov. 19, 2012;

Russia no longer NATO’s enemy? on pravda.ru, Nov. 20, 2012.

Comments are closed.