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 .
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 .
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” .
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 . 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  and Irshad Manji, the author of the book, The Trouble with Islam Today.
Neither take their feminism from Islām , 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 . Another is Dr Amina Wadud, the American feminist who famously led a mixed congregation prayer in an effort to impose gender sameness within Islām .
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 .
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 . 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 .
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 . 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.
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 . 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.
 Osman, Ghada. (2003) “Back to Basics: The Discourse of Muslim Feminism in Contemporary Egypt.” Women and Language 12(26), 73-78