Muslim Feminists Are Not Here For Your Misconceptions About Their Faith

Photo by Nina Manandhar.
“I woke up to the fact that I was a feminist slowly and then all at once,” writes British-Egyptian author Alya Mooro in her book, The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. It’s an experience I strongly resonate with. Over the past few years, I’ve embarked on a journey of embracing feminism, though with an essential identifier preceding it: “Muslim”. 
As a Muslim woman, I previously avoided the label of 'feminism' altogether due to its cultural taboos. Feminism is tainted with suspicion in many Muslim communities, often viewed as an outside 'Western' ideology that might threaten the foundation of faith. But justice is one of the driving forces of Islam, and more Muslim women are increasingly identifying with intersectional feminism, which looks at how elements like religion, race and other overlapping identities of women influence how they experience discrimination and oppression. An unwavering faith in the justness of God is what sparks our reformist flames as we return to researching, reading and interpreting the scripture ourselves, instead of blindly following the centuries old canonised Islamic literature that was primarily compiled and commentated on by men. 

Returning to Islam's roots

Rather than taking a secular approach to women’s rights, Muslim feminists find their arguments grounded in religion. Many name the Quran as the guidebook that endorses their beliefs, even though this sacred text has often been manipulated by others to serve a patriarchal purpose. 
From an academic perspective, three key methods distinguish how mainstream Muslim feminist scholarship tends to interpret the Quran: historical contextualisation, which involves recognising that the Quran was revealed in a particular time and place to a tribal and patriarchal society. Then there's intratextual reading; comparing Quranic verses and themes with one another rather than reading them in isolation. Finally there's the tawhidic paradigm, a theory conceptualised by pioneering Muslim feminist Amina Wadud, which emphasises God’s unity and incomparability. This theory refutes sexism, which places men 'above' women, and also claims that only God has absolute knowledge thereby no reading of the Quran is its final or absolute interpretation. These frameworks allow for continuous and contemporary re-readings of the holy book. 

When we look at the Prophet Muhammad's life, we see a man that sought the counsel of his wives, who encouraged the education of women and who established their rights.

Dr. Sofia Rehman
“Whenever I was doubtful about anything, I would return to the Quran. I would read its pages and burrow through its words until I’d find the message of compassion and equality that I knew lay at its heart,” explains Dr. Sofia Rehman who lives in Leeds, has a PhD in Islam, Hadith and Gender, and runs a virtual book club centred on Islam and gender readings. Besides the Quran, the Hadith (the reported sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) is the other primary source of Islam. “When we look at his life, we see a man that sought the counsel of his wives, who encouraged the education of women and who established their rights,” says Rehman. “After the demise of the Prophet there was a sudden and marked regression in these gains for women and other marginalised peoples which was only compounded as the Muslim power base expanded. An empire was formed and outside cultures and customs often steeped in patriarchal attitudes and beliefs were absorbed into Islamic practice.” 

How culture clouds religion

Some Muslim women have witnessed atrocities against women first-hand, which has in turn shaped how feminism is intertwined with their faith. “I’ve always considered myself a feminist and questioned the patriarchy from a very young age, because I witnessed an environment that was extremely hostile to women, in Yemen from 1990-1995,” explains Zinah Nur Sharif, a luxury fashion specialist who was one of the first modest fashion bloggers in the UK. “Prior to having more knowledge of patriarchal interpretation of Islamic scriptural text, I was sceptical about gender inequality being part of Islam and had a hunch that prevalence of sexism stems from male dominance in certain cultures.”  
Mistaking cultural misogynistic customs (such as domestic and marital abuse, 'honour' killings and unequal political rights) for religious norms, many feminists campaign for change from a secular framework. Activism has become a form of worship for London-based Huda Jawad, co-founder of the Faith and Violence Against Women & Girls coalition and co-chair of the End Violence Against Women coalition. “My faith absolutely informs my activism and practice; I passionately believe women and all of Allah’s creation have the right to live in liberty, safety and nourishment,” she says. “No doubt religion has been used in the most insidious and brutal ways to perpetuate violence against women and strengthen patriarchy but to assume that is an inherent feature of all belief is as misguided as saying that hatred towards men is an inherent part of feminism.” 
Jawad’s website is full of her writing on intersectionality and Islamic feminism. She believes that feminism is spurned by conservatives in many Muslim communities simply because it poses a threat to patriarchy. “Religion, and therefore Islam, have been used by the privileged to consolidate power and accumulate wealth, resources and control… anything which threatens that is treated with hostility and actively rejected,” she explains.

