Islamic political thought/Islamic Feminism - Contemporary Debate

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Goals[edit | edit source]

  1. To understand the debate of Islamic Feminism; the debate whether it is an authentic and new feminism or not a true feminism at all.
  2. To recognize the influence of national, political, and social contexts, particularly nationalism and imperialism, on Islamic feminism.
  3. To engage in the debate over Islamic feminism through discussion questions and recommended readings.

Required Reading[edit | edit source]

Moghadam, V. M. (2002). Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27 (4), 1135-1171.

Discussion Questions[edit | edit source]

  1. Is Islamic feminism truly feminism?
  2. Is a conservative Islamic feminism, like that found in Malaysia which accepts prescribed gender roles to some extent; is this culturally specific feminism, or is it a regression?
  3. If so, is it legitimate to have a reactive feminism, which was created in part to stand in difference to the feminism associated with (and sometimes complicit with) imperialism?

Lecture[edit | edit source]

Contemporary Debate[edit | edit source]

In the reading selected for this lecture, Valentine Moghadam discusses the evolution of Islamic feminism in Iran after the Islamic Revolution and formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In comparison with Leila Ahmed, Moghadam is critical of the formation of Islamic feminism, but also of its opponents and of supporters of an exclusively Western interpretation of feminism. Moghadam frames the debate with attention to the objections and assertions of both sides and in doing so places herself in the middle of debate, conceding neither that Islamic feminism is ideal nor that culturally specific feminism or feminism inspired by Islam is invalid.

Moghadam concludes her discussion by asking the question that this debate must ultimately decide: “whether Islamic feminism is indeed feminism.” [1] Moghadam is a secularist [2] and answers criticism on both sides of the debate by saying that “Islam, like other monotheistic religions […] may inspire civil codes, political processes, social policies, and economic institutions” [emphasis Moghadam’s]. [3] She does not explain where the difference lies between Islam-inspired and Islam-derived nations and laws. She does make clear, however, that “it is not possible to defend as feminist the view that women can attain equal status only in the context of Islam” because this “is a fundamentalist view.” [4] The answer is perhaps a vague one, but it establishes a secularist view which attempts to balance new feminisms with the dominant (and perhaps monopolistic) Western humanist feminism.

The Case of Malaysia[edit | edit source]

There are movements which complicate Islamic feminism as we have seen it discussed in Moghadam’s position and Ahmed’s discussion. In “Muslim Women’s Challenges to Islamic Law: The Case of Malaysia,” Rebecca Foley discusses the role of Islamic women’s movements in Malaysia. In Malaysia, women can work, can be a part of civil society, and can vote on equal terms with men. Foley describes Islam in Malaysia as a “softer” version than those found in the Middle East because it has been influenced by the native Malaysian custom of adat, which stipulates that descent and inheritance are equal for men and women. [5] The Malaysian government, however, has pursued an authoritarian control of civil society and the interpretation of Islam, which limits feminist movements in the country. Foley claims that this has lead women’s organizations to accept conservative social norms, such as emphasis of a woman’s role in the family over her ability to work. [6] Despite this, women’s movements are active in Malaysia, focusing on reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine and of state law because in they “are intertwined […] to argue for legal reform requires an interpretation of the religious texts to support arguments for change.” [7] There are, however, different ways to engage in this reinterpretation.

Foley makes the distinction between equity and equality women’s movements in Malaysia. Equity movements seek to interpret the Qu’ran and the Sunnah in a way that recognizes women’s rights, but solely within the limits of the conservative framework the government has laid. [8] This position acknowledges that women and men cannot play the same roles in society, kind of like separate but equal, and that a woman’s predominant duty is to her family. These groups are, not surprisingly, more successful in legal reforms and focus on reconciling women’s duty to family with the growing need for women to work. [9] It is important to remember that despite these seemingly conservative goals, equity movements do argue that women are equal to men while accepting differentiated gender roles. [10]

Equality movements are reinterpreting the Qu’ran and the Sunnah, but also assert that the Syar’iah (Islamic law) are man-made and therefore open to interpretation. These movements, such as the Malaysian group Sisters in Islam, advocate equal rights for men and women and do not accept the patriarchal interpretation of Islam taken by the government. [11] Both equality and equity movements are fully engaged with interpretation and are inherently non-secular. However, equality movements are less successful than equity movements because they are seen as less focused on working within the existing theological framework. [12]

Foley then addresses the debate on whether these variations on what could be called Islamic feminism are actually feminism. Her stance does not address whether non-secular movements are valid as feminist movement, but she points to the ultimate goals of these groups. She asserts that “both Islamic equity and equality activists demonstrate an awareness that women have been and continue to be oppressed because of their gender and they are attempting to liberate women from this.” [13] This is a very general way to define feminism, but Foley finds this adequate to claim these movements as feminist within this political, social, and cultural context.

