On the Merits and Limits of Islamic Feminism(s)

Author: Merve Kütük Kuriş

December 19, 2020

In this discussion, I will talk about the literature on Islamic feminism(s) that has gained momentum among academia and social movements since the 1990s. amina wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah Al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, Hidayet Tuksal and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, whom we call the founding names, as well as the new generation Kecia Ali, Ay Chaudhry, Ayshapetenullah and Muslim male academics Abou El-Fadl and Mohsen I will try to summarize Kadivar’s contributions to the field of Islamic feminism (s). I will try to summarize the contributions of the new generation Kecia Ali, Ayesha Chaudhry, Ayshapetenullah and Muslim male academicians Khaled Abou El-Fadl and Mohsen Kadivar to the field of Islamic feminism(s) in addition to amina wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah Al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, Hidayet Tuksal and Ziba Mir-Hosseini whom we call the founding names. I will mention the main arguments, the conceptual framework, methodological tools and theological dilemmas faced by Islamic feminism(s). Finally, I will conclude my discussion by addressing the possibilities that Islamic feminism(s) offer to the daily life of Muslim women.

Before I begin, I think it would be useful to briefly dwell on the delayed introduction of the conceptualization of Islamic feminism into academic literature. As amina wadud mentioned in the opening speech of the symposium, Islamic feminism has long been considered as an oxymoron conceptualization, and for this reason, Islamic circles have taken a distant approach to this concept. It is possible to find the reasons for this distant stance that I will refer to in my speech today for each theologian, especially for the founding names, in their individual life stories and multiple identities. For example, we can say that Asma Barlas made use of feminism(s), especially third world feminism, as an analytical tool, but showed resistance to being called as an “Islamic feminist”. So Barlas, while criticizing the dominant and privileged role of male power in establishing Islamic normativity, makes use of feminist methodology as a strategic tool. However, Barlas, an American of Pakistani origin, grew up with colonial memory, and after the 9th of September, she is an academician who experienced how USA had legitimized the invasions under the name of “fight against terrorism” and more importantly how some feminist organizations became part of this political project with the discourse of “liberating Muslim women”. For this reason, Asma Barlas defines being considered a feminist as “symbolic violence” and underlines that she stepped into this field of research not because she was a feminist, but a believing woman.

amina wadud, on the other hand, has been criticized for many years as an African-American Muslim for appealing to a “Western” ideology like feminism, for “not absorbing authentic Islam.” wadud, however, has already kept her distance from the field of feminism, which she finds white, elitist and secular in her experience of her multiple and intersectional identity. For this reason, we can say that wadud avoided the conceptualization of Islamic feminism in her early periods in order not to be perceived as a Western feminist and therefore anti-Islamic. We can see that she used feminism as a convenient methodological tool rather than focusing on feminism.

So how do we define Islamic feminism(s)? Islamic feminism can be defined as the effort of Muslim women to resist patriarchal domination and seek equality within Islam through interpretation, fiqh and hadith studies. Let us underline that we are talking about a social movement as well as an academic and theological movement. However, today I will focus on the knowledge creation of Muslim women in the fields of interpretation, fiqh and hadith rather than activism. In short, Islamic feminism is a literature developed against the argument that Islam is inherently a patriarchal religion. It defends that Islam is a religion based on justice and equality by focusing on the category of gender. It aims to undermine the structure of the Islamic tradition, which is integrated with patriarchy, especially in the field of family law, and therefore the monopoly of the male elite in understanding and interpreting Quran and hadith literature.

The three main arguments of Islamic feminism can be listed as follows: (a) the ontological equality of men and women, (b) the necessity of a new jurisprudence in regulating the relations between men and women due to the dynamic nature of Islamic law, (c) destroying the male-centrism as power centers that produce knowledge, and Muslim women gaining equal access and interpretation to Islamic resources. As the first argument suggests, Islamic feminists emphasize that men and women are ontologically equal. Here we see that they refer to a series of verses that we can categorize as “verses of equality.” For example, amina wadud (1999) claims that the notion of the verse in 3:30 refers to a state of moral agency assigned to every man and woman, regardless of gender. Again, referring to the verse 4: 1, wadud (1999) and Barlas (2011) underline that men and women are created from a single soul and that superiority is related not to gender but to being pious. In other words, they state that each individual’s right to self-realization is a right bestowed by Allah and which cannot be withdrawn by any other authority.

