I approach the subject of ‘Islamic feminism’ as a historian whose life-long scholarship has focused on feminisms in the Middle East and broader Islamic world. I began my research in a Middle East Muslim-majority context in the mid – twentieth century. I investigated the feminism that Muslim and Christian compatriots in Egypt jointly created, segueing from nascent gender consciousness in the late nineteenth century into social and political activism in the early twentieth century. This emergent feminist activism initiated during colonial occupation, which sprouted in the context of women’s everyday modernizing acts, was enmeshed in modern state-building efforts and national liberation campaigns. Called simply ‘feminism’ by the women who created it, this pioneering feminism came to be referred to by observers as ‘secular feminism’ denoting its national framework, inclusive of religion. This ‘secular feminism’ was informed by late nineteenth and early twentieth century religious reformist thinking knows as Islamic modernism (Badran 1995). Towards the end of the twentieth century I found the new term, ‘Islamic feminism’ entering into circulation (Badran 2009). Muslim women had begun to elaborate this gender-egalitarian discourse of Islam at the very moment when political Islam, or Islamism, was resurging in Africa and Asia, resurrecting an atavistic patriarchal discourse of Islam which Muslim modernists, reformers, and feminists, marshalling religious arguments, had been eroding incrementally for more than a century.
Over the decades, operating in multiple locations I have continued to examine feminisms that women in the Middle East and Islamic worlds have created for themselves/ourselves. I have observed the commonalities and differences among modes of feminist thinking and experience over time in diverse sites in the Middle East and Islamic world. Most recently I observed and engaged with manifestations of (Islamic and secular) feminist thinking and action—often, but not always, not identified as such—during and following the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt, including conducting discussions on Islamic feminism and revolution.
Feminisms of Our Own
Historically, feminisms emerged simultaneously in the East and the West. Feminism was not patented in the West. Feminism is not ‘Western.’ The myth that feminism is Western finds stubborn persistence among many Westerners who charge that Muslim societies and Islam itself are irredeemably sexist. The myth exists as well among Islamists and conservative Muslims living in the West who, like their counterparts in Africa and Asia, discredit the notion of an egalitarian Islam. Ironically, the canard that feminism is Western is even repeated by some Muslim gender equality proponents in the West who insist that feminism is a Western colonialist meta-narrative and in so doing, mirror precisely what arch patriarchal Islamists profess. For such individuals, the notion of an Islamic feminism is anathema.
During the colonial period, feminisms emerged in different regions of the globe and on both sides of the colonial divide. Feminist movements that took shape in countries of the colonizing West typically bore marks of colonialism. Wittingly, or unwittingly, these movements were implicated in colonial projects even when feminists, in the spirit of ‘global sisterhood’ (a problematic notion), tried to transcend such entanglement. In colonized countries of Africa and Asia, feminism was resolutely nationalist and, defiantly anti-colonial. In both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority milieus in Africa and Asia, Islamic modernist and universal humanitarian discourses formed an integral part of emergent, nation-based feminisms (Jayawardena 1986).
It takes time for an emergent phenomenon to be named. But, when a term resonates it takes root and spreads. This happened with the word feminism. The term féminism was coined in the late nineteenth century in France, referring to the subordination of women and their lack of basic rights granted men that the French Revolution proclaimed (Offen 1988). The word feminism appeared in English in Britain in the first decade of the twentieth century and in the United States by the second decade (Cott 1987). Documents show that it was in use in Egypt in French, the language of the elites, in the 1920s (although most likely it came into circulation earlier) and in Arabic as al-nisa’iyya’, ambiguously signifying ‘of women’ or ‘feminism’, evoking rights withheld from women and demands made by them (Badran 1995, 2009). Feminisms emerging in countries around the globe at the beginning of the twentieth century were homegrown, demonstrating the axiom that feminisms can only sprout in their own soil.
