December 19, 2020
Muslim women speak. While Muslim women have spoken through out the entire history of Islam, today their voices have consolidated into a critical mass. A critical mass ensures that this momentum will not be cut out or turned around. Thus there is a momentum for change in gender dynamics everywhere there are Muslims.
When I say everywhere, I mean this as one of the factors of localization. There are many factors of localization, race and ethnicity, religion, language, class, gender identity and the like. Each of these localities are further dynamic and complex in their intersection, thereby indicating a large number of variants. Thus, when I speak about the critical mass, I mean across these variants localizations.
Despite this critical mass, Muslim women do not speak in one voice. In this presentation, I will track the epistemology and ideology of the diversity of voices as the localization that helped towards the construction of Islamic feminism. Islamic feminism is the newest iteration of a 200 year global movement of women in modernity. How do we understand Islamic feminism as feminist and How do we understand equally Islamic feminism as Islamic? I plan to answer that through 25 years of my own scholarship and activism— even before I was able to identify as feminist myself.
“In 1995, 17,000 delegates and 30,000 activists from across the globe, streamed to Beijing to attend the fourth World Women’s Conference. This was one of the largest meetings to promote women’s rights ever held.” I joined this conference as one of the representatives of an NGO called Sisters in Islam. I was one of the largest number of Muslim women ever to participate at this international level. As a consequence of so many Muslim women being present, we decided to make our own break out group to determine how best to move forward as a collective and to communicate to the international organizing bodies like the UN. Instead, the attempt at nightly meetings turned into a shouting match.
Those in attendance could not find a way to move through specific localization to determine what a collective would look like for future collaboration and strategy building. The organization I attended with Sisters in Islam, is a Malaysian faith based human rights organization. SISI is now more than 30 years strong, having started by a mere eight women when I moved to that country to begin teaching at the International Islamic University. Since we attended Beijing to “represent” our constituency of Muslim women in the SEAsian localization, here are a few key factors of that localization. Most Muslim women in Southeast Asia identify strongly with their faith. There are fewer who identify as some post-Muslims unlike in the numbers you find from the MENA region, from Asia, from South Asia and from other parts of the world with Muslim populations, including from Turkey. Muslim women in SEAsia have greater peace with their identity as Muslims and at the same time have serious concerns about or object to patriarchal and hegemonic assertions made in the name of Islam. In other words, groups like Sisters in Islam assert their choice of Islam and their rejection of patriarchy.
I use the theme of this conference on localization to discuss the diversity of Muslim women at Beijing because at that time we were hopelessly divided along two major ideological differences. These differences would become critical to all discussions about the historical development of Islamic feminism. At the time of the Beijing conference and for at least a decade following it, into the new millennium, very few people used the term Islamic Feminism. I refer to two major foremothers and feminist giants Dr.s Margot Badran, a Muslim and Middle Eastern women and Ziba Mir- Hosseini a legal anthropologist both who began to use the term in the late 1990’s. It was not a household word and it is still misunderstood. However it is the way towards the future.
At this Beijing meeting in 1995 a distinction was made between two major perspectives on Islam and gender. These two not only dominated the meeting but also set the agenda for Muslim women’s activism into the next millennium. Reconciling the ideological differences between these two prepared the ground for the creation Islamic feminism as the newest feminist discourse, analysis, spirituality and activism.
When I say, Islamic feminism was not even a phrase used until late 1990, I do not ignore those Muslims who identified as feminists. So let me unpack these terms, their relationship to each other and their localization across the discourse, activism, knowledge production and spirituality. Most importantly, why were Muslim women so hopelessly divided at those nightly meetings in Beijing; and how did we move forward?
Before I proceed with this, let me localize myself. Every speaker speaks from a locality. Identifying my locality helps identify why I engage in this discussion in the way that I am engaged. I was born in a believing family. My father was a Methodist Minister. I grew up with the God of Love al-Wadud, as represented by my father. I was a seeker. By my sophomore year in University I began practicing Buddhism and lived in a mediation house near campus. One year later I became interested in Islam and started my own study.
On Thanksgiving day nearly 50 years ago 1972, I entered a small mosque in the capital city of the United States of America and walked out of it having made my shahadah. I could thus declare myself to be Muslim. Within 6 month of that date, my life course was set in motion. I fell in love with the Qur’an from only English translation and turned the rest of my life up to the present moment in deep study and reflection with the Qur’an as both sacred text and as spiritual guidance for social justice, equality and human dignity. I have not wavered from this dedication in almost 50 years.
