The Course & Future of Islamic Feminism
Margot Badran is one of the most widely-known scholars of Islamic feminism. A historian by training, she has authored many books including: Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences (Oneworld Press, Oxford, 2009). She is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC and a Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand she speaks about the trajectory of Islamic feminism some two decades after it surfaced as a named phenomenon and where she sees it now headed.
Q: One way to understand Islamic feminism is to know how it differs from secular Muslim feminism about which you have written quite extensively. Can you elaborate on these differences?
A: When secular feminism first emerged in sevral Muslim communities early in the 20th century it articulated women’s rights and gender equality in a composite discourse interweaving of nationalist, Islamic modernist, and humanitarian arguments, and later drew upon human rights and democracy arguments. Islamic feminism, which appeared in the late 20th century, grounded the idea of gender equality and gender justice in the Qur’an and other religious sources. Secular feminisms erupted on the scene as nation-based social movementsin Muslim contexts whereas Islamic feminism surfaced in the form of a discourse in the global arena. It was not long before secular feminists accessed Islamic feminist arguments to strengthen their long-fought and exceedingly frustrating campaigns to reform Muslim personal status codes and in making demands in other areas when Islam was given as a pretext for withholding rights. Women activists in Morocco, for example, mobilized a combination of Islamic and secular feminism in pushing for the reform of the Muslim Family Law or Mudawwana. They did this with great success as we witnessed in the 2004 revision, replacing the patriarchal model of the family with an egalitarian model. It is the only instance of a religiously-backed egalitarian Muslim family law in existence and a shining example of what can be achieved by concerted feminist action. However, we must not forget that political will from on high was a necessary ingredient in translating sound arguments into positive law.
Q: Do you agree with the overall secular feminist critique of the notion of the complementarity of sex roles underlying general Muslim understandings? Might there not be some merit in this notion of gender complimentarity which Western and Western-influenced secular Muslim feminists in general do not acknowledge because of their particular way of conceiving gender equality or sameness?
A: Actually it was Islamic feminists who advanced a stringent critique of the notion of complementary gender roles in the family in favor of an egalitarian model of the family backed by strong arguments grounded in their re-readings of the Qur’an. Earlier, Muslim secular feminists—as was then common among feminists in the West—had argued for gender equality in society but accepted the idea of complimentary or unequal gender roles in the family. Muslim secular feminists were influenced by Islamic modernist thinking of the period around the turn of the 20th century which accepted a patriarchal model of the family, using Islamic modernist arguments to call simply for reforms within this model. Secular feminists, for example, demanded that legal controls to be put on men’s exercise of their power and privileges and insisted that men be legally bound to fulfill their end of the bargain and meet their responsibilities. They also demanded an extension of women’s rights in the context of family, especially in the area of divorce and child custody, and demanded controls on men’s practice of polygamy. It was the new interpretive work of the Islamic feminists that produced the idea of full gender equality within the context of the family—a gender equality that accounted for gender difference—as in keeping with Islam.
Q: Much of the focus of Islamic feminism today centers on promoting gender-just personal status or family laws. Given that Muslim personal status laws weight heavily against women this is, of course, understandable. But do you feel that this intensive focus on these laws is somewhat narrow and restrictive and tantamount to depoliticizing Islamic feminism as a potential project for holistic emancipation?
A: It is important to contextualize. In Muslim-majority countries where unjust Muslim family laws continue to be in place, such as in Egypt to name just one, I would argue just the opposite and say that the intensified effort to substitute a patriarchal model of the family with an egalitarian model constitutes a re-politicization of the struggle to win the full equality of citizens across the public-private spectrum or an equality not stopped at the door of the family. This would bring about ‘holistic emancipation’, to use your term. Intensive and skillful political work is needed to pull this off and to clear out the last refuge of patriarchy that tries to shield itself behind the walls it likes to erect around the family, whether legal or material. Islamic feminism, along with secular feminism, is engaging in a determined and necessary act of re-politicizing as it insists upon erasing the travesty of national constitutions guaranteeing the equality of all citizens and clearly this is part of the overall democratic struggle.
Q: For Islamic feminism to become ‘mainstream’, or, at least, to gain credence among the ulema or the male religious establishment, do you feel it is important that Islamic feminists seek to dialogue with them as well?
