PERILS AND PROMISES
by Nayereh Tohidi*
As a result of increasing modernization, many Muslim societies, including the Middle East, have witnessed an unprecedented rise in womenâ€™s literacy rates. In 2000 literacy among the female population aged 15 years or over was estimated at 65% compared to less than 50% in 1980 (authorâ€™s estimates, based on statistics reported for three regions of Asia in The Worldâ€™s Women 2000: Trends and Statistics, NY: United Nations, 2000, 89). The traditional gender gap in the realm of education is closing and in some societies womenâ€™s enrollment in higher education is equal to or even surpassing menâ€™s. This development has naturally resulted in womenâ€™s increasing engagement in cultural, religious, and social life outside the private realm. Not only are women influenced by modernity, as a highly educated professional group, they themselves have become significant agents of change and modernization.
But changes in the patriarchal and patrimonial structure of the legal, political, religious and economic institutions of Middle Eastern societies, especially family law, family structure, gender stereotypes, and sexual mores, have lagged far behind the modern changes in the levels of socialization and political awareness of the new middle class women. On top of this contradiction, and in part because of it, women have faced a surge of Islamism that has commonly entailed a retrogressive gender agenda. While Islamism has brought about many setbacks in the individual rights of modernized and privileged urban upper and upper-middle class women, it has paradoxically pushed a growing number of traditional, previously marginalized, recently urbanized middle class women into social, political and religious activism. Dominance of religious politics in all aspects of social as well as private life has ironically opened arenas--whether they be physical spaces, such as mosques, or intellectual arenas, such as learned theology debates--previously inaccessible to women.
Against this background, during the past two decades, a reform-oriented religious feminism -- known in the West as â€œIslamic feminismâ€ or â€œMuslim feminismâ€ -- has grown among Muslim women in different societies. This trend emerges primarily in cities among highly educated, middle-class Muslim women who, unlike many earlier pioneers of womenâ€™s rights and feminism in the Middle East who were of a secular liberal, socialist (â€œWesternâ€) orientation, are unwilling to break away from their religious orientation, and hold Islam as a significant component of their ethnic, cultural, or even national identity. A growing body of literature and discussion on â€œIslamic feminismâ€ has emerged in the field of the Middle East Womenâ€™s Studies, stimulating at times useful and at times divisive debates among scholars and activists (e.g., Paidar, Smith, Mernissi, al-Hibri, Ahmed, Hassan, Hoodfar, Mir-Hosseini, Kian-Thiebaut, Tohidi, Fernea, Roald, Najmabadi, Nakanishi, Afshar, Moghissi, Abu-Lughod, Badran, Wadud, Keddie, Webb & Saleh, Moghadam, Cooke, Rostami-Povey, and Barlas) concerned with womenâ€™s issues in the Middle East and other Muslim societies.
The confusion and controversy begin with the very name â€œIslamic feminismâ€ and its definition. In the context of Iran, for example, two ideologically and politically opposite groups have expressed the strongest objections to this term and to any mixture of Islam and feminism. These include right wing conservative Islamists (fundamentalists) inside Iran who adamantly oppose Islamic feminism because of their strong anti-feminist views and feelings, and some expatriate leftist secularist feminists outside Iran who hold strong anti-Islamic views and feelings. Both groups essentialize Islam and feminism and see the two as mutually exclusive: hence â€œIslamic feminismâ€ is an oxymoron.
Aside from these two hostile objectors in the Iranian context, feelings of unease and concern have arisen in other communities, among Muslim women activists, scholars, and professionals, about the confusing and divisive implications that this new categorization -- coined mainly by secular Western-based feminist scholars--may entail. For example, in a recent article in Middle East Womenâ€™s Studies Review (Vol. xv No. 4/Vol. xvi No1, Winter/Spring, 2001), Omaima Abou-Bakr raised a number of interesting points about the notion of â€œIslamic feminism.â€ While not opposing the name as such, she drew our attention to the confusion and political abuses of the term and offered some useful definitional features from the point of view of a Muslim believer. One main reservation discussed by Abou-Bakr concerned the dynamics of naming and formulating this concept that â€œsays a lot more about the observer, the person who coins, than about the object itselfâ€ (Hoda Elsadda, as quoted by Abou-Bakr, 1). She warned us about the possibly divisive nature of this categorization of Muslim women, as it may imply that if one is not directly dealing with Islamic teaching, the Quran, Hadith, and the like, then one is outside the circle of Islamic/Muslim feminists.
