Islamic Feminism: Between Gender and Religious Identity

Postcolonial feminist theory is essentially concerned with the way women are represented not only in once colonized countries but also in western countries. Women in colonized countries suffer from “double colonization” : colonialism and patriarchy. A woman has to resist the control of colonial power as a colonized subject and as a woman. In this article, we will be interested in Islamic feminism as an aspect of postcolonial feminism.

‘Islamic feminism’ is a relatively recent paradigm. It constitutes a global phenomenon that is not restricted to any geographical region. Its most substantial campaigns have been conducted in both Asia and Africa. Islamic feminism appeared on the scene after the significant presence and the spread of political Islam and the wide domination of an Islamic religious and cultural revitalization. Therefore, it is also crucial to distinguish between Islamic feminism as an ideology, an approach of gender analysis, or a discourse, and Islamic feminist as an identity.

Islamic feminists are highly interested in developing an ethical reading of Islam’s fundamental foundations, particularly the Quran and the Sunnah, to create a form of religious exegesis that will support their feminist standpoint. It is, therefore, legitimate to speak of the production of a new Islamic discourse and, in general terms, of the appropriation of the religious.[1] Islamic feminists carry out a critical review of classical commentaries to Islamic sources and provide new interpretations of the latter aimed at socio-political and economic equality with men. They take a dynamic, gendered approach that connects precepts contained in “ahadith” to the social and political context of “revelation” rather than to any concordance with a supposedly timeless ‘message’ and its ideal of equality and social justice.[2]

The term “Islamic Feminism” is often perceived as an “oxymoron”. Despite this, Islamic feminists wanted to reconcile their gender identity with their religious one. They affirm plainly their feminist heritage, and they adapt its foundation to an Islamic World. Islamic feminism, together with postcolonial feminism, criticize the hegemonic discourse of “Western feminism”. They expose how the image of “saving and liberating Muslim women” is produced by the colonial nature of power. This process of decolonizing the mind requires to recognize ways in which the past is present and then to “unlearn how to learn”, to free ourselves from colonial shackles and promote the rise of new perspectives.

Furthermore, the emergence of Islamic feminist voices has been achievable not only through the process of decolonization but also by the remarkable women who took the lead to re-interpret the koranic texts. A considerable majority of these women has been educated to some extent in Europe and North America. Their critical approach derives essentially from their knowledge of gender and postcolonial studies. Islamic feminists claim their fundamental right to choose their identity and preserve a multiple self-awareness both as “women” and as “Muslim” facing various forms of oppression.

Islamic feminism speaks in the name of women who refuse to choose between the road to feminist emancipation and their belonging to Islam as a religion. Over the decades, Islamic feminism has represented a vehicle for different ways of perceiving gender relations. It has made it possible for new religious practices and certain forms of judicial progress to appear.[3]

Needless to say that Islamic feminism has a substantial contribution to feminist thought in general. However, many scholars criticized its postmodern and postcolonial limits. For instance, in her work Décoloniser le féminisme: Une approche transcultural, Soumeya Mestiri criticizes Islamic feminism for replacing the figure of “Muslim women who need saving” with the figure of women who justify patriarchal authority.

Basing itself on postcolonial studies in order to speak in the university context, Islamic feminism seems, a place for the intellectual deconstruction of patriarchal authority and racism, a place where these researchers and activists have tried to erase the idea of seeing “Muslim women” as an oppressed group living in a subordinate position so that they can be heard and recognized, above all by other feminists.

After discussing the general idea of Islamic feminism, it is highly crucial to talk about the important figures and the leading pioneers of Islamic feminism in Morocco, such as Fatima Mernissi and Asmaa Lamrabet.

On the one hand, Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan sociologist who was one of the founders of Islamic feminism. Her work was mainly constituted of studies of the sexual politics of Islamic Scripture. Her best-known books include: “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,” which was first published in 1975. Throughout her work, Professor Mernissi, who favoured a moderate, inclusive Islam, emphasized that her deep study of religious texts had turned up little support for women’s long subordination.[4]

Marxists fiercely criticized her for not considering class struggle in her analysis of women issues, Islamists for daring to question religious orthodoxy, and nationalists for importing the culturally foreign notion of feminism.[5] She called on the carpet colonialism, Western ethnocentrism, religious conservatism, capitalism and nationalism for the ways they marginalized women.

