Islamic Feminism

[Note: In this post, I am specifically responding to Margot Badran’s text, Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Conversions.  My thoughts on “Islamic feminism” are much more complex and I have not had time to post them all up on this blog.  For more of my thoughts and opinions, check my tumblr]

I’ve written before about what feminism means to me, insisting that feminism is not something that can be simply qualified due to the fact that all individuals have different experiences and positionalities that shape their relationship with identity politics and ideologies about equality.  There are many times when other issues, specifically relating to culture and religion, seem to divide the feminist movement into subgroups; however, I would argue that these differences only work to make the fight for gender equality stronger, as they provide an opportunity for individuals to share their stories, learn new perspectives, and rethink their own understandings of gender and sexuality.  A perfect example of this comes up when discussing the relationship between feminism and Islam.  As Margot Badran notes in her book, Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Conversions, this relationship is full of complexities.

There are some that believe that feminism and Islam are completely incompatible.  Feminism, in many parts of the world, is seen as a Western import, “another form of Western assault upon ‘their’ culture,” therefore constituting “a blasphemy to religion” (1).  Similarly, many individuals living in the “West” see the two as separate entities because of the notion that feminism must be based in secular principles; some go so far as using this “to justify colonial and neo-colonial incursions into Muslim societies, or simply to make a show of arrogant superiority” (1).  Although this is largely in part due to misinterpretations of culture stemming from a combination of inaccurate media representations, ignorance, oblivion, and more, the consequences are very severe.  As Badran says, “When Muslim reactionaries, whether in the East or West, sustain repressive patriarchal versions of Islam to maintain control of women and to perpetuate the conventional hierarchal order – and with this their own power and privilege – they concurrently solidify Western stereotypes” (1).

I completely agree with Badran that the way in which this type of disagreement is discussed in the feminist community is extremely problematic.  The differences between cultures and religions need to be used as a platform for consciousness-raising rather than for the manifestation of Western imperialism and hegemonic discourse.  In order for the feminist community to come together and bridge these gaps, we must create a safe space to listen to the stories of the women that are actually experiencing life in Islamic societies.  This has already started to occur, as feminist activists and academics have utilized different media outlets which allow women to share their experiences in the public sphere, therefore working to challenge the dominant ideology on women’s roles.

On another note, I found it very interesting that Badran felt the need to make distinctions between individuals that advocate for women’s rights in the Middle East.  On the one hand, there are those that willingly identify themselves as feminists and work with popular organizations such as the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association.  On the other hand, there are Islamists, who advocate for the restructuring of society in accordance with Islamic principles.  Then there are those that fall somewhere in between, from those that have feminist values but do not identify with the term, to individuals that identify as “pro-feminists.”  According to Badran, all of these groups fall into a broader category of gender activists, in that they share “women’s common ‘feminist’ modes of thinking and behavior in the public sphere without denying the reality of distinct feminist and Islamist ‘movements’ and the separate experiences of uncommitted (pro-feminist) women” (142).

She goes on to explain that this framework for understanding “gender activism” is a commentary on current relations, whereas “Islamic feminism” represents the ongoing shift in society that allows for religion and feminism to be seen as complementary.  She explains that this branch of feminism is necessary because “Islam is becoming a paramount cultural and political paradigm,” that is part of the experience of a growing number of women around the world.  For those that identify with Islam, there is a need to have a feminism that validates their experiences and allows them to navigate their experiences as women within a “newly interpreted, gender-progessive Islam” (219).

Above all, Islamic feminism seeks to reinterpret religious texts through a feminist perspective, as scholars such as Wadud have already done.  This is crucial because the Qur’an and the Hadiths are used to justify Islamic law, which in turn reinforces traditional customs.  Furthermore, Islamic feminism addresses issues that are specific to the lives of Muslim women by listening directly to the experiences of Muslim women and encouraging empowerment through self-discovery.  For example, rather than dismiss cultural traditions such as female genital cutting and veiling as inherently evil manifestations of religious oppression, Islamic feminists work to challenge these ideologies with religious frameworks that celebrate the creation of the human body.  In order for this to be successful, activists are working locally and making changes within their own community, which ultimately as a ripple-effect in the lives of those around them.

Bradan’s discussion of Islamic feminism is crucial because it highlights many of the faults of hegemonic feminism.  Most importantly, the association between feminism and Western imperialism is the source of great conflict abroad, as many individuals are reluctant to accept feminist principles due to the misconception that feminism is opposed to religion.  As the text points out numerous times, feminism and religion are not only compatible, but inextricably linked.  One cannot identify as a feminist without confronting the ways in which religion influences their daily life, whether personally or collectively through social institutions and governmental policies.  This is particularly interesting considering that the opposition to Islam is much stronger than critiques made against other religions, specifically Christianity.  This is not to say that these concerns are not well-founded; women’s rights are often used as a political tool, only to be manipulated and further marginalized.  Take, for example, the ongoing war in Iraq.  During the Bush administration, it was stated time and time again that the American presence would help “emancipate” women from the oppressive political regime.  Meanwhile, women are continuously victimized by violence and terrorized by the omnipresent “security” forces.  Funneling money into the military and criminal justice system is not beneficial for women’s lives.

“Let’s take the $250 billion (which could ultimately become $1.3 trillion) that it cost to bomb the haert out of Iraq, to murder the children there, to kill and maim thousands of people, to scatter ready-to-explode cluster bomblets on the Iraqi earth, to fill the bank accounts of the CEOs at Halliburton and Bechtel. Let’s take that money and make compassion the end goal, human connection the end goal, honoring all people the end goal. Then I promise we may not know security, but we will certainly know peace.” – Eve Ensler, Insecure at Last

Ultimately, the goal of this movement, being Islamic feminism, would be to deconstruct traditional understandings of Islam and feminism, in a way that will allow both to be reformed and transformed (220).  Although this restructuring of feminism may seem ideal, it is important to look back at historical lessons to see how feminism has evolved over time.  Only one-hundred years ago, white women were leading the feminist movement, advocating for the right to vote; today, women (and other individuals of all genders), of all economic classes, sexual identities, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, have come together to advocate on behalf of the collective good.

What I found most important about Bradan’s theorization of Islamic feminism was her assertion that “Islamic feminism stands to benefit us all, Muslims of both sexes, as well as non-Muslims living side by side with Muslims everywhere” (250).  This is such an important concept, yet does not receive much attention in mainstream feminist discourse.  In order for feminism to live up to it’s goals, it must acknowledge and respect cultural diversity.  A conception of feminism that is dismissive of the experiences of Muslim women does not challenge patriarchy; it reinforces it.  Although Bradan understands these specific principles as part of Islamic feminism, I believe that they need to be present in all aspects of feminism in order for feminism to be considered a truly representative, powerful movement.

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