Another broader concern that I would also share is that the recent over-emphasis and fascination that some Western feminists and journalists show towards Islamic feminism may result in two unwanted negative repercussions, one of a political nature and the other theoretical or conceptual. Politically, this may alarm and further threaten the anti-feminist Islamist patriarchy, leading to further pressure against Muslim feminist reformers. Consequently it may result in more reluctance on the part of Muslim women activists to associate themselves with feminist discourse in general and secular feminists in particular.
Theoretically or conceptually, a potential problem is the implication of continually â€œforegrounding the Islamic spirit or influence as the regularly primary force in Middle Eastern societies, hence disregarding the complexities of social/political and economic transformations.â€ (Hoda Elsadda as quoted in Abou-Bakr,1). During an interview I had with Shirin Ebadi (a prominent feminist lawyer in Iran) in 1999, she referred to the same problematic implication, saying: â€œIf Islamic feminism means that a Muslim woman can also be a feminist and feminism and Islam do not have to be incompatible, I would agree with it. But if it means that feminism in Muslim societies is somehow peculiar and totally different from feminism in other societies so that it has to be always Islamic, I do not agree with such a concept.â€
To view Islamic feminism as the only or the most â€œauthenticâ€ path for emancipation of Muslim women may also imply a sort of orientalistic or essentialistic Islamic determinism manifested also in the views of those who see Islam either as the primary cause of womenâ€™s subordination or as the only path for womenâ€™s emancipation.
I would like to draw our attention to some practical and conceptual problems associated with the way we, as scholars and activists based in the West, name, categorize, and treat the struggles of Muslim women for their human rights, civil rights, and empowerment. It is in the spirit of dialogue, coalition-building, inclusiveness, pluralism and diversity that I would suggest we avoid polarizing a â€œfaith positionâ€ and a â€œsecular positionâ€ with regard to commitment to womenâ€™s rights. To set secular and Islamic feminism in bitter conflict can only benefit reactionary patriarchal forces, be they traditional, new Islamist, or secular modern. To equate secular or modern with equality and feminism is as naÃ¯ve and misinformed as equating faith and religion with anti-feminism.
Definition and Characteristics:
But letâ€™s make it clear what we mean by Islamic feminism and how we would define it. When it is used as an identity, I personally find the term â€˜Muslim feminist/mâ€™ (a Muslim who is feminist) less troubling and more pertinent to current realities than the term â€˜Islamic feminism.â€™ The term â€˜Islamic feminism,â€™ on the other hand, seems to be more appropriate when used and conceived of as an analytical concept in feminist research and feminist theology, or as a discourse. The definition of either, however, is difficult since a Muslim feminist (believer) would probably define the terms differently from a laic social scientist like myself. While Christian and Jewish feminism have a longer and more established place within feminist movements, Muslim feminism as such is a relatively new, still fluid, undefined, more contested and more politicized trend. I see Muslim feminism as one of the ways or discourses created or adopted by certain strata of women in the predominantly Muslim societies or in Muslim diaspora communities in response to three inter-related sets of domestic, national and global pressures:
1. Responding to traditional patriarchy sanctioned by religious authorities:
While some women activists of the modernized educated upper- and middle-class see religion, including Islam as a pre-modern, oppressive patriarchal institution and maintain a secular or even anti-religious perspective, many others have not broken away from their faith and religious identity. They have tried to resist and fight patriarchy within a religious framework. A basic claim among various religious feminist reformers, including Muslim and Christian feminists, is that their respective religions, if understood and interpreted correctly, do not support the subordination of women. As a theological as well as political response, these reformers maintain that the norms of society and the norms of God are at odds. An egalitarian revision, therefore, is not only possible but also necessary. In reclaiming the â€œegalitarian past,â€ reformist feminist scholars note that before these religions became closely associated with state power (in the first through fourth centuries of Christianity and the early years of the Islamic tradition, in the eighth century), women did hold positions of leadership.
