Feminist Thought in the Muslim World: From Secular Feminism to Islamic Feminism

Feminist thought has evolved in the context of the historical, social, cultural, and political norms of the societies in which it has originated. In the Muslim world, two major feminist trends have emerged in recent years: Islamic feminism and secular feminism.
Feminist Thought in the Muslim World From Secular Feminism to Islamic Feminism

It is very simplistic to assume that feminism is a consistent political, cultural, and philosophical movement throughout the world, or even perhaps throughout a region. To the contrary, feminism is a multidimensional and multifaceted movement that comprises myriad trends and traditions that are often interdisciplinary and intersectional, and sometimes, perhaps, even contradictory. In other words, feminism is not a monolithic movement, and all feminists do not think alike. It is arguable that there are various “feminisms” to which one can refer when addressing the development of feminist thought. This multifaceted nature of feminist thought makes it somewhat elusive and difficult to pin down.

With the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792, and John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women, almost 100 years later, feminist thought began to develop, giving rise to an increased awareness of the plight of women under various repressive and oppressive cultural and “legal” constraints. The birth of feminism and its subsequent struggles—both in theory (through the proliferation of a new anti-patriarchal discourse) and on the ground (through demonstrations and protests by women demanding equal rights)—grew into a number of political movements such as the women’s suffrage movement in the United States in the late 1800s and subsequent women’s rights movements in various European countries.

These feminist struggles resulted ultimately in the enactment of numerous laws guaranteeing more political, economic, and civil rights for women in various Western countries. These victories (if they can be called victories) were not considered an end in themselves, but rather were the beginning of a more consistent and insistent feminist struggle that continues to this day manifest in movements such as #MeToo.

Many Western feminist commentators believe and assert that feminism is a purely Western concept only later exported to other parts of the world. However, this claim has been refuted by many non-Western or “Third World feminists.” At the same time that Western feminism was developing, Muslim feminists, for instance, were rising up against patriarchy at home and expressing their own brand of feminism in their own ways.

“Those who claim that feminism is ‘western’ and ‘white’ do not know their history and perpetuate the circulation of myths,” Margot Badran proclaimed in her article, “Engaging Islamic Feminism.” In fact, advocates of developing world feminism (also known as postcolonial feminism, as it originated mainly in formerly colonized countries) have scathingly criticized the two main strands of Western feminism—namely first-wave feminism and second-wave feminism. Postcolonial feminists have accused Western first-wave and second-wave feminists of failing to address the complex issues unique to women in the developing world, of being Eurocentric and essentialist, and ignoring the plurality of women’s experiences all over the world. Instead of empowering non-European women, they assert that first-wave and second-wave feminists have always portrayed these women as voiceless victims. Indeed, postcolonial feminists assert that “Third World” women in the developing world have been triply victimized: first by patriarchy, then by colonialism, and finally by Western feminists.

Unlike Western feminist thought, which has largely been articulated outside of any religious framework, the feminism that has emerged in the Muslim world is deeply concerned with religion. “Religion from the very start has been very integral to the feminisms that Muslim women have constructed . . . whether they have been called ‘secular feminism’ or ‘Islamic feminism.’” In fact, Muslim feminists cannot escape invoking religion because it is an inextricable component of Muslim societies and part and parcel of people’s daily lives.

Certain Western secular feminists, as well as Muslim radical feminists, take the position that it is not possible to reconcile feminism and Islam because they are inherently incompatible: feminism, they say, seeks the liberation of women and full gender equality; Islam, they argue, is not compatible with the principles of equality embodied in individual autonomy, freedom, and women’s rights. Such feminists assert that the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, and the traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) grant privileges to men over women and further entrench patriarchy and its androcentric practices into the fabric of society on theological grounds.

In the beginning of her feminist scholarship, noted contemporary Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi openly sided with those who believe that religion and feminism are irreconcilable. Mernissi declared that Islam “professes models of hierarchical relationships and sexual inequality and puts a sacred stamp onto female subservience.” Mernissi’s radical anti-Islam NB thought, however, later shifted considerably to a more moderate position as her scholarship evolved.  

Iranian sociologist and women’s studies specialist Haideh Moghissi also questions the possibility of the reconciliation between feminism and Islam. She  asks:

“How can a religion which is based on gender hierarchy be adopted as the framework for struggle for gender democracy and women’s equality with men? And if Islam and feminism are compatible, which one has to operate within the framework of the other?”