Referring to one of the Muslim male reformists, Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian Shiite mollah who has been living in exile in the USA for a long time due to regime pressure, may be explanatory when talking about the ontological equality of men and women. Kadivar (2013) explains the women not being treated equal with the dominant influence of Aristotle’s ontology in pre-modern Muslim male ulama, despite the verses on equality. Aristotle’s emphasis on the hierarchical division of slaves, males and females grounds on the biological differences between the sexes as ontological inequalities. Therefore, according to Kadivar, the traditionalist ulama does not define woman as a rational and competent equal individual due to her “nature”. Based on Aristotle’s proportional justice principle, instead of fundamental equality, ulama stipulate that women should be treated as “deserved” rather than equal. According to Kadivar, the strong belief in the principle of relative justice underlies within the interpretation of Quranic concepts such as men being the protector of the famıly and wilaya in the favor of men and considering women’s demands for equality as an anti-Sharia movement as well as criticising them. At this point, we can say that Islamic feminists act on the principle that God would not persecute. For Islamic feminists, the very state of one person (woman in this example) being the object of another one (a man) is the persecution itself. If we interpret this situation within the framework of wadud’s (1999) “paradigm of monotheism”, considering men superior to women actually conflicts with the unity of God. Azizah Al-Hibri (1997), who bravely takes this point of view one step further, argues that the only entity that opposes the authority of God is the devil, therefore the expectation of obedience to the man is a devilish claim for a woman who aims to transcend his authority.

It is therefore an essential step for Islamic feminists to weaken the male ulama’s central authority in law-making. That is exactly why amina wadud (2006) conceptualized women’s efforts on producing knowledge within Islam and demanding equal power as gender jihad. Here, it should be noted that Khaled Abou El-Fadl (2001) went back to the 10th century and underlined the fact that the positions of women who had given fatwas and who had been part of the knowledge production at that time were erased from people’s minds in the modern period. Islamic feminists emphasize that verses that are not related to worshipping and that regulate interpersonal relationships (such as marriage, divorce, inheritance) should be re-evaluated and reformed in the light of socio-economic and political developments. For Islamic feminists who remind that Islamic jurisprudence is a state of constant action, family law that denies the changing role of women in social life should be the main focus.

So what are the conceptual and methodological tools that Islamic feminists use to justify their claim to equality? The first of the conceptual mainstays of Islamic feminism stems from them seperating shariah and fiqh clearly. While the shariah refers to the revelation that is believed to come from God, that is the sacred, they underline that fiqh, which is the field of Islamic law is completely human-made. In other words, fiqh is a law, a legal construct that people make with reference to Quran and sunnah derived from people’s efforts to understand revelation. As Abou El-Fadl (2001) has accentuated in his book Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, the most fundamental problem for Muslim women is law-making Islamic scholars and traditionalists in particular rejecting all kinds of bills for reformation by claiming “That is what God says in Qur’an.”. However, thanks to the conceptual distinction between shariah and fiqh, Islamic feminists show that the voice that claims “That is what God says in Qur’an.” is not shariah but man-made fiqh literature. In other words, Islamic feminists emphasize that “God does not say that” and what has canonized Islamic literature is actually a poem of male interpretations. amina wadud claims that people’s efforts to understand revelation cannot be understood independently of both their personal identity and the social structure and time they were born into, and states that the texts of fiqh reflect the perspective of the interpreter as well as trying to show the text’s purpose. Based on this claim, the reason for the patriarchal interpretations on issues concerning women and the family is the male elite’s point of view that has occupied the monopoly of interpretation for centuries.