Feminism and the Shifting Meanings of ‘the Secular’ and ‘the Religious’
Critical to understanding feminisms in Muslim societies is recognising the fluctuating connotations of the terms, ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’. These terms must be historicized as their meanings have shifted from the late nineteenth century when the word ‘secular’ first appeared in Muslim societies in parts of Africa and Asia. In the Middle East, straddling Africa and Asia, the words ‘secular’ and ‘secularisation’ were introduced in the context of socio-cultural, economic, technological, and political transformation starting in the early 19th century in Egypt during processes of modern state-building. During the consolidating of the modern state, education and law, with the exception of personal status or family law, were typically removed from the jurisdiction of religious authorities and placed under the aegis of the state. While religious interpretation on matters relating to the family remained the purview of the religious authorities, such readings to be legally applicable by the state were translated into statutory law, called either ‘Muslim personal status law’ or ‘family law’ issued by the secular state as the Egyptian case illustrates. There was thus a confluence of ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’, although the will of the state remained decisive (Asad 2003). While ‘the secular’ connoted separation of religion and state (however imperfect) it also signified ‘the national’. Secular feminism in Egypt, thus, indicated Egyptian feminism.
Today in Muslim-minority countries, such as India and South Africa, Muslims are equal citizens of secular states and free to construct their own religiously-based, or communal, family laws. In minority societies, matters of authority and religious interpretation become entangled with issues of collective identity and group loyalty as well as competing meanings of Islam and culture which are further complicated by gender.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when socioeconomic transformation was altering everyday lives in Muslim societies in parts
of Africa and Asia, the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ also came to be applied to individuals. ‘Religious’ was conflated with ‘the traditional’ or allegiance to inherited culture. ‘The secular’ signaled ‘modern’ and ‘a departure from the customary fusion of religion and culture’. Women by being associated with the ‘traditional’, were expected to replicate received norms and practices, while men were accorded freedom to be ‘modern’, that is, to experiment and innovate. ‘Secular’ when applied to women was used to signal that they were deviating from religion. ‘Secular’ did not carry such connotation when applied to men. If those labelling women as ‘modern’ were implying they were not religious, innovating women regarded themselves to be both ‘modern’ and ‘religious’. ‘Modernizing women’ who questioned aspects of past thinking and practices, and who experimented with new lives, were suspect, while ‘modernizing men’ were – ‘modernizing men’ were immune from censure. To further indict innovating women, they were also branded ‘Westernised’, which in the colonial period was equated with treason. Name calling as a tool to deter women from rejecting the restrictions of conventional behavior would continue to be widely used.
From the late 1970s, and especially in the 1990s, as the spread of political Islam accelerated globally, Islamists redefined ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’. They branded ‘the secular’ as ‘un-religious’ and before long as ‘anti-religious’, and pronounced ‘the religious’ as the authentic, the indigenous, and the correct. In redefining and politicizing ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’, Islamists promoted an adversarial secular-religious binary. They did this at a time when a second-wave of feminism was spreading in Muslim-majority countries. Islamists discredited both feminism and the state as ‘secular’ (in their pejorative use of the word) and therefore religiously deviant.
The rise of a new egalitarian discourse of Islam called ‘Islamic feminism’ in the 1990s and its growing acceptance produced contradictory reactions within the world of Muslim women. The creators of the gender-egalitarian discourse of Islam, identified as ‘religious’, in the main, initially objected to the term ‘Islamic feminism’. They accepted the allegations perpetuated by Islamists and conservative Muslims that feminism was Western and therefore alien to Islam. Secular women with a feminist orientation, including, those who initiated the term Islamic feminism, marshalled the discourse in their campaigns to reform Muslim family laws. There were also Muslim women among the ranks of the secular feminists who rejected the possibility of an egalitarian Islam.
Because the terms ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ or ‘Islamic’ have been highly loaded, and the term ‘feminism’ has been widely misunderstood, terminology has fueled contention. The answer, I argue, is not to jettison the terms but to clarify meanings and to be aware how ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious ‘are constituted (even mutually constituted) and contextually situated, and to acknowledge that feminisms have emerged organically from deep within Muslim societies (Badran 2005).
