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Islamic Feminism

The Modern Era

Muslim women activists at the turn of the twentieth century were careful to distinguish their behavior, language, and appearance from those of their Western sisters. Always speaking within an observant Muslim context, they demanded education, employment opportunities, control over their lives (for example, marriage choice) and over their bodies (to veil or not to veil). They insisted that their demands were not what European women wanted. Above all, they honored their religion, their husbands, and their fathers, and all they wanted was to bring up intelligent sons. They argued that the call for unveiling indicated a desire to gain access to institutions that would make them better wives, mothers, and Muslims; it would not destroy the moral fiber of their society by encouraging promiscuity, widescale divorce, and the kind of immoral European society contemporary religious authorities were denouncing.

Many of these early activists on behalf of women's rights, such as Nazira Zayn al-Din, a Lebanese writer of the early twentieth century, prefaced their demands with claims about their qualifications to do so. They were pious Muslims, daughters of pious Muslim men (a surprising number were daughters of Islamic clerics). By the 1930s women throughout the Muslim world were gaining rights unimaginable only thirty years earlier. It became acceptable to call oneself a feminist, although the term Islamic feminist was never used, as though the Islamic part was assumed.

Then in 1979 a radically conservative Shiite Islamic revolution was waged and won in Iran. Bazaar, university, and women came together to expel the shah with his Western friends and worldview. The women put on veils to mark their Iranian identity, a kind of nationalist uniform. When the ayatollahs came to power, they decreed the wearing of the veil to be part of the new establishment look. Women who wanted to work in government or even only appear in public had to don the chador. Islam came to represent the restitution of authentic norms and values in a society corrupted by its overidentification with the West (a term was coined, gharebzadeghi, "west-toxification").

From Iran the movement to re-Islamize Muslim societies spread and encountered the Sunni thrust of Saudi Arabia. The language and symbols of a newly invigorated Islam came to dominate public space. Women were central to this transformative process. Women in public had to look and act in such a way that they confirmed the Islamicness of that space. Religious authorities issued pronouncements on what women should and should not do. The rules and regulations increased and tightened. Interpretations of foundational texts based on flimsy evidence or on proven misogynist interpretations from the early centuries of Islam, like those of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Jawzi, came to assume a new importance in the public practice of the religion.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to KabbalahIslamic Feminism - Defining "islamic Feminism", The Modern Era, Interpreting The Role Of Women In Islam, Bibliography