Respecting women; the achievement of Islam or the west?


Halfway through mid twentieth century gradually in the same period as some international changes were happening like the First and Second World War, "Islamic Feminism" was introduced to the international discourse. And in the second half of the twentieth century at the same time that the concept of human rights and especially women's rights and freedom started to be talked about internationally and documents and treaties about human rights were compiled and approved specifically after the formation of the convention on the elimination of all kinds of discrimination against women (CEDAW) and freedom seeking movements and activities of women which were mostly secular were intensified, Islamic feminism activists and fans started theorizing about this concept. According to Islamic Feminists, the Islamic feminism theory originated from the west and actually western feminists coined this concept. Therefore may be the first problem with this theory is that despite its title that is "Islamic", Muslims did not create it. And like many other western teachings it was imposed on Muslims.

The thought provoking issue about proposing "Islamic Feminism" and theorizing about it is that feminism in the west has come to the conclusion that in order to create secular and liberal movements and activities among Muslim women and inside Islamic countries they have to use the word "Islamic" and inspire Muslim women to try to fulfill feminist goals.

Inefficiency of western feminism: the urge to propose "Islamic Feminism"

In some Muslim feminists' view, Islamization of gender relations has led to an oppressive patriarchy in a way that merely by modifying rules they can not be modified. In their view right now in Islamic countries some intellectuals and activists and even Islamists are in favor of separation of state and religion. Meanwhile still in Islamic countries some post modern feminists and even intellectuals do not agree that Islamization of governments has failed. In Muslim feminists' view the western feminist theory is criticized seriously despite its progress and achievements. It has been criticized because:

A)    patriarchalism continues in western societies despite the existence of movements for giving equal rights to women

B)    Women's lack of unity from religious, nationality, race, and culture aspects can lead to the failure of the western feminist theory. (Shahrzad Mojab, "Theorizing the Politics of ‘Islamic Feminism’", Feminist Review No. 69, winter 2001, p.  124.)

Origins of the concept of "Islamic Feminism"

Since early 1990s "Islamic Feminism" was used in the western discourse when they talked about "women and Islam". Nevertheless the history of the Islamic intellectuals' encounter with feminism goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. (Mojab. op. cit. p. 124)

Feminism and liberal, gender equality politics the way they are in the west came to Islamic societies in late 19th century. The reactions in Islamic societies were different. Islam always played an important role in the combat of secularism and feminism with religion. And that is why we see that Islam challenges feminism seriously (Mojab, op. cit. p. 127).

The history of Islamic feminism evolution; from the start in the first half of the 20th century up to its theorization in the second half

In the first decade of the twentieth century for some reasons like colonialism, modernism, nationalism, and socialism some internal and external changes happened in Islamic societies. At this time some high and middle class city women wanted to take part in the public life and some village women joined this movement too. Therefore women were regarded as a new social force and they wanted to enjoy their rights because they claimed that they could only make advancements in their private and public lives if they could enjoy their rights. Feminism did not only attack Islam but also secular forces and governments too (Mojab, op. cit. p. 128.)

The interests of colonial governments that started controlling new countries after the First World War required that they combat the feminist movement. Therefore Islamists were not encounter solely the western phenomenon of feminism but also they encountered native feminist movements, nationalists and other political forces that had some interests in the feminist movement. Theocracies in some countries like Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E were in peace with colonial forces but after the Second World War in many Islamic countries nationalist regimes came to power that were different. Islamic forces either peacefully shared power with these regimes or fought with them. At this point radical feminists expected serious changes to occur and people turn to feminism. Nowadays there are numerous women's movements and feminist theories so much so that according to some Islamic feminism activists secular and religious feminists' teachings are making a school of thought (Mojab, op. cit. p. 128). Of course this is doubtable.

Although in the first half of the twentieth century actions that were taken in order to strengthen Islamic Feminism were slow, in the second half of the twentieth century regarding the numerous and various experiences of Islamic countries and Muslim feminists' activities little by little lots of discussions started to be theorized (Ibid., pp. 128-129).

 Different approaches toward the Islamic Feminism theory

From day one Islam and feminism fought over the possibility of adapting the idea of women's emancipation with Islamic principles. One approach emphasized that Islam has no contrast with equality of men and women. Some of the first reformist women in Egypt who reinterpreted the holy Quran and provided new readings of it and claimed that seclusion, segregation and veiling that are imposed on women are not Islamic rules, were among fans of the said approach. In many Islamic countries this approach was approved of. According to one other approach the origins of gender equality is the west and it is totally anti-Islamic (Mojab, op. cit. p. 127).

Nevertheless from some feminists' view Islam and feminism totally oppose one another. If Islamic Feminism is only trying to decrease the pressure of some conditions like patriarchy in Islamic societies it is only an Ism and it can not be mentioned as a social movement. Many Islamic feminism activists believe that Islamic feminism only aims to create a movement in order to uproot patriarchy, protecting mankind against subordination by others and creating a completely free society (H. Shahidian,. ‘Islamic Feminism’ and Feminist Politics in Iran, 1998).

