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Feminism, Islam and the Contemporary Gender Debate


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Title: Feminism, Islam and the Contemporary Gender Debate

Maimoona Asad Raza

  • Homo sapiens sapiens thinking thinking human
    APPEARED 30000 years ago in Middle East, the only
    homo to spread to all continents of Eart/ brain 2
    times the size of earlier hominids /capacity for
  • Surah Araaf says that early descendants of 1st
    human pair were monotheists, lived for centuries
    as nomad hunter /gatherers with a Rough Equality
    between men and women
  • Uptill the Agricultural Revolution/Domestication
    of Animals (8000 -5000 BC) when they settled in
    Village Cultures.
  • The availability of cereals increased birth
    rates necessitating women to stay home for
    Reproductive Role of child in the Private sphere
    and economic and political tasks in the Public
    sphere were taken over by men assuming the role
    of Defender and Owners

  • Growth of Civilization (3500 BC) further
    manifested Gender Apartheid when
  • CLASS SYSTEM based on Division of labor evolved.
    Women had no place in hierarchy and performed all
    invisible supporting work in each Social Class
  • CLERGY gained power as lawgivers and Warlords
    became KINGS founding PALACE TEMPLE ALLIANCE and
    DESPOTIC ABSOLUTISM (2500 BC). CLERGY monopolized
    religion and the POWERFUL subjugated the
    vulnerable. In the Games of Power Control and
    Ownership, women were the worst hit.
  • Over the passage of Centuries women lost share in
    all resources became an article of
    ownership/pleasure. The 1st case of Sati is
    documented in 5th century AD a time by which
    women had become victims of slavery, infanticide,
    discrimination, prostitution and had been reduced
    to the lowest ebbs of Self Esteem.
  • This Darkness was quelled by the light of
    Monotheism when Islam was revealed via Prophet
    Muhammad ( SAW) to once again spread the message
    of Justice and Equality among Descendants of the
    1st human pair by manifesting the Unity of God
  • Yeh Aik Sajda Jissai
    tu Giraan Samajhta Hai
  • Hazaar
    Sajdoan Se Daeta Hai Admi ko Nijaat
  • Islam Gave women all socio political rights.
    Majority of Islamists interviewed in my Doctoral
    research said that in its complete worldviewQuran
    specially its familio legal section in Surah
    Baqara and Nisa, seem to favor women more than

  • Feminism and Islam
  • Quran Defines Muslims This is How we Ordained
    You to be A People Most Balanced ( Umat ul
    Wast) So that You can be a Model to others and
    Prophet be a Model To You ( Surah Baqara 143)
  • Our primary textbooks say that our Holy prophet
    sewed his own clothes, did a sick womans
    housework etc. One renowned Islamist interviewee
    in my resaerch said that milking goats was an
    established womans work in Arabia and our
    Prophet by his action demolished the wall in
    sexual division of labor
  • Definition of Feminism Feminism is the awareness
    of Womens oppression, subordination and
    exploitation in society, at work and within the
    family and a conscious action by women and men to
    change this situation. (Khan, 1991 271)
  • First English translator of Quran Marmaduke
    Pikthall rightly described Hazrat Muhammad (SAW)
    as first feminist of the world.
  • Presently the origin of Feminism as a movement is
    linked to the democratic revolution of 18th
    century AD in United States when Abigail Adams,
    wife of John Adam, 4th President of United
    States, politely requested her spouse to
    remember the ladies while framing the American
  • But a fact most conveniently ignored by Muslim
    His Story is that the 1st gender conscious voice
    was raised much before Mrs. Adams in 7th century
    Arabia when Islam elevated womens self esteem to
    a level that Hazrat Umme Salama on behalf of
    some Muslim women questioned her husband Hazrat
    Muhammad (SAW) that Why Allah did not appear to
    address women in Quran .Her contention resulted
    in revelation of verse 33 of Surah Al Ahzaab
    whereby Quran sets out without ambiguity the
    basic equality of men and women in Islam.
  • Khudi ka Sirre

