While Islam has undoubtedly granted women many rights—some of which were radical for much of the world in the 7th century, such as the rights to divorce, consent in marriage, education, and financial independence—many Muslim women around the world are denied those rights in practice. That these rights were “radical” for the 7th century is significant: one would think that this is an indication that our rights should be “radical” in all times. What Islamic feminism does is to help us deal with this tension of the existence of women’s rights in theory but their denial in practice.
I understand Islamic feminism to be a response to the mistreatment of Muslim women, whose rights have been marginalized, or completely denied, because of interpretations of Islam that do not acknowledge their full humanity and view them as inferior to men; Islamic feminism therefore requires re-visiting the Qur’an to re-interpret it from a standpoint that does not favor any one gender over another and sees all as equally valuable. Needless to say, Islamic feminism, or any other form of feminism, does not claim that women and men are “the same”; men and women need not be the same in order to be viewed as and treated equally and fairly.
I am an Islamic feminist because, for me, it is not enough to merely acknowledge that the perspectives, experiences, and involvement of (Muslim) women have been entirely overlooked in the establishment of Islamic law—I acknowledge that, but I also condemn it and believe it can be rectified. Our male scholars, as humble as many of them were, and as dedicated to Islam, sincere, and pious as most, if not all, of them were, interpreted the Qur’an and Sunnah for all Muslims of all times and cultures. Over time, their interpretations and opinions came to be identified as a major source of Islam, such that in many practical cases today, their opinions and interpretations, not the Qur’an, hold precedence. While Muslims claim that the Qur’an is the first and major source of Islam, the reality is often different: our scholars, their fatwas, their opinions have historically been given more importance. This is why, for example, Muslim women even today, are “Islamically” prohibited from marrying non-Muslim (Christian and Jewish) men, while Muslim men are allowed to marry among Jews and Christians. It is why Muslim women are not allowed to lead gender-mixed prayers—or even why embarrassingly small spaces are designated for women in the mosque. It is also why the subjective Qur’anic term zeenah (generally understood as “beauty”; verse 24:31) continues to include certain body parts of the woman that may not “beautiful” to all societies and times, such as hair, neck, legs, arms, face—and it excludes the Muslim woman’s own ideas of zeenah and designates only men to determine its meanings; or why the Qur’anic term ‘aurah (generally, any body part that is expected to attract someone of the opposite sex; also verse 24:31) has practically been confined almost only to women’s private parts and extended to include jewelry and clothes. Perhaps the best way this can be understood is to imagine a group of influential men determining how to interpret and understand Qur’anic terms like aurah and zeenah with no females present to offer their insight as well. Similarly, these male scholars spent their lifetimes understanding and interpreting difficult Qur’anic verses, such as the ever-controversial verse 4:34 (the “beating” verse), or verses on whom women can and cannot marry, such as 5:5, traditionally interpreted to mean that women may not marry non-Muslim men merely because it states that men can.
As a Muslim, I respect these influential and powerful figures as interpreters of the Qur’an and developers of Islamic law, but as a 21st-century citizen of the world, who has lived in the West and in the East, I refuse to be confined to their interpretations and opinions that are rooted in specific cultural and social contexts, knowing that cultures and traditions evolve with time.
Moreover, for centuries, women in Islam have been relegated to the back seat, infantilized, treated as second-class citizens who have nothing to contribute to the intellectual growth of Muslim societies; with rare exceptions, such as those of Shifa’ bint Abdullah and Rabi’ah al-Adawiyyah, we have instead been limited to the domestic sphere, our skills, knowledge, intellect, and potential frozen. We have bee conditioned to think that our roles as mother and wives are our destiny, our Islamic obligation—indeed, our identity—while our male counterparts, even as fathers and husbands, enjoyed the opportunities to pursue much more than fatherhood and husbandhood. Our roles as mothers and wives, but especially as mothers, have been sanctified with teachings such as, “Heaven lies beneath the feet of the mother,” and “A woman who dies while her husband is displeased with her will never enter Heaven.” Needless to say, my objective is not to undermine the value of mothers—my point, instead, is that I have come to realize that we are taught this from our earliest years as little girls apparently destined to become mothers and wives (or heaven will not lie beneath our feet; or, if wives, we will not see make it to heaven unless our husbands are always happy with us) so that we will not dare dream to be more than mothers and wives.
Islamic feminism thus empowers me ethically, intellectually, spiritually, and personally. It reminds me of my worth as a woman, as a Muslim, and as a world citizen concerned with gender equality that Islamic feminism teaches me has ample room within Islam itself but which (the patriarchal) tradition denies and does not deem relevant. Islamic feminism is my response to the bigoted, Islamophobic perceptions of Muslims and particularly of Muslim women prevalent throughout the Western world—just as it is my response to traditional Muslim notions of gender roles that attempt to restrict me in any way.
Shehnaz Haqqani is an Islamic Studies PhD student focusing on gender and sexuality issues in Islamic law and Muslim societies. Her academic interests include Islamic feminism, Qur’anic verse 4:34, gender relations in the Pashtun society, and Qur’anic hermeneutics. She blogs actively at http://orbala.blogspot.com and tweets at @qrratugai.