International: ‘Islamic feminism’ as the ‘unwanted child’ of political Islam

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This is an exclusive excerpt from the paper Ziba Mir-Hosseini gave at the October 2010 Islamic Feminism Conference in Madrid: "As the term ‘Islamic feminism’ gained currency in the late 1990s, most of those so labelled by academics and journalists rejected either the ‘Islamic’ or the ‘feminist’ part of the term. If they came from a religious background and addressed women’s rights within an Islamic frame of reference, they wanted to avoid any kind of association with the term ‘feminism’, and their gender activism was a mixture of conformity and defiance. If they came from a secular background and addressed women’s rights from within broader feminist discourses, they rejected being called ‘Islamic’—even though many of them located their feminism in Islam. Those associated with political Islam took contradictory positions and made confusing statements with respect to gender equality; for them, the wider project of gaining power and establishing an Islamic state took priority over equality and democracy. 

I came to realize that the women I called ‘Islamic feminists’ did not speak with one voice. The positions they took were local, diverse, multiple and evolving. They all sought gender justice and equality for women, but they did not always agree on what constitutes ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ or the best ways of attaining them. I saw it as futile and even counter-productive to try to put these diverse voices into neat categories and to generate definitions.[1] To understand a movement that is still in formation, I argued that we might start by considering how its opponents depict it, in other words, the resistance against which it has had to struggle. I saw three broad categories of opponents of what I defined as ‘the feminist project in Islam’: Muslim traditionalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and secular fundamentalists. Muslim traditionalists are those who resist any changes in what they hold to be eternally valid ways, sanctioned by an unchanging Shari‘a. Islamic fundamentalists—or Islamists—are those who advocate political Islam, seeking to change current practices by a return what they claim to be a ‘purer’ version of the Shari‘a, which they hope to implement through the machinery of the modern nation-state. Secular fundamentalists deny that any religion-based law or social practice can be just or equal, or relevant to modern times; in my encounters with them in meetings and seminars, I found them as dogmatic and ideological as religious fundamentalists.

I have argued that what I called ‘Islamic feminism’—feminism that takes its legitimacy from Islam—was the ‘unwanted child’ of political Islam; it did not emerge because the Islamists offered an egalitarian vision of gender relations: they did not. Rather, their very agenda of ‘return to the Shari‘a’, and their attempt to translate into policy the patriarchal gender notions inherent in classical jurisprudence, provoked women to increasing criticism of these notions, and spurred greater activism among secular feminists, who were now internationalized and had the legitimacy of human rights on their side. The Islamists’ defence of patriarchal rulings as ‘God’s Law’, and as promoting an authentic and ‘Islamic’ way of life, brought the classical jurisprudential texts out of the closet. A growing number of women came to question whether there was an inherent link between Islamic ideals and patriarchy, and saw no contradiction between their faith and their aspiration for gender equality."

[1] It is here that my approach and my account of the evolution of ‘Islamic feminism’ differ from those of Margot Badran.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini

October 2010