Defining "islamic Feminism"
To understand Islamic feminism, both words have to be examined separately and then together. The epithet "Islamic" situates a person somewhere on the continuum between a cultural identity that is Muslim and coexists easily with secularism and occasional expressions of religious observance on the one hand, and Islamist, which describes a way of life committed to fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state. "Feminist" refers to a consciousness that women are unjustly treated simply because they are women. This consciousness may, but need not, be galvanized into action to do something to change this unjust system (see introduction in Badran and Cooke).
"Islamic feminist" describes the speech, action, writing, or a way of life committed to gender justice and also an engagement with Islamic epistemology as an expansion of a faith position rather than a rejection of it. At the same time that they address themselves to this discourse and derive from it rhetorical strategies to construct a resistant identity, these women are struggling with and on behalf of all Muslim women and their right to enjoy with men full participation in a just community. Justice and citizenship, however defined, would not be borrowed, modern accretions but rather ideals integral to the spirit underlying the founding Islamic community. More recently, Islamic feminism has been described as broadening the scope of Western feminism because of its emphasis on community and belonging.
By the late 1990s, when the term Islamic feminism had become current, it came under scrutiny (e.g., Moghissi). What did it mean to want to be a member of a religious community considered to be patriarchal in its norms and values and, at the very same time, to demand respect for oneself as a woman with inalienable rights? Was it false consciousness to believe that such a position might be empowering?
Some Muslims and non-Muslims were writing dogmatically about Islamic feminism, calling it an oxymoron without meaning. They protested that organized religions, and particularly Islam, are unremittingly patriarchal, misogynist even. It is misguided to hope for a woman-friendly interpretation of foundational texts and laws that would allow for a transformation in attitude toward women's roles in society outside the domestic space. Some might go further to claim that proponents of Islamic feminism were merely ignorant. Either they had not read the Koran and sunna (the life of the prophet Muhammad, codified in the Traditions), or if they had, they did not understand what they had read because, despite the wide diversity of the Muslim world, "the cultural articulation of patriarchy (through structures, social mores, laws and political power) is increasingly justified by reference to Islam and Islamic doctrine" (Shaheed, p. 79).
Others, mostly Muslim women, conceded that there were women who were calling for women's empowerment within the context of a well-understood Islam, but that they were not feminists. They might look like feminists, act like feminists, but feminism would not be the right term to use. When asked for alternatives, they might come up with suggestions like "womanist" or "remaking women" (see Abu-Lughod), or they would deny the need for a single term to describe their actions and demands. Many of these women are particularly critical of non-Muslims when they describe a person, a behavior, or a language as Islamic feminist.
Clearly, there are some sensitivities involved in the word feminism when used to refer to the language and behavior of Muslim women. What is the problem with the term? Do Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist feminists face the same conundrum? Probably not because for them the term feminist is not as imbricated in recent experiences of European, colonial domination as it is for Muslims living under the yoke of the Christian civilizing mission of European colonialism. During the nineteenth century, British and French colonizers in North Africa and West and South Asia claimed to be especially concerned about the welfare of women in the societies they had invaded and occupied. Deploring barbaric practices like female genital mutilation, sati (Hindu women's self-immolation on their husbands' funerary pyres), veiling, and women's seclusion, white European men made it their business to save Arab Muslim women from their men. Some scholars, such as Leila Ahmed, have pointed to these men's hypocrisy—feminists abroad, they were tyrants at home. Furthermore, they have revealed their cunning, for by pretending to protect indigenous women, they were separating them from their men. Thus, they were better able to control them and, by extension, rule their men. Feminism became deeply enmeshed in colonialism.