Speculum

“Whose Islam? Whose feminism?”

By Latifa Akay

An artist’s depiction of ‘the feminist table’ today would look decidedly different to how it may have looked fifty years ago. Marriage – formerly perceived as a betrayal of the sisterhood – has been normalised, and even arch-enemy number one, the man, has been welcomed into the movement in some circles. The advent of the theory of intersectionality, which recognizes that women from different backgrounds are subject to different layers of oppression – be these related to race, class, sexuality or disability – has created space to broaden the feminist lens of analysis and challenge narrow interpretations of what a truly emancipated woman can look like. Feminism has evolved and will continue to do so.

Yet despite the fact that mainstream feminism has come to accommodate a broader range of experiences since its first wave in the 19th century, many still falter at the idea of a Muslim feminist.

Muslim women seeking to advance gender equality agendas face solid resistance from various camps: negative media perceptions and tensions with mainstream feminism, plus tensions from within the Muslim community – where feminism is often viewed as a neo-colonialist imposition – can all operate to perpetuate stereotypes of Muslim women as subordinate and limited in terms of what they can aspire to.

In many Muslim countries women’s efforts to advance gender equality agendas are hampered by the fact that hierarchical constructions of gender relations are enshrined in law and defended in the name of the divine. The last three decades have seen a dynamic and multi-stranded wave of academic thought, which is frequently referred to as ‘Islamic feminism’, grow in prominence. Iranian scholar Ziba Mir Hosseini has described this as “new voices and scholarship in Islam that are feminist in their aspirations and demands and Islamic in their source of legitimacy.”

Unveiling the social construction of how laws are formed, and the subjective ideologies, political, sociological, cultural and economic factors that informed these has been key to such efforts. As well as providing compelling gender-sensitive readings of holy texts to separate religion from patriarchy, Islamic feminists have drawn on Islam’s rich history of important figures and movements working to improve women’s rights and autonomy to support their drive for egalitarian gender relations.

We can see the progress that has been made using ‘Islamic feminism’ with the reform of some aspects of laws concerning family relations in Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Indonesia and in the work of groups such as Sisters in Islam and Musawah, working today to emphasise that the attainment of de jure and de facto equality and justice for Muslim women is both possible and necessary. However the fact that these conversations are predominantly being conducted in scholarly circles runs the risk that they are not adequately filtering down to the young people or indeed, the general public, who could benefit from them.

This was one of the issues raised in a project, Islam and Feminism, which we launched at Maslaha in March in an effort to explore what feminism in Islam can mean to different people and how it might challenge stereotypes both in Islam and feminism, as well as the perceived clash between the two. The motivation behind this was to bring together historic and contemporary action and grassroots and academic conversations on Islam and feminism, and moreover to make this breadth of ideas and knowledge available to everyone.

Whilst providing an insight into key thinkers currently working in the fields of women’s rights in the context of Islam – such as Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed and Shuruq Naguib – a salient feature of our resource was a series of short videos with professionals, activists, academics and artists providing personal perspective and experiences of Islam and feminism in everyday life.

The intention was that the range of voices and faces would not only help to debunk that age-old stereotype that Muslim women are carbon copies of each other, but also to foster an understanding that similar to feminism among non-Muslim women, one common vision of what gender equality is in Islam should not be assumed.

While many non-Muslims and Muslims struggle to move beyond labouring over the nuances of whether in theory Islam can be reconciled with feminism, we found that in reality Muslim women in the UK are finding space to articulate and express their identity in diverse ways, whether or not they choose to define these efforts as feminism.

While some Muslim women lobbying for change in the UK, for example Dr Sariya Contractor, see the term feminism as an ‘icebreaker’ and an important enabler in the demystification of difference, others, for example the editors of One of My Kind (OOMK) – a zine exploring the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women of color and faith – feel they don’t need to talk about feminism explicitly, “we let what we are doing speak for itself which is more natural and every day and practical and we invite people to take part without dictating how they should do this.”

Journalist Kübra Gümüşay told us that while in her teens she felt excluded by feminism and that “mainstream feminism would never include women like me,” she believes Islamic feminism, far from being a threat to mainstream feminism, can support it as it provides more sources and resources to reinforce feminist aims of empowering women.

Similarly, while acknowledging that “there is still a fair amount of resistance to the idea that people of faith have anything to contribute to feminist ideals,” writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah finds that feminist values feed seamlessly into her beliefs as a Muslim: “As a Muslim my frame of reference is the texts, but truth is truth wherever it’s coming from – and if I recognise something that’s coming from any feminist – Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer – that to me reflects truth, then it becomes part of my Islamic lexicon.”

These views are a far cry from the rigid definitions of Islam and feminism which so often dominate discussions of women’s rights in Islam. An important step to opening up space for more fruitful discussions has been to move beyond simplistic conceptualisation of both Islam and feminism and to seek alternative and equally valid narratives to support more inclusive understandings of both. Muslim women have a right to their religion, but also to feminism, which does not necessarily have to be associated with secularity.

In the UK today, amidst negative stereotypes of what a Muslim woman can be, it is important, as grassroots activist Noori Bibi argues here, to ensure that the gap between grassroots and academia is being bridged and that the language and approach of debates connects with the communities that need them.

To continue to essentialise about the experiences of Muslim women is to deny the diverse realities of the lives of Muslim women, both today and historically, who have comfortably reconciled their own gender identity with their faith. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini has said, an important question to keep in mind when considering the nuances of Islam and feminism on any level is: “Whose Islam? Whose feminism? Who is speaking for Islam? Who is speaking for feminism?”

Latifa Akay is a project manager at Maslaha and a writer and commentator on women’s issues. Follow her @LatifaAkay, and find out more @Maslaha.

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