Rise of an Alternative Discourse: Islamic Feminism

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BY ZOHRA BATUL

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 feminism.
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 to women.
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.

—The author, a PhD scholar of political science at Jamia Millia Islamia, is from Kargil. She can be reached at: zahrabatool781@gmail.com