Islamic feminists take advantage of three interrelated methodological tools in order to develop an egalitarian perspective: (a) evaluating the text in its historical context, (b) evaluating Qur’an and hadiths from a holistic perspective, (c) including women’s daily life experiences to their effort to understand Qur’an and hadiths. Islamic feminists claim that the verses cannot be evaluated independently of the circumstances of the period in which they were revealed and for what reason they were transcribed. According to them, Qur’an and hadiths should be read considering their historical and socio-cultural contexts. In order not to ignore the claim of the universality of Qur’an, Islamic feminists attach importance to a holistic perspective and claim that the basic values of Qur’an such as equality, justice and fairness should be taken as basis when interpreting the verses in order to understand it. Moreover, the verses should not be interpreted individually, but in terms of their context and their relation to other verses on the same theme. If there is a contradiction with the basic values ​​of Qur’an in the provisions concerning women and family, they should be reevaluated. The most basic criterion here is to center the “paradigm of monotheism”, which is based on the knowledge that Allah will not persecute. In other words, what should be emphasized are none other living thing to be compared with the superiority and uniqueness of God and establishing a horizontal relation between man and woman. Finally, Islamic feminists emphasize the importance of taking not only the sacred texts into account, but also the daily life experiences of women and how laws affect these experiences thus creating Islamic jurisprudence in this direction. In this regard, it is important to include international texts on human and women’s rights in the interpretation process.

However, young generation Muslim women theologians such as Kecia Ali (2006), Ayscha Chaudhry (2015) and Aisha Yadavullah (2014) have developed new approaches that are distant to this conceptual framework built on “verses of equality”. The most basic arguments are in the words of Hidayatullah (2014) that feminist methodology was insufficient to construe the “hierarchy verses”, which are difficult to interpret. We can give the verse 4:34 on men being the protector of the family, that we frequently came across in the question and answer part of the conference today as example to hierarchy verses. In this verse, we encounter concepts such as violence against women and women’s disobedience that we would have difficulty interpreting in their own contexts. For the young generation of Islamic feminists, there are verses in search for equality that are futile to eliminate with contextual explanations. So the question is: How do we make peace with these “difficult verses” that point to male domination? The young generation of theologians state that these verses cause great dilemmas for believing women, and that women can become even hesitant within their worlds of belief. As a result of their own struggles with these difficulties, Chaudhry and Hidayatullah made studies focusing on these verses. For example, Chaudhry (2015) stated that his monograph, in which he only examined the verse 4:34, begins with the driving force of the inquiries he had experienced. Chaudhry examines how the male ulama has interpreted this verse in the same way beginning from the 19th century until today and narrates how the male ulama has been mythicized. Chaudhry’s claim against traditional canonized literature where the discussion had been on not the violence itself, but on the extent of violence and this claim require making a new reading that implies to a major disengagement from today’s male ulama, and that therefore does not refer to tradition. He argues that opposing violence is not un-Islamic to the extent that this separation takes place on an ethical plane. Kecia Ali (2006), on the other hand, states that it is a problematic method to search for equality in the text of the Quran from today’s framework as if it has been a fact that has always existed throughout history.

Many verses can be read in their own context, or there may be verses that do not allow this, so accepting them as they are and avoiding anachronism can be a way out for the believing woman. wadud, on the subject of difficult verses, follows the conceptualizations of “fate-based objection” or “conscientous pause” borrowed from Abou El-Fadl (2001). Abou El-Fadl states that it is difficult to understand the verses with today’s perception of equality within these conceptualizations. If a person is in a crisis of belief in those predicament moments, they should listen to the voice of their own conscience and be able to say “no” to the text, albeit difficult. According to Abou El-Fadl, faith-based rejection is a conscientious and individual attitude that does not detract from one’s belief. In other words, Abou El-Fadl does not refer to an academic evaluation in which verses are completely rejected by the theological method, but a personal attitude that people take against their own conscience in the world of faith.