2. Responding to modernity, modernization, and globalization:
Due to the expanding impact of modernity in Muslim societies (e.g., growing rates of urbanization, literacy and employment among women and men, and changes in gender roles and attitudes), Muslim women like women in any modern society, move forward toward egalitarian ideas and feminist re-constructions of modern life, especially of the family structure and gender relations. Muslim feminism is then a negotiation with modernity, accepting modernity (which emerged first in the West) yet presenting an â€œalternativeâ€ that is to look distinct and different from the West, Western modernism, and â€œWestern feminism.â€ This is an attempt to â€œnativizeâ€ or legitimize feminist demands in order to avoid being cast as a Western import. As Leila Ahmed (Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992) argues, â€œreforms pursued in a native idiom and not in terms of the appropriation of the ways of other culturesâ€ (168) would possibly be more intelligible and persuasive to more traditional classes (and not merely to modern upper and middle classes) and possibly therefore, they may prove more durable.
Whether successful or not, this trend is related to the legacy of Western colonialism, and a post-colonial insistence on forging and asserting an independent national identity, especially in the face of growing globalization. One more aspect of globalization contributing to this trend is the growing international migration (no longer a predominantly male practice) or the diasporaization or de-territorialization of cultural identities. This has facilitated wider exposure to global and modern discourses of feminism, human rights, and democracy that have been directly or indirectly changing womenâ€™s consciousness and expectations in countries like Iran. The impact of such factors has intensified through increasing access to the Internet, satellite TV, and other communication technologies.
3. Responding to the recent surge of patriarchal Islamism:
Due to the growing Islamist environment since the 1970s, which entails the imposition of a retrogressive gender project, many Muslim women feel compelled to change and improve womenâ€™s roles and rights within an Islamic framework. For the educated women who want to reconcile the religious dimension of their identity with an empowered social status based on egalitarian gender relationships and freedom of choice in their personal, family, and socio-political life, Muslim feminism offers a mechanism to resist and challenge the sexist nature of the ongoing identity politics, particularly Islamism. Some scholars (religious or laic) (e.g., Leila Ahmed, Riffat Hassan, Fatima Mernissi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini) also see modern liberal and gender egalitarian reformation of Islam as a requirement for the success of broader societal and political reform toward democracy, pluralism and civil rights, including womenâ€™s rights. Such an approach, therefore, would stress the urgent need for equipping women with the tools (for instance, knowledge of Arabic, the Quran and fiqh as well as feminist theories and method) that enable them to redefine, reinterpret, and reform Islam to be a more women-friendly and gender egalitarian religion. The goal is to enable women to â€œturn the tableâ€ on Islamist authorities, to take Islamist men to task about what they preach and practice in the name of Islam. During a seminar at Radcliff College, a Muslim feminist put it this way: â€œThe mullahs are trying to use the Quran against us, but we have a surprise for them, weâ€™re going to beat them at their own game.â€
In short, I see Muslim feminism or â€œIslamic feminismâ€ as a faith-based response of certain strata of Muslim women in their negotiation with and struggle against the old (traditionalist patriarchy) on the one hand and the new (modern and post-modern) realities on the other. Its limits and potentials for womenâ€™s empowerment, however, like those of other ideology-based feminisms have to be accounted for in its deeds and practices more so than in its theological or theoretical strengths or inconsistencies.