Further, Foley sees that these movements are changing what feminism can be by building a feminist movement around an identity which includes religion. The fact that these movements use Islam to claim gender equality and actively reinterpret and reform their religion and its political aspects “provides food for thought for those feminists who consider religion as merely a private matter or outside the feminist framework.” [14] This challenges both the dominant secular interpretations of feminism and Moghadam’s contextually interested but still steadfastly secular feminism. Foley takes us beyond simply asking if Islamic feminism is feminism. She asks whether conservative Islamic feminist movements, which accept the traditional interpretation of gender roles with women as primarily caregivers but attempt to achieve equal rights for men and women in Malaysia’s conservative political atmosphere, are truly feminist.

Islamic feminism in Iran[edit | edit source]

To return to Moghadam, we see Islamic feminism in Iran arising amid a stronger reaction to nationalism and to the reversion of gender roles after formation of the Islamic Republic. It is perhaps this context which creates a more liberal feminist reform movement to be successful in Iran in the 1990s and into the current decade. [15] Within the spectrum of Iranian feminism, Moghadam finds that critics of Islamic feminism argue that an Islamic interpretation cannot be truly feminist within the socio-political history of Iran (especially the Revolution and its aftermath), and that in fact Islamic feminisms “unwitting delegitimize secular trends and social forces.” [16] Further, the context of Iran provides a particularly debatable example because in Iran “Islam is not a matter of personal spiritual choice but rather a legal and political system.” [17] For Haideh Moghissi and Hammed Shahidian, critics of Islamic feminism, the problem is that Islamic feminism works with the political system of Iran which they claim restricts personal freedom. [18] Islamic feminism legitimizes this system, and ignores the repressive contexts of the social and political climate in Iran. [19] Taking a different approach, Mahnaz Afkhami lays out an argument that Islam is fundamentally not feminist; “the epistemology of Islam is contrary to women’s rights […] I’m not an Islamic feminist – that’s a contradiction in terms.” [20] Yet Foley’s work in Malaysia begs the question; what do you call movements, even ones which cooperate with conservative governments, which seek to advance the liberation of women within an Islamic political and/or religious context?

Supporters of Islamic feminism, as Moghadam presents it, focus on ijtihad, or the ability to use reason to interpret the texts of Islam, although that term is not always used, which allows for a reinterpretation of the Islam which presents it as supporting women’s rights. [21] Afsaneh Najmabadi, whom Moghadam focuses on to describe the movement towards Islamic feminism notes that this “‘revisionist approach is a radical decentering of the clergy from the domain of interpretation, and the placing of woman as interpreter and her needs as ground for interpretation.’”[22] This use of ijtihad not only reinterprets Islam, but also may create a new, culturally-specific kind of feminism. Nayereh Tohidi, another significant Iranian proponent of Islamic feminism, argues that this reinterpretation of both Islam and feminism allows women to, for example, “reappropriat[e] the veil as a means to facilitate social presence rather than seclusion, or minimize[e..] the compulsory hijab and dress code into fashionable styles.”[23] In other words, Islamic feminism allows both for religious interpretation and subversion of the oppressive Islamist law and politics of Iran. This responds to the objections by opponents of Islamic feminism who claim it legitimizes oppresive Islamic regimes, while Tohidi would argue that Islamic feminists try to challenge Islamist interpretations which restrict the rights of women and others.

