Islamic feminism

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A Symbol for Islamic Feminism

Islamic feminism is a form of feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam. It aims for the full equality of all Muslims, regardless of sex or gender, in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, the movement's pioneers have also utilised secular and European or non-Muslim feminist discourses and recognise the role of Islamic feminism as part of an integrated global feminist movement[1]. Advocates of the movement seek to highlight the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the Quran and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Quran (holy book), hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and sharia (law) towards the creation of a more equal and just society.[2] Muslim majority countries have produced more than seven head of states including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Çiller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia and Bangladesh was the first country in the world to have a female head-of-state follow another which includes Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina [3].


[edit] History and rise of Islamic feminism

[edit] Early reforms under Islam

During the early reforms under Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[4] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[5] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[6] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property."[7][4] Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative.[7][4][6] "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[4] Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[8] William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[9] Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."[10]

[edit] Medieval period

Whilst in the pre-modern period there was not a formal feminist movement, nevertheless there were a number of important figures who argued for improving women's rights and autonomy. These range from the medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi, who argued that women could achieve spiritual stations as equally high as men [11] to Nana Asma’u, daughter of eighteenth-century reformer Usman Dan Fodio, who pushed for literacy and education of Muslim women.[12]

Women played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[13]

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world, writing that women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[14] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:[15]

"How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. While there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:[16]

"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her 'awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden — how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"

While women accounted for no more than one percent of Islamic scholars prior to the 12th century, there was a large increase of female scholars after this. In the 15th century, Al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume biographical dictionary Daw al-lami to female scholars, giving information on 1,075 of them.[17]

The labor force in the Caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[18] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[19] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[20] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[19] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[21]

In the 12th century, the famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[22] In early Muslim history, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah,[23] Aisha,[24] Kahula and Wafeira,[25] and Um Umarah.

In terms of women's rights, women generally had fewer legal restrictions under Islamic law than they did under certain Western legal systems until the 20th century. For example, under traditional interpretations of sharia, women had the right to keep their surnames upon marriage; inherit and bestow inheritance; independently manage their financial affairs; and contract marriages and divorce. In contrast, restrictions on the legal capacity of married women under French law were not removed until 1965.[26] Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, notes:

As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them — hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.[27]

In contrast to the Western world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, and in contrast to the low rates of divorce in the modern Middle East, divorce was a common occurrence in the pre-modern Muslim world, where it was known as talaq. In the medieval Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East.[28] In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on marriage in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times.[29]

[edit] Nineteenth century

The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the late nineteenth century. Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), is often described as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. In his work, Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygyny, the veil, and purdah, i.e. sex segregation in Islam. He condemned them as un-Islamic and contradictory to the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today.

Less known, however, are the women who preceded Amin in their feminist critique of their societies. The women's press in Egypt started voicing such concerns since its very first issues in 1892. Egyptian, Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese women and men had been reading European feminist magazines even a decade earlier, and discussed their relevance to the Middle East in the general press.[30]

[edit] Twentieth century

Aisha Abd al-Rahman, writing under her pen name Bint al-Shati ("Daughter of the Riverbank"), was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis, and though she did not considered herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. She began producing her popular books in 1959, the same year that Naguib Mahfouz published his allegorical and feminist version of the life of Muhammad.[31] She wrote biographies of early women in Islam, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism.[32]

[edit] Definitions

Islamic feminism is defined by Islamic scholars as being more radical than secular feminism,[33] and as being anchored within the discourse of Islam with the Qur'an as its central text.[34]

In recent times the concept of Islamic feminism has grown further, with Islamic groups looking to garner support from as many aspects of society as possible, and educated Muslim women striving to articulate their role in society.[35] The history and potential success of such a movement is debatable but looking back through the Qur'an there has always been a degree of respect afforded to women with the Qur'an stressing the importance of men, but also women's rights to honorable treatment. However, such freedoms as property rights and the respect from men are often sidelined, with little recourse being available for those that wish to protest. It has been, however, mainly upper-middle-class women that have been able to vocalise the Islamic feminist movement, as they have the economic security to violate widely held beliefs.