  • Muslim women During the era of the Holy Prophet
    fulfilled all classical criteria of participation
    in the development of Islam.
  • They directly took their Baya with the Prophet
  • 1552 Sahabiat learnt religion from holy Prophet
    along with male Sahaba
  • Women are acknowledged as narrators of Ahadith
  • Quranic legislations had backgrounds called
    occasions of revelation. Tibri
  • portrays Muslim women as active
    precursors of the asbab-e-nazul
  • Islam negated the stereotypical female image of
    dependence, emotional volatility
  • and weakness as they fought in battles and
    participated in Hijra.
  • Womens Reproductive Role was equated with the
    Productive role when Islam attached monetary
    value to housework/breastfeeding. Muslim women
    inherited Property but were made free of all
    financial familial liabilities and obligations.
    However because Misogyny was entrenched in
    cultures of new Muslims and as Islam is based by
    Allah in reason so GRADUALISM had to be the main
    feature of the Quranic revolution. However in its
    essence Islam contains within its teachings seeds
    for fundamental changes in the status of Women
    for all times to come.

  • Era of the 4 Righteous Caliphs and women of
    Prophets household
  • Women during the era of Righteous Caliphs were
    scholars, poets, teachers of men intellectuals,
    businesspersons, faqihas Muhaddasat and were
    socially active
  • Hazrat Fatima stood up for her property rights
    during the Era of 1st Caliph
  • Ume Waraqa was an imam during 2nd Caliphs rule.
    Women were owners of their
  • Mehr according to Islam so by the time of Hazrat
    Umar their demands became so high
  • that men protested, wanting an upper limit on
    Mehr amount. Women confronted this
  • effort contending this and Hazrat Umar agreed
  • Hazrat Aisha lead a war against the 4th Caliph
    and opposed the First Umayyad ruler
  • Amir Muawiyah, when he appointed his son Yazeed
    as his heir. Hazrat Aishas Hadith
  • transmission counts for 15 of basis of Sharia
  • Women of Prophets household were participants in
    the resistance put up at Karbala
  • against turning the Caliphate into ABSOLUTE RULE
    and making it a hereditary office.

  • Umayyad (661-750 AD) and Abbasid (750-1258 AD)
  • Muslim History is a chronicle of women eminence
    in the era of Prophet and 4
  • Righteous Caliphs and their later decline in the
    Umayyad and Abbasid eras
  • Umayyads had seized Power by violence, founded a
    dynasty, moved the capital
  • from Medina to Damascus, adopted Roman Byzantine
  • The Abbasids replaced the Umayyads, moved the
    capital to Baghdad adopting
  • Persian Sasanian traditions.
  • These Conquests also brought African/European/Asia
    n slave women to markets of
  • Damascus and Baghdad. Thus by 2nd century AH
    aristocratic women seem to disappear
  • from political centre stage and historical
    chronicles and are replaced by the Jariya (the
  • slave woman) as she obeyed more readily than the
    hurra ( free woman)
  • The rule with a slave is that anything can be
    obtained by being pliable, by begging or
  • being seductive but no demands can be made on an
    equitable footing
  • Thus those who argue that role of Muslim public
    and women is to obey and not
  • to think freely, draw this opinion not from the
    eras of Holy Prophet and 4 righteous
  • Caliphs but from later dynastic eras of ABSOLUTE

  • Umayyad/Abbasid era was a time of rapid conquests
    conversion to Islam, civil wars, sectarian/
    social conflict, so a consensus on religious
    legal issues became necessary. The State
    collaborated with Ulema to form a Palace Temple
    Alliance influencing the development of Hadith
    Tafsir and Sharia on Orthodox, Absolute,
    Patriarchal lines.
  • From the late Umayyad / early Abbasid era, Tafsir
    assumed a central role in Islamic scholarship and
    began to be confused with Quran.
  • Ayat means a clue and Ayahs are valid till
    eternity, however whenever the facts explained in
    Quran were beyond available human knowledge at
    that point in history scholars explained them
    through their pretext introducing Al- Israiliyat
    in Tafsir.
  • Quran was interpreted by men who excluded women
    from production of knowledge.
  • Ancient Tafsir in Abbasid era began to be
    regarded as sacred and thus beyond question and
    was also given a license to participate in the
    building of Sharia Law.
  • Thus despite their mutual differences all the
    four Sunni schools of law as well as the Jaffaria
    school of the Shias agree that women and men are
    not to be treated equally.
  • Islam insists on the Masawaat (equality) of all
    believers before Allah but to the ancient jurists
    that did not mean the equality of all humans
    beings before Law.

