Muslim feminists looking for a third way
The phrase “Islamic feminism” may raise questions and perhaps surprise Muslim conservatives and modernists alike.
For the first group, the topic of women in Islamic societies was settled by sharia and there is nothing more to say, which makes demands for women’s liberation alien to Muslim culture and a product of Western culture.
Their opponents in the second group may see a contradiction in terms in combining the word “feminism” with the word “Islamic” because Islam and women’s freedom run parallel to each other and can never cross paths.
For Muslim feminists, however, the issue goes beyond those propositions. As with Jewish, Christian and Protestant feminism, there is a feminist current in the Muslim world that is attempting to undertake a feminist reading of religious texts to reconsider the unequal status of Muslim women.
It is necessary to distinguish between one group of Muslim feminists who, like their male partners, advocate a peerage relationship between the sexes, demanding only equity, and the Muslim feminists who speak of gender equality from an Islamic perspective.
However, the idea of gender equality has long been present, albeit not explicitly, in the writings of enlightened scholars and especially among educated women.
However, with the onslaught of Islamist revivalism that befell many Arab countries in the past 40 years, there has been a major backlash against women’s rights and disruption of their integration into society. Muslim women found themselves victims of escalating tugs of war between a state that is neither secular nor Islamic, enacting laws supposedly inspired by sharia and proliferation of Islamist groups pushing for a return to pre-secular laws.
How can a Muslim woman be committed to the teachings of her religion and subscribe to the demands of women’s emancipation, amid the conflict in Muslim Arab societies since independence?
For two decades, an “Islamic” feminist movement has evolved, even if it avoided to explicitly call itself “feminist.” Female scholars have entered the domain of research in Quranic sciences and interpretation to counter male dominance in Arab and Muslim countries.
There hasn’t been a single homogeneous feminist trend but it has varied from country to country, depending on local context and historical experience.
While Islamic feminism is not homogeneous — there isn’t one single way of defending the dignity and rights of women — many Muslim activists for gender equality have concluded that any defence of women’s rights must go through a reinterpretation of the basic texts of Islam.
We are witnessing the development of a feminist ideology that seeks to destroy the sexist interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, meaning those that discriminate on the basis of sex, and to engage into a rereading of religious texts that highlight equality between men and women and lift centuries-old injustices done to women through sexual discrimination.
How do Muslim feminists interpret the religious texts that Muslim scholars and extremists have used to discriminate against them?
Muslim female activists start with the belief in the general principle that the divine message was not intended to normalise unfair relations between women and men. On the contrary, it came to eliminate inequality between them.
Three concepts are usually used in the feminist re-readings of religious texts: divine pedagogy, purposes and the principle of “abrogating” previous texts, known in Islamic exegesis as Naskh.
Regarding polygamy, feminists consider that Islam’s placing the limit of four wives was a sort of revolutionary innovation for the Arabia of the seventh century.
It is unfair to regard this as an eternal Islamic rule because it is not at all divine. That the Quran clearly states that it would be impossible to treat all wives fairly is proof of the temporal character of polygamy in Islam. The divine goal must have been to constrain this type of marriage until it disappears by itself due to evolution in mindsets.
As to the veil, many Muslim feminists said the veil is overstated as a fundamental requirement in Islam. It is secondary because it is the product of pre-Islamic circumstances characterised by slavery and prostitution.
Overlooking the many female intellectuals and activists outside the Arab world who have contributed to the development of Islamic feminist thinking since the 1970s, Moroccan scholar and feminist Fatima Mernissi must be considered a fundamental reference for the feminist movement in Arab countries.
In her controversial book “Le harem politique: Le Prophete et les femmes” (“The Political Harem: The Prophet and Women”), published in French in 1987, she reconsidered the authenticity of the Hadith: “No success will come to any people who appoint a female as their leader.”
Islamists have used this Hadith to argue for the inferiority of women and to exclude them from the public sphere and political responsibilities.
This led Muslim women to seek a third way to allow them to enjoy their universal rights and freedoms through a critical re-examination of the religious texts from an angle sympathetic to their cause while preserving their Muslim identity.
We should not be surprised at the outbreak of a feminist revolution in the Arab-Muslim countries. In fact, we should be surprised if it does not happen. The reason is a simple necessity: Society will not survive and prosper if one of its halves continues to be marginalised, regardless of the justifications used for that.