I am a Black woman who was raised in the context of US white supremacy. I have never forgotten the lessons learned in the struggle for human dignity and the struggle still goes on today, in the most recent movement: Black Lives Matter. As a woman, I have never experienced the idea that I am less than someone else on the basis of my gender. I have encountered as much sexism and patriarchy as I have racism, but against the subtleties of sexism cause me greater plus and as such I have given greater attention to my scholarships activism and spirituality.
As one of 8 founding members of Sisters in Islam around 1989, I brought my scholarship in line with activism to advocate for
women’s equality in Islam as a fundamental right ordained by Allah. Arriving in Beijing I was surprised to witness the great divide. The two strongest voices who were fighting in Beijing, did not speak for me nor did they speak for Sisters in Islam.
One voice, which is best identified as secular Muslim feminism, followed a model of feminism that was dominant in western liberal discourses about women’s rights. Despite many good and necessary features of this expression of feminism, its localization was unexamined. Still it laid claim to being universal. Actually, like all feminism, it centered those most able to participate in its construct and promotion: namely, white, middle and upper class, educated women from the global north.
So, for instance when my foremother Soujourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a woman”? She had to ask this question because those who claimed to be speaking on behalf of all WOMEN, were still participating in racists institutions that had enslaved the likes of Sojourner herself. Even after the legal emancipation of slaves in the US these same women continued to exploit, ignore, oppress and repress Black women.
Amongst Sojourner’s descendents over several generations, is a woman named Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the phrase “intersectionality” as “basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What is often missing, is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts..” Crenshaw offered this statement 30 years ago. Still you must note, even she does not mention religion.This is a major factor needed to understand Islamic feminism.
As a Black woman and a Muslim I felt no calling to feminism in the way it was promoted during the Beijing conference. I am born in an identity that had been excluded in the particular localization of mainstream western feminism. I was then and am now strongly identified with my Islam. I did not then and do not now allow the localization of others to side line my identity, no matter how dominant tropes.
So in Beijing,1995, I and Sisters in Islam Malaysia, did not comply with the dominant articulation of Muslim women’s well being that used the word feminism. This is because their concluding statement indicates their position that you must remove religion from the discussion of women’s rights. In fact, they said, you cannot have both Islam and human rights. Those who identified as feminist expressed a need to remove all religion from discourse over women’s equality and justice. All of the Muslim women who aligned themselves with this perspective of Feminism as mainly generated in the liberal west; may or may not have identified as anti-religious, but they claimed universal human rights in opposition to Islam. Thus, I called this location Muslim secular feminism.
This location of feminism by the way led the cross national debates over gender equality for the next decade. Anyone who advocated to include Islam was considered to belong to the other dominant voice of Muslim women’s agency at Beijing: the Islamist perspective.
The other perspective that dominated Muslim women attending the Beijing conference is a voice promoted in alignment with the rising tide of Political Islam or Islamism. So I call this second voice the Islamist perspective. This perspective laid claim to being THE voice of Islam. In fact in this perspective patriarchy is taken as sacred, or Divine However, Islam, from this perspective did not interrogate its neo-conservatism and patriarchy. It gave men, men’s ways of knowing and men’s ways of Being preference as if this presence was commanded by Allah and established by the Prophet, upon him be peace.
The architects of Political Islam and the women at Beijing who advocated as Islamists are adamant that Islam was preferred over all other systems of thought and practice. In particular, Islam was conceived to be diametrically opposed to any agenda set by the west or by international bodies like the UN and CEDAW (the convention for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women). Such treaties and international bodies were taken only to be an intentional opposition to the truth of Islam, which is superior to them. As such they should be rejected and shunned. At the least this Islamist perspective also advocated the idea: that you cannot have both islam and human rights.
Three things stand out from this dichotomy. One, neither of these two voices spoke for Sisters in Islam. And while they would not listen to the location promoted by SIS at this meetings and beyond, this location would prove very strategic for future progress on Islam and women’s equality. Two: while these two voices were in clear opposition to each other, they agreed that you cannot have both Islam and Feminism, or Islam and Human Rights. Three, the best kept secret that would prove the undoing of their dominance, rested on this second thing.
For while both defined feminism only as secular and even anti- religion, both defined Islam only in a patriarchal and hegemonic way. The construction of Islamic feminism confirmed the need to have agency over the definition of terms in a dynamic, intersectional way. Islamic feminism promotes a definition of Islam that first and foremost embraces the lived realities and localization of Muslim women, in all their complicated, contradictory and messy ways. After claiming this agency, we assume authority in our own definitions of both Islam and feminism.