  • Marylyn French (1985) defines Patriarchy as a
    system that values Power over Life. The
    following facts contributed to growth of Sharia
    on Patriarchal lines
  • After 10th century A.D. the Abbasid State, though
    itself not following the Law facilitated the
    growth of law on patriarchal lines.
  • Islamic Civilization began to fade in 12th
    century A.D so to avoid politico- social
    fragmentation 4 Sunni Schools of Law reached an
    Ijma that their way of looking at Quran/Sunnah
    was enough for needs of Muslims for rest of
  • Weak Abbasid State supported this Ijma and
    closure of the gates of Ijtehad to safeguard its
    fading power thus ending all new legal
    developments. Sharia whose literal meaning is
    flowing water was turned into a stagnant pond.
  • Patriarchy assimilated in Muslim epistemology via
    customs of conquered lands
  • Defeat of Abbasids by Mongols in 1258 AD further
    aggravated this process
  • Period of most definite work on Tafsir Sharia
    Hadith coincides with European Middle Ages
    (500-1500 A.D.) so misogyny of that period was
    assimilated in Islamic epistemology through the
    Christian and Jewish converts.
  • Thus a decline in Muslim womens status can be
    easily traced by comparative study of the Tafsir
    of Tabri (d. 923 A.D.) Zamakshari (d. 1144 A.D.)
    Badawi (d. 1286 A.D) and Al Sayuti (d. 1550 A.D.)
    Tabaris Tafsir is the most enlightened and Al
    Sayutis Tafsir the most patriarchal among them

  • Muslim Contribution to Europes Renaissance and
    Enlightenment 1300 A.D. -1900 A.D
  • Muslims had improved on Greek Syrian, Persian,
    Chinese, Indian knowledge
  • emerging as Islamic Civilization forming the base
    for European Renaissance.
  • Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D.
    following Muslim advances
  • in education in Spain started efforts to improve
    education in Europe. So by 1200
  • A.D. learning level of France matched that of the
    Muslims and by 1500 A.D. universities
  • had been built in all major Towns of Europe.
    Students came to study from all over Europe to
    the Universities in Muslim Spain as higher
    education in Christian areas was a privilege of
    clergy. Muslim Women in Spain attended
    tournaments and mutual contacts between women and
    men were conducted with Chivalry, a tradition
    that was later adopted by the Europeans as they
    came out of the Middle Ages, repackaging Islams
    message of human rights and naming it Liberalism
    Philosopher Francis Bacon has accepted the great
    contribution of Muslims to the European
    Renaissance and Enlightenment.
  • Freedom for all was the aim of Enlightenment and
    by mid 18th century it became a
  • core Western value. By product of Western
    Enlightenment was Unitarian Protestestants
  • Faith that rejected the authority of clergy,
    concept of Trinity and Believed in ONE GOD
  • The spirit of human rights at the basis of
    Feminism is also rooted in Enlightenment and
  • the earliest Western feminists Mary
    Wollstonecraft and Abigail Adams were both
  • Unitarian Protestant Christians meaning that
    they were believers in the Unity of God.
  • Yoon Haath Nahin
    Ata Woh Gauhar-e-Yakdana (One God)
  • Yakrangi o Azadi
    hai Himat e Mardana


  • Re Emergence of Muslim Feminism
  • Feminism as western liberal idea of gender
    equality reached Muslim areas by end of 19th
    century. Its first proponents were Muslim men who
    responded to Orientalist/ and Christian
    Missionary attacks on Muslim womens unequal
  • Thus the Struggle for Womens rights (FEMINISM)
    completed its Full Circle by the 19th 20th
    century when it re-emerged among Muslims and
    women in Hazrat Umme Salaamas tradition started
  • Why are we Equal before Allah
    and Unequal before Man?
  • In 19th century, Muslim women like Tahira Qurat
    ul Ain (Iran) Fatima Aliya Hanim (Turkey) Aisha
    Al Taimuriyah (Egypt) highlighted Muslim womens
  • First woman to explore Quran for this purpose was
    Aisha Abdul Rahman (1913-1998). She criticize the
    early Mufassirs for women bias. Ruqayya Sakhawat
    of India in 1904 said that men use religion to
    suppress women. Women activism arose in Iran in
    1905 as women took part in the Constitutional
    agitation and Iranian Dcevad Sade was on the
    committee of Clara Zatkins Communist Womens
    International. In 1923 Egyptian Huda Sharawi
    launched the secular Egyptian Feminist Union
  • 1st woman to reread Islam in context of womens
    rights was Nazira Zain-al-Din.
  • Men have written about 3000 Tafsirs but
    ironically only one Tafsir of mediocre caliber
    has been written by a woman Zainab-al-Ghazali
    (1917- 2005)
  • From these initial steps during first 3 decades
    of 20th century till 1970s-80s feminism in
    Muslim areas was overshadowed by secular feminism
    that arose out of the Nationalist discourse of
    the first half of 20th century when Muslim women
    were made a part of the National Independence
    struggles only to be sent back to Private Sphere
    after freedom was gained.

