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Is there such a thing as Islamic Feminism?

What is Feminism?

Defining feminism can be a very difficult task. The conflicting views within the movement often lead to confusion and as a consequence, many feel it does not provide any clear direction for positive change. There are some who argue that the spectrum of views show plurality and this is what makes feminism dynamic since it is women’s rights shaped by one’s socio-political background. Although this may seem to have an element of truth, there does seem to be an unwavering underlying creed that drives feminism and this is the idea of gender equality.

This sort of outlook does not take into consideration the physical and physiological differences between the sexes. Feminists believe that men and women are equal and as a consequence, women should have the right to undertake the same societal role as men. This has created a phenomenon of competition between women and men where previously there was understanding and compatibility. Unfortunately, this has come at a cost. Where marriage was once an unshakeable union between a man and a woman, the changing roles of both men and women have challenged expectations on marriages and have led to uncertain and unrealistic divisions of labour within families. The pressure to conform to these feminist ideals has taken its toll on the relationships of many married couples and it has been identified as one of the prominent causative factors for the high percentages of divorce.

Some proponents of radical feminism have gone even further, demonstrating a hostile attitude towards the institutions of marriage and family and view divorce as liberation from an oppressive institution rather than a break-up of a sacred trust [1].

Diane Abbott, one of Labour’s most senior female politicians and the party’s public health spokesman blamed feminism as one of the reasons for the breakdown of the family. In an interview with The Guardian, she said:

“As a feminist, perhaps we have been ambivalent about families. In the 1980s, we used to say: ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ The more academic version was: ‘The family is the site of women’s oppression.’ So those of us who came of age at the height of feminism had very mixed views about the family, since it seemed to be defined as a heterosexual thing with a certificate, children and mum at home. I still believe some kind of stable family structure is vital and that is what most people want around them. The Left had to recognise that some of the biggest public health issues stem from family breakdown.

Explaining further: “Doctors say to me that so many of the drug and alcohol problems they see stem from family difficulties.” Miss Abbott’s intervention is remarkable since it echoes the views of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith [2].

Objectification

There is also a theory that blames feminists for the sexual objectification of women. This may seem like the most peculiar theory because obviously the objectification of women is the complete opposite of feminists’ beliefs, but the pressure to succeed in the workplace and to become a person of status has led to many feminists defaulting on their ideal that ability and steadfastness alone is what it takes to become “on par” with men.

In an article titled “Feminism, Consumerism, & the Sexualization of Girls,” author Joseph D’Agostino addresses just this. He admits that “The politically correct view is that the sexualisation of girls and feminism are opposing forces” but he continues to say that “but in fact they have gone hand-in hand”. The article explains that “More than 30 years after feminism’s triumph, prepubescent girls can be seen regularly in public dressed in mini-skirts. Instead of seeking to emulate domestic-oriented women, presenting themselves as future virtuous wives and mothers, little girls seek to emulate Paris Hilton. Feminists have taught girls and women that chastity is oppressive, that they should liberate themselves. They have also taught that there are no natural limits to sexuality”. This teaches boys that it is acceptable to objectify women. “If you constantly bombard boys with sexualised images of girls and the message ‘girls are the same as boys’ in countless different forms, the primal drive of male sexuality will lead them to prey on girls.  Since they’re told male and female psychology is the same, the girls must be just as eager to have sex as they are.”

Women, thanks to feminists, want to be attractive. That is nothing new.  Previous cultures however, associated domesticity with attractiveness in women, and today’s cultures associate sexy with attractiveness. Teen girls today are concerned with looking “hot.” “Whereas girls of earlier eras focused on improving their studies and becoming more well-mannered,” more recently, “girls most exclusively described changing their bodies and enhancing their physical appearance as the focus of their self improvement” [3].

Muslim Feminists

So what about Islamic feminism? Is there a difference? The term first made its appearance in the 1990s. In 1992, Shahla Sherkat, an Iranian who took part in the revolution of 1979, published the first issue of an Islamic feminist magazine, Zanan, which was subsequently banned. Many argue that the term is a reference for the campaigning of women to be afforded their Islamic rights in accordance with what Allāh has revealed in His religion at the expense of their patriarchal culture, but if we take a closer look at the pioneers of “Islamic feminism”, we’ll find that they are people who are disloyal to the Islamic tradition, devoid of religious arbitration and looking to revolutionise orthodox Islam.