Revival of religious ideals

Although men may have always been the public gatekeepers of Islam, Rehman says that there was actually more leniency during earlier eras. “It is always interesting to me that some of the most regressive views associated with Islam are found emerging in modernity, whilst classical scholarship often holds more space for diverse views,” she says, pointing out that today, the notion of female muftis, or legal experts in positions to give legal rulings, is often seen as ludicrous by orthodox clerics. Of those who do acknowledge the legitimacy of female muftis, their rulings are often restricted to issues deemed to be 'women’s issues'. Scholars of past eras however, Rehman explains, such as Imam al-Nawawi, believed it was acceptable for women to hold these authoritative positions as long as the criteria of knowledge and ability – the same criteria for men – were met. 

The purpose of Islamic feminism is deconstructing the hierarchies and dismantling the ‘thrones’ on which the men, in a dominant position, have been monopolising the discourse for too long without considering the issues affecting Muslim women.

Sherin Khankan, Women Are The Future of Islam
Then, there’s the controversial topic of women leading prayers. When Amina Wadud famously led a mixed-gender prayer congregation in New York in 2005, reactions divided the Muslim community at large with many modern and mainstream scholars publicly rejecting the permissibility of women leading mixed-gender prayers. This is despite, as Muslim American scholar Jonathan A.C. Brown notes in his book, Misquoting Muhammad, famed 10th century jurist Al Tabari and 13th century philosopher Ibn Arabi both allowed women to lead prayers. In 2016, Syrian-Finnish female imam Sherin Khankan founded and led the inaugural Friday prayer for Mariam Mosque in Denmark, Europe’s first mosque for women. In her memoir, Women are the Future of Islam, she defines the purpose of Islamic feminism as, “deconstructing the hierarchies and dismantling the ‘thrones’ on which the men, in a dominant position, have been monopolising the discourse for too long without considering the issues affecting Muslim women.” 
March 27 is International Muslim Women’s Day; a fitting time to celebrate the fact that the spirit of Muslim feminism is growing larger, and louder. Although courageous women fulfilling prominent, religious roles in Muslim communities are often met with backlash, they are nonetheless shattering the glass ceilings of community standards that are rooted in culture, by working to expand women’s rights and delegitimise enforced gender roles. They are claiming roles for themselves that for centuries have been deemed acceptable only for men; from offering fresh perspectives and interpretations of religious texts, to leading prayers and even officiating marriages.
“Until quite recently in many Muslim communities around the world there’s been a disproportionate number of men who hold positions of spiritual power, as imams and scholars,” says West Yorkshire’s Yousra Imran, author of Hijab and Red Lipstick. “This has led to some people believing that only men are qualified to study, write about, teach or interpret the religion. At various points in Islamic history we have seen how male scholars and jurors have interpreted Islam into a way that benefits the desires of men. We wish to unlearn these patriarchal interpretations and go back to the essence of Islam – a religion that champions social justice and does not place men over women.”
At the heart of the movement, after all, is not inherently radical, illogical, quixotic or anti-male sentiment, it is merely a call for dignity and liberty on equal terms; a theme that Muslim feminists believe wholeheartedly is grounded in Islamic principles. Seema Malji, a life coach based in Preston, believes that these new interpretations of faith can help younger Muslims demystify Islamic feminism for elders in their community. “From my knowledge of Islam, there couldn’t be a more feminist religion,” she says. “There’s a common misconception that feminism exists to eradicate masculinity or emasculate in some way, especially with older generations. We’re now able to provide more accurate examples and share more stories that our families didn’t have access to before the days of the internet.” 
Still, interpretations of faith (and feminism) are widely contested. “The terms ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ mean different things to different people in different contexts and are used for different agendas, politics and identities,” explains Jawad, referencing a 2011 essay titled Beyond ‘Islam’ vs. ‘Feminism’ by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist and co-founder of Musawah, the global feminist initiative championing gender equality and justice in Muslim families. Faith, for Jawad personally, acts as a “source of empowerment”, a “well of nourishment” and a “body of armour by which to fight for equality and bring about a vision of the world where human dignity and respect of universal human rights is the cornerstone of society,” she explains. “That is my Islam and that is my feminism.”

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