Why I am an Islamic Feminist by Shehnaz Haqqani


FAR - SHWhile 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.

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Categories: Feminism, Islam, Qur'an, Qur'an and women

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22 replies

  1. Another wonderful post – thank you! It is refreshing to see another way of viewing Islam and Islamic scholarship. Islam is so often portrayed as a a monolithic belief system and pieces like this give non Muslims a much needed view into the multiple perspectives of this religion. While I knew that these differences existed, as a non Muslim I often feel as if my vision of Islam is seen “through a glass darkly”. Many thanks for shedding some light.

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  2. A wonderful opportunity to reach across borders, reading your post, and a very thoughtful and truly informative essay, thank you, Orbala. There is something profoundly missing, in all of the examples of sexism you site, and which brings tears to my eyes. Male bonding is not a reaction to, nor does it depend on the mistreatment of men. Female bonding, in terms of feminism, and in order to liberate, needs to activate two sides: the mutual strengthening of women within the context of our oppression, but also an active celebration, as the head scarf surely could be, of just being a woman, as men celebrate their gender spontaneously in myriad ways. The journey to heaven is a natural process — a seed falls, it roots, it grows, it blossoms, there are no distinctions.

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  3. Thank you for pointing out the various ways that male Muslim interpreters have misinterpreted the Qur’an and imposed their patriarchal ways on Islam. It’s wonderful to “meet” academic feminists who are Muslim and are using their intelligence to create a wedge into patriarchy, wherever it exists.

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  4. As on to another: Thank you for the light. Darkness threatens to over come us only when we do not hold on to that light…

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  5. Orbala, thank you for a very interesting article that provides alternative points of view on Islam and feminism. I read your blog with much interest and after reading shared with a family list serve. This created an interesting and respectful discussion among the siblings (we are eleven). As the discussion continues, a few links were shared to support some points of view and I though that these may be helpful as you continue your academic work on Islam and feminism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnsja0j7XB0 and http://www.emel.com/article?id&a_id=828 (The Lost Female Scholars of Islam).

    Again, thank you for your post and I hope the links are helpful.

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    • Siham and Orbala – Thank you so much for posting this information. I know so little about your faith, and this history of the influence of women is so good to know! Keep up the good work!

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  6. this is a very good piece of information, which can be researched more intellectually. what is the basic purpose of religion . man made religion for better living. in present day scenario should religion change accordingly.

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  7. Thank you, everyone, for your feedback! It gives me much honor to know the piece has been of use to at least some readers!

    Siham, thanks for sharing those links! I recently did come across the book on female scholars of Islam, but I wasn’t aware of the female teachers of major Muslim thinkers and scholars. Great stuff!

    Peace to everyone!

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  8. Thank you for a wonderful post. I particularly liked the three-part strategy you mention for Islamic feminism, but which can also apply to activism in general:

    acknowledgment of the current state of affairs – which includes perceptive, thorough analysis of prevailing conditions;

    condemnation of what is unjust in the current situation – and defining injustice, as you point out, must include the perspectives of women and other marginalized people;

    and rectification: working for change, with women participating fully in envisioning what ideal societies would look like.

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  9. Proud of you girl, spread the light.

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  10. Thank you for posting this and it deals with the reality women face in the Islamic world.
    Khafija(Mohammeds first wife) had been married three times before marrying Mohammed, where she was a single women running her own business and decided to marry this young guy because he worked for her. This was around 600AD. Now let’s forward with all that Islam has done for women…. They can’t even drive a car because of what..? You have to wonder….

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  11. Loving this post and echo your words about men and women not having to be the ‘same’ to be treated equally.. as in with dignity and respect for what we ALL bring to the table of life. Gender issues are important to me personally; I have noticed recently that many converts (including me) and many Muslims reconnecting with faith are women in their 30’s and 40’s. But there is this vacuum of access to learning and I feel on a personal level that the masjid is not responding adequately. Alhamdulilaah my locality has access to a woman- centred place of learning and sisters are voting very much with their feet. But it is very rare and it feels- wasteful. There are women thirsting for access, for learning and it feels as if we are being wrongly denied. This is why I love your post <3 Peace

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    • Thanks, Demonlily!
      I couldn’t agree more about the masjid part – there’s too much misogyny in many Muslim communities, and it surely does repel a lot of converts. This needs to be addressed more widely for sure.

      Always appreciate reading your insights!

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  12. This is an interesting and thought provoking article. Though it has quite some points which need discussion and debate but let me share one. The oppressed status of women in the third world or to be specific muslim majority nation states or monarchies is not due to Islam or even its version [interpretation]. It is due to the political vested interests of the govts [monarchies]. Similarly in somewhat democratic countries the suffering of the woman is due to poverty, lack of education, economic exploitation etc. There are cases of women’s exploitation but in these societies men who are supposed to be the bread earners, financial supporters, social responsible figures for their family are equally or rather more deprived than women. In my opinion, there is only one way to put a stop to the exploitation of women [as well as men] in the muslim world and elsewhere too and that is the spreading, propagation and promotion of science and technology in these societies.

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  13. Thank you for this!

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  14. Such a great and knowledgeable article!

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