On the other hand, an advocate for gender equality in a region where women’s rights often lag far behind those of men, Lamrabet has accumulated a body of work showing how feminism and Islam can coexist despite centuries of male-centred dogma. Asmaa Lamrabet is a Moroccan doctor, author and essayist.  She has written seven books in which she explains how koranic texts can be detached from patriarchal and misogynistic interpretations. In her perspective, there is not a single verse in the Quran that would justify an attitude of male superiority over women. Lamrabet’s key message is that gender inequality has less to do with Islam’s tenets and more down to its interpretation within male-dominated societies. Although entirely committed to universal women’s rights, Lamrabet says she took inspiration from renowned Indian feminist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her belief that Western voices have long dominated the feminist cause.[6]

Moreover, she was part of the Mohammadia league for scholars. However, in 2018, the prominent Islamist feminist resigned from the Mohammedia League for Scholars “Rabita Mohammadia of Ouelamas” due to her position on inheritance and to disagreements over equality of inheritance between men and women. Lamrabet said in an interview: “I would say that my action, as a volunteer in the Rabita, for almost ten years had no other ambition than to serve my country and to promote this third way, that of a peaceful Islam, contextualized and in tune with universal humanist values compatible with our cultural values.” [7] She also called on Moroccans to support the legitimate rights of women for a just and egalitarian country. Lamrabet’s resignation caused quite a stir in Morocco, and a debate on discrimination against women in Islamic inheritance law sparked the conflict. In addition to that, Moroccan activists and feminists are intensely demanding reforms of the traditional inheritance system and have continued to show determination in defending their stance.

Lamrabet wants to articulate a “third way” between Western feminism, which she believes has been tainted by Western military intervention, colonialism, double standards and thinly veiled attacks on Islam, as well as a male-dominated religious discourse that smears all discussion of women’s rights as an affront and corruption of the local culture.[8]

Islamic feminism is indeed a way of believing that Islam and feminism can coexist. Its main goal is to change the idea that Islam is a religion where women were oppressed, marginalized and neglected, by giving new interpretations of the Quran and the Sunnah. However, many questions keep arising in the public debate: Do Islamic feminists suffer from identity dizziness? Were they influenced by “western feminism” and could not get separated from their religious identities as Muslims? Have they created a hybrid site, liminal space where a foreign concept “feminism” and a local religious concept “Islam” are present?

In fine, feminism is neither a western nor a universal notion. It is conditioned by the cultural, social, political and religious context. It is, therefore, valid that there are various and different types of feminism, but at heart, feminism is about women’s empowerment and emancipation. It is about achieving equality in all fields of life, including religion.


[1] https://www.eurozine.com/islamic-feminism-contradiction-terms/

[2] https://www.eurozine.com/islamic-feminism-contradiction-terms/

[3] https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/exploring-islamic-feminism

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/world/middleeast/fatema-mernissi-a-founder-of-islamic-feminism-dies-at-75.html

[5] https://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2016/01/the-legacy-of-fatema-mernissi-moroccan-feminist-and-scholar/

[6] http://www.asma-lamrabet.com/articles/asma-lamrabet-deconstructing-patriarchy-in-islamic-thought/

[7] http://www.asma-lamrabet.com/articles/asma-lamrabet-explains-how-to-be-muslim-and-feminist/

[8] http://www.asma-lamrabet.com/articles/asma-lamrabet-deconstructing-patriarchy-in-islamic-thought/


Sources:

Graham-Brown, Sarah (1988). Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860-1950. New York : Columbia University Press.

Mernissi, Fatima (1995). Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. New York : Perseus Books.

Mohanty, Chandra (1995). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffths and Helen Tiffin (Eds.), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism. Critical Inquiry, 12 :1 (Autumn), 235-61.

Dr. Ritu Tyagi, Understanding Postcolonial Feminism in relation with Postcolonial and Feminist Theories, Department of French School of Humanities Pondicherry University Puducherry 605014 India.


About the author:

Rim Affathe is a 20 years old student. She was born and raised in Morocco, and she is currently living in Italy. She is a third-year political science student at Mohamed VI Polytechnic University, and she is spending her exchange year at LUISS university in Rome. Rim Affathe has a vested interest in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, security studies and diplomacy. She aspires to be a Moroccan diplomat and a women’s rights advocate. She is also a member of the feminist and youth-led initiative Politics4Her.

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