The terms ‘secular feminism’ and ‘Islamic feminism’, as seen, were devised and first used in very specific ways. Secular feminism connoted a nation-based feminism drawing on secular nationalist, Islamic modernist, and humanitarian discourses, while Islamic feminism is a discourse primarily anchored in re-readings of the Qur’an and other religious sources, concerned in the first instance with a faith community. This terminology: ‘secular feminism’ and ‘Islamic feminism’ offered convenient categories for grasping the distinctions between the two feminist modes. At the same time, the use of such terms masked the porosity of the two modes, obscuring the intersections between secular and Islamic feminism. Individual feminists and feminist groups often mobilise both mode of feminisms simultaneously.
In examining the work of Fatima Mernissi (1940-2015), the aforementioned revered Moroccan sociologist, writer, public intellectual, and creative activist whose life spanned the colonial and postcolonial moments, we can grasp the range, complexities, and intersections of feminist discourses in Muslim societies.1 In “Between Feminism and Islam: Fatima Mernissi and Her Legacy,” Moroccan cultural studies scholar Raja Rhouni sedulously historicises Mernissi. Rhouni discusses ‘a secularist feminist moment’ and an ‘Islamic feminist moment’ in the work of Mernissi. Rhouni uses the term ‘secularist feminist’, rather than ‘secular feminist’, to describe Mernissi’s early approach to Islam as a patriarchal religion exhibited in her first book Beyond the Veil (1975) before she assailed the patriarchal interpretation of Islam (and not the religion itself), in The Veil and the Male Elite (1991; trans. of Le harem politique, 1987). Mernissi’s life and work, which Rhouni perceptively analyzes in her book, Secular and Islamic Feminist Critiques in the Work of Fatima Mernissi (2010) displays a dynamic trajectory as Mernissi moves from a secularist stance on Islam to an Islamic feminist position. Mernissi did not categorise her work as
feminist nor did she ever assume an explicit feminist identity. She was not one for labels, nor one to engage in ‘identity disputes.’ For Mernissi, ideals, principles, and good practices remained paramount. Mernissi whose life and work reveals many “border crossings” has been hailed by both secular feminists and Islamic feminists. She has never fallen into a single camp nor has she ever perpetuated binaries and divisions that others have created.
Reminiscences and tributes paid Mernissi after her death in 2015 are moving testimony to her wide reach and deep impact. This is evident in the reflective essay, “Fatima Mernissi: A Complex Trajectory” by amina wadud, African-American theologian and author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1991, 1999), a seminal Islamic feminist text. wadud, who took Islamic exegesis into new gender-egalitarian space with Qur’an and Woman and in her subsequent book, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (2006), had long harbored reservations about feminism. However, in 2009, at the launch of Musawah in Kuala Lumpur, she declared herself an Islamic feminist. Passionate about gender equality, social justice, and human dignity, wadud and Mernissi, the former starting at the religious end and the latter at the secular end, arrived on common ground. Although Mernissi and wadud never met in person, as wadud soulfully notes, their vision and work did meet. These capacious compassionate thinkers, who lived their lives continents apart on the ramparts of innovative thinking and principled practices, are exemplars for others in the Islamic world and emblematic of the transcending of ‘East’ and ‘West’.
Islamic Feminism, National Liberation, and Public Political Work
Pioneering feminisms, in the form of secular feminisms, were first introduced in public in Muslim-majority societies during the colonial period, in the early and middle decades of 20th century, by women, Muslim and non-Muslims, who were active in national liberation campaigns and who were concurrently struggling within the context of nationalist militancy for women’s liberation (Badran 1988).
Islamic feminism was introduced in various Muslim-minority contexts in the late 20th century by women, along with some men, active in latter day anti-colonial nationalist movements and in democracy campaigns who went on to confront issues of women’s equality within their own religious communities.
As members of a religious minority community, some Muslims who participated in the late 20th century anti-colonial struggle against apartheid in South Africa went on to rise up against the gender apartheid operating within their own religious community and, doing so, to develop their own Islamic feminism. Pioneering South African Islamic feminist couple Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh (d. 1998) are part of the story that Jeenah recounts in ‘The National Liberation Struggle and Islamic Feminisms in South Africa’. Shaikh came to Islamic feminism, through the door of leftist secular nationalist militancy while Jeenah arrived via activism in the Muslim Youth Movement.