Some Islamic Feminism activists

Nazira Zain al-Din is one of the first women who talked about the necessity of reinterpreting religious texts in the favor of women's rights. She was born in 1905 in Lebanon. Her father was a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. Her first book "Unveiling and Veiling: Lectures and Views on the Liberation of the Woman and Social Renewal in the Arab World", was an objection to the oppressive patriarchal system and by publishing this book she announced that she is against Islamic rules. She clearly says in this book that veiling is an obstacle for both men and women. After the publication of her book in 1928 objections against Nazira intensified. And Islamists condemned her and her book (Mojab, op. cit. p. 127). Nazira's second book "The Young Woman and the Shaikhs (Al-Fatah waal-Shuyukh", was published in 1929 which was her answer to the objections of some Islamic leaders to her first book.

Some of the contemporary Islamic feminist activists are: Leila Ahmed (1992), Aziza Al-Hibri (1982), Riffat Hassan (1996), and also Fatima Mernissi (1991), who tries seriously to reconcile Islam with feminism (Mojab, op. cit. p. 128).

Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini are among those who used Islamic feminism terminology in a magazine named "women" which was founded in 1992 by Shahla Sherkat. Also Miriam Cooke in her book named "Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature" has talked about some Islamic feminism approaches. Mai Yamani in Saudi Arabia in 1996 in her book named "feminism and Islam" used the phrase "Islamic feminism". In Turkey Yesim Arat and Feride Acar in their essays and Nilufar Gole in her book named "the forbidden modern" which was published in 1990 in Turkish described a new feminist paradigm in Turkey. Sha Mima Shaikh in South Africa used the phrase "Islamic Feminism" in her essays and lectures in the 1990s. Another important woman in this field is Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim who wrote the book "Qur'an and women" in 1991 which is an important source for defining Islamic feminism. At first Wadud was so much against being called a Muslim feminist. But today after two decades of activities in the field of Islamic feminism she is less sensitive about this. In Malaysia too women belonging to the "sisters in Islam' organization are Islamic feminism activists (Margot Badran, Islamic feminism is on the whole more radical than Muslims' secular feminisms, argues

The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran; a serious obstacle in the way of theorizing Islamic feminism

From the viewpoint of some Islamic feminism activists among all the changes that happened in the second half of the twentieth century and specially late 20th century that were connected to the Islamic feminism the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a new theocratic state had serious negative impact on the direction of struggle for women's rights specifically in Islamic countries. Also it had some impact on secular teachings of feminism in the west. They say this is because the Islamic republic is different from traditional theocracies like Saudi Arabia because the Saudis has a peaceful relationship with the west but the Islamic Republic of Iran claims that it replaced a western, secular and dictator regime and it was based on people's revolution. Also Muslim feminists affirm that the Islamic republic of Iran acknowledged at the time it was being formed that the existing gender relations (before the creation of an Islamic system) is western and not Islamic and after the creation of the Islamic republic Islamization of gender relations was done widely in Iran. Making veiling obligatory is an example of Islamization of gender relations (Mojab, op. cit. p. 129).

The use of Islam based discourse; feminists' solution to prevent from Islamization of gender relations

Combating Islamization of gender relations was the reason why in mid 1990s gradually a group of feminists specially some secular university students who live in the west use the phrase "Islamic feminism" which has some solutions and replacements for western feminism. They believe that making use of Islam based discourse is the only way through which they can achieve equality and justice. Nazira Zain Al-Din and others did their best to adapt Islam to feminism (Ibid., p. 130.)

The notable point is that some Islamic feminism fans acknowledged that Christian feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton have done some combats like Islamic feminism in the U.S (H. Shahidian,.‘Islamic Feminism’ and Feminist Politics in Iran, 1998).

The critical approach of Islamic feminism policies

From the viewpoint of some Islamic feminism approaches before dealing with gender relations whether secular or religious in different countries one should deal with the subject of power distribution. In other words the subject of gender is an example and symbol of power in different societies. Therefore Islamic feminism should combat powers that are dominating women and affecting different aspects of their personal and social lives. They believe that religion, especially Islam plays an important role in combating against women's gender power. Therefore we should not degrade Islamic feminism as a religious, personal and cultural issue. It is more serious than that and it is in complete contrast with Islamic governments (Mojab, op. cit. p. 135).

The way western feminism criticizes Islamic feminism

Westernized feminists acknowledged that Islamic feminism fans claim that Islam dignifies and respects women and gives them equal rights. But the system of rights and different kinds of freedom generally and women's rights specifically is the result of democratic combats in the west. Women's rights can not be separated from citizenship rights, democratic government, and civil society. And all these are the achievements of the west. Therefore Islamic feminism can not be separate from the experiences of the west and inevitably it is dependent on them (Mojab, op. cit. p. 137).


The important issue here is that on one hand because of some serious contrasts with the Islamic rules and principles which are regarded as necessary pillars of this religion, Islamic feminism has not been able to become an active and efficient movement in Islamic countries. On the other hand although Islamic feminism originates from the west and works according to liberalist and secularist goals of the west, western feminists criticize it too. From the viewpoint of western feminists although Islamic feminism has attracted some fans in some Islamic countries and led to some modifications in the regulations of these countries it can not succeed in fulfilling the goals of feminism because in the irrational western secular feminists' view categorizing women based on their religion, culture and race is seriously flawed. From the western feminism point of view inevitably we have to avoid creating concepts like Islamic feminism that is derived from feminism and the only solution that liberating movements and the movements seeking women's rights have, is that all countries join the Convention on the elimination of all kinds of discrimination against women (CEDAW) (Mojab, op. cit. pp. 141-143).

comments: Wed Apr 03, 2013 21:41 GMT
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