Moghissi, who is an associate professor of sociology and women studies at York University, Toronto, sees Islam as inherently hostile to feminism and, therefore, she believes it is impossible to articulate feminism within a religious framework, especially with the rising religious fundamentalism in various Muslim countries.

When interviewed in 2000 by Middle East Quarterly, Bengali feminist Taslima Nasreen, criticized Islam directly, stating:

“[I]f any religion keeps women in slavery, if any religion keeps people in ignorance, then I cannot accept that religion. Religion is a big factor in putting women into their house-cages. Even though many women have an education, they are not allowed to work; they have to be submissive to their husbands because their religion says so. For that reason, I do not accept Islam; so, I criticized it.”

Such radical secular views reject religion (in the case of Nasreen, Islam) altogether and either adopt the Western feminist secular model as is or propose their own alternatives outside religion.

Valentine M. Moghadam, an Iranian-born feminist scholar, sociologist, activist, and author presently living in the United States, insists that women’s rights cannot be guaranteed unless a secular society is established. She states that “[a]lthough religious reform is salutary and necessary, it is important to recognize its limitations. Women’s rights and human rights are best promoted and protected in an environment of secular thought and secular institutions.”

Nevertheless, secular feminism and Islamic feminism in the Muslim world converge in a number of aspects and, thus, should not be viewed as contradictory. Both brands of feminism seek legal reforms and societal changes that guarantee more rights for women. The interaction, collaboration, and interplay between the two trends has recently led to the emergence of a third trend which Huma Ahmed-Ghosh refers to as “hybrid feminism.” Hybrid feminism, according to Ahmed-Ghosh, occupies an in-between position, incorporating aspects of both secular feminism and Islamic feminism.

Badran, however, elucidates some differences between secular feminism and Islamic feminism in her 2009 book, “Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences.” She argues that secular feminists in the Muslim world have very much depended on the legacy of Islamic modernist thought to demand equal education and work opportunities for men and women as well as equal access to congregational worship in the mosque. In contrast, Islamic feminists have relied upon their own interpretation and exegesis of Islamic texts such as the Qur’an and the hadith to debunk patriarchy.

In an article entitled, “Between Secular and Islamic Feminisms: Reflections on the Middle East and Beyond,” Badran draws another distinction between secular feminism and Islamic feminism. Secular feminism, she says, “draws on and is constituted by multiple discourses including secular nationalist, Islamic modernist, humanitarian/human rights, and democratic.” Islamic feminism, she continues, is “expressed in a single or paramount religiously grounded discourse taking the Qur’an as its central text.” Analyzing secular feminism and Islamic feminism in the Muslim world in their historic context, Badran sees that secular feminism started to gain ground in the late 19th century in a context in which “religion, state, and society were highly enmeshed,” while Islamic feminism emerged in the late 20th century, when “the notion of secular state and society had taken hold.”

Feminists in the Muslim world who accept the “Islamic feminist” label, despite being difficult to categorize and pigeon-hole, see the matter otherwise and reject such interpretive reductionism of Islamic texts, especially the Qur’an. Given that these texts are polysemous and therefore open to multiple interpretations, such positions are “reductionist” because they only represent one single possible reading among many.

The Algerian thinker Mohammed Arkoun further uncovered this process of de-contextualizing the Qur’an, affirming that it “has been ripped from its historical, linguistic, literary, and psychological contexts and then been continually recontextualized in various cultures and according to the ideological needs of various actors.” Arkoun posits that what appears as God’s law is, in fact, a mere human interpretation that is influenced by subjectivity and bias.

In fact, the idea of recontextualizing Qur’anic verses for ideological ends originated in the discourse of many thinkers before Arkoun. Ali Ibn Abu Talib, Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) cousin, reportedly said that the “Quran has many faces,” and thus is open to interpretation.

African-American feminist Amina Wadud, who converted to Islam during the second-wave feminist movement in the 1970s, also addresses the decontextualization and distortion of the message of Islam by biased exegetes. She argues that the opponents of the Qur’anic message and of Islam altogether make use of the “poor status of women in Muslim societies as justifications for their reactions.” She continues by adding that “these reactions have also failed to draw a distinction between the interpretation and the text.”

