Islamic feminism is a recent concept fueled by a new movement coming from within the religion itself. In the past, discussions of feminism in the context of Islam have focused on the juxtaposition of these two forces. Put more simply, people who discussed feminism and Islam in the past have done so in order to argue that the fundamentalist operation of Islam runs counter to modern ideals about feminism. These discussions have long placed Islamic women in the position of perpetual victimhood, forcing them to make an untenable choice between abandoning either their Muslim roots or their feminist sensibilities. In these scenarios, women were helpless, needing the saving of someone on the outside from the religion that they had come up with dedication to. That is changing, and some of the emerging online resources suggest that our contemporary global understanding of feminism, gender, and Islam may be shifting altogether.
The current state of media online suggests quite strongly that we are now speaking of women in Islam in the context of their own power to change narratives from the inside rather than their needing to be saved from the outside. These online resources both demonstrate a renewed interest in gender equality for gender equality’s sake and an emerging belief in the ability of female-led movements that can lead to revolutionary changes within global structures like Islam.
Elizabeth Segran’s article for The Nation entitled The Rise of the Islamic Feminists lays out the basic information on a movement that started across a wide range of Islamic nations. As Segran writes, women from counties as diverse as Turkey, Pakistan, Gambia, and Egypt spent years planning a revolutionary feminist platform that could be used to argue not for the disavowing of Islam in favor of women’s rights, but rather, for a practiced form of Islam that values and respects women’s rights. The author argues that these women are seeking to work both within the Islamic governmental systems of these countries and within the court systems of these countries. Their goal is to help people understand that every law influenced or handed down by the Koran has been influenced by human interpretation, and as such, each of those laws is also subject to a new interpretation that values the current context. It is, of course, a risky strategy that seeks to unseat a patriarchy that has existed for centuries, and in fact, might have even led to the rise of these religions in the first place. The author also indicates that this movement is based wholly upon the strength of feminist arguments. Because the goal of Islamic feminists is to convince people that everything from the Koran is open to interpretation, they have to deal with the flip side of this—that competing arguments could be just as compelling as theirs, setting back the cause. This puts immense and constant pressure on the new feminists to come up with convincing arguments around a host of topics that are currently of interest to feminists, including equality in education for women around the world.
This article helps to reveal a shift in the interest in feminism itself rather than just in feminism as a tool for dismantling Islam. In the past, many media sources have focused on feminist issues in the context of Islam not because of the virtue of the feminism itself, but because highlighting feminist issues could be a way of dismantling Islam. These discussions placed women in a delicate position—they would have to give up something, whether it was their Islamic belief system or their desire for female equality. Feminism itself was relegated in these discussions, used as a subservient tool rather than being used as something with value of its own. These discussions have at times been insulting to the notions of global feminism by reducing the entire effort to something used in the greater battle to discredit Islamic fundamentalism. Now, with some of the more modern writings on the movement to empower women within Islam, something new is revealed about our collective interest in this topic and in gender. These writings reveal a new interest not just in women as a tool, but rather, in women who have taken control of their station and used their influence to change their own lives. This signals a renewed interest in feminism as a movement, and in analyzing the ways that feminism can be used to impact institutions from the inside, rather than using feminism as something that can be used to cast aspersions on something that many would like to see dismantled for different, and perhaps political, reasons.
In addition to that shift in interest, this newly renewed interest in Islamic feminism has signaled a shift in our understanding of gender empowerment. Past discussions revolving around feminism and fundamentalist Islam have been based, at least in part, on the idea that feminists elsewhere should rise up and save the women of Islam by pointing out the ways in which Islam disrespects women’s rights. These discussions were based, at least in part, on the idea that women from elsewhere had the power and duty to help explain the contrasts between Islam and a decent women’s equality movement. In these scenarios, the women who languished under Islam were almost always painted as people who were weak, with no ability whatsoever to manage their own station in life. The new discussions on Islamic feminism have shifted the power to women who not trapped within the institution, but rather, are working from the inside to transform it into something that can both serve their religious needs and their desire to fight for gender equality. Segran’s article does not speak of these women as if they are weak, but rather, discusses the ways they use strategy to knock aside some of the institutional forces against them. She speaks of how they are fighting a two-prong war, seeking to shift the official policies through courts and legislation, while also working alongside NPOs to provide women with resources within the existing context. Segran frames new Islamic feminists as people with a keen sense of how to move forward a movement, and not as a group of women who are in danger of being put down. This shift in tone is critical, as it reflects a change in our understanding of women around the globe. Women are not toys and tools to be saved by people swooping in from the outside with a grander understanding of what is best for them. Rather, women are powerful beings who can understand their own contexts and work hard to shape those contexts into something that is more suitable to their goals and desires.
Ultimately the new writings on women in Islam reveal a real change in the way these women are discussed and framed in the global discourse. In these sources, feminism is not seen as something useful only for its ability to dismantle Islam in the public eye, but rather, for its ability to transform Islam into something that can allow women to live out their lives in a way they see fit. The shift in discourse reflects a new understanding that women are powerful and they have the ability to change their stars, so to speak.
- Lazreg, M., 1988. Feminism and difference: the perils of writing as a woman on women in Algeria. Feminist studies, 14(1), pp.81-107.
- Mir‐Hosseini, Z., 2006. Muslim women’s quest for equality: between Islamic law and feminism. Critical inquiry, 32(4), pp.629-645.
- Segran, E., 2013. The Rise of the Islamic Feminists. The Nation, 4.