They rarely turn to the Islamic sources for empowerment, but supplant it and instead turn to trending secular liberal ideas to shape their thoughts, demonstrating simultaneously a lack of faith in the Divine Revelation of Allāh, and an inferiority complex to another system of laws and culture. They are so convinced by western values that they see no other form of “liberalisation” other than the western model [4]. They adopt the same baseline as secular feminists, that men and women are (literally) equal and should be treated the same. Examples of such are the likes of Mona Eltahawy, formerly of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America [5] and Irshad Manji, the author of the book, The Trouble with Islam Today.

Neither take their feminism from Islām [6], yet are viewed as leading Muslim feminists. Amongst this category of feminists is a sub-category who claim to use Islamic sources to justify their feminism yet reject scholarly interpretations of scripture on the basis that they have been interpreted by men and therefore they argue that these interpretations promote a “cultural”, misogynist and patriarchal ideology. One such feminist is Dr Kecia Ali, the author of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence [7]. Another is Dr Amina Wadud, the American feminist who famously led a mixed congregation prayer in an effort to impose gender sameness within Islām [8].

They both promote new forms of interpretation that are foreign to the tradition. They both support the movement that Islamic law is in need of a reformation from its “medieval” interpretation. This idea that Islamic law has not changed since medieval times is apocryphal. This misunderstanding perpetuates the assertion that Islām, like Christianity, should undergo a “modern reformation”. This is simply a transposition of the western secular worldview onto Islām and it often hypothesises and concludes from the offset. Such a method is disingenuous since it is easy to shape the discourse to suit the agenda [9].

When Muslim feminists utilise un-Islamic means of promoting their cause, they merely sideline themselves even more in the Islamic community, rather than bringing about change. This can be dangerous as it can inadvertently exacerbate cultural issues pervading Islamic practices, where men become suppressive of their female counterparts. It often causes greater harm to the safeguarding and liberation of those women who are at greater risk of domestic abuse [10]. These findings should not be conflated with fallacious accusations that it is endorsing or condoning that it is somehow the woman’s fault, or that the man is absolved of responsibility when we address domestic abuse. Rather, it is bringing to light credible obstacles to such an action and not its moral blame.

Women in Islām

A cursory look into the Islamic tradition not only demonstrates the privileged position of women in terms of their status, their rights and their rewards with Allāh, but the vast variety of roles women have played throughout the history of Islām. Take the story of Nusaybah bint Ka’b (radiAllāhu ‘anha). When 74 statesmen of Madīna descended on al-‘Aqabah to swear an oath of allegiance to Islām following the teaching of the new religion by Mus`ab ibn `Umair (radiAllāhu ‘anhu) in the city, Nusaybah was one of only two women to personally pledge directly to the Prophet Muhammad (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam). She returned to Medīna and began teaching Islām to the women of the city.

At the Battle of Uhud like other women, Nusaybah attended with the intention to bring water to the soldiers, while her husband and two sons fought. But after the Muslim archers disobeyed their orders and began deserting their high ground believing victory was at hand, the tide of the battle changed, and it appeared that defeat was imminent. When this occurred, Nusaybah entered the battle, carrying a sword and shield. She shielded the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) from the arrows of the enemy, and received several wounds while fighting [11].

Islamic history also exemplifies the knowledge of notable female scholars. In his multi volume compendium Al-Muhaddithāt: The Women Scholars in Islam, Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi demonstrates the central role women had in preserving the Prophet’s teaching, which remains the master-guide to understanding the Qur’ān as rules and norms for life. Within the bounds of modesty in dress and manners, women routinely attended and gave classes in the major mosques and madrasas, travelled extensively for knowledge, transmitted and critiqued hadīth and issued fatāwa.

Some of the most renowned scholars among men have depended on, and praised, the scholarship of their female teachers. For example, for his book Fath al-Bāri, the commentary to the hadīth in Sahīh Bukhāri, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalāni alone studied with over 50 muhaddithāt. The women scholars performed considerable scholarly service whilst fulfilling their roles of wives and mothers at the same time [12]. Although such women may not exist in numbers today it does demonstrate that whenever there is a pressing need, Islām encourages the role of the women outside of the traditional setting of raising the standard in the home. This is because Islām does not promote a paradigm that success for a woman lies in imitating men, but rather that women are generally able to excel better in roles where men cannot.

Real empowerment—Islām

It would be wrong to ignore the many areas of the world where the laxity of men has led to the uprising of radical women who wrongfully blame Islām for holding their identities hostage, but the answer should be to revitalise the role of Islām by bringing to life the existing teachings from the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. Islamic traditional thinking of gender construct is timeless and is therefore sufficient for modern times. Islām’s theology of gender contends with the demand for familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. Gender construct may not be a dichotomy; rather, feminism has changed into a tool for attaining power. Islamically, gender differences are acknowledged and then harmonised to form the perfect balance. Most feminists have removed the traditional Islamic rhetoric and replaced it with secular ideologies, and therefore transgressed their boundaries – they want to be identical to men.

