Postcolonial and Feminist Perspectives in Islamic Religious Education

Marianne Hafnor B0e

The Ignorance of Diversity and Gendered Perspectives in IRE

The country reports included in this volume express that there is marginal interest in diversity and gendered perspectives in IRE across Europe. In fact, gendered perspectives and internal diversities that exist within Islam are explicitly addressed only in a handful of the country reports. For instance, the chapter on Finland mentions that whereas several curricula are dedicated to the internal divisions within Christianity, there is only one for Islam. The curriculum for IRE thus sets out to present “general Islam”, without taking internal religious divisions represented, for example, by Shi’a Islam or Ahmadiyya into account. Similar challenges are documented in the chapters on Austria, Belgium, and Sweden. Additionally, when gendered perspectives in IRE are addressed, they are only anecdotally mentioned, such as in the chapters on Norway, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark. In such cases, however, gender equality is referred to as a fundamental societal value that informs the general RE in those countries, or gender and sexuality are explicitly mentioned as teaching objectives, such as in Norway and Sweden.

The fact that only a few of the chapters mention diversity and gender perspectives is probably no coincidence; it reflects a widespread ignorance of such issues within IRE, and RE more generally. Still, both perspectives are becoming increasingly relevant in the European context, and there seems to be a rising awareness of the value of including diversity and gendered issues in the representation of Islam in the academic study of Islam and RE alike. In this essay I argue that there is also great didactic potential in including such outlooks in teaching on IRE, as well as for the broader teaching of RE.

The Challenges of Representing Islam

Several studies show that teaching in RE suffers from certain biased representations of Islam. Representations of Islam tend to build on its media portrayal, and thus Islam is presented as conflict-oriented, fundamentalist,

Postcolonial, Feminist Perspectives 273 anti-liberal, patriarchal, and associated with violence and terrorism (Toft, 2019; Lied and Toft, 2018; see also Buchardt and Enemark this volume). Such depictions not only result in stereotyped images of Islam and Muslims, but moreover ignore internal diversities within the religion.

The challenges of presenting Islam in an unbiased way are not only limited to IRE, or to RE for that matter. Within the broader academic study of Islam, there are recurrent issues regarding what kind of Islam is presented and which theological interpretations and Muslims get to represent Islam. The fact that Islam includes diverse directions, denominations, and legal schools tends to be overlooked. Although Shia Islam embodies certain distinctive religious practices and theological understandings, it remains ignored in favour of Sunni Islam, which has come to represent a default understanding of Islam (Shanneik, Heinhold and Ali, 2017).

Similar challenges are relevant for the representation of gender perspectives in Islam. If mentioned, it most commonly focuses on the status of women but ignores other gendered aspects of the religion. Including women’s issues in IRE therefore does not necessarily mean that there is a break with the stereotypical representation of Islam or Muslims. Depictions of “the oppressed Muslim women” continue the portrayal of an oppressive and patriarchal religion as documented in research on RE textbooks in Sweden (Harenstam, 2009).

Postcolonial and Feminist Critique

The challenge of the representation of Islam is closely connected to issues raised by postcolonial and feminist scholarships. It denounces androcentrism and criticises ethnocentric and hegemonic perspectives that continue to inform the academic study of religions and RE (Alberts, 2007; Joy, 2001). As a result, perspectives from non-Western, subaltern, lower classes, women, and those who fall outside the non-normative gender roles and identities have been marginalised in the representation of religions.

A seminal work centred at the heart of such scholarship is Lila Abu-Lughod’s book Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? (2013). According to Abu-Lughod, Western representations of Muslim women have entailed a moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion (Abu-Lughod, 2013, 6-7). She points to how images of oppressed Muslim women have legitimised military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and justified war rhetoric against Iran. More recently, demands for Muslim and migrant women’s rights continue to justify xenophobic and anti-Islam rhetoric in an increasing number of European countries (Farris, 2017). Such campaigns reduce Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity that does not match the historical, political, and economic complexities on the ground. Abu-Lughod (2013, 44-45) warns against polarisation that such depictions of Islam and Muslim women may entail, which places feminism on the side of the West, and oppression as something belonging outside of the West.

Internal Religious Debates

Islam is not only often presented as oppressive, but is also seen as a religious tradition that lacks the possibility for internal religious debate. The notions of the Quran as the word of God and the Prophet Muhammad as infallible have led to a general understanding that the religious sources are eternal, unchangeable, and not subject to critique (Fazlhashemi, 2019, 158-159; see also Panjwani’s contribution in this volume). Still, there are several examples of internal critique of Muslim authorities, laws and regulations, and legal practices as well as the methods, principles, and contents of interpretations of the religious sources.

One prominent example is offered by Muslim feminism. Muslim feminist ideas have been expressed in organised forms since the late 1800s and have experienced an international upsurge during the last three decades. Among the questions addressed are: Can a woman lead prayer? Does Islam need a sexual revolution? Is homosexuality forbidden and criminalised in the Quran? At present, Muslim feminism includes many individuals and organisations that present a large breadth of ideas and interpretations on the combination of Islam and feminism. Still, they rely primarily on established sources, methods, and principles for religious interpretation in Islam. Although Muslim feminism can be placed within a reformist strand of religious thinking, it tends to be ignored and is typically placed on the periphery of what counts as “correct” Islam (Boe, 2019).

Didactic Potentials

Although diversity and gendered issues within Islam continue to be relegated to the margins, there is great didactic potential in adopting such issues through postcolonial and feminist approaches to IRE. Such analytical perspectives may provide grounds for addressing internal religious debates as presented by Muslim feminists, for example, and they may serve as an entry point into diversity and gendered issues that exist within Islam that otherwise tend to be ignored. Such issues may reflect some aspects of the complex religious identities, agencies, and belongings expressed by Muslim youth in Europe (Vertovec and Rogers, 2018), which hopefully resonate with how they see and perceive their religion.

Based on the country reports in this volume, there seems to be a rising awareness of building democracy and citizenship as part of IRE in several European countries (cf. introduction; see also Miedema’s and Franck’s contributions in this volume). Adopting diversity and gendered

Postcolonial, Feminist Perspectives 275 issues in IRE may create grounds for including conflicting perspectives through internal and external debates of the religion (Von der Lippe, 2019), and hence may contribute to developing the student’s citizenship and democratic skills. At present, adopting diversity and gendered issues may be relevant primarily in non-confessional and integrative models of IRE. Still, including such perspectives could also serve didactic potential for dealing with internal religious debates and conflicts in confessional and separate models. Of course, including diversity issues, gendered perspectives, and internal religious debates within Islam requires disciplinary and didactic skills for the teacher to be able to manage such complexities. Although demanding, the benefits of addressing such perspectives could result in nuanced representations and new levels of critical thinking that are required for all forms of IRE in our times.


Abu-Lughod, L. (2013) Do Muslim Women Afe*/Saving?Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study-of-Religions Approach. Berlin, Walter de Gruyter.

B0e, M. (2019) Feminisme I Islam. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget.

Farris, S.R. (2017) In the Name of Women’s Rights: the Rise of Femonationalism. Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

Fazlhashemi, M. (2019) Konstruktiv Religionskritik Och Islam. In: Franck, O. and Stenmark, M. (eds.). Konstruktiv Religionskritik: Filosofiska, Teologiska Och Pedagogiska Perspektiv. Stockholm, Sanoma Utbildning, pp. 158-198.

Harenstam, K. 2009. Images of Muslims in Swedish School Textbooks. In: Aamotsbakken, B. and Selander, S. (eds.). Nordic Identities in Transition: as Reflected in Pedagogic Texts and Cultural Contexts. Oslo, Novus Press, pp. 171-190. Joy, M. (2001) Postcolonial Reflections: Challenges for Religious Studies. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 13 (2), 177-195. DOI: https://doi. org/10.1163/157006801X00183

Lied, L.I. and Toft, A. (2018) ’Let Me Entertain You’: Media Dynamics in Public Schools. In: Lundby, K. (ed.). Contesting Religion: The Media Dynamics of Cultural Conflicts in Scandinavia. Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, pp. 243-258.

Shanneik.Y, Heinhold, C. and Ali, Z. (2017) Mapping Shia Muslim Communities in Europe. Journal of Muslims In Europe, 6 (2), 145-157. DOI: https://doi. org/10.1163/22117954-12341345

Toft, A. (2019) The Extreme as the Normal; Binary Teaching and Negative Identification in Religious Education Lessons about Islam. British Journal of Religious Education, 1-13. DOI: Vertovec, S. and Rogers, A. (2018) Muslim European Youth: Reproducing Ethnicity, Religion, Culture, London, Routledge.

Von der Lippe, M. (2019) Teaching Controversial Issues in RE: The Case of Ritual Circumcision. British Journal of Religious Education, I, 1-11. DOI: https://doi. org/10.1080/01416200.2019.1638227

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