The “F” Word: Feminism in Islam

Well, I suppose I can’t go on avoiding the white elephant in the room, even if it is purple.

This week a young feminist Muslim from Egypt is visiting in the Bay Area under a program from the US Department of State, called an “exchange.” But they don’t exchange, she said, they only tell us and tell us and tell us—as if Muslim women are clean slates that need to be informed by the likes of the state department. But it’s not just my young friend, but other fabulous Muslim women from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. I am still surprised how much the image of the oppressed Muslim woman as victim remains credible. Here is where I enter, but it will take me more than 1500 to 2000 words, so I’ll be back, you can count on it.

Let me start with the definition of feminism that I am most comfortable with: feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings. Then, let me add the most comfortable definition of Islam that I know: Islam is engaged surrender, which is conscientiously acting and being in line with the greatest harmony of the universe, that which is the will of the Creator. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note that any human being is capable of surrender. Nor does it take much to realize that while both of these definitions point to the self evident, still patriarchy and disharmony with the creation reign unabashedly.

I want to start with cosmology, with the way of the creation, but I think for this first entry I will skip the theology and instead go for the more politically expedient. In today’s anthropology, Muslim women participate at every level of society and in every role, somewhere. In addition, in every Muslim context, minority or majority, in every class from the very poor or basic to the very wealthy and affluent, Muslim women are active in the promotion of their own well being as well as the well being of others. Everywhere.

Certainly the scope of their activities or the impact will vary according to many factors, but we need to put the rest the notion that we are waiting to be saved.

Especially when the idea of being saved is also linked with being saved from Islam. More Muslim women (and men for that matter) identify with being Muslim than any other religion in the world. Yep, even though we are only the second largest religion; we are the first with regard to identity. Muslims like being Muslim. And in case this is not self evident, Muslim women like being Muslim women. It is sometimes scary for folks who can take or leave their own religious affiliations to understand just how important identity as a Muslim means to the vast majority of Muslims. But take it like you take the other aspects of identity: mothers identify as mothers, alcoholics identify (anonymously notwithstanding) as alcoholics, African-Americans as African-Americans, Muslims as Muslims. We identify with Islam. Even when pressed by bad publicity and bad actions by some of us, we still identify with Islam.


Why do people still think Muslim women must choose between identity as Muslims and identity with freedoms, human rights, dignity and democracy? For the first few decades of my work on gender I refused to accept the label “feminist,” because of the politics of its use in the west. I gave my own title: pro-faith, pro-feminist. I was adamant that I would not bargain one against the other.

This is probably because in the context of the west, the first time we begin to hear about Muslim women, we hear about them from some one other than Muslim women. Muslim men or non-Muslim women were our chief spokespersons. When that shifted, a strange and depressing trend took over: Muslim women speaking for Islam and women who were disenfranchised with Islam.

So when Hirsi Ali says she is a Muslim woman, we get to take for granted that her personal story is in fact reflective of most Muslim women’s stories—and why do we need to think otherwise? She confirms what they like to hear in the west. You cannot have both Islam and human rights, so do away with Islam in favor of human rights. If it is either/or, then take rights.

Fortunately, by the skin of our teeth, Muslim women who not only identified with Islam but also took the challenge of improving their lives as Muslims and with the whole of the lived reality of Islam finally stopped just working so hard for that improvement and also began to self-represent. They were always there. But whether or not the international community knew about them, or about their work, was inconsequential. Or so they thought.


So in the void, the story of the Muslim woman went from Muslim male and non-Muslim female spokespersons to anti-Islam Muslim spokeswomen. Finally we get to the women who straddled the divide between living Islam and living in the world today, so they challenge Islam to stay true to their realities. Then it was okay for me to let go of the cumbersome identification and have both Islam and human rights. There really never was a conflict in the first place; just a set of circumstances that caused the confusion that one had to choose between one and the other, instead of living both.

Islamic Feminism

So, Islamic feminism was born. According to some, Islamic feminism always existed, but I defer to the concomitant set of circumstances that allowed for this self-naming to occur over that historical read. And this is my reasoning: at the earlier part of Islamic history there was no real radical understanding of gender. Yes there were gender roles, and there was patriarchy; lots of patriarchy. Everybody practiced patriarchy. It was not peculiar to Islam.

When we begin, as a human community, to examine gender as an aspect of knowledge, society and religion then we needed to go back and apply that category to everything we invested in as human beings. The feminist movement in the west, the second wave in particular, was very good at challenging gender inequities in every area—every discipline, except religion. Apparently religion was just too broken. So to choose “feminist,” meant to do away with religion.

Muslim women, at the beginning of the 20th century were engaged in nationalist movements, that including looking at gender and gender roles without critically examining the underlying anti-religion bias of much of the feminist movements. So they lived a divided life: Muslim in the private sphere but nationalist, democratic, socialist or whatever in the public sphere, supporting this religion/secular divide. It is possible to be Muslim and to be secular at the same time.

For me, a Muslim feminist is a secular Muslim and a secular feminist. Her methodologies do not include religious reform. She or he can choose from what ever means necessary to achieve the aims of empowerment. The better means for most secular Muslims would be the U.N. instruments like CEDAW (the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women). If there appears to be a conflict between the documents and Islam, then the documents should rule.

Of course that did not sit well with the vast majority of Muslims who identify with Islam so the next voice that rose, we tend to call the fundamentalists, the neo-conservatives, whom finally we came to call (as they call themselves) the Islamists. Again the idea was, well, if there is a conflict between the international instruments and Islam, then, we take Islam. The either/or stand again.

Islamic feminism takes the responsibility to define Islam. It takes responsibility to critically examine the the primary sources, the Qur’an the sunnah, the hadith, and the fiqh or jurisprudence, and then to challenge both Islam and secular human rights standards. The basic underling rule is justice, divine justice in fact. So the argument goes like this: justice and equality are my divine right and anybody, any law, any interpretation that tries to take that away from me takes away my divine right and must be challenged. The basis of that challenge is in the divine sources themselves removed from the patriarchal context of their origins, developments and even current cultural background.

Islamic feminism takes responsibility for the formulation of Islam as a living reality. We are a part of that formation and we make the present and the future as we live it. Therefore there is no either/or. We are both Muslim and free. We are both in surrender and human beings. Anything that comes in between that, no matter how long it has been going on, and no matter how many people are in favor of it, is in fact a violation of the rights due to us from Allah. It is our duty to uphold that truth.

Islamic feminism is not just about equality in the public space but also in the family, where most gender roles are prescribed and gender inequality is fixed. Islamic feminism takes responsibility for our souls and our bodies, our minds and our contributions at every level. We take inspiration from our own relationships with the sacred and with the community to forge a way that enhances the quality of our lives and the lives of all others.

Personally, I want to thank the women and the men who see this as a mandate of our time: we will no longer live in the shadow of misrepresentation or under representation, we represent our selves and we fight the good fight—the one that benefits everyone equally.