Islamic feminists claim that Islam came as a revolutionary religion that is flexible, adaptable and self-renewing.  Mernissi, Wadud, Egyptian-American writer Leila Ahmed, Pakistani-American scholar Asma Barlas, Algerian feminist novelist Assia Djebbar, and many more Islamic feminists hold the conviction that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was an inspired revolutionary, a man who rejected all forms of violence and tribal conflicts prevalent in the pre-Islamic era (jahiliya), and sought to establish a community that is strengthened and unified by the spiritual bond of Islam.

In this community, Mernissi stresses, “women had their place as unquestioned partners in a revolution that made the mosque an open place and the household, a temple of debate.” Islamic feminists believe that the divine text of the Qur’an is the pure word of God, devoid of any misogynistic verses and wholly gender-egalitarian. They often cite chapter 33 (The Clans), verse 35, which says:

“Lo! men who surrender  unto Allah, and women who  surrender, and men who believe and women who believe,  and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men  who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast,  and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.”

Such a Qur’anic verse, and many others, according to Islamic feminists, attest to the full equality between men and women before God and clears away any notion of women as subhuman or inferior to men.

How does patriarchy, then, function and where does it find its roots if not in the teachings of Islam and its core text, the Qur’an? Soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and during later periods of Islamic history, Muslim scholars began to engage in ijtihadthe use of independent reasoning or original interpretations of problems not precisely covered by the Qur’an and hadith—to clarify the roles and positions of Muslim women in society. Islamic feminists believe that during this process, various male scholars, either intentionally or unintentionally, established self-serving, misogynistic rulings that cemented a patriarchal perspective.

Thus, the androcentric and misogynistic version of Islam is but a construction based on the orthodox interpretation of Islam that has nothing to do with the essence of the religion. Said otherwise, exegetes and scholars have used patriarchal ideology throughout Islamic history to legitimize misogynistic practices such as female genital mutilation (in some countries), domestic violence, and honor killings by linking them to religion. Wadud affirms this, saying:

“The importance of the Qur’anic text is its transcendence of time and its expression of eternal values. As such, the context of Muslim communities has not yet risen to the level of the text. It was not the text which restricted women, but the interpretations of that text which have come to be held in greater importance than the text itself.”

The controversial Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi has always been daring in her deconstruction of the discourse of exclusion based on authoritarian readings of Islam to the extent that most critics avoid describing her as an Islamic feminist. In her autobiography “Daughter of Isis,” she tells us how her male teachers made Islam repulsive to her; they took pleasure in “choosing meanings that one’s reason refused, explanations that made things more confused, in proffering threats of hellfire, or hopes of a paradise where there was nothing to do except loll on sofas, or sleep, or eat.” El Saadawi believes that such male intrusions do not harm only women, but the religion of Islam altogether.

Therefore, Islamic feminists engage in the study and investigation of the Qur’an and other religious texts to dash the orthodox patriarchal exegeses (tafasir) of the texts and demonstrate that it is not the text itself that allowed misogynistic traditions to persist, but its interpretations by men.

In 1991, Mernissi published “The Veil and Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam,” in which she uncovers the multiple distortions of the Prophet’s hadith and produced a gender-sensitive reading of Islam. Similarly, Wadud’s “Qur’an and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective,” published in 1999, delineates the egalitarian principles that are abundant in the Qur’an.  

Barlas published “Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’anin 2002, where she said she not only wanted “to challenge oppressive readings of the Qur’an,  but also to offer a reading that confirms that Muslim women can struggle for equality from within the frameworks of the Qur’an’s teachings.” However, this does not mean that Islamic feminists are akin to Islamist women: Islamist women who promote “political Islam” reproduce and reinforce the same patriarchal discourse as the Islamist men who seek to subjugate them. Thus,  “we must be wary of Islamist women’s specious renditions of feminism which . . . Islamists are typically wont to deprecate.”

The feminist thought, theories, and discourse generated by Muslim women in the Muslim world developed in reaction to the specific historical, social, cultural, and political contexts which those women live in and experience. While strands of secular feminism have been articulated within and aimed more at influencing a secular nation-state, the branches of Islamic feminism are organized around religion and perceive religion as a necessary component of their modernity. Secular feminists have generally been action-oriented, focusing more on social and political action going forward. Islamic feminists assert that the liberation of women will only be achieved through rereading the original texts and reconstructing the past.