Reconciling the Discourse of Islamic Feminism[edit | edit source]

When it comes to synthesizing these views, Moghadam finds some difficult questions. The term “feminism” is not easily defined, and certainly political or religious affiliations have not prevented feminism movements from arising in the West. As Moghadam points out, feminism “‘is a contested term even in the present, and historical literature is full of kinds of feminists who would surely have had a hard time finding common ground: Nazi feminists and Jewish feminists, Catholic feminists and Islamic feminists, […] imperial feminists and national feminists’” [24]

Moghadam identifies the particularly important question to Islamic feminism; “is ‘feminism’ a Western ideology.” [25] I would add to that, in light the other writings discussed here such as Foley’s case for Malaysian feminist movements. I would add: is feminism a necessarily secular ideology, or is it just Islam which some feel is contradictory to feminism? Moghadam somewhat answers this when she discusses her personal reasoning for secular feminism. Her assertion is that as long a feminist movements are ”focused on theological rather than socioeconomic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Qur’an rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best.” [26] However, the same could be said for movements which focus simply on political or just on social questions, and ignore their theological roots. Foley points out, as mentioned above, that it is significant that the feminist movements in Malaysia are reinterpreting the theology which as at the heart of their political system.

Moghadam addresses her own concerns when she discusses the fact that American liberal feminist movements, which work within the existing political and economic system, are not seeking radical change. [27] Islamic feminists are seeking revolutionary change to political and social institutions by “question[ing] the exclusive right of clerics and the faqih to interpret the Islamic texts and to define and implement Islamic jurisprudence.” [28] Moghadam, however, continues to assert that feminism needs to operate in a secular way in order to balance the tendency towards fundamentalism in social and political institutions. She even points out that it is particularly Islam which puts in danger feminist movements because Islam and the “Islamic state […] defines citizenship rights on the basis of sex and religion.” [29]

Ultimately, Moghadam places herself comfortably, and perhaps necessarily, between the opposing sides of the debate, claiming the open discourse between new cultural feminisms and older feminism is more important than one side dominating the debate; in fact she asserts that this conflict is necessary for evolution of feminism around the world, and for arising, culturally-specific feminisms. [30] She also points out that a tendency towards fundamentalism and discrimination within Islam is reason enough to support secular feminism. Moghadam does not, however, address the question of in-the-mean-time, as I would put it. What do feminist movements in Malaysia do if they are only successful in achieving change through Islamist movements? How do we provide women their day to day needs, like protections from unfair divorce and marriage laws, without engaging feminism in an Islamic context? Why should feminism not derive from an Islamic identity?

Foley’s study brings up other questions about feminism outside of the Islamic feminism debate. Is feminism necessarily an equality movement, or can it be an equity movement? The latter is difficult for Western feminists to accept; that a movement which accepts a separate but equal status for women would be called feminism. Yet perhaps this gets at the root of the debate over Islamic feminism, and to Moghadam’s ultimate position. Culturally specific feminist movements do not fit into pre-conceived ideas of feminism, or into Western feminist templates. Within their time and place, they are all achieving liberation goals for women, as Foley asserts. The global debate between placed-based or culturally-based feminisms serves to evolve feminism around the world, and new feminisms are necessary to bring up new questions and to make more inclusive the movement(s) for the liberation of women.

Recommended Reading[edit | edit source]

Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press [particularly Chapters 9 and 10].

Foley, R. (2004). Muslim Women’s Challenges to Islamic Law: The Case of Malaysia. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(1), 53-84.

Majid, A. (2002). The Politics of Feminism in Islam. In T. Saliba, C. Allen, & J. Howard (Eds.), Gender, Politics, and Islam (pp. 53-93). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Moghadam, V. (2001). Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: A Secularist Interpretation. Journal of Women’s History, 13 (10), 43-45.

Saliba, T. (2000). Arab Feminism at the Millennium. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 25 (4), 1087-1092.


  1. Moghadam, V. M. (2002). Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27 (4),1164.
  2. (see “Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism” article under Recommended Reading)
  3. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents,1164.
  4. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents,1165.
  5. Foley, R. (2004). Muslim Women’s Challenges to Islamic Law: The Case of Malaysia. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(1), 56.
  6. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 58.
  7. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 58.
  8. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 59.
  9. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 59.
  10. Foley, Case of Malaysia,63.
  11. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 59.
  12. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 61.
  13. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 62
  14. Foley, Case of Malaysia, 70.
  15. Moghadam, V. M. (2002). Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27 (4), 1141-1142.
  16. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1142.
  17. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1148.
  18. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1148.
  19. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1150.
  20. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1152.
  21. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1144.
  22. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1144.
  23. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1147.
  24. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1154.
  25. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1154.
  26. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1158.
  27. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1159.
  28. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1159.
  29. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1162.
  30. Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents, 1165.