Before bringing to an end, let’s briefly talk about what opportunities the Islamic feminism(s) literature offers us. First, we can mention the importance of the field of Islamic feminism(s) as it provides an alternative reading to traditional and unequal interpretations in family law reforms. Secondly, this literature is important as it shows us that the reforms are political, but not Islamic. It can be seen that different practices are made on the same issue in many Muslim majority countries where family law is based on shariah. For example, taking a traditional approach to the Moroccan example where the age of marriage is 18, Malaysia sets the age limit as 15. It is worth noting here that the age limit was reformed in Morocco and in other Maghreb cases, but a similar reform did not occur in Malaysia despite the lobbying activities of the world’s first Islamic feminist organization, Sisters in Islam. Perhaps the most effective example of the fact that reforming family law being a political issue is the custody reform in Iran. Many mothers who lost their husbands in the Iran-Iraq War lost custody of their children due to the shariah laws that gave custody rights to the father and his family. The regime which has lost its popularity due to the devastating effects of the war, goes to reform only for women who had lost their husbands in the war. While the custody remained with the father and family, mothers only obtained the rights to care for their children. However, a petition realized by women’s social mobility in 2006 that asked a similar demand to be extended among all women resulted in the marginalization of activists by the regime forces. From this point of view, it would not be wrong to claim that the field of Islamic law and the law-making process were determined by the political context rather than the text of the Qur’an. Thirdly, it can be said that Islamic feminism(s) functions as a pressure group for countries that have put annotation on international human and women’s rights texts. Chaudhry notes that many Muslim-majority countries have reserved the articles of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] that were related to combating violence against women. Many countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia put forward the argument that the implementation of the agreement would be in conflict with Islam and would break family unity. This situation leaves us alone with the problem of relativism and in a dilemma with reference to the principle of religious values and respecting differences among international platforms. At this point, it is of vital importance for women’s rights as Muslim women are expressing through feminist readings that the annotations put forward by Islamic countries are not Islamic, and Muslim women being accepted as new interlocutors for platforms such as CEDAW thanks to the alternative readings they offer. Chaudhry underlines that international structures such as the United Nations also need a religious education and formation, and at this point, Islamic feminism literature will function as a bridge.

Finally, let’s add here that the literature of Islamic feminism(s) is an important part of the male and female awareness activity. For example, in his study conducted simultaneously in Malaysia and Canada, Chaudhry states that Muslim women do not consider violence against women Islamic. Chaudhry, who shows women verses of violence from various scriptures, states that the vast majority of Muslim women do not recognize the “verse on violence”. He adds that among women who recognize it, the rate of women who claim: “Violence is incompatible with Islam.” is high. This example shows that women have already put the faith-based rejection mechanism conceptualized by Abou El-Fadl into operation in their daily life practices. In fact, the difference or the gap between the discourse and practice, has formed the basis of many studies in the literature of Islamic anthropology in the last decade. Over against of the traditional readings, especially the new generation’s search for alternative fatwas often becomes prominent. Studies conducted by Lara Deeb and Mona Harb (2013) on young Shii women in Beirut or by Giulia Liberatore (2017) on young Sunni women of Somali origin in London show us that women do not follow a single ulama, that they draw individual paths by practicing upon different readings of Islam. It would be appropriate to say that Islamic feminism(s) has gained an unsettling power to displace the traditional in this new era where rapid access to alternative Islamic interpretations is facilitated by digital media as Gary Bunt had stated (2018). As a final word, the importance of Islamic feminism(s) as a discursive and operational strategy for the expansion of Muslim women’s life spheres should be emphasized, especially in this period when the influence of anti-feminist social movements and religious communities have been increasing worldwide.

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The first draft of this article, with the title “On the Merits and Limits of Islamic Feminism(s)”, was presented on December 19, 2020, at the “Localization of Feminism” conference organized by Havle Women’s Association. You can click here to access other texts of our Feminism Localization conference.

Etiketler: amina wadud  asma barlas  CEDAW  equality verses  fıqh  islamic feminism  localization of feminism conference  mohsen kadıvar  qawamah  sharia  sisters in islam  tawhidic paradigm 


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