In His perfection and by His infinite knowledge, Allāh has created men and women physically and emotionally different [13]. It is because of these differences that men and women complement each other and excel within different roles. Muslims must acknowledge that the roles of men and women that have already been outlined by Allāh and His Messenger (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and this is what is sufficient for us. A growth in women using the Qur’ān and Sunnah to bring reform and remind societies of the values that exist within Islamic understanding is also apparent but Islām already has a term for this: Islām. It is therefore unnecessary to redevelop gender construct, using a separate label of “feminism” to pursue beyond what Islām prescribes, when Islām already provides the framework, merely requiring a re-awakening in Muslim minds.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] http://www.aphref.aph.gov.au-house-committee—laca-famserv-chap4-1.pdf

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jan/03/diane-abbott-fast-food-curb

[3] http://www.pop.org/content/feminism-consumerism-sexualization-of-girls-1325

[4] Osman, Ghada. (2003) “Back to Basics: The Discourse of Muslim Feminism in Contemporary Egypt.” Women and Language 12(26), 73-78

[5] http://www.monaeltahawy.com

[6] http://irshadmanji.com

[7] http://www.bu.edu/religion/faculty/bios/kecia-ali/

[8] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4361931.stm

[8] http://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/adriane-choukour-wali/france-and-islamic-feminism-intersectionality-in-republic

[10] http://www.irfi.org/articles2/articles_3601_3650/islamic%20feminismhtml.htm

[11] http://www.islamswomen.com/articles/umm_umarah.php

[12] http://productivemuslim.com/al-muhaddithat-the-women-scholars-in-islam/

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/02/men-women-brains-wired-differently

 

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About Ghulam Esposito Haydar

Ghulam Esposito Haydar is a qualified Pharmacist and currently works in the Greater Manchester area. He has a special interest in Neuropsychiatric disorders having completed undergraduate elective modules in this area as well as completing a masters theses on this subject. He is highly active in the Da’wah and New Muslim Support circles in his city – Manchester. He sits of the board for the Myriad Foundation and fulfils the role of head of Public Relations as well as leading on their services, My Cancer Buddy and the Manchester New Muslim Network.

8 comments

  1. Insightful read Ghulam, jzks.

    David raised an important question: why are Muslim women still moving to the Feminist movement when we have the likes of Sh Akram and others who have made the status of women clear in Islam?

    How can we tackle this problem? Is it simply by continuing seeking knowledge from Sh Akram and the likes, and educating our local mosques and imams? I find that to be quite difficult, especially with some Asian mosque mentalities.

  2. Its great saying that women have this, that and the other and its always the “Brothers” speaking on the subject of Islam liberating women etc. Can I please ask some of you sisters to start speaking for yourselves, get involved in the Media, give your own interviews, give your own perspectives. When people ask questions about women in Islam there is only ever men to answer them questions, if you could answer them questions then it would not seem that Islam came to so call “oppress the women in the religion”. More and more sisters are needed to play an active role to address the issues that Muslim women face.

    rant over

    peace

  3. Yvonne Ridley

    Islam is the solution, men are the problem. The role of women in Islam has taken a backward step and has been in decline ever since the 10th century.
    Being a feminist is not a one-size-fits-all label which is why people have so much difficulty trying to push their ideas on the rest of us of what they think constitutes feminism.
    To quote Rebecca West: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
    Instead of trying to define feminism, Muslim scholars and analysts would be better employed to write about why the status of Muslim women has deteriorated to such an extent from the time of The Prophet (pbuh) that there are mosques in the UK today where we can not even go to pray.
    We are half the Ummah and gave birth to the other half …

    • One of the problems with Muslims is that we have somehow adopted a clergy model. Islam is supposed to have no hierarchy, every person has a duty to understand Islam to the best of their ability. Then consult scholars on specific topics.
      But in this era, majority of Muslims have switched off their brains and re – assigned the task to the so called clergy. This pyramid system means Muslims are subservient to the guidance from the head of the pyramid. Typically the head mixes up Islamic laws with traditions from the village or region his ancestors come from.
      Muslims, both men and women must learn to think for themselves and return to original Islam.

  4. I commend the author for attempting to grapple with this challenging topic. It is a sincere endeavour, however I think unfortunately he has fallen way short off the mark.

    Starting off, the first section on attempting to define feminism is not very clear. The reader is left feeling confused as to what the true definition of feminism actually is. Yes, its a complicated subject, but someone who clearly understands feminism should be able to comprehensively break the concept down for a lay audience.

    Moving on, the author seems to have quoted Diane Abbott completely out out context. I don’t think Diane Abbott is making the assertion that feminism is a cause for public health issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse! Neither is Duncan-Smith.

    Talking about the objectification of women, the author goes on to cite an article which seems to have been written by an American orthodox Christian (who are never really taken seriously in these sorts of serious discussions!). Even some the assertions made in this section of the article are highly questionable, especially this one:

    ‘Women, thanks to feminists, want to be attractive. That is nothing new. Previous cultures however, associated domesticity with attractiveness in women, and today’s cultures associate sexy with attractiveness.’

    This line of argument is extremely problematic, and only serves to give the reader an impression that the author is clueless about the psyche of women.

    The point about the feminism movement being rooted in secularism is a fair point. But the fact is that there are many adherents of conservative religious thought; Jews, Muslims and Christians who still label themselves as feminist and have found a way comfortable for them to bring aspects of feminism which DON’T go against their religious belief. Some discussion around this point would also have been useful. To suggest all Muslim feminists are essentially coming from a secular background is simply not true.

    The strongest point in the article I feel is the point about women taking active roles of leadership and scholarship in the early times of Islam. However, the final paragraph again completely ignores the realities of today. Yes, we had illustrious, empowered women in the past, but where are they today? And when we say ‘Islam is the solution’; are there cultural interpretations of Islam which are masking cultural misogyny as being part of Islam? Could this be the reason why so many Muslim women are being attracted to the feminism movement? It is clear that misogyny is a problem in many Muslim communities and the author has failed to address this point completely.

    I apologies for the harsh critique, but this is an important topic which needs to be dealt with in a satisfactory manner. I think it is fair to say that secularists are using feminism as yet another tool in their armoury to attack religion, and us theists need to be a little more imaginative in how we tackle this.

    • Ghulam Esposito Haydar

      Hi David

      I always appreciate constructive feedback, so thank you for that. I thought I would respond to some of the points you have made.

      “Starting off, the first section on attempting to define feminism is not very clear. The reader is left feeling confused as to what the true definition of feminism actually is. Yes, its a complicated subject, but someone who clearly understands feminism should be able to comprehensively break the concept down for a lay audience.”

      I understand where you are coming from because: 1) It is difficult to define feminism when the actions of Feminism are quite diverse, so what I have attempted to do is highlight the crux of Feminism which is the idea of Gender Equality. Summarising this into a paragraph in a single article is difficult to do.

      “Moving on, the author seems to have quoted Diane Abbott completely out out context. I don’t think Diane Abbott is making the assertion that feminism is a cause for public health issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse! Neither is Duncan-Smith.”

      I did write that Diane Abott quoted it as *one* of the many reasons. I agree that it can not be the exclusive reason, but she along with Ian Duncan Smith acknowledge that the break up of the family to which the mother is an integral part has contributed to many of societies ills.

      “Talking about the objectification of women, the author goes on to cite an article which seems to have been written by an American orthodox Christian (who are never really taken seriously in these sorts of serious discussions!). Even some the assertions made in this section of the article are highly questionable, especially this one:

      ‘Women, thanks to feminists, want to be attractive. That is nothing new. Previous cultures however, associated domesticity with attractiveness in women, and today’s cultures associate sexy with attractiveness.’

      This line of argument is extremely problematic, and only serves to give the reader an impression that the author is clueless about the psyche of women.”

      I find your criticism here unfair. I myself like to class myself as an Orthodox Muslim, and I don’t believe that coming from such a background unqualifies a person from having valid asserted opinions.

      Regarding the point about “attractiveness”, maybe I should have cited a few more academic papers who cite this as a historic feature of attractiveness. This however does not mean that I attempting to downplay that women do not endevour to be physically attractive (I have a wife, so I would know). My point here is that there wasn’t a massive emphasis as there is today on physical ‘beauty’ at the expense of other factors which make up the personality of an attractive woman.

      “The point about the feminism movement being rooted in secularism is a fair point. But the fact is that there are many adherents of conservative religious thought; Jews, Muslims and Christians who still label themselves as feminist and have found a way comfortable for them to bring aspects of feminism which DON’T go against their religious belief. Some discussion around this point would also have been useful. To suggest all Muslim feminists are essentially coming from a secular background is simply not true.”