Feminism means women are full human beings. All humans are equal. Women do not need the permission of men to be equal. We were granted our full dignity and equality by Allah at the time of our creation. The purpose of human creation is to be khalifah: a moral agent of Allah in Allah’s creation, the earth. There is a consensus that Islam is just. In Classical times, justice was understood in the context of equitable distribution across gross inequitable differences. Today, however, justice must include equality. Equality is not sameness; it is honor and dignity within our distinct localizations, our lived realities and our differences. After five decades loving and studying the Qur’an, I have come to these fundamental ideas about the essence of what it means to be human from Islamic primary sources.
Islam is a process by which human beings (female, male and non- binary) turn toward the highest spiritual ideal or ultimate Reality (called Allah) in engaged surrender. Engaged surrender is felt in the heart as a matter of faith, understood in the mind as a matter of consciousness, and put into action with the whole body. Actions are the most important dimension of Islam and yet can only be judged ultimately by Allah. Islam is built upon a foundational monotheistic principle called Tawhid. The Tawhidic paradigm demonstrates that faith in One God/Allah requires equality and dignity between all humanity on a horizontal line of reciprocity. The Tawhidic paradigm is foundational to social justice from an Islamic perspective. It is also the cornerstone to Islamic Feminism.
Thus Islam as a way of life requires full humanity for women, or feminism. Using and critically analyzing Islamic sources to dismantle gender hegemony is essential to Islamic feminism as a methodology. From an Islamic feminist perspective, we use a critical lens to examine the context of Muslim women’s real lives. This lived reality comes from the principal rubric for understanding texts. It puts context over texts. For example it does no good for scholars to refer to justice in Islamic textual sources and yet in application Muslim women are not experiencing that justice. The only ones to confirm whether justice has been met, are Muslim women themselves.
Today, Muslim women have reached a critical mass. We are unwilling to relinquish the definitions of either Islam or feminism only to those who exclude us on our own terms, based on our own localizations and incorporating our lived realties. We do this to help create new policies within our individual nation states and at the international level.
20 years after co-founding Sisters in Islam, a global movement for reform in Muslim personal status laws was launch named Musawah. This was 2009. Musawah offered a dynamic and gender inclusive definition of Islam that radically integrated core Islamic values as a part of feminism in order to construct the arena of Islamic feminism. It not only confirms that women are equal before Allah but also constructs new knowledge in order to create an active spiritually ripe reality of Islam that helps dismantle all inequalities in gender relations. Thus Islamic feminism is the most dynamic way to perceive and experience Islam. It is open to all people of conscience, female, male and non-binary, and permits all Muslims to live within their dignity as Muslims.
I am an Islamic Feminist. It has not always been so In order for me to arrive at this place in my journey I had to overcome the opposition set in motion at Beijing conference, where feminism and human rights had to be secular and Islam had to be patriarchal.
At the launching of Muslim in February, 2009, I arrived to my own articulation of feminism. A feminism that embraces my faith location and my social justice location equally. The Musawah global movement celebrates gender inclusive scholarship and social justice activism in faith trajectory. A cursory look over the website features the activity of what started with 250 women and men from 50 countries in Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Muslim minority contexts in Europe, North America and Australia and has moved on to embrace both the necessity of regional and national even sub-national localization under the banner of Islam’s tawhidic thrust towards a unified humanity before a Single Divine Reality, Allah.
Our struggles were confirmed by the launching and subsequent decade long work of Musawah. Namely: Islam belongs to us. We take Islam on our own terms. We fulfill the Musawah mandate to make changes in policy, culture, law, art and spirituality within the context of our own realities as Muslim women and citizens of the modern nation state. The Musawah launch was the place where I came out as an Islamic feminist because I could enter the global discourses fully in all my localizations at an intersection. I advocate for the same for others.
So in conclusion let me provide more coherently the answer to my question. How is Islamic feminism feminist and how is it Islamic? Feminism is the radical idea that women are full human beings. In Islamic sources, a human being is created by Allah to be khalifah on the earth. A khalifah serves Allah through their bodies on this earth. No duty is restricted to one on the basis of gender (except for the two privileges that belong only to women if they choose: namely, child bearing and nursing from their own bodies.) Every other duty can be performed by any gender provided they do the performance as part of their service to Allah. All humans are equal to all other humans because only Allah is Akbar, above. Thus according to tawhid all humans are on a line of horizontal and reciprocal equality with each other. Thus it is through Islam that we claim the fulfillment of out humanity and that is what makes an Islamic feminist.
The first draft of this article, with the title “Localization Is the Way Towards Islamic Feminism”, was presented on December 19, 2020, at the “Being an Immigrant Woman Within the Local Movement” conference organized by Havle Women’s Association. You can click here to access other texts of our Feminism Localization conference.