A: I think that Islamic feminism’s doctrine of gender equality and justice or an egalitarian model of Islam will become mainstream before the male religious establishment takes it on board. However, I think it can be of some use for Islamic feminists, as well as secular feminists, to connect with the ulema and the male religious establishment. Some feminists have tried to interact with religious scholars, muftis, and imams with mixed results. Simply getting access is not always easy. I was fortunate a few years ago to gain an interview with Shaikh Ahmad al-Tayyib when he was Grand Mufti of Egypt, who, as you know, is now Shaikh al-Azhar. I wanted to know about the persistent refusal to allow women to be appointed to the position of mufti and wanted the view from inside the religious establishment. Women then, and still now, are barred from the position. The Grand Mufti acknowledged, something widespread in Islamic feminist scholarly circles, that there are no gender impediments in fiqh preventing a woman from being mufti. But, he claimed that women were not ready. What about the ‘alimat at al-Azhar, including distinguished scholars of fiqh such as Professor Suad Salih, who had been campaigning for women to be able to be appointed as mufti?, I wondered out loud. We had a lively exchange but of course I understood the ‘larger politics’ and after a bit left it there.
Let me recount another experience. A few years earlier, I had obtained a meeting with the then Shaikh al-Azhar, Shaikh Muhammad al-Tantawi. I was a student at al-Azhar University and I have kept up ties and this is how I was able to get the meeting. Anyway, I presented the Shaikh Al-Azhar with my book on the history of secular feminist movement in Egypt. In front of me he gave orders to an English-speaking shaikh to read my book (this was before the Arabic edition was published by the Supreme Council of Culture in Egypt) to see if it passed muster from an Islamic point of view. When the book received a good report card I was delighted—not that I was looking for approval—but because it signaled a positive view of Egyptian feminism emanating from within the religious establishment. I thought how many people from Muslim societies and in the West insist that feminism is anathema to Islam—and alas, still do. Historically, feminists in Egypt have reached out to ulema. Secular feminists early last century sought help from Azharites in combating drugs and prostitution. They sought religious opinions on the lawfulness of women voting and being elected to parliament, and when they got fatwas arguing it was against Islam they answered back. Today we take for granted in most places that the vote for women and their participation in formal political life is in keeping with Islam. In more recent years, feminists have been connecting with ‘alimat or women Islamic scholars at al-Azhar. In campaigning for women to be appointed judges, feminist lawyers sought out ‘alimat at al-Azhar for religious arguments and have done the same in their campaign to reform the Muslim Personal Status Code.
Q: Doesn’t the tendency in some Islamic feminist circles to rely simply on Islamic arguments for gender equality possibly undermine and inhibit an agenda of comprehensive reform that might require more than just Islamic arguments to back it up?
A: It is important to distinguish between theoretical articulations and activist enterprises. To use the language of Islam to argue that the Islamic religion endorses the principle of gender equality is one thing. But, when engaging in activist campaigns to change laws, including religiously-backed laws, and practices imposed in the name of religion, Islamic arguments need to be used in combination with other arguments, especially constitutional and human rights arguments. And, of course, the ways the various kinds of arguments are deployed depends on exactly what it is one want to change and arguments must be fine-tuned accordingly.
Q: Can one see Islamic feminism as related to contemporary Islamic apologetics? Could it be, at least in part, a response to non-Muslim criticism of Islam, particularly with regard to the status of women in Islam?
A: I see Islamic feminism as quite distinct from Islamic apologetics. Islamic feminism confronts ideas and practices of gender inequality and injustice promoted in the name of Islam, demonstrating from religious sources, foremost, the Qur’an, that these are not only un-Islamic but anti-Islamic as well. Islamic feminism thus brings into the sharp light of day negative notions and behaviors of found in Muslim quarters, or shall we say the “bad news.” Islamic feminism also brings the “good news” of demonstrable gender equality and justice within an Islamic framework. Thus, Islamic feminism brings to attention the bad news with the good. Islamic feminism dealing with problematic gender thinking and practices checks and rereads religious texts, and offers clarifications in favor of an egalitarian reading and practice of Islam. Islamic feminism is not an apologia. Some people do use the arguments of Islamic feminism to defend Islam from attacks relating to women and gender. As we know, after 9/11 attacks against Muslims have been wide-spread and virulent. Islamic feminist discourse had been circulating for a good decade by then and provided ready answers-back to the slurs and diatribes about “women in Islam.” While falling into apologetics may be understandable, Islamic feminism is not about defending Islam but about defending women and gender equality and justice within Islam. When one gets into an apologetic mood there can be easy slippage into defending gender ideas and practices that one would ordinarily not defend or sweeping them under the carpet. This certainly does not help the Islamic feminist project.
