Across the Islamic world, women’s rights are contentious politically and ideologically. Attitudes toward women have defined and divided the worldviews of conservative and progressive Muslims. Conservatives link women’s piety to the purity and Islamic authenticity of their societies. They use religious justifications to enforce that piety through a limited public role for women, gender segregation, and harsh punishments for any perceived transgressions. For decades, powerful Islamists have successfully smeared women’s groups as being slavish followers of an illegitimate, Western agenda.
In this toxic environment, it is clear that women’s empowerment will not be imposed from outside. Men and women within conservative Islamic communities need to find their own reasons and their own justifications for allowing women a fuller role in society. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam itself. This article describes how those efforts are coming together, slowly, in an emerging global movement of “Islamic feminism” and how that movement is transforming the broader Middle East.
Islamic feminism is the promotion of women’s rights through Islamic discourse. Just as conservatives have used Islam as a barrier to women’s empowerment, Islamic feminists are using Islam to promote gender equality. They argue that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for men and women alike. By firmly grounding their arguments within Islamic discourse, Islamic feminists offer a culturally acceptable and sustainable way to expand opportunities for women. Their success holds promise for a more stable, prosperous, and progressive Middle East.
Islamic feminism incorporates the ideas of numerous Muslim intellectuals and activists. Some of its leading proponents are actually men—distinguished scholars who contend that Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts. Islamic feminists claim that Islamic law evolved in ways inimical to women, not due to any inevitability, but because of selective interpretation by patriarchal leaders. They argue that the worst practices toward women, like those of the Taliban, are in fact a subversion of Islamic teaching by tribal customs and traditions. They seek to revive the equality bestowed on women in the religion’s early years by rereading the Quran, putting the texts in historical context, and disentangling them from tribal practices and other local traditions.
The great potential of Islamic feminism is its grassroots appeal. In this regard it is quite the opposite of the secular feminism we are used to in the West. Secular feminism—in the Middle East and in the West—has usually been the province of urban elites and intellectuals, and that has long been its weakness. Social change takes time to make its way from city salons and urban newspapers to the countryside, especially in places with few roads and little public education. But Islamic feminism has the potential to be embraced by local leaders and, perhaps most importantly, by religious leaders, who can lend their authority to the difficult changes at hand. Islamic feminism strives to work within the values of Islam, not against them. It offers direct social and economic benefits to families through improved opportunities for daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers.
Political and Cultural Backdrop
Islamic feminism can be viewed as part of a much larger struggle taking place today within Islam itself. Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, describes these times as a transformative moment for Islam, a competition between two opposing worldviews—“moderate” versus “puritanical” Islam.1 Other scholars use terms such as “liberal” or “progressive” Islam versus “conservative” or “extremist” Islam to explain this same divide.
In our post-9/11 world, talk of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world is widespread. At the heart of this talk is the presumption that Muslim-majority countries and Western liberal democracies do not share the same values. A superficial reading of headlines would seem to confirm this premise. However, there is a surprising convergence in terms of political values. Overwhelming majorities (85 percent or more) in both Western and Muslim-majority countries concur that democracy is the best form of government and the one they desire for their countries.2 Instead, the big differences in attitudes arise around social issues. Respondents in Muslim-majority countries are less tolerant of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. But the biggest gaps involve attitudes toward women, and the biggest gaps of all exist in the perspectives of younger generations. While youth in Western societies presume equality between the sexes, younger generations in Muslim countries have remained deeply traditional, creating an expanding cultural chasm between Muslims and Westerners. As some have noted, what we really have on our hands is a “sexual clash of civilizations.”3
Islamist movements depict women’s social freedoms, and their economic and political freedoms as well, as sowing the seeds of cultural corruption. For many Islamists, women’s empowerment represents nothing more than a slippery slope toward Western decadence and godless secularism. Linking feminism with the “heresy” of the West is good politics and helps turn patriarchy into patriotism.
On these grounds, some religious and tribal leaders resist girls’ education, and powerful Islamist groups have successfully protected unequal laws in the name of upholding sharia, particularly in the realm of family law. Indeed, in many Islamic countries, reformers have largely abandoned attempts to replace sharia with secular law, since that route has often proven politically futile.
Women’s empowerment has also suffered due to its long association with colonialism and secularism. During the tumultuous decades of decolonization in the Middle East, a number of military leaders came to power who attempted to modernize their societies by forcibly diminishing the role of the religious establishment and overturning centuries of traditions. The best known of these was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the heavy-handed founder of modern Turkey. He inspired imitators in other countries who followed closely in his secular footsteps.
