Vol. 2 No. 1 (2017): Islamic Feminism

ISSN No: 2583-4347

Guest Editorial

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. 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.

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.

Critical to understanding feminisms in Muslim societies is recognising the fluctuating connotations of the terms, ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’. These terms must be historicised 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. While ‘the secular’ connoted separation of religion and state (however imperfect) it also signified ‘the national’. Secular feminism in Egypt, thus, indicated Egyptian feminism.

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 fuelled 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. 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.

Guest Editor - MARGOT BADRAN

Published: 2017-01-30