Islamic feminism gaining momentum

2015-08-13 10:21

In both the Western and the Muslim world, feminism is often considered a Western project. Nevertheless, says Ann Kull, Islamologist at Lund University, the Islamic feminism is gaining momentum. Even if it is often called something else.

Which feminist movements can be found within Islam?

‘Quite a few, actually. I have looked closer at the situation in Indonesia, where Islamic feminism is mainly promoted via education, activism and preaching. You often see academics at centres for women’s studies at the universities reinterpreting the Koran with a women’s perspective and publishing textbooks with a gender perspective. These academics are often also activists and work with women’s rights in an Islamic perspective within various NGOs, where they apply their interpretations more practically, arrange courses for other activists, form study groups for women and inform authorities on various issues. There are also female preachers. All of them can’t be considered feminists or particularly aware of gender issues, but they are becoming increasingly common and just the simple fact that there are female preachers in the country is encouraging. Many of them think in terms of women’s rights and present their own interpretations of the Koran in their sermons.’

What’s the difference between a pro-women and a feminist perspective?

‘Many Muslims think of feminism as a Western import. And sure, it’s fair to say that feminism first surfaced in the West, but people around the world share the same thoughts since oppression of women can be found everywhere. Calling it something else, like gender or women’s rights, makes the whole issue less sensitive. Postcolonial researchers like Chandra Mohanty often stress the importance of local feminism rooted in the local community, and Islamic feminism could be seen in this perspective. The interpretations made are gender neutral and some go a step further and make pro-women interpretations. The Islamic feminists believe that Islam has always been interpreted by men influenced by highly patriarchal structures and that this has affected the understanding of a religion that in fact started out as fairly gender neutral. Today, both women and men interpret the Koran in a context affected by modernity and globalisation, enabling them to read the texts with new eyes. And the interpretations are not fundamentalist but rather hermeneutic in nature, where people are trying to understand the texts in the same way as is common in the spirit of the Christian Reformation.’

The platform Voices of Hijabis say they gain their rights through Islam. Is it a common notion among Islamic feminists that liberation is achieved through religion?

‘Many believe that Islam in itself is revolutionary, that there are social reforms, even women’s rights, woven into it. Whether that’s true or not, prior to the arrival of Islam to what we today refer to as the Arabian Peninsula, women didn’t have any rights at all; they were considered the property of men and could be inherited, given away and discarded like any other object. In this perspective, Muhammad is a revolutionary advocate for women’s rights. For example, he limited the number of wives a man could have to four and granted women the right to inherit property and to serve as witnesses in legal cases. This doesn’t mean there’s equality between women and men, but women were indeed granted rights through Islam. And many feminists want to make further advances in this revolutionary spirit of Islam and say that instead of throwing out the religion there are important strengths that can be derived from it. The interpretation made is of course important; some things can be emphasised and others downplayed. There is an entire verse in the Koran titled ‘Women’, in which both problematic and positive pieces can be found.’

Where does this image of a patriarchal religion come from?

‘As part of the institutionalisation of the religion, men in very patriarchal societies have written laws and doctrines and the religion has become tainted by the contexts in which they have lived. The revolutionary spirit and the rights of women were lost with the increasing number of laws and doctrines. If you look at where most Muslims live, it’s in highly patriarchal countries with very strong power structures. The question is what came first, the chicken or the egg, but regardless, the religion has not been left unaffected.’

What are the similarities with Western feminism?

‘There are quite a few similarities, actually. The main difference has to do with what the rights are based on, whether it’s on an interpretation of Islam or on secular laws and ideas like the UN Declaration of Human Rights. So it’s not so much the content but rather what they are based on that sets them apart. And they also differ in what’s included in concepts like rights, responsibilities and freedom. When the Taliban were struck down in Afghanistan, most Westerners thought the women would take off their burkas. But not everyone did. Maybe they saw a function of the burka in the society they were still living in. Sometimes we get hung up on things like the way people are dressed, but the concept of rights reaches so much further than that.’

Author Cecilia Köljing
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