  • However after 1970s Islam based feminism
    re-emerged as part of a response
  • to the failure of post independence Nation State
    to fulfill its development promises
  • United States Decade of Women (1975-1985) focused
    on womens rights and
  • on re-examination of patriarchal religious
    interpretations in Islamic Countries.
  • But this trend again faced a set back after the
    Islamic Revolution in Iran and
  • U.S. backed Resistance in Afghanistan, enabling
    some Absolute despotic Muslim
  • regimes to frame discriminatory Laws against
    women in Islams name. This
  • patriarchal trend again watered the seed of
    Muslim womens theological enquiry.
  • MUSLIM WOMENS THEOLOGY is being attempted by
    Islamic Feminists and Miriam Cooke defines their
    strategies as a Multiple Critique because
  • They reject Western Ethnocentrism.
  • They object to male bias and that Quran was
    historically interpreted by men,
  • They question Islamic epistemology as part of
    their faith and not its rejection
  • They call for a new vision of women inspired from
    the early period of Islam.
  • In 1982 Womens Studies International for 1st
    time invited Muslim women
  • Aziza Hibri, Nawal Sadawi and Fatima Mernissi to
    write articles. Hibri contributed
  • her famous article Study of the Islamic Her

  • During Zia Regimes anti women policies in 1983,
    some WAF activists
  • endeavored to reveal the real Islam through its
    progressive interpretations.
  • However sharp divisions emerged on the issue as
    upper middle class women with
  • liberal views protested against bringing Islam in
    the debate but the lower middle
  • - working class women seemed very satisfied with
    this approach
  • WAF invited a Pakistani American scholar Dr.
    Riffat Hassan in 1983-84
  • and she is the 1st scholar who in 1985 began
    emphasizing the equality of sexes that
  • can be understood through the story of human
    creation in Quran.
  • Fatima Mernissi a secular feminist wrote her book
    Women and Islam (1991)
  • and based it on the re-readings of Hadith and
    Islamic history.
  • Amina Wadud wrote Quran and Women(1992), a
    Tafsir re-reading and Shaheen Sardar Ali wrote
    Gender and Human Rights in Islam(1999)
  • By 1990 Islamists also entered the debate.
    Sisters in Islamcame up in 1991 in
  • Malaysia, similar groups were seen in Karachi
    University (1992) in Jordan (1995)
  • Feminist re-readings completed a full circle when
    Dr Zafar Ishaq Ansari the
  • editor of the journal of Islamic Research
    Institute wrote in the editorial in 2003
  • We believe that a serious effort should be made
    to understand the views of Muslim feminists
    instead of trying to ignore or suppress them.

  • Streams of Muslim Feminism
  • Streams of Muslim Feminism A Swedish theologist,
    Jan Harpe had initially pointed out
  • 4 feminist trends within the Muslims
  • Atheist Feminism believes women can never get
    rights within a religious contexts
  • 2.Secular Feminism among Muslim identifies with
    Western secularism, reflecting the
  • point of view of upper and upper middle class
    women who promote western gender
  • stereo types. It surfaced during first half of
    the 20th century when Muslims were
  • struggling for freedom and the women question
    merged into issues of national identity.
  • Muslim secular feminists follow a western
    inspired understanding of women rights.
  • However they are today a major force exposing
    injustices faced by the Muslim women
  • e.g. Asma Jehangir, Nighat Said Khan (Pakistan)
    Shireen Abadