Islamic political thought/Islamic Feminism - Historical Context

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  1. To understand the debate over 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

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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

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  1. Is Islamic feminism truly feminism?
  2. Do nationalism and the reaction against Western imperialism affect Islamic feminism?
  3. The role of clothing and the body are focused on in the media, for example the veil and the hijab; are these symbols? Distractions? Legitimate concerns?


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Valentine M. Moghadam’s “Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents” provides an outline of the debate which is found throughout the development of feminism in Islamic places in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moghadam points out the questions at the crux of the conflict:

“Can there be such a thing as feminism that is framed in Islamic terms? Is Islam compatible with feminism? Is it correct to describe as feminist or even Islamic feminist those activists and scholars, including veiled women, who carry out their work toward women’s advancement and gender equality within an Islamic discursive framework?” [1]

The goal of this lecture is to engage further with these questions and to explore the contexts in which Islamic feminism has formed. Leila Ahmed discusses the rise of an Islamic feminism in Egypt alongside the nationalist movement, while Moghadam identifies the Islamic feminist movement within the Iranian context, and Rebecca Foley reports that the conservative interpretation of Islamic feminism has been relatively successful in Malaysia. To begin to answer the questions these authors raise within this debate, we must understand the contexts they study and then attempt to synthesize to find hopefully some answers and certainly more questions.

Historical Context

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In Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam we can learn about the early feminists in Egypt and see that this debate over an Islamic feminism has been around for at least a century, and that the historical context of the debate is crucial. Early twentieth century Egyptian feminists like Malak Hifni Nassef argued that the veil should not simply be abandoned in favor of Western dress (as the veil was, even then, a symbol for both Orientalists and nationalists), but should be a secondary concern to the education of men and women and reinterpretation of the texts of Islam. [2] Coming from an European education, Huda Sha’rawi stood on the other end of the discourse from Nassef, advocating a secular feminism taken from her studies in France. Sha’rawi’s opinion that veiling was uncivilized and her “valorization of the European,” Ahmed feels, was influenced by the psychological effects of coming from a European colony to then study in Europe; “the internalization of colonialism and of notions of the innate superiority of the European over the native- the colonization of consciousness, in short- could complicate feminism.” [3] With this period, 1900s-1910s, we begin to see what is a dominant discourse both against Western definitions of feminism and towards an authentically Islamic feminism. The debate changes from the times of Nassef and Sha’rawi, certainly as post-colonial nationalist movements arise. The debate lies in whether feminism can be redefined in the context of and in fact derived from Islam, or whether the historical patriarchy of Islamic nations, legitimized by Islamic texts and law, is inherent in Islamic politics.

Leila Ahmed presents this dichotomy again in a later historical period, beginning in the 1940s, with Zeinab Al-Ghazali and Doria Shafik representing Islamic and Western/secular interpretations of Arab feminism, respectively. It is important here to point out that the Western and secular feminist voices were dominant throughout most the twentieth century. It is only now, at the turn of the century, Ahmed says, that Islamic feminisms are becoming dominant in Egypt and that secular feminism is “becoming the marginal, alternative voice.” [4] Zeinab Al-Ghazali was associated with Muslim Brethren in Egypt though she created an organization independent from them, the Muslim Women’s Association. Her interpretation of Islamic feminism was influenced by Islamist movements like the Brethren and was also a rejection of the dominant feminism of the West and of Huda Sha’rawi. Al-Ghazali felt that “women must be well educated, cultured, knowing of the precepts of the Koran and Sunna, informed about world politics, why we are backward, why we don’t have technology[…] and then raise her son in the conviction that […] he must rebuild the Islamic nation.” [5] This was in line with the stance of the Muslim Brethren toward women at the time [6].

It is important to understand that the context of Egyptian nationalism affected feminism, and what could be called the Islamic feminism of Nassef and Al-Ghazali. The nation became independent in 1922 and resentment for colonial influence began long before that. According to Ahmed, over this early twentieth century period “a new discourse on women emerged, overlaying rather than displacing the old classical and religious formulations on gender and often linking issues concerning women, nationalism, advancement, and cultural change” [my emphasis]. [7] Ahmed seems to believe that this overlaying was necessary to create a feminism that stood in difference to Western feminism and also was derived from traditional Islamic discourse. Notably, both Al-Ghazali and the Muslim Brethren emphasized the education of women (to advance Egypt and compete with Western dominance) and also accepted the right of women to enter professional fields. However a “woman’s natural place is still in the home,” according to Hasan Ismail Hudaybi, a leader of Muslim Brethren; this echoes the above quote from Al-Ghazali, a kind of balance of liberation and adherence to tradition. [8]. Leila Ahmed’s exploration of the beginnings of Islamic feminism in Egypt is useful to understand rise of an Islamic feminism, its association with nationalism, and particularly its reaction against imperialism and Western feminism.

In this early period the veil became a symbol for the Orientalist representation of the status of women is Islamic places, and was reclaimed by early thinkers like Malak Hifni Nassef and by contemporary Islamic feminists. In Women and Gender in Islam, Ahmed devotes a chapter to the “Discourse of the Veil,” and clearly this discussion requires a lecture unto itself. [9] I recommend reading this chapter, and will only say that Ahmed concludes that the vehement debate over veiling has been a troubling diversion and that the struggle over “not only the veil but also the struggle for women’s rights as a whole has become inscribed as a result of this history and as a result of the cooptation by colonialism of the issue of women and the language of feminism in its attempt to undermine other cultures.” [10] The symbol of the veil is both a discourse unto itself and a symbol for the debate over Islamic feminism which Moghadam describes.

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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),1135.
  2. Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 180-181.
  3. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 178-179.
  4. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 197.
  5. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 199.
  6. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 199.
  7. Ahmed,Women and Gender in Islam,128.
  8. Ahmed,Women and Gender in Islam, 195.
  9. Ahmed,Women and Gender in Islam, 144-168.
  10. Ahmed,Women and Gender in Islam, 167.