Islamic Feminism: A Contradiction in Terms?


Islamic Feminism: A Contradiction in Terms?

Islamic Feminism would certainly appear to be a contradiction in terms, as would Jewish Feminism and Christian Feminism. However, a distinction needs to be made between the practice of many Muslims, which is blatantly misogynistic and often informed by patriarchal tendencies and non-Islamic traditional culture, and Islam itself as revealed in the Quran.

Muslim peoples are no different from any others worldwide in terms of the imbalance in gender relations in favour of the male, although historically there are many examples of an enlightened attitude among Muslims in this respect. An example would be the provision of a legal status to women and the rights of inheritance from the early 7th century Muslim community onwards. It took many more centuries before the equivalent was available to women in the West. Education is another point, it is the responsibility of every Muslim, man and woman, to seek knowledge and throughout history there have been many female scholars.

However, as I mentioned above, the daily reality for many Muslim women is very far indeed from the ideal equilibrium set out in the Quran. Some of the reasons for this are: 1) The tenacity of patriarchal modes of society (and tribal law in some areas); its values being so internalized that a clear view becomes difficult even for women. 2) The vast majority of theologians and interpreters of the Quran have been men, and they have tended to interpret in their favour, often being too literalist and ignoring the subtle layers of meaning within the Quran and the Arabic language itself, Jalaluddin Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi being notable exceptions. This is now changing as ever more women are acquiring the skills necessary for interpretation. These women (Amina Wadud for example) are calling for a change in traditional gender relations by referring to the Quran; they are working from within without the need to refer to Western feminism.

It is my belief that Western feminism could benefit from a dialogue with Islamic feminism. What is especially interesting is that the Quran recognizes the differences between male and female and their respective rights and responsibilities toward each other. Now, male biased interpretations might take this as an excuse to control women and their activities and thereby underpin patriarchal values, this is far from the intention of the Quran which is in fact very close to the Postfeminist theory of the Western academy which wishes to distance itself from the sixties brand of feminism that would claim ‘women can do anything that men can do’ which in the opinion of some represents a total capitulation to patriarchy, e.g. along the lines of  ‘men are so wonderful let’s all try and be like them’.  There is no ‘battle of the sexes’ in Islam, on the contrary, the Quran tells us that men and women are as cloaks for each other, to protect and support each other.

Unfortunately, media coverage of Islam and Muslims is very biased in favour of the negative, and any non-Muslim may get a completely incorrect picture of Islam, the Taliban for example have nothing to do with Islamic values and the majority of Muslims are horrified by their actions in respect to women. So, both non-Muslims and Muslims themselves have a lot to learn in terms of gender relations and the Quranic teachings on such. I do believe that this is a universal discussion as only true equilibrium between the sexes can free our creative and intellectual potential to focus on the myriad of problems that we need to be addressing in the contemporary world.

I would like to add a comment on the word ‘feminism’, since it suggests something other than equilibrium I am at present in search of an alternative term that expresses the meaning ‘balanced gender relations’.

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2 thoughts on “Islamic Feminism: A Contradiction in Terms?

  1. Assalam a’laykum!

    This looks like the beginning of a good blog… so welcome to the blogosphere!

    I agree with much of what you say, but there are more informed visions of balanced gender relations than Amina Wadud’s (as sincere as she is), which have long existed in Islamic society but which are little known. There were, for example, whole schools of devoted female scholars, and much of their work has indeed been preserved and is only now gaining the attention of Western anthropologists. As Ruth Roded has noted:

    ‘If U.S. and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’

    Anyhow, I highly recommend you read this online essay if you haven’t already, by Cambridge scholar T.J. Winter. I’m sure you’ll love it! I think the last paragraph perfectly captures the state of the umma today.

    http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm

    take care and cheerio!
    Khalid
    http://muslimcultures.blogspot.com

  2. Salaam Khalid, thank you for your comments. Yes I have already read the article you mentioned and I have just read it again. Abdul Hakim Murad is an impressive and wise scholar and as you say, that last paragraph is spot on. I firmly believe that it is not only Muslims who can benefit from a deeper understanding of the Quran’s teachings on gender balance.

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