Can Islam and Feminism Correlate?
By Hiba Ishaq
Islam has been widely seen as a religion that has oppressed and exploited women. Many Western thinkers and scholars have blamed Islamic traditions and values as a means to oppress women. Are they right in thinking that Muslim women are oppressed as per the Quran and other Islamic scriptures? This article tries to look at women in Islam from a different perspective- a view from where women are equal to men, in public as well as the private sphere, detangling the two so-called ‘oxymoronic’- terms- Islam and feminism.
The Quran and Hadith (sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad) are constantly used to justify and legitimize the oppression of women. They are used as tools to ‘control’ women through the authority of a male. However, from the early 20th century onwards, we see many women from the Middle East and Arab states that have come forward to shatter the normative understanding of Islam. Muslim women scholars or Islamic Feminists have tried to incorporate feminist understanding while interpreting the Quran. They have been radical in their thought to emphasize on equality of men and women, and also on women’s participation in the public sphere. Their perception of the Quran and Hadith is derived from the fact that the Quran was interpreted in the 9th century by men to suit their notions of superiority and to align it with patriarchy. This interpretation is heavily challenged by Islamic feminists because they believe that the social setting of that time was patriarchal. They believe that tafsir (interpretation of Quran) should be done in a manner that looks at historical, sociological, anthropological, political and literary criticisms while approaching the Quran. They emphasize on the Quran as a book that had the principles of gender equality, but, this notion was weakened, as the men of the time interpreted the Quran, promoting patriarchy.
The main focus and approaches of Islamic feminists are revisiting, citing and deconstructing- 1)Revisiting the Quranic verses to correct false stories that have shored up male superiority, 2) citing the verses that speak about gender equality, and, 3)deconstructing the verses that are attentive to male and female differences. While doing so, they also emphasize the difference between classical and universal values. Arguing that was once written in the Quran as deriving from the classic period, where patriarchy and male superiority was a norm, cannot be used as a universal value to justify male superiority. These verses in the Quran need to be viewed contextually, as historical rather than universal. Islam, as a religion, is seen as being tangled with patriarchy and male supremacy, but, the work of feminist scholars has helped detangle such customs with religion. These patriarchal values have been time and again justified using the Hadith and the Quran to such an extent, that violence directed towards women, also finds its roots in Islamic sources. Islamic feminists have emphasised on verses and parts in the Quran, where violence is seen as a sin and have made cogent arguments to support that Islam does not conform to violence against women.
Regardless of extensive work done by academic scholars like Lila Abu Lughod, Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed, the two terms- Islam and feminism, could not be correlated or accepted. Feminism, by many, is still seen as a taboo subject that impacts the private and public settings, negatively addressing women. However, a movement called Musawah-which means equality in Arabic, has done some grassroots level work on this issue. This movement was spearheaded by twelve women from diverse countries like Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan etc. It was officially launched in 2009, and their main aim was to link international human rights along with a progressive interpretation of the Quran. They uphold this vision by producing educational materials and fighting legal and women rights by partnering with local NGO’s across various Muslim countries. This organization now works as a research institute in the field of Islamic studies, to provide a counter-narrative that is liberating to women. They believe that Islamic scriptures were written at a time when patriarchy was a norm and hence, it is important that people read the Quran and Islamic sources contextually. Musawah is working towards reforming the Muslim World in a manner that is not oppressive to women while working with Islamic jurisprudence.
Despite various research and grassroots level work, people are unable to correlate the two terms. Along with this, there is still a negative approach towards feminism, that people have not deconstructed. These notions have posed as a challenge to emancipate women from the shackles of patriarchy. Despite the negative approach, the only way to move towards a better and equal future is a positive understanding and incorporation of various terms and concepts that seem to challenge the pre-set notions. Women in the Muslim world have struggled to break free from the patriarchal world because it almost felt blasphemous, but, the work of Islamic scholars in the re-interpretation of the Quran has given us new hope for a better and equal world.
Badran, Margot. 2009. Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergence. London, OneWorld Publication
Segran, Elizabeth. 2013. The Rise of Islamic Feminist. The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/rise-islamic-feminists/ )