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Islamic Feminism

Interpreting The Role Of Women In Islam

By the mid-1980s women were realizing that they were going to have to assume responsibility for interpreting foundational texts if they were to hold on to rights for which their mothers had fought and that they were seeing erode under their very eyes. If they did not stop the advance of an Islamic movement that systematically targeted women's established rights and liberties, then no one would. In fact, they were wrong, because men soon joined these women. Farid Esack in South Africa raised the banner for what he called "gender jihad," and in Iran, in the heart of what was thought to be the beacon of conservative Islam, some male clerics were opposing their colleagues' antiwomen legislations.

Political and religious context, and also the Muslimness of the dominant culture, determined whether the new veiling was radical or conservative. Some women in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia adopted the veil and strict Islamic dress codes and then called for women's rights even as they condemned Western practices and norms. They were thus able to do what before had been forbidden, namely to gather publicly in large numbers and listen to "charismatic, wealthy women, knowledgeable in religion and shari'a" (Yamani, p. 279). Other Muslim women in non-Muslim societies, such as France, put on the distinctive headscarf in order to draw attention to their religio-cultural identity. Muslim women in secular Muslim Turkey suffered the same opprobrium as their Muslim sisters in France.

The Islamization of knowledge accompanied the new veiling movement. From Indonesia to Morocco to the United States, women and men turned to the Koran, sunna, and Islamic law to collect evidence about the emancipatory nature of the religion and its founder Muhammad. The women around Muhammad were invoked as models for contemporary women: strong, intelligent, integral to the emergence of the new faith in seventh-century Arabia. His wives Khadijah and Aisha, the warrior Nusayba who saved his life in battle, his daughter Fatima, and his granddaughter Zaynab proved that from the beginning Islam was a religion unusually open to women and supportive of their rights.

Sociologists, historians, literary scholars, engineers, and physicians started to retrain themselves to become proficient in religious sciences. They studied hermeneutics and applied their new knowledge to the law and its foundations. Some, such as Amina Wadud-Muhsin, focused on the Koran and in a manner characterized by some as "textual fundamentalism," deconstructed sections word by word to produce positive meaning out of the most apparently negative passages. Others chose the Traditions, the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad reported by his Companions and down the generations through chains of reliable authorities. Fatima Mernissi showed how shaky was the witness of two of the most authoritative Companions, especially in what they reported the Prophet to have said about women leaders.

Teams of women collaborated on transnational projects to examine aspects of Islamic law that had negative repercussions for women. In 1982, Sisters in Islam based in Malaysia was among the first organizations to coordinate efforts on behalf of women who wanted to be good Muslims and strong, public women. Founded in 1986 by the Algerian Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas, Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) launched their Women and Law Project in 1994. Their goal was to establish a transnational feminist network that would ensure the wide dissemination of reliable information about women's rights under Islamic rule. The Iranian Mahnaz Afkhami established in 1998 the Women's Learning Partnership that produced manuals to educate women about their Islamic rights to inheritance, education, choice in marriage, choice in appearance, and protection from violence ranging from rape in marriage to honor killing. All are mobilizing on behalf of the implementation in their countries of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

By the late 1990s this feminist labor was happening everywhere, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women were studying in Tehran and Qum in women's colleges of Islamic jurisprudence and law. In Saudi Arabia women preachers were educating women in schools, colleges, and public meeting places about women's religiously guaranteed rights. They were teaching audiences how to interpret key texts for themselves in order that they not remain ignorant puppets in the hands of manipulative men. Mosques became important rallying places for women's learning circles. Feminism as a term associated with the West and its imperial projects in the lands of Islam once again became suspect. Those most opposed to its use produced a rhetoric uncannily mimetic of that of their foremothers.

However, this worldwide movement of activists struggling for the rights of women within a well-understood Islam attracted those who had not previously projected themselves as particularly religious. In Iran, journalists writing for the feminist journal Zanan celebrated the marriage between Islam and feminism. Far from apologizing for their use of the word feminism, they underscored the importance of its connections with European-American feminisms and their sociopolitical underpinnings and rigorous methodological and theoretical framing. They were proud to be both Muslim and feminists and they announced that they were Islamic feminists. This is the context in which the first Muslim woman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who defended women's and children's rights throughout the toughest times of the Islamic regime, emphasized that her work had been conducted within an Islamic framework.

Ebadi is not alone in Iran or elsewhere. More and more women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, are recognizing the dangers of a political Islam that targets Muslim women and Western institutions and then justifies this violence in religious language. They are fighting back with the goal of restoring meaning and efficacy to the word justice by emphasizing law. They do not see religion alone as the cause for violence and injustice, but they do believe that religion rightly understood and applied may be the key to a better future.


Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Afkhami, Mahnaz, ed. Faith and Freedom: Women's Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Badran, Margot, and Miriam Cooke, eds. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Göle, Nilüfer The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Moghadam, Valentine. "Islamist Movements and Women's Response in the Middle East." Gender and History 3, no. 3 (1991): 268–283.

Moghissi, Haideh. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed Books, 1999.

Shaheed, Farida. "Networking for Change: The Role of Women's Groups in Initiating Dialogue on Women's Issues." In Faith and Freedom: Women's Human Rights in the Muslim World, edited by Mahnaz Afkhami. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Wadud-Muhsin, Amina. Qur'an and Women. Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti, 1992.

Yamani, Mai, ed. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Zayn al-Din, Nazira. Al-sufur wa al-hijab (1928). Damascus: Dar al-Mada, 1998.

Miriam Cooke

Additional topics

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