As civil wars fester in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen while India and Pakistan face off over Kashmir and Iran and Saudi Arabia continue their cold war in the Persian Gulf, the ever-changing geopolitics of the Muslim world often distract outsiders from considering the state of human rights in the region. Women’s rights in particular have received far less attention than conflict resolution and other topics addressing political violence. Many critics of Islam also tend to blame violence against women in the Muslim world on the religion itself.
Islamophobia has encouraged the dubious presumption that one of the world’s major religions propagates misogyny across the globe. “Religion in general and Islam in particular are women’s enemy,” the former Muslim Azam Kamguian has claimed. “Women’s inequality is God’s commandment in Islam enshrined in immutable law by Mohammad and eventually recorded in scripture.”
Several Western pundits have portrayed Islam as at odds with women’s rights by nature, often pointing to the treatment of women in countries that have implemented religious law, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s short-lived 1990s rump state in the environs of Kabul, ranks high among the most notorious examples of sexism in the Muslim world. Even so, these cases obscure the expansion of feminism in the region.
A growing number of Muslim feminists see their religion not as the source of their problems but as the solution to them.
A growing number of Muslim feminists see their religion not as the source of their problems but as the solution to them. The social movement that they have branded “Islamic feminism” seeks to expand women’s rights by looking to the Quran, the Hadith, and other religious texts to posit that Islam guarantees women far greater freedoms and protections than they now enjoy under the constitutions of many Muslim-majority countries. By basing gender equality within Islam, these feminists are taking on both ultraconservative clerics and Western Islamophobes at the same time.
The Iranian–American feminist Laleh Bakhtiar, who completed a translation of the Quran with an eye toward women’s rights, has noted that, contrary to Western misconceptions, the religious text allows women to choose their husbands as well as whether to wear headscarves. Citing Iran and Saudi Arabia, she has argued that the extent of gender discrimination in the Muslim world “does not come from Islam, but from laws made, in many cases, by Muslim men.”
Musawah (‘equality’ in Arabic), an international non-government organization established in 2009 with the support of 250 Muslim feminists from forty-seven countries, has taken Bakhtiar’s principles to heart. The non-profit advocates for women’s rights through a motley combination of “Islamic principles and jurisprudence, international human rights standards, national laws and constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and the lived realities of women and men.” So far, Musawah has hosted over a dozen workshops for Muslim feminists from Morocco to Pakistan.
In some corners of the Global South beyond the reach of Musawah and like-minded non-profits, Muslim feminists work with well-established international organizations to spread their message. In Niger, Muslim feminist clerics have partnered with the United Nations Population Fund in a bid to remind women in the countryside that Islam values reproductive health and rights.
Muslim-majority countries that have tended to greet feminism with hostility have had their own reckoning with the social movement. In the seminaries of Iran, Muslim feminists have gone toe to toe with ultraconservative clerics by reinterpreting the religious texts on which Iran’s mullahs base laws restricting women’s rights. Over in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the provocative Muslim feminist and former political prisoner Souad al-Shammary has used her expertise in the history of Islam to undermine her government’s reactionary interpretation of religious law.
Muslim feminists are remaking religious law by historicizing Islam as an ever-evolving concept, not a changeless, sacrosanct set of precepts.
Muslim feminists are remaking religious law by historicizing Islam as an ever-evolving concept, not a changeless, sacrosanct set of precepts that still apply to modernity as much as they did to the Rashidun Caliphate. Proponents of Islamic feminism further reject Islamic fundamentalism, pressing for a metaphorical reading of the Quran’s more controversial tenets, foremost among them an oft-referenced passage that seems to condone domestic violence in some cases.
On the one hand, Muslim feminists will likely have difficulty reforming aspects of religious law that leave little room for interpretation, such as Islam’s detailed prescriptions for the distribution of inheritance. On the other, these obstacles have done nothing to deter the proponents of Islamic feminism from pushing for these changes anyway, and many Muslim feminists remain firm in the belief that Islam, if cleansed of what they deem patriarchal extraneities accumulated over a millennium and a half, promises every Muslim woman the equality that she deserves.
In many ways, Islamic feminism has succeeded in the Muslim world where liberal feminism has failed because of Muslim feminists’ religious roots. Many of the clerics who have moved to limit women’s rights often deride liberal feminism as an invention of the same Western countries that colonized and divided the Muslim world. By trying to challenge ultraconservative Muslims on their own terms, Muslim feminists all but ensure that their opponents have to listen to them.
By demonizing Islam as a universal obstacle to women’s rights, Islamophobes and other critics of the religion not only ignore the many fascinating strands of feminism that exist within it but also subvert the critical achievements of Muslim feminists.
By demonizing Islam as a universal obstacle to women’s rights, Islamophobes and other critics of the religion not only ignore the many fascinating strands of feminism that exist within it but also subvert the critical achievements of Muslim feminists. Despite the historical importance of liberal feminism in the Western world, advocates of women’s rights in the Muslim world have founded a complementary social movement that looks better aligned with the unique challenges of the Islamic context. Islamic and liberal feminism can even go hand in hand.
Two of the world’s top Muslim feminists live in the West. The respected American academics Amina Wadud, lauded by some as “the first American woman imam,” and Asma Barlas, author of Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, have inspired the social movement as much as any of their counterparts in the heart of the Muslim world.
As the Middle East and the West alike wrestle with the future of feminism as a whole, Islamic feminism offers a promising path for the many Muslim women interested in expanding human rights.
For their part, few Westerners seem to realize that Islam is powering feminism.