Samyukta: A Journal of Gender & Culture (January 2017) Vol. XVII. No. 1
South African Farhana Ismail, active on the scene at the time, speaks of Islamic feminism in-the-making in “Between Awareness and Activism: Gender and Islam in South Africa”. She tells the story of Shaikh’s brave defiance against patriarchal restrictions imposed on women in the name of Islam, relating how she led women in participating in congregational prayer in a Johannesburg mosque. Later, amina wadud gave a pre-khutba talk at a mixed Friday congregational prayer in Cape Town and also went on to perform as imam in leading a mixed congregation at Friday prayer in New York. To invoke an earlier historical event, I note that women in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, demanded to be allowed to participate in Friday congregational prayer along with men. The demand was presented in the name of Muslim women by the teacher and writer Malak Hifni Nasif as one of a set submitted to the all-male Muslim nationalist Egyptian Congress in 1911, it will be noted, by proxy, as women (of the urban middle and upper strata) then were not permitted to mix with men.
Islamic feminism emerged in Indonesia at the time of the movement for political reform and democratisation in the Reformasi (or Reform) era that began in 1998. In “Roots and Routes of Secular and Islamic Feminism in Indonesia,” Indonesian women’s studies scholar and feminist activist Gadis Arivia explains that to counter the spread of Islamism and the atavistic patriarchal practices its proponents were trying to impose, it was critical to answer back by mobilizing Islamic feminism. Secular feminism, which has had a long history in Indonesia going back to colonial times, and the more recently articulated Islamic feminism there, have interacted with each other since the Reformasi period. Like Arivia, feminists in Indonesia often claim dual identities: as secular feminists and Islamic feminists. There is a distinct local cultural imprint in secular and Islamic
feminisms in Indonesia. Indonesians struggle to retain their own Indonesian cultural and religious identity, resisting what they see as an invasion of Arab patriarchal thinking and practices transmitted via political Islam. Arivia and other women are aware that they need an Islamic discourse of gender equality and social justice together with an astute politics that feminists of all stripes can mobilise in unison.
A strong male Islamic feminist voice in Indonesia is provided by Husein Muhammad, a kyai (a teacher in a pesantren, a religious boarding school, found historically throughout rural Indonesia). In “Spreading Gender Egalitarian Islam in Indonesia,” he relates his personal journey from rural Indonesia where he was born and received his first schooling, to the capital Jakarta where he continued further schooling, then to Egypt for advanced religious studies in Cairo, and finally back home. This path with its multiple exposures and experiences helped him to become an influential figure in Islamic feminism. An early contribution by Kyai Husein to promoting egalitarian Islam was his revision of basic textbooks used to teach Islam in the pesantrens. Like Arivia, Kyai Husein works on many levels at once: in NGOs, in academic contexts, and in pubic activism.
Global Activism and Equality in the Family
The last bastion of legalised inequality in Muslim societies is Muslim family law (often called personal status law), with exceptions proving the rule, indicating what can be achieved. From early last century, secular feminists in Egypt mobilised Islamic modernist arguments in calling for reform in Muslim family law. But they met with minimal success. The only Arab country which introduced progressive family legislation in the 20th century was Tunisia where the state decreed a law from on high in 1956. Secular feminists and Islamic feminists join forces in many countries to intensify efforts to revise Muslim family laws. They draw inspiration from the 2004 revision of Moroccan Muslim family law (the Mudawanna) grounded in an egalitarian interpretation of Islam that was promulgated following activist campaigns by feminists and other progressives. The new law, among other changes, declares wife and husband equal heads of family.
