Islamic Feminism

This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019

​I previously wrote about the main arguments some Muslims use against feminism, but let me talk more about Muslim feminists.

Some Muslim feminists like to point out that Muslim-majority countries have produced many female heads of state. While I wouldn’t use this as an argument to present Muslim societies as inherently feminist, I think it’s necessary to point out that Muslim women are particularly keen on fighting for their rights precisely because they are often taken away from us. We know that we have to work hard in order to get what we deserve because nobody is just going to hand it to us. This produces very strong women who are able to take the highest position in a country.

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Muslim feminists may have different approaches but very similar goals. (Pixabay)

Muslim Feminists exist all over the spectrum, from Salafist to progressive. What they all have in common is that, if they choose to apply the label of “Muslim/Islamic Feminism” they use arguments from Qur’an, sunnah, and Islamic history, when defending their position. These are not Muslim women who also happen to be feminists, they are feminists precisely because of the way they interpret Islam. They also need to argue from within Islamic theology in order to be able to have their point of view accepted by mainstream Muslim society. They place importance on the reinterpretation of the religious texts because they have traditionally been interpreted by men who don’t understand women’s lives.

While religious arguments are obviously tricky as they can be used in any way one wants to interpret them the same is actually true for using historical facts. For example, everyone agrees that Islam improved the status of women tremendously by frowning upon female infanticide, giving women inheritance rights and rights against their husbands, letting women own property, allowing women to get divorced, and supporting women’s access to education. The difference is in how we interpret these changes. While fundamentalists believe these to be the end of all reforms, progressives see these changes Islam introduced as an indication of the elevation of women’s rights and believe that reforms should continue until absolute equality has been reached. In my last post, I mentioned the examples of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives Khadijah and A’ishah who clearly went even beyond the reforms that were introduced by Islam – a clear indication that the Prophet Muhammad himself encouraged a higher level of equality than was common in early Islam.

We also know that in many European countries women didn’t have the same rights that Muslim women are guaranteed by Islamic law until well into the 19th and even 20th century. However, this information is treated differently depending on your general approach to Islam: The conservatives will use this to prove Islam’s superiority and stop there, whereas progressives say that we have to continue this work and not be stuck in something that used to be revolutionary but is now quite the opposite. The argument that the Western world was less developed some 100 or more years ago is not really useful when looking to the future. Instead, we should take this as encouragement for continuing to be innovative in our approach to women’s rights, and human rights in general.

While Islam limited the number of women a man is allowed to marry, it still allows polygyny. Even traditionalists are becoming increasingly aware of the problematic nature of marrying more than one woman. More and more people are beginning to interpret polygyny in the same manner as slavery: Neither is explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an or sunnah, but both are indirectly discouraged. While the vast majority of Muslim scholars now agree that slavery is essentially un-Islamic (because the Qur’an often encourages and prescribes the freeing of slaves as a religious act) their patriarchal approach doesn’t yet allow them to handle polygyny in the same manner. Muslim women, on the other hand, have long been interpreting the Qur’an as an indication that polygyny is not desired in Islam:

​“If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice (4:3, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali).”

Progressive and other feminist Muslims will say this verse clearly ties polygyny to the fair treatment of orphans. The wars in  early Islam meant that many women’s husbands died and they were left alone to take care of their children. Polygyny is advised in this case to support orphans but only when following the clear requirement of treating all wives justly. Later on, in the same verse, the Qur’an continues:

​“Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self- restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful (4:129, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali).”

For many Muslims, this means that the Qur’an first mentions the pre-requisite of treating wives equally and then points out that this will not be possible. As the Qur’an mentions on several occasions to be a book for people who reflect, modern-minded Muslims have no problem assuming that the Qur’an is as opposed to polygyny as it is to slavery but didn’t formally abolish either from one day to the next. For non-Muslim feminists this may not be a very convincing argument, but from within a Muslim framework it is quite logical.

Another aspect is the right to divorce which was given to Muslim women much sooner than European women. However, it is conditional, whereas the husband’s right to get a divorce is absolute. Again, we are dealing with a huge improvement at the time it was first introduced, but, now, it is outdated and holds women back, especially since Islamic laws concerning alimony and custody of children also clearly favor men. As a result, Muslim women’s organizations in countries that follow Islamic family law are particularly concerned with divorce and its consequences for Muslim women.

Possibly the most controversial subject in Islam in the West is the Muslim dress code for women. There are many positions on this matter, even among Muslim feminists. Some see the hijab, or even niqab, as their feminist right, others try to go for a “live and let live” attitude, while yet a third group supports a complete ban of both religious veils. Since it’s such a huge topic I will write about it another time instead of including it here.

In any case, there are more pressing matters for Muslim women, such as being banned from marrying non-Muslim men even though Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women while the Qur’an nowhere excludes women from the same right. Finally, there is the famous “beating verse,” 4:34, which allows a man to beat his wife, and which is a big cause of debate among Muslim men and women. There are attempts to reinterpret it, to ignore it, and, unfortunately, some to excuse it. The reality of domestic violence cannot be tackled until there has been a final decision on how to treat this verse, and this is why Islamic feminism is needed.

Gender segregation in mosques and during prayer are two other issues that have received quite a bit of media attention, although they are of interest almost exclusively to Muslims living in the West. The less comfortable women feel in mainstream mosques the more mosques focused on equality will be opened, and, slowly but surely, Muslim women will have more and more opportunities to pray alongside men or even lead men in prayer – both of which are frowned upon by conservatives.

In theory, Muslim women have been given many rights much sooner than non-Muslim women, but, in practice, many Muslim men don’t want us to exercise those rights, and this is why Islamic feminism is necessary.

For further reading, I particularly suggest the publications of Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, but even googling the term Islamic feminism should yield a ton of interesting results.

If you find any useful links relevant to the topic of Islamic feminism please post them in the comments below.

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