Muslim feminist thought

Within U.S. media depictions, Islam and feminism are two distinct ideologies that cannot coexist with each other since Islam is considered to be essentially misogynistic while to be feminist is to oppose misogyny. We take a stand for Muslim feminism by arguing that seeing Muslim feminism as an oxymoron can be considered an extension of seeing non-Western (white) movements with Western eyes. What is at stake in the discourse of critics of Muslim feminism is not Muslim women but women under Islam. That is, the discourse against Muslim feminism does not aim at a debate on feminism or women’s movements, but allegedly proving that Islam is inherently misogynist.73 In such critiques of Muslim feminism, Islam is configured as highly conflicting with women’s liberation. This part of the debate implies Islam’s character is despotic and barbaric (especially in terms of its views of women).

Thus, we argue that these ideas and assumptions should not be the starting point of a so-called feminist debate since the scope of those debates are not women or womens positionalities but an expression and representation of Orientalist and Islamophobic views of Arab and Muslim feminisms. As an alternative, Muslim feminism could be seen as an extension of theories of the flesh, where Muslim feminists theorize through their lived experiences and link the personal to the political. Muslim feminists reclaim their lives and deconstruct the hegemonic universalist knowledge of both Orientalism and patriarchy. Similar to Chicana feminist movements, Muslim feminism asks women to examine the sources of knowledge and transform the process of theorizing.

Theorizing Muslim feminism: between Orientalism and patriarchy

Muslim feminism can be described as a feminist movement that bases its methodology and epistemology' on both post-colonial feminism and Islamic theology.74 Najmabadi, one of the pioneering scholars in Muslim feminism, describes Muslim feminism as a “reform movement that opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists.”75 Scholars such as Najmabadi, Cooke, and Badran embrace Muslim feminism as an important and relevant movement to feminism. They argue that it critically approaches both Western feminist assumptions about Islam by challenging the male hegemonic domain of Islamic hermeneutics by presenting a middle ground between these two discourses.

Even if feminist or women’s rights endeavors date back the early 20th century among Muslim women or in Muslim communities, the term Muslim feminism is relatively contemporary in both usage and circulation. The debate on Muslim feminism in academia started with Najmabadi s speech, delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1994 when she described Muslim feminism “as a reform movement that opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists.”71’ Najmabadi argued that Muslim feminism transcends the binary of the “secular” and “religious” through its critiques of unquestioned presuppositions ofWestern secular feminism regarding Muslim women.This important speech has come to mark and define how Muslim feminism is understood.

Fazaeli argues for the term Muslim feminism as a feminist response in Islam toward various social and political determinants. Rhouni also embraces the movement or theorization of Muslim feminism, yet she problematizes the term “Islamic” or “Muslim” since, she argues, “it excludes both non-Muslims and secular scholars of Muslim background, who strive to contribute to the revitalization of Islamic thought through an approach that does not stigmatize Islam and recognizes its egalitarian scope.”78 In the case of Rhouni, then, Muslim feminism is a faith-oriented theory and movement.79 This claim seems reasonable and it is one of the most common arguments among scholars who see Muslim feminism as an oxymoron.8" For this statement, two points need clarification. First, Rhouni does not advocate for a specific alternative for “naming” feminists and/or scholars who interpret Islam through a more egalitarian lens, but she problematizes the adjective “Islamic/Muslim” just to show its dangers and traps.81 Second, she does not offer possible adjectives for the particular kind of feminism or scholarship she endorses. We would argue that a Muslim feminism is a different articulation, which, we believe, serves only what Rhouni is being cautious about.82 In other words, Muslim feminism only refers to self-described, pious practicing Muslims. That is why we position ourselves using the term “Muslim feminism” as we believe it is more inclusive.

However, Muslim feminism should not be confused with Islamist revivalist women who, as Mahmood demonstrates in Politics of Piety, also use their agency to actively be a part of and promote the Islamist revival of recent decades—but without challenging Islamic law and thought.83 These very different perspectives on womanhood among various groups of practicing and secular

Muslim women are indicative of the current wider struggles over the meaning and practices of Islam within Muslim communities.

As for the methodological perspective of Muslim feminism, it derives its source of knowledge from both post-colonial feminist and classical Islamic epistemologies.84 While Muslim feminism calls for gender equality in the social, political, and economic spheres, its methodology stems from reinterpretations or hermeneutics of the Quran and Islamic law. There are examples of feminist organizing that can be described as Muslim feminism in action, including the efforts of Iranian feminists for more gender-neutral laws, the demands of Egyptian feminists to participate in vocations which are currently not open to women such as the clergy, and the struggle of Turkish feminists to abolish the ban on veils in the public sector and on state premises.8

A feminist reinterpretation of Islam, as Badran argues, “renders compelling confirmation of gender equality in the Quran that was lost as male interpreters constructed a corpus of tafsir [explanation] promoting a doctrine of male superiority reflecting the mindset of the prevailing patriarchal cultures.”86 The aim of Muslim feminism as it utilizes reinterpretation as its methodological tool, therefore, is to interrupt and challenge patriarchal (and in some cases even misogynist) readings of sacred texts as well as the social formations constructed on those readings’ approaches to the religion.

The deployment of women as reinterpreters, then, is a challenge to the orthodoxy of the religion for the sake of the equality of women. Second, Moghadam praises Muslim feminism since she sees the importance of this reformist movement as a common ground or a possible alliance with secular feminists in their efforts for gender equality.8 In a similar vein, Badran argues that Muslim feminism is “Increasingly occupying a middle ground where the secular and religious meet or where the two collapse.”88 Therefore, Muslim feminism can be useful not only for building an alliance between the secular and the religious as two distinct ideologies but also for dismantling presumptions and assumptions of one regarding the other.

Besides the argument that Muslim feminism opens a space in between the dualism of the secular and the religious, there are two main arguments to support the relevance and usefulness of Muslim feminism in terms of theory and activism: one is, as Tohidi contends, that it’s a step toward the secularization of state formations,81 and the second is that it’s a voice against the essentializing of the muslimwoman in that it requires reforming power relations both in and out of the communities from which Muslim feminism emerged, as Cooke and Mir-Hosseini claim.9091

According to Badran, the relations between Muslim women in the Middle East and feminism emerged in the context of modernity and modernization in the late 19th century in response to nationalist, anti-colonialist, and/or Islamization discourses.92 She points out that feminist movements have always been “discredited in the patriarchal mainstream as Western and a project of cultural colonialism and therefore were stigmatized as antithetical to Islam.”'” However, she asserts, the newly emerged movement of Muslim feminism offers a new path, a middle ground,94 a “middle space of an independent site” between secular feminism and misogynist Islamism (or Islamic fundamentalism).9’ Furthermore, Moghadam argues that Muslim feminism is a part of the reform driven movement seen after the 1980s, which challenges patriarchal gender notions fueled by the Islamic fundamentalists.91

Writing on these developments, Mir-Hosseini says:

By the late 1980s, there were clear signs of the emergence of a new consciousness, a new way of thinking, a gender discourse that was and is feminist in its aspiration and demands, yet Islamic in its language and sources of legitimacy. One version of this new discourse has come to be called Muslim feminism.9

In that sense, Muslim feminism’s originality as a feminist movement and theory, according to Mir-Hosseini, stems from its double-agency as feminist and religious and from its task of bringing religion into the framework of feminism as well as making feminism legitimate within the religion:

Muslim traditionalists and fundamentalists do this as a means of silencing other internal voices and abuse the authority of the text for authoritarian purposes. Secular fundamentalists follow the same pattern, but in the name of enlightenment, progress, and science—and as a means of showing the misogyny of Islam—while ignoring the contexts in which the texts were produced, as well as the existence of alternative texts. In doing so, they end up essentializing and perpetuating difference and reproducing a crude version of the orientalist narrative of Islam.98

Here, Mir-Hosseini raises the question of the “double exploitation” of feminist women in the Muslim world and Muslim communities. That is, she claims that women in Muslim communities, regardless of their feminist backgrounds from either Western or indigenous roots, have always been subjects of argument in terms of different parts of their identities. As Muslim, their identity is often questioned by secular fundamentalists and their feminism is viewed as suspicious by Muslim traditionalists and Islamic fundamentalists: “their Muslimness is perceived as backward and oppressed, yet authentic and innate; their feminism is perceived as progressive and emancipated, yet corrupt and alien.”99

In making this argument, Mir-Hosseini is close to the position of Badran wherein Muslim feminism is viewed as a middle ground between secularist and non-secularist fundamentalism, and she adds:

Though adhering to very different ideologies and scholarly traditions and following very different agendas, all these opponents of the feminist project in Islam share one thing—an essentialist and non-historical understanding of Islam and Islamic law. They fail to recognize that assumptions and laws about gender in Islam—as in any other religion—are socially constructed and thus historically changing and open to negotiation.100

What opponents of Muslim feminism miss is that religion (not limited to Islam) as a social phenomenon is not necessarily a series of dogmatic doctrines which are inevitably close to progress or change especially when it comes to the reforms in social orders including sex and gender orders. Instead, religion can be a dynamic way to cover what the contemporary requires with the help of constructive criticism.1"1

In fact, Muslim feminism, with its methodology of reinterpretation, is an example of the kind of constructive criticism that can push the traditional scholarship of Islam to meet the demands of Muslim women today. The secularist and Orientalist narrative of Islam is also discussed in the works of Cooke.102 Even though it is not directly related to Muslim feminism, the term “muslimwoman” (coined by Cooke) is highly significant and reflects on the Orientalist point of view fueled after 9/11 to understand the opposition against Muslim feminism. The use of this term creates an image of a monolithic Muslim-woman or identity that assumes that being a Muslim woman is in essence something oppressive, and “muslimwoman,” and all Muslim women, are victims of Islams patriarchal essence and thus inevitably need liberation.1"'

Her understanding of Muslim feminism, then, is also related to her analysis of this image. That is to say, according to Cooke:

Whenever Muslim women offer a critique of some aspect of Islamic history or hermeneutics, they do so with and/or on behalf of all Muslim women and their right to enjoy with men full participation in a just community, I call them Muslim feminists. This label is not rigid; rather it describes an attitude and intention to seek justice and citizenship for Muslim women.104

Therefore, for Cooke, all Muslim women would benefit from the critiques of (traditional) Islamic history and hermeneutics, as they provide positive changes in efforts to create a just community for Muslims.105 At first glance, this argument may seem homogenizing. Yet Cooke asserts that multiple and different identities of Muslimhood (in terms of ethnicity, politics, and histories) can come together with Muslim feminism in order to claim “simultaneous and sometimes contradictory allegiances even as they resist globalization, local nationalisms, Islamization, and the pervasive patriarchal system.”106 Cookes view appears to be in line with Mir-Hosseini and Badrans arguments on how Muslim feminism transcends the “limits” of both the inside and outside dimensions of a womans movement, but by exceeding those limits, Cooke stands for “how a subalternized group can assume its essentialized representations and use them strategically against those who have ascribed them.”107

In taking this position, Cooke follows critical cultural scholar Bhabhas re-reading of Orientalism in terms of power/knowledge relations and concludes that the subaltern takes up a middle space in between the binaries to produce alternate discourses to challenge and disturb the knowledge, representation, and discourse associated with and signifying the subaltern.IOS Muslim feminism is another example of this middle space where marginalized women reclaim a discursive space between the representations and assumptions about Muslim women.109 According to Cooke, Muslim feminism, or Muslim women’s critical attitude and intention, is in line with Bhabhas argument, as Muslim feminists, despite their diverse identities, produce a third space in between the binary of the secularist and the religious by disturbing the understanding of (Western) feminist ideals and pointing to the Orientalist values and images that render Islam misogynist.110 Muslim feminists therefore challenge the traditional, orthodox readings of the religion of Islam for a more just sociopolitical order for women and men alike.111

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