A Case for Islamist Feminism
By Ruwa Alhayek
November 11, 2012
While it faces much opposition, Islamic Feminism stands on firm ground and is a much needed addition to the discourse on Islam and Muslim societies, and the treatment of women.
To make a case for feminist Islamism to Muslim communities in the West necessitates a defence of Islamism and a defence of feminism. It faces opposition from those who have bought into Western ideas of liberalism and secularism, and who group Islamists with extremists, possibly even fascists, as well as those who are so opposed to the integration of feminism into anything Islamic. In the latter case, it is either because they’re under the impression that we don’t need feminism since they believe that the stereotype of man-hating, promiscuous, and masculine women is accurate, or because it is a product of colonialism. These qualms about Islamism and feminism are arguable, either because they stand on weak ground or because the case against them is more formidable.
Pauline Lewis in her article Zeinab al-Ghazali: A Pioneer of Islamist Feminism defines Islamism as, “A modern socio-political movement which hopes to Islamicize society either gradually through education and social activism, or rapidly through a violent overthrow of the state and the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law”.
For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the former sort of Islamism; a sort which I would argue is not merely a breeding ground for militants, nor simply a group of misogynistic male chauvinists and brainwashed women. It is unfortunate how true the words of Stacy Yadav are in her article Segmented Publics and Islamist Women in Yemen: Rethinking Space and Activism, that so far as academia is concerned “scholars addressing women and Islamism tend to write of women as the objects of (male) Islamist activism, rather than as agents in the transformation of polity and society”, because the mistaken assumption is that women, “ if able to participate freely, would necessarily advocate a liberal* politics”. This unfortunate assumption often only reinforces the notion of the oppressed Muslim woman and takes away her agency, when in fact Gallup polls show that anywhere from 71-90% of Arab women in countries experiencing political upheaval support some Islamic influence in their country’s laws (with the exception of Syria at 34%).
I would argue that the reason the existence of Islamism, which is not simply the “Muslim” version of religious fundamentalism, is a problem for some of us in the West, is that religion is taking a public presence and promoting activism. Anyone who believes Islam is a religion of practical morals and ethics, of social service and educational improvement, etc., would want to islamicise society. They would want a leader who supports that agenda, and the problem arises when the leader calls it “Islamism.” We all adhere to a certain set of morals and freedoms; why are those that are identified as Islamic more problematic then liberalism, secularism, capitalism and imperialism?
This question of supporting Islamism (or not) becomes more particular when talking to feminists who reject it. It may be because they think the Qur’an and authenticated traditions do not treat women justly; that they specifically apply to seventh-century Makkah and Madinah; or that the traditional Islamic discourse has been dominated by misogynistic male scholars. Thus, the application of Islamic principles in any political way would deprive them of rights they’ve come to believe they deserve. As for the first two points, these challenge Islamic orthodoxy, the idea that God is just, and that His message is universal. There is a difference between these claims, and questioning what seems to be unjust in the aḥādith (plural of hadith). Questioning the hadith tradition requires proof, and if this claim – which we certainly can’t dismiss because these men were products of their time, without the divine authority of the Prophet (pbuh) **- is found to be true, then it may be addressed through scholarly methods. If there is an intent to find the truth of the matter, is it correct to merely group all these scholars under the umbrella of misogyny? Or to simply toss out every hadith that makes us uncomfortable (even rightly so)? Why have Muslim feminists suffered to be told what “Islam”, and thus, “Islamism” is? And why have we questioned the tradition without knowing the tradition nearly as well as those we have identified as misogynistic?
We do need feminism, contrary to what some of us might like to believe. As Tariq Ramadan says in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam: “To believe that nothing in the message of Islam justifies discrimination against women is one thing; to say that they do not suffer any discrimination in Western (or Eastern) Muslim communities is another.”
Indeed, it would be gross discrimination and the height of inaccuracy to say that women in Muslim communities in the West and in the East, or in any society, are not suffering from injustice and inequality, and conditions like that necessitate a movement for women’s human rights, necessitate feminism, necessitate Islamisation.
But what of the scholars, Islamists and feminists that make popular news? Indeed, I would ask, what of them? If we disagree with them, they are human, and humans do not define movements and standards for us. However, if we believe in God’s message then we ought to be trying, like the many Islamic scholars and feminists, to discover what the will of God is regarding women. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be toward an either-or mentality; one subscribes to traditional scholarly orthodoxy, or to feminism and liberalism. Alternatively, what could happen is that Muslim women address matters that have been addressed and re-addressed by scholars, female and male, and not view them all as misogynistic, but as men and women of their time, with insights and mistakes. We must approach the scholarship as worthy of our efforts, and become committed to working with the tradition, instead of giving that tradition up to men and women whom may not be legitimate sources of scholarship.
* Muslims repeat the phrase “peace be upon him” after mentioning the Prophet Mohammed’s name, here abbreviated to “pbuh”.