      My whole point in this article is that Muslims should not have another title (that I believe to be corrupted with a secular liberal methodology) for championing of women’s rights. In the same way we don’t have a title for the championing of human rights, animal rights etc. We already have a tile for this, which is Islam. When Muslim sisters start using the term Feminism, it has unfortunate consequences in two regards.
      1) Even when it is legitimate (i.e. from Islam, using an Islamic framework for their religious rights, many Muslims end up rejecting the sisters on the bases of a misunderstanding; that they are using the secular liberal feminist framework.
      2) Many sisters end up using the secular liberal framework for their religious rights, unintentionally and intentionally.

      I am pro sisters studying their religion to a deep level to be able to stand up for their religious Islamic rights.

      “The strongest point in the article I feel is the point about women taking active roles of leadership and scholarship in the early times of Islam. However, the final paragraph again completely ignores the realities of today. Yes, we had illustrious, empowered women in the past, but where are they today? And when we say ‘Islam is the solution’; are there cultural interpretations of Islam which are masking cultural misogyny as being part of Islam? Could this be the reason why so many Muslim women are being attracted to the feminism movement? It is clear that misogyny is a problem in many Muslim communities and the author has failed to address this point completely.”

      You made a fair point here David, that there are many societies that superimpose their cultural baggage onto Islam, but at the same time, we have teachers like Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (who I’ve had the privilege of studying with a fair few times) currently living in Britain that are championing the Islamic rights of our sisters through his everyday teaching. Regarding illustrious, empowered women, I may not have listed them, but we have plenty and they do not take their empowerement through Feminism but Islam, for example, we have prominent Muslim sisters such as Zara Faris (MDI), Yvonne Ridley, Lauren Booth, Fatima Barakatullah (iERA), Hafizah Ismail (Children of Jannah), Saiyyidah Zaidi Stone (Working Muslim) and i am sure there are many more.

  5. Mohammed Bakirović

    Throughout the first half of the 1900s, Islamic views on women’s rights would’ve been regarded as radically feminist. Unmarried women owning property? Omg!

  6. The Prophet championed the rights and dignity of women at a time when they were the most degraded lot in Arabia and around the world. The best of the believers are those who are best in their manners and kindest to their wives.

    Elsewhere, he said, The best one of you is the best to his family and I am the best one of you to my family. The Prophet also famously said that Jannah or heaven lay at the feet of a woman–one’s mother. ‘Treat women kindly, Fear Allah concerning women’ were his last words. With his model life before us and his noble words to guide us, being a woman is not hard work.

    Islam is only Religion that Given Women’s Special Place & Care for Her. Mother Got 75% n father only 25% in Matter of Importance .But Today Media(TV Internet News Paper etc) Spread False Messages against Islam to World they pick up Black Ship of Our Community n Shows This is Islam! If U Really Want To know About Islam Read Qur’an in u r Language Don’t Read Followers… Despite all the propaganda with its trillion dollar media industry, more people embracing Islam in the West than anywhere else. And ironically, most of them happen to be women. The conversion of Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist, who was stationed in Afghanistan for reporting, is one among numerous other examples. She maintained during a conference that, ” Islam is by far the most misunderstood religion in the world today thanks to centuries of medieval-style propaganda successfully peddled by bigots and Christian zealots.”

    When it comes to the issue of women and Islam, everyone is familiar with the commonplace perceptions and stereotypes as to how Islam exploits women, curbs their freedom and condemns them to domestic existence in their homes. The fact of the matter is that if we look closely, it is actually Muslim men who should be complaining about not being favoured as much as women. I am illustrating my case here. The Prophet said that a woman has the freedom to choose her spouse, to spend her money where she wants to and has the right to own property. That was some 1400 years ago! Furthermore, without her explicit consent, she can’t be married off; she can demand divorce if she is not happy in her marriage. The Prophet was most concerned about widow remarriage and asked for avoiding any delays regarding this. In those times a woman could even send her own marriage proposal to a man!

    Can you imagine such a thing today? They could earn their living, why his first wife Khadijah RA was a business woman and had employed him to help her. Financial freedom is the true freedom. In Islam it is binding on the male relations of a woman to take care of her expenses. Irrespective of whether she earns or not, she is not obliged to or does not need to spend on herself, from her own pocket. If she earns, her money is her property entirely; any male relation, has no right to stake a claim on it, directly or indirectly. The argument that this creates inequality among the genders does not hold water. Does granting of privileges of some special kind, means we are unequal? Why not then ban the special reserved seats for women in buses or even refrain, from offering a woman your seat?

    The popular perception calculatingly enforced in the media is that Islam is a bad religion for women. [Oh! You have four wives! They forget to mention 4, 5 or 6, girlfriends for some!]
    IA
    London School of Islamics Trust

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