Q: How do you reflect on the course that Islamic feminism has traversed over the years till today?
A: Let me point to two developments in Islamic feminism. One, an expansion of Islamic theory/theology by a new generation of scholars as well some pioneers who are pushing the limits of the earlier discourse in thinking out-of-the-box but not out of an Islamic context.
The Moroccan scholar Raja Rhouni, among the new generation, expounds her theory of post-foundationalist islamic (she uses the lower case) feminism in her recent book Secular and Islamic Feminist Critiques in the Work of Fatima Mernissi. Pioneering Islamic feminist theologian Amina Wadud in her book Inside the Gender Jihad takes her thinking forward into new bold zones. Such scholars are moving beyond the confines of classical fiqh and tafsir and provide new ways on understanding the secular and the religious and their imbrications. These scholars push the notion of inclusivity (on many registers) which was the hall-mark of emergence Islamic feminism. The other development is the move to the social movement phase, involving the shift from the global to the local. Islamic feminism started out as an open discursive space which anyone could and did enter, whether to create, elaborate, debate or to disseminate its discourse. It had the hallmark of the inclusive. Islamic feminism was not tied to Muslim identity or a faith affiliation. Indeed many non-Muslims welcomed this staunch egalitarian Islamic discourse, and some called themselves as Islamic feminists. The more discourses of equality the better, especially since we live together in societies and families. Now, however, identity politics and exclusivity are creeping as some endeavor to steer a transition of Islamic feminism from the global to the local in the form of social movement activism. This is seen in Musawah—the Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family which launched itself in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. A Muslims-only endeavor, Musawah (Arabic for equality), which is directing its effort to reforming “the Muslim family”, narrows down the circumference of activism. Why, many are asking, should Muslims only direct and decide on issues in campaigns mobilizing Islamic feminist discourse aimed at reforming fiqh-backed family laws? Secular feminist organizations, including Muslim and non-Muslim women advancing Islamic modernist arguments, conducted campaigns to reform Muslim family laws along with promoting a range of women’s rights from the 1920s. European colonizers practiced “divide and rule” tactics in trying to keep religious communities at bay. So, after long decades of trans-communal feminist collaboration is there now to be a re-communalization fostered by a new identity politics—a feminist identity politics of all things? Our societies are complex and it is no good, and in fact perilous, to flatten them out and to draw lines around religious identity and to do this in the name of seeking equality. Muslims and non-Muslims live together not only in society but in families. Religiously-mixed families are widespread—the new face of wa‘qa and mu‘amalat–realities and social relations. Muslim and non-Muslim women are in it together and national constitutions celebrate and protect their equality. So are we now to corral equality struggles, or indeed, equality itself, within ‘gated-religious communities’ in national spaces? This whiffs of the old millet system of the times past of Ottoman rule with its division of religious and ethnic groups into separate entities. Feminists of all backgrounds were among the liberals and progressives who helped dismantle this system a century ago. Does equality ideally exist among all citizens and along the continuum of family and society—a continuum that Islamic feminism posited? We must all participate movements to change family laws in our countries. In the face of present developments it is a good time to catch our breath and take a “conscientious pause” in the words of feminist legal theorist Janet Halley. Let’s get our equality straight. Let equality be inclusive. Citizens who live together bonded by national covenants need to decide together and to organize together and not to be divided by the global going local in exclusionary clothes.
Q: What do you see as Islamic feminism’s future?
A: Ah the crystal ball question! What we need at the moment is to build local, that is, national, social movements from within that are informed by the principles of equality and justice that Islamic feminism shares with democracy and human rights ideals. We all possess multiple and highly layered identities connected with race, ethnicity, nationality, and creed, and we need to manage these as individuals and members of groups in a way that honors the human dignity and rights of all. As we live in pluralistic societies, nothing less will do. As I just mentioned, Islamic feminism is showing signs of being narrowed down and ‘controlled’ by gatekeepers who deploy religious identity as a new sign of authority. Oddly enough, this is coming from those who resist and defy the authority that the religious establishment has always sought to retain for itself. We are not used to seeing progressives act this way. As for Islamic feminism’s future, it struck me back in the early 1990s when it was making its debut that Islamic feminism would become more secular in the sense that it would become part of a complex weave of multiple voices clamoring for gender justice and gender equality. I see that Islamic feminism is presently ushering in what I call “the new secular feminism”—a secular feminism re-invigorated by a more robust discourse of gender equality in religious language—which celebrates inclusivity. Multiple streams will feed the new secular feminism which belongs to us all as we build it collectively.