[edit] Muslim feminism

Another side to modern Islamic feminism is the activism of Muslim women born and brought up within Western societies. Often those born to immigrant families face racism from the host community and sexism within their own communities. Young Muslim women in France fought back against the issues facing them, ranging from endemic sexual violence to the forced wearing of the hijab, by creating Ni Putes Ni Soumises (usually translated "Neither Whores Nor Submissives"). This movement has spread to other countries.

[edit] Borrowings from secular feminism

The rise of feminism in the Islamic world has also been linked to the rise of western influence, with a political and economic attempt to align with western powers and markets promoting Western ideas such as universal suffrage, human rights and access to education.

[edit] Muslim Personal Law and Islamic feminism

One of the major areas of scholarship and campaigning for Islamic feminists in various parts of the world is Muslim Personal Law (also known as Muslim Family Law). MPL includes three main areas of law: marriage, divorce, and testation.

Muslim majority countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Muslim minority countries that already have operating MPL regimes or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India and South Africa.

In general, Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation in many of these countries, arguing that these pieces of legislation discriminate against women. Some Islamic feminists have taken the attitude that a reformed MPL which is based on the Qur'an and Sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women and which does not discriminate against women is possible. Such Islamic feminists have been working on developing such women-friendly forms of MPL. (See, for example, Canadian Council of Muslim Women for argument based on the Quran and not on what they call medieval male consensus.) Other Islamic feminists, particularly some in Muslim minority contexts which are democratic states, argue that MPL should not be reformed but should be rejected and that Muslim women should seek redress, instead, from the civil laws of those states.

For most Islamic feminists, some of the thorny issues regarding the way in which MPL has thus far been formulated include: polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property. In addition, there are also more macro issues regarding the underlying assumptions of such legislation, for example, the assumption of the man as head of the household.

[edit] Sexuality

Despite the taboo status of sex and sexuality in many Muslim societies, some Quranic scholars have argued that the Quran itself discusses these subjects openly and positively, and that Islam is one of the most sexually accepting of the major world religions.[36] .[37]

There is debate over the interpretations of the Quranic verses that have been cited to outlaw homosexuality, principally the verse relating to the story of Lot (see Qur'an verses: 11:69-83, 29:28-35). Quranic verses appear to relate specifically to male homosexuality. Contemporary interpreters and campaigning organisations are working to reinterpret texts to allow for a wider spectrum of sexual relationships, including homosexual and bisexual but there is much resistance from the mainstream Muslim community.[36]

[edit] Dress codes

Another issue that concerns Muslim women is the dress code expected of them. In some cultures such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia they are expected to wear the all-covering burqa or abaya; in others, such as Tunisia and Turkey they are forbidden to wear even the headscarf (often known as the hijab) in public buildings. Muslim feminists resist both extremes of externally imposed control.

[edit] Islamic feminists, Muslim feminists and Islamists

There are subtle yet substantial differences to be noted between the terms 'Islamic feminist', 'Muslim feminist' and those regarded as 'Islamists'. Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings[38], seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate. Differently, Muslim feminists are people who consider themselves Muslims and feminist but who may use arguments outside Islam, for example, national secular law or international human rights agreements, to counter gender inequality. Islamists are advocates of political Islam, the notion that the Quran and hadith mandate an Islamic government. Some Islamists advocate women's rights in the public sphere but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private sphere [39].