Islamic feminists, locally and globally, take head on the task of transforming Muslim family laws. Among the scholar-activists in the lead is the Iranian-British legal anthropologist, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a founder, along with amina wadud among others, of Musawah (Arabic for ‘Equality’), a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Musawah was launched in 2009, at a conference hosted by the Malaysian NGO, ‘Sisters in Islam’ in Kuala Lumpur. Mir-Hosseini has conducted extensive study of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh, exposing patriarchal constructions of Islamic jurisprudence and enunciating an egalitarian Islamic feminist jurisprudence. In “The Feminist Encounter with Muslim Legal Tradition,” Mir-Hosseini tells the story of a pivotal point in the history of Islamic feminism, moving from global discourse to global activism supporting local forms of activism. In its drive for equality, the Musawah movement connects Islamic and universal human rights discourses, national constitutions declaring the equality of citizens, and the lived experience of women and men.
Mir-Hosseini says of the Musawah movement: “Our main objective is to re-insert women’s concerns and voices into the processes of the production of religious knowledge and law making.” A knowledge-building project she heads critically examines two lynch-pins of male authority enshrined in the Islamic legal tradition: qiwamah, a husband’s authority over a wife and wilayah, male guardianship of female family members (Mir-Hosseini et al 2015). Qiwamah and wilayah have been foundation stones used in building and preserving Muslim family laws. In campaigning to achieve equality, Muslim women use feminist tools and critical ijtihad, or independent reasoning, to unmask the mixing of the religious and the political in perpetuating patriarchy in the name of Islam, and with it, a male protectionist model of the family. Musawah’s knowledge-building project takes the formation of religious knowledge beyond the controlled precincts of the seminary and away from the exclusive purview of male religious scholars into arenas where women draw upon their lived experience and place it in conversation with their understanding of Islamic principles.
Muslim women in India are part of the global Musawah movement. Prominent activists Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Niaz founded the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in 2007 juxtaposing Bharatiyya (secular/ Indian) and Muslim to assert a composite Indian/Muslim identity and to signal that their rights movement is based on the principle of equality enshrined in both the Constitution of India and the Qur’an. As members of a Muslim minority, they are promoting women’s rights and gender equality within their community through the spread of an egalitarian reading of Islam, countering a deeply entrenched patriarchal approach to Islam perpetuated by religious authorities and, with it, the continuation of unjust practices. BMMA which has been campaigning for the codification of Muslim family law, has been at the forefront, calling for an end to the practice of triple talaq (a husband’s declaration that he is divorcing his wife uttered three times at once, which, as conventionally held, constitutes an irrevocable divorce) and halala (a practice requiring that an irrevocably divorced woman consummate a marriage with another man before she and her former husband are eligible to remarry). Among the articles that Soman and Niaz have published in the popular press are: “How the Ulama in India are Protecting Male Hegemony in the Name of Islam” and the “Triple Talaq Row,” which powerfully and unequivocally lay out the challenges and the ways to meet them, are included here.
Wife-beating: Prescribed or Proscribed?
Along with combatting regressive practices found relating to the family by working to win gender-just Muslim family laws, Muslim scholar-activists have addressed the issue of violence against women inside the family in the form of ‘wife-beating’ to discipline a ‘disobedient spouse’ alleged to be religiously sanctioned. By now there is a large body of hermeneutical literature refuting the claim that the Qur’an countenances wife-beating. In Qur’an and Woman, wadud, uses theological and linguistic arguments to demonstrate that the Qur’an does not endorse wife-beating. Laleh Bakhtiar’s gender-sensitive 2007 English translation of the Qur’an has played a critical role in deconstructing Qur’anic terminology for anglophone readers, assisting the understanding that wife-beating is not condoned by scripture as religious authorities routinely assert.