Inevitably, these secular reformers focused on women. While some made real efforts to improve women’s status through better access to education and public life, all of them struggled, and mostly stumbled, with the symbolic lifting of the veil. Their shortcut to modernization was emulation of the West, beginning with the cultural touchstone of women’s dress. For opponents of these changes, feminism was perceived as a rejection of local culture in favor of that of the West. It became a class issue, with urban elites embracing social change as much as rural traditionalists resisted it. And it also became a political issue, pitting strong-arm rulers with deep ties to former colonial powers against entrenched religious authorities whose status and power were threatened by secularism. Tied to the fortunes of the region’s authoritarian rulers, secular feminism has risen and fallen as they did. And over the last several decades, from Algiers to Baghdad to Tehran, many of those secular leaders have fallen, undone by rampant corruption, brutality, and, ultimately, their failure to deliver on the promises of modernization.
Today, secular governments can be said to exist in only two countries in the region—Tunisia and Turkey—and both fight a constant rear-guard action against Islamism. Indeed, elections in 2007 delivered political control of Turkey to the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), causing many to fear the end of Atatürk’s legacy of secularism. The Turkish military threatened to intervene, as it has in the past, to keep the flame of secularism alive. In Tunisia, it takes the mechanisms of a none-too-subtle police state to maintain the secular system. It is fair to say that secularism as a political force is on life support across the Middle East. While secular opposition groups exist in every country, they lack a grassroots following and cannot begin to compete against better organized, better financed, and more widely supported Islamist movements. Given the cultural, religious, social, and political sensitivities to women’s empowerment, the negative connotations of secular feminism and the ascendance of political Islam in the region, Islamic feminism could be one of the most promising ways to promote gender justice today across the broader Middle East.
Reason and Faith
Many Islamic feminists are strong proponents of ijtihad, the process of arriving at new interpretations of Islamic law through critical reasoning, rather than blindly following the views of past scholars. In the early centuries of Islam, the process of ijtihad was an important contributor to the shaping of Islamic law. When the Quran and Sunnah (the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) did not explicitly address an issue, or when conflicting statements were attributed to Muhammad, a qualified legal scholar could use independent reasoning to come up with a solution. This legal ruling, expressed as a fatwa, could then be accepted or rejected by the followers of the scholar as they wished.
Ijtihad was a vibrant legal process until the end of the tenth century, by which point many doctrines were settled by jurists representing the various schools of law. Around this time, influential orthodox Sunni ulama (Muslim clergy with several years of training) began to argue against the process of independent reasoning, claiming that it could distort Islam. They instead advocated for a literal reading of religious texts. Reformers resisted, warning that a rigid interpretation of sharia can be profoundly unhelpful in answering contemporary questions. But over the centuries, the literalists gained ground, leading to what some have referred to as a “closing of the gates of ijtihad.”
At the heart of Islamic feminism is an attempt to push open those gates of ijtihad. Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic jurisprudence to highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion. They are seeking accommodation between a modern role for women and the Islamic values that more than a billion people in the world follow.
Islamic feminists are also taking advantage of rising levels of female education and greater access to global media across the Middle East to shift the terms of religious debate. Networks across countries are forming to help even illiterate peasant women marshal the religious justifications they need to push back on centuries of tribal customs and traditions that have been sustained in the name of Islam.
Islamic feminism is not without its challenges. For starters, it is unpalatable to diehard secularists, both in the West and in the Middle East. Some years ago, I gave a talk in New York about the promise of working with religious leaders in some of the most conservative regions of the world to promote girls’ education. I had recently been to Afghanistan and had seen how some mullahs in the countryside had become champions of girls’ education, even opening their mosques to classes for girls. When the discussion turned to the use of the mosque itself as a classroom for girls, a woman in the audience interrupted. This was exactly the wrong approach, she insisted: “We should be working to dislodge religion, not further entrench it.” Clearly, she has never been to the highlands of Afghanistan, I thought to myself. And she is probably also unfamiliar with the long history of failure of those who have tried to dislodge religion in places where it dominates every aspect of life. Outright opposition to religion is simply counterproductive in many Muslim-majority countries today, as it is in many Western countries too. If women’s rights in the Middle East depend on the removal of Islam, Muslim women will be waiting a long time indeed.
At a conference in Morocco sometime later, I discussed the concept of Islamic feminism with a history professor from Tunis University who is also an adviser to the minister of higher education in Tunisia. He smiled knowingly and leaned back in his chair as he adjusted the cuffs on his pinstriped suit. “Ah, they have gotten to you,” he smirked, his accent revealing his French education. “The Islamists want women to play on their field, where they can tie them up in religious arguments forever. No, no. Secularism is the only way forward for women.” Taking a very long-term perspective, over many decades, he might ultimately be right. But outside of Tunisia and Turkey today, where does secularism have a chance in the near term in the Middle East?