Note that any of the above can be men or women.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ II International Congress on Islamic Feminism
  2. ^ Al-Ahram Weekly | Culture | Islamic feminism: what's in a name?
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d Esposito (2005) p. 79
  5. ^ Jones, Lindsay. p.6224
  6. ^ a b Esposito (2004), p. 339
  7. ^ a b Khadduri (1978)
  8. ^ Schimmel (1992) p.65
  9. ^ Maan, McIntosh (1999)
  10. ^ Haddad, Esposito (1998) p.163
  11. ^ Hakim, Souad (2002), "Ibn 'Arabî's Twofold Perception of Woman: Woman as Human Being and Cosmic Principle", Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society 31: 1–29 
  12. ^ Mack, Beverly B.; Jean Boyd (2000), One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe, USA: Indiana University Press 
  13. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 197, ISBN 0313322708 
  14. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196 & 198, ISBN 0313322708 
  15. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196, ISBN 0313322708 
  16. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 198, ISBN 0313322708 
  17. ^ Guity Nashat, Lois Beck (2003), Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800, University of Illinois Press, p. 69, ISBN 0252071212 
  18. ^ Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 6–7.
  19. ^ a b Maya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004098968, pp. 400–1
  20. ^ Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 350–62.
  21. ^ Maya Shatzmiller (1997), "Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (2), pp. 174–206 [175–7].
  22. ^ Ahmad, Jamil (September 1994), "Ibn Rushd", Monthly Renaissance 4 (9),, retrieved on 2008-10-14 
  23. ^ Girl Power, ABC News
  24. ^ Black, Edwin (2004). Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict. John Wiley and Sons. p. 34. ISBN 047170895X. 
  25. ^ Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell (1853). Woman's Record: Or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning Till A.D. 1850, Arranged in Four Eras, with Selections from Female Writers of Every Age. Harper Brothers. p. 120. 
  26. ^ Badr, Gamal M. (Winter 1984), "Islamic Criminal Justice", The American Journal of Comparative Law 32 (1): 167–169 [167–8] 
  27. ^ Noah Feldman (March 16, 2008). "Why Shariah?". New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-10-05. 
  28. ^ Rapoport, Yossef (2005), Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, Cambridge University Press, p. 2, ISBN 052184715X 
  29. ^ Rapoport, Yossef (2005), Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, Cambridge University Press, pp. 5–6, ISBN 052184715X 
  30. ^ see "Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts," by Farida Shaheed with Aisha L.F. Shaheed (London/Lahore: WLUML/Shirkat Gah, 2005) [1]
  31. ^ Roded, Ruth (May 2006), "Bint al-Shati’s Wives of the Prophet: Feminist or Feminine?", British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33 (1): 51–66 
  32. ^ Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond by Joseph T. Zeidan, State University of New York Press, 1995
  33. ^ "Islamic feminism: what's in a name?" by Margot Badran, Al-Ahram, January 17–23, 2002
  34. ^ "Exploring Islamic Feminism" by Margot Badran, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, November 30, 2000
  35. ^ Humphreys, R. Stephen: "Between Memory and Desire - The Middle East in a Troubled Age", University of California Press, 2005
  36. ^ a b SAFRA Project Essay on Islam and Sexuality
  37. ^ See the works of Asra Nomani for more details
  38. ^ ‘Islamic feminism means justice to women’, The Milli Gazette, Vol.5 No.02, MG96 (16-31 Jan 04)
  39. ^ Islamic Feminism And The Politics Of Naming

Alya Baffoun "Women and Social Change in the Muslim World" (Women's Studies International Forum, V, 1982, 227-242).

Baffoun, Alya (1994) "Feminism and Muslim fundamentalism: the Tunisian and Algerian cases" in Valentine M. Moghadam (ed.) ISBN 0 8133 8692 6.

Baffoun, Alya. 1989 African women participation for research and development : roles and functions of AAWORD. Tunis University publication n:7.

Baffoun, Alya (1980) "Some remarks on Women and Development in the Maghreb" in The Changing Middle Eastern City. State University of New-York.

Baffoun, Alya (1984) "Critical Methodological Approach to the problem of Sexual Asymmetry" in Social Science Research on Women in the Arab World. UNESCO.

[edit] Further reading

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