A few Comparative Observations:
I would also like to suggest a few comparative and historical observations that may help us better strategize with regard to diversity within the global womenâ€™s movement that includes Muslim feminism:
A. We tend to forget that Islam, like all other religious institutions, is a human or social construct, hence it is neither ahistoric nor monolithic, reified, and static. This becomes more evident when compared to the experience of women in the Christian context, as elaborated upon in my recently coedited volume with Jane Bayes (Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Womenâ€™s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts, New York: Palgrave, 2001). The struggle to adjust or reconstruct religion to the new realities of modern, egalitarian and democratic gender regimes has taken place from both within and without the religious institutions and it has been an ongoing process in the Christian (Protestant and Catholic) contexts. Thanks to the emergence of a stronger middle class, modernity, and a vigorous bourgeois liberal fight for individual rights and humanism, the reformation of religion, secularization and democratization of society, and feminist correctives and challenges against a male-centered modernity have been achieved relatively more successfully in the more advanced and industrialized Christian West. In the Muslim context, however, the interplay of geographic and geopolitical disadvantages, colonialism, and underdevelopment has hindered the progress of similar processes, hence further complicating attainment of civil rights, especially womenâ€™s rights.
Modernist rational and liberal attempts to reinterpret or reform Islam emerged almost a century ago with theologians and jurists such as the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). By the turn of the 20th century, some Muslim women thinkers and writers too had gradually begun framing their gender conscious and women-friendly writings within Islamic and spiritual ethics (for example, Tahira Qurratulein, Bibi Khanum Astarabadi, Zeinab Fawwaz, and Ayesha Taymuriya). Yet, it is only in retrospect that one may or may not consider them to be Muslim feminists because such categorization has been formulated very recently and, for the most part, by Western or Western-based feminists and not by Muslim feminists themselves. For instance, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her female friends wrote the Womanâ€™s Bible in 1895, nobody called them Christian feminists, but today due to the currency of feminist discourse, Amina Wadudâ€™s Quran and Women: Rereading Sacred Text from a Womanâ€™s Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) is naturally seen as an example of Islamic/Muslim feminism. Such a naming in the present context can be harmless if it does not imply a deliberate or unwitting â€œotherizingâ€ or essentializing of Muslim women. It can be harmless if it does not limit the diverse spectrum of the womenâ€™s movement in Muslim societies to Muslim women only and to a primarily religious feminism at the expense of ignoring, excluding or silencing women of non-Muslim religious minorities or women of a secular and laic orientation.
B. Like other components of the modern (and arguably postmodern) reform movements within Islam, Muslim feminism too is a Quran-centered discourse that places the Sunna, Hadith, and other components of the tradition at the margin. The Quran, seen as the â€œeternal and inimitableâ€ text, provides for Muslims both the foundational basis and the point of convergence for many different, human interpretations in light of specific socioeconomic and political situations (Barbara Stowasser, â€œGender Issues and Contemporary Quran Interpretationâ€ in Islam, Gender and Social Change, Eds. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John Esposito, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Feminist Muslims like Azizah al-Hibri see flexibility and evolution as â€œan essential part of Quranic philosophy, because Islam was revealed for all people and for all times. Consequently, its jurisprudence must be capable of responding to widely diverse needs and problems. . . . Muslims rely on ijtihad which is the ability to analyze a Quranic text or a problematic situation within the relevant cultural and historic context and then devise an appropriate interpretation or solution based on a thorough understanding of Quranic principles and the Sunnahâ€ (Azizah al-Hibri, â€œIslam, Law, and Custom: Redefining Muslim Womenâ€™s Rights,â€ American University Journal of International Law and Policy, 1997, 12:2). However, an important challenge for Muslim feminists, as writers such as Anne Sofie Roald (â€œFeminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources: Muslim Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian Tradition of Feminist Thoughtâ€ in Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions on Gender Relations, Eds. Karin Ask and Marit Tjomsland, Oxford: Berg, 1998, 41) have argued, is that the Quran is seen as the â€œword of Godâ€ and consequently immutable. In response, Muslim modernists and feminists have pointed out that the symbolic wording of the Quran is not critical. Rather the (usually patriarchal) interpretation of the Quran by men forms the basis of Islamic law, application, and practice. This male/patriarchal (ulama) monopoly of authority to interpret the Quran or engage in ijtihad is what Muslim feminists are challenging now. Erika Friedl explains this quite clearly:
Theoretically these texts are beyond negotiation because they are claimed to emanate from divine or divinely inspired authority. Practically, however, the Holy Writ has to be translated, taught, and made understandable to the faithful, especially to illiterate and semiliterate people who cannot read original Arabic texts. . . . This means it has to be interpreted. Interpretation is a political process: the selection of texts from among a great many that potentially give widely divergent messages, and their exegesis are unavoidably influenced, if not outrightly motivated, by the political programs and interests of those who control the formulation and dissemination of ideologies (â€œIdeal Womanhood in Post-Revolutionary Iranâ€ in Mixed Blessings: Gender and Religious Fundamentalism Cross-Culturally, eds. Judy Brink and Joan Mencher, New York: Routledge, 1997, 146).