Later in our conversation, the Tunisian professor admitted that despite Tunisia’s ban on women wearing hijab, the headscarf, in public offices and schools, over 80 percent of the female students and faculty at the university defiantly still wear one in class. “We cannot enforce the ban,” he bemoaned. “We would have to shut down the university if we tried.” Measured by the ubiquitous hijab, Islamism is alive and well in Tunisia, despite, or perhaps because of, the country’s enforced secularism. Across the region, the headscarf is as much a symbol of resistance to authoritarian secularism as it is a sign of piety.
Islamic feminism will also be unappealing to Islam bashers, many of whom dismiss Islam as an inherently misogynist religion and refuse to allow that it can be a force for women’s empowerment. Some of the Muslim women who are leading the charge to promote moderate interpretations of Islam have been accused of whitewashing their religion. They are denounced on anti-Muslim websites that find nothing redeemable about Islam.
Critics contend that by emphasizing the parts of the Quran that are progressive for women, and minimizing those sections that are harder to reconcile with gender equality, Islamic feminists are simply glossing over the fundamental issues. But is this not the same process of interpretation and contextualizing that has occurred over the centuries in every major religion in the world?
Indeed, many Islamic feminists see their efforts as a critical driver of a larger reform initiative within Islam. As Muslim women themselves engage more deeply with Islamic texts and jurisprudence, through casual study groups, as scholars and activists, or even through formal training to become religious leaders, they are forcing debate over Islamic interpretation.
The different ways Islam can be interpreted were driven home for me on a trip to Saudi Arabia several years ago when a Western-educated Saudi friend tried to explain away his country’s restrictions on women. He told me earnestly that the only reason women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive, vote, or travel without a male guardian is because Muslim women are so revered. “These restrictions are only to protect women,” he good-naturedly insisted. To prove his point, he then quoted a well-known hadith, or saying of Muhammad: “Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers.” Later on the same trip, when I was discussing these issues with a group of Saudi women, one of them interrupted the conversation. “You know,” she announced, stabbing her finger in the air, “we deserve all these rights and more, because Muhammad said that ‘Paradise lies beneath a mother’s feet!’”
Many Islamic feminists disavow the label: they cringe at the term “feminism” in any form and go to great lengths to distance themselves from the Western cultural baggage it carries. They prefer to see themselves simply as Muslims pursuing rights for women within Islam. But asked whether they believe that the spirit of the Quran is one of gender equality, and whether Islamic discourse can and should be used to promote women’s empowerment, their answers will be a resounding yes. Their Islamic feminism is playing a small but important role in one of the great ideological struggles of the twenty-first century.
Critics dismiss Islamic feminism as a fringe movement—they say it is too small, too weak, too marginal to move mainstream opinion. For all their good intentions, these women will never be able to overturn 1,400 years of oppressive Islamic law and practices. The women, however, are undeterred. They recognize they are at the beginning of a long, intergenerational process but insist that time is on their side.
Still, some of these activists will undoubtedly disappoint Western observers with their views. They can be stridently anti-Western, antiglobalization, and anti-Zionist. Some do not condemn all forms of armed struggle as terrorism. Some of the more conservative women approve of certain deeply entrenched social practices, like polygamy, that others believe to be repressive. While their conservative dress, their religious discourse, their support for Islamist causes, and their working-class roots may sustain the status quo in some ways, these factors can also provide Islamic feminists with the credibility and influence they need within their communities to be effective agents of change.
Some of the women are deeply devout. Others are not. Some wear the headscarf for reasons of piety, others do so only for tactical reasons. They adhere to social conventions in an effort to enhance their credibility. A few eschew the headscarf completely—their understanding of Islam does not require it. But all of them are using Islamic discourse in one way or another to promote women’s access to education, to jobs, and to the public sphere, access which is already beginning to transform Muslim societies.
Women’s rising literacy across Muslim countries, and ultimately their rising religious literacy, is shifting the terms of debate. No longer can women’s groups advocating for greater rights be so easily dismissed as “anti-Islam.” Increasingly, women know the texts well enough to challenge the practices they are used to justify. They also understand the need to avoid pitting women’s rights against deeply held religious values. Whereas conservative Islamic interpretations have been a big part of the problem, more progressive interpretations of Islam can be part of the solution.
The Long Term
The ongoing scholarly process of contextualizing and reexamining the original meaning of Islamic texts, which is so central to Islamic feminism, has the potential to be as transformative in this century as the Christian Reformation was in the sixteenth century. The growing ability of Muslim women to read the Quran for themselves could be commensurate with the sea change that occurred when average Christians began to read the Bible directly. Progress for women will be uneven—faster in some countries and painfully slow in others—and will undoubtedly suffer setbacks. Over time, Islamic feminism, like other reform movements that preceded it, may well end up unapologetically secular. Only then will never-ending debates over religious interpretation be removed from politics. In the meantime, Islamic feminism is an important emotional and intellectual stepping stone—and tactic—to reconcile religion with women’s desires to live in the modern world.