“Islam is a message for all of humankind so we must support others, women and men, in any struggle that leads to a better society and a better understanding of one another,” states MWA member Nasreen Amina.
By Janette Grant
Feminism is widely considered a Western concept that originated with the Woman’s Suffrage Movement of the early 20th century, but in a modern context has grown to be associated with the bra burning era of the 1960’s and the current global struggle to overcome patriarchal oppression and chauvinism.
There is, however, much more to feminism than that which has often been reduced to stereotypes of male-bashing women obsessed with debates over abortion and contraception.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.
Islamic feminism, however, is a fairly new discipline and term that became popular in the 1990′s and has yet to be formally defined in one concise statement.
According to Margot Badran, a historian of the Middle East and Islamic societies and a specialist in gender studies, Islamic feminism is defined as a feminist discourse and practice articulated with an Islamic paradigm.
Ms. Badran goes on to explain that Islamic feminism derives its understanding and mandate from the Quran and seeks rights and justice for both men and women in the totality of their existence.
An example of this is derived from the 2006 collaborative effort amongst Muslim women battling increasing restrictions within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A proposal had been publicly announced regarding a plan to restrict the right of women to pray in a long-withstanding divided section of the courtyard inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque — depriving them of the equal right to pray in full view of the Kaba.
In an Al-Ahram Weekly report (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/816/cu2.htm) Ms. Badran wrote, “Alerted by Saudi women, news of the proposed restrictions sent out shock-waves among Muslim women world-wide. Aishah Schwartz, founder-director of the Muslimah Writer’s Alliance (MWA) in Washington, immediately set up the Grand Mosque Equal Access for Women Project that circulated a petition protesting the restrictions. Very quickly a thousand signatures were collected. Women inside Saudi Arabia and around the world, meanwhile, carried on protesting in the media. It was the most striking example to date of concerted Islamic feminist global protest and one that authorities could not ignore. Suddenly in mid-September, less than a month after the plan was first announced, and two weeks before the start of Ramadan, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques issued a second statement saying the proposal had been dropped.”
The concept of Islamic feminism is still evolving and is currently under debate.
Writer, lecturer and activist, Nasreen Amina, also known as Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente, is a champion of Islamic feminism in her home country of Chile and was recently invited to discuss Islamic feminism at the Congress of Gender Studies held at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina, May 22-24, 2012. The lecture was entitled Feminism, Islam and Spiritual Activism.
One of Ms. Amina’s most outstanding remarks concerned what she referred to as gender jihad. She defined gender jihad as a strategy of combining intellectual work and social activism for the rights of women and the implementation of social justice; an effort that can and has made a difference for women around the world.
When asked why Islamic feminism is a significant and relevant topic for discussion, Ms. Amina remarked that, for example, there are areas in the world today where women are recovering their right to read the Holy Quran on their own. She firmly advocates that women should be permitted to reflect upon Islam independently and should be able to pursue knowledge and receive an equal education to that of men. She also asserts that women should have free and equal access at the Masjid in pursuit of that knowledge.
MWA member, Sidra Nasir added, “I am taking a Women in Development Class and the issue of discrimination, limited opportunity and inaccessibility to vital services is seen in many communities. I think Muslim communities should be an example for others and this is why a reform must take place.”
Nasira Younis Hayat of Maryam Islamic Center in Sugarland, Texas affirmed, “We need to rebuild our countries by educating ourselves and by understanding the spirit of Islam.”
Ms. Amina also stated that she is concerned that some of the sacred texts of Islam and the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) might have been subjected to patriarchal interpretations that reduce the role of women to that of being inferior to men, and has thus made education and activism a priority when addressing Muslim women. She makes every effort to inform Muslim women of their rights in Islam for the sake of bettering their communities and sees activism as the tool for achieving change within society.
Not all Muslim women see Islamic feminism as a positive development, however. Fatima Awad, also affiliated with the Maryam Islamic Center countered, “Islamic feminism is an oxymoron. Muslims should not follow feminism in order to gain equality and rights for women. Rather, feminists should follow Islam because Islam is the only ideology that has ever succeeded in elevating women to the status of a human being who is equal with a man. Men and women were created equal but they are different. Feminism does not recognize these differences and the spread of feminism has led to some very detrimental problems in society. These problems include the dissolution of families, marriage, homosexuality, oppression of women and men, and the loss of masculinity for men and the loss of femininity for women. It has caused a role reversal for men and women that over time has led them to adopt traits that are not conducive to their gender.”
Ms. Awad further elaborated, stating, “This is oppression because oppression means to take something out of it’s place. Now, why is that so many Muslims have chosen the term ‘Islamic feminism’ to describe the Muslim woman’s search for equal rights? This is because feminists have done a very good job of leading a global movement of women’s liberation. But, has this movement really achieved its mission? In my experience living in a Muslim country (Jordan), I have observed two groups of women; one group following feminism, the other following Islam. I can honestly say that the group following Islam appeared to be ten times happier. However, globally there is evidence that because the voices of Muslim women are starting to be heard, it can expected that they will be empowered because Islam clearly describes and lays down the foundation for uplifting women as well as men.”
Although the debate continues concerning whether Islamic feminism should be the term used to define the pursuit of gender equality amongst Muslims and Islamic nations, the goal is clear and the intentions similar: for the world and the Muslim world to be a place where justice prevails and injustice is prohibited.
“Islam is a message for all of humankind so we must support others, women and men, in any struggle that leads to a better society and a better understanding of one another. Muslims have been commanded to struggle for justice, so we have to take part in seeking solutions to the inequity that affects our societies,” stated Ms. Amina.
The efforts of Muslim women like Aishah Schwartz and Nasreen Amina have shown an increase in women’s empowerment after being informed of their rights. Ms. Amina shared that she has received messages from women stating that her articles and opinions about gender in Islam have lead them to read more, to search more and to finally find Islam within themselves; leading them to their own jihad towards a deeper spiritual development.
“That is exactly what Islam proposes: a path to human liberation,” Ms. Amina concluded.
Janette Grant is a member of Muslimah Writers Alliance and runs her own small business, Mindworks Publishing Inc. She also writes for the Houston Islam Examiner on Examiner.com.