C. Like other modernist reform movements within religion, Muslim feminism emphasizes individual agency and insists upon womenâ€™s right to a direct relationship with God with no human (cleric) mediators. Similarly, Luther raised this issue in 1551, leading to the Protestant Reformation. This principle if applied seriously among Muslims has the potential to challenge the (male) clerical monopoly over religion, transforming womenâ€™s understanding of religion from a male-cleric-centered authoritarian institution to a non-hierarchical spiritual process in womenâ€™s daily lives.
Feminist believers from the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have a lot to learn from each othersâ€™ experience in â€œreclaimingâ€ their faith and spirituality from the clergy-centered patriarchal monopoly of religious authorities. But spiritual feminism and faith-based feminists cannot be much different from religious fundamentalists if they do not respect freedom of choice, and impose their version of feminism on secular, laic and atheist feminists. What can be troubling with regard to religious feminism, be it Islamic or Christian, is the tendency toward sectarianism or totalitarianism. The real danger is when a single brand of ideological feminism, be it secular Marxist or religious Islamic (in this case it becomes Islamist) presents itself as the only legitimate or authentic voice for all women or the â€œtrue path for liberation,â€ negating, excluding, and silencing other voices and ideas among women in any given society. Appreciation for ideological, cultural, racial, sexual, and class diversity is critical for local and global feminist movements.
For effective feminist strategizing, the importance of dialogue, conversation, and coalition building among women activists of various ideological inclinations cannot be overemphasized. The feminist movement is not one movement but many. What unites feminists is a belief in human dignity, human rights, freedom of choice, and further empowerment of women rather than any ideological, spiritual, or religious stance. Secularity works better for all when secularism means impartiality toward religion, not anti-religionism. Some secularist and Marxist feminists have treated Muslim or Christian feminists as rivals or foes of secular feminism and have been preoccupied with academic concerns over their philosophical and ideological inconsistency and postmodern limits (as though various brands of secular feminism are free from such limits). We may see religious and spiritual feminism, including Muslim feminism, as a welcome addition to the wide spectrum of feminist discourse, as long as these religious feminists contribute to the empowerment of women, tolerance and cultural pluralism. When their discourse and actions impose their religious strictures on all, however, or when they co-opt the meaning of feminism to fight against equal rights for women or womenâ€™s empowerment, or when they cooperate with and serve as arms of repressive and anti-democratic Islamist states, Muslim feminism is not helpful. Muslim feminism has served womenâ€™s cause when it complements, diversifies, and strengthens the material as well as spiritual force of the womenâ€™s movements in any given Muslim society. Observations on the recent Islamist and other religious fundamentalist movements indicate that theocratic states are not able to empower women nor are they able to provide an inclusive democracy for their citizens. Religion is important but should be separated from state power. Muslim feminists seem to be an inevitable and positive component of the ongoing change, reform, and development of Muslim societies as they face modernity. In the short run, Muslim feminists may serve as a sort of Islamization of feminism for some. In the long run, in a society that allows for and protects open debate and discussion, Muslim feminism (as did Christian feminism) can facilitate the modernization and secularization of Islamic societies and states. Negotiating modernity takes many forms. Although feminism and the womenâ€™s movement have become more global than ever before, as Jewish feminist colleague Simona Sharoni once noted, sisterhood is not global nor is it local; womenâ€™s solidarity has to be negotiated within each specific context.
Nayereh Tohidi is an associate professor of women's studies at California State University, Northridge