In “Islamic Feminism and the New Mediterranean: A Close-up on Spain,” I write about a confrontation that erupted in Spain in 2003 when Egyptian-born Muhammad Kamal Mustafa, imam of a mosque in southern Spain, published the book, La mujer en el Islam (‘The Woman in Islam’), in which he claimed that wife-beating is permitted by the Qur’an. While broadcasting such a pronouncement remains commonplace (although not uncontested) in Egypt, Mustafa’s country of birth, and in many other Muslim societies, it raised alarm among Muslims and others in Spain. The book triggered an impassioned outcry among many Muslim women and men in immigrant communities, as is naturalised citizens, and Spanish-born converts. Members of these groups joined forces to file a legal case against Mustafa, accusing him of incitement to violence under Spanish law. A discussion before the court pivoted around whether or not the Qur’an endorses wife-beating. Mustafa defended his position, pointing to his credentials as the holder of a doctorate from al-Azhar, the prestigious Islamic university in Cairo, claiming authority as one of two Muslims in Spain empowered to make religious readings. The Muslim plaintiffs, including three Muslim women’s NGOs, drew on a different interpretation of the Qur’an, arguing that the Scripture does not endorses wife-beating and pointing out that Mustafa’s claim does not constitute definitive Islamic doctrine. Mustafa lost the case.
The incident brings to the fore the question of patriarchal power and of the ordering of family relations allegedly ordained by Islam that upholds the right and authority of one spouse (the male) to discipline by force the other spouse (the female) whom the male spouse deems disobedient. The idea that violence of any sort could be condoned in any way was the trigger that led to public confrontation, along with Muslims’ outrage that their religion could be complicit.
Peace and Pluralism
Peacemaking and Islamic feminism emerged in tandem in Bosnia with efforts to address the lingering effects of violence suffered during the 1992-1995 war and to construct a harmonious, pluralistic, egalitarian country. In “The Confluence of Islamic Feminism and Peacebuilding: Lessons from Bosnia” Zilka Spahic Šiljak tells the story of these dual projects, sharing experience of her personal involvement and of those around her. During their hands-on efforts to alleviate the suffering of victims of violence Muslim women joined forces with women of other religions and ethnicities from Bosnia and nearby countries who were operating under the umbrella of western secular NGOs coming to Bosnia to assist in rehabilitation efforts. The Muslim women devised what Šiljak calls ‘an Islamic approach to relieving suffering’ which involves in part recasting certain religious and cultural rituals connected with birth and belonging as instruments for alleviating the trauma of rape victims, especially those giving birth. At the same time, Muslim women activists acquired concepts and language, and other tools from secular feminism (from inside and outside Bosnia) that also proved effective in mitigating the suffering of targets of violence and which became useful in forging a peaceful multi- communal environment.
Šiljak explains how concurrently she and other women introduced women’s studies at the University of Sarajevo. She speaks of the synergy between academics and activists in fashioning, their own Islamic feminism and the simultaneous challenge to advance intra- and inter-communal work. Islamic feminism in Bosnia in its theory and practice transcends entrenched notions of discrete, separate religious-ethnic communities, while at the shaping a pluralism within which religious and ethnic distinctions can be expressed but not predominate over the entire society.
Generation and Class
To understand Islamic feminism, it is important to be attentive to issues of generation and class in fluid historical contexts. Accepting or rejecting Islamic feminism, engaging in activism, and publicly affirming an Islamic feminist identity are intimately connected with generation and class.
In “Talking Islamic feminism in South Africa,” Firdouza Waggie and Yumna Hattas in a 2002 conversation speak of generational difference at the moment they were trying to re-vitalise the Gender Desk of the Muslim Youth Movement which had experienced a slump from the late 1990s. They note how the generation of their parents, the senior generation during the 1980s, were conservative in their approach to Islam and to everyday behavior. The elder Muslim generation were intent on keeping a reign on the youth who through their anti-apartheid activism were becoming more broadly politicised and starting to connect (a liberal) Islam and politics. Waggie and Hattas note that after the turn of the 21st century some from the militant anti-apartheid generation took the lead in promoting egalitarianism inside the Muslim community. In reading Waggie and Hattas as well as Farhana Ismail’s “Between Awareness and Activism” together with Jeenah’s fine-grained historical account, it becomes apparent how within the span of a single generation and in highly fluid and changing contexts, individuals and groups became emboldened to express and own Islamic feminism.
The issue of class is yet to be more fully explored regarding ways women come to a gender-progressive Islam, and whether or not, they call this Islamic feminism. In “The Other Within: Muslim Women’s Rights Warrior in Malaysia,” Malaysian-American anthropologist Azza Basarudin writes about three young working class women discussing their approach to Islamic feminism, to which they were introduced through their work at Sisters in Islam (SIS), the NGO, mentioned earlier that professional and elite Malaysian women founded in the 1980s. The working class women’s narratives reveal the ease with which they accepted the idea of equality in Islam and discarded the patriarchal interpretations of their upbringing. Ways an egalitarian Islam can be openly expressed and translated into practice, however they make clear, differ according to class. Working class women explain that a fundamental difference between themselves and the more privileged SIS women activists, is the ease or freedom that women of privilege have to publicly assert their Islamic feminism and openly identify themselves as Islamic feminists. (Of course, such freedom for anyone comes at a price.) They contend that working class women need to be more circumspect, in order not to be made outcasts in their own communities. The working class women also stressed that meeting pressing economic needs takes priority over promoting Islamic feminist ideals. As Basarudin indicates, understanding working class women’s lived experiences helps expand understandings of Islamic feminism.
Full Circle from Patriarchy to Patriarchy
Muslim women have taken various routes to Islamic feminism in different historical moments and places, most often segueing into it from secular feminism and/or anti-colonial nationalist militancy as observed. Another route has been to move from Islamism to Islamic feminism. Within two decades from the resurgence of Islamism, women in some movements of political Islam began to show resistance to their patriarchal practices (Badran 2013). One of the first scholars to look at Islamist women was Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Gõle, who looking closely at Turkey, hypothesised that their political activism in Islamist movements would lead women to experience a feminist consciousness and to try to transform Islamist movements from within. In “Turkish Women in Islamism: Gender and the Mirage of ‘Islamic Feminism’,” Esra Özcan shares her experience studying women, gender, and Islamism in Turkey as a student of Gõle at the end of the 1990s and reconsiders Gõle’s thesis. Özcan asserts that it was due to Gõle’s work that the notion of Islamic feminism began to circulate in Turkey in the 1990s. It was supposed back then that religious women with ‘Islamic feminist’ tendencies and secular feminists might find common ground in Turkey.
The rise to power of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) in 2002, with Recep Erdoğan as President, initially did not seem to challenge such a prospect. But by 2017, if not before, it had become unmistakable that a repressive form of Islamism with a severely reactionary patriarchal structure had become heavily entrenched. Özcan recounts the collapse of an incipient Islamic feminism that might act as a moderating or transformative force within the world of political Islam in Turkey. She notes how the regime appropriated feminist terminology in order to seduce liberals and camouflage its reactionary politics. For the AKP and the state under Erdoğan, Islamic feminism was at best a mirage but more accurately a menace. I witnessed this attitude up close in November 2016 when I accepted an invitation to attend the International Women and Justice Summit organised by KADEM (Kadin ve Domokrasi Derneði), a governmental NGO, and the Ministry of the Family and Social Policy eager to observe the scene up close and to seize the chance to speak on Islamic feminism. Showing its importance to the state, Erdoğan opened the conference where he baldly declared that there was no gender equality in Islam which caused an instant outcry among Turkish women. I spoke at a panel later that day on gender equality in Islam in a paper titled, “The Necessary Link between Justice and Equality,” in which I reiterated the Qur’an-backed argument that there can be no social justice without gender equality. It became instantly clear in the subsequent remarks by the panel chair that my contribution was not welcomed. When some young Turkish women came up to me afterwards, I realised from their comments that there might be some sparks of incipient Islamic feminism left in Turkey. Or, perhaps, only dying embers?
The challenge now globally and especially locally is not so much further elaborating a gender-egalitarian and gender-just Islam as practicing Islamic feminism and sharpening and putting into action an effective politics. Such a challenge is helped by understanding the wide range of experience over time and place. Samyukta’s special issue on Islamic feminism aims to contribute to this.
1 The group explains it uses North America because it fits the acronym even though it is geographically global.
2 Mernissi originally spelled her first name as Fatima and later changed it to Fatema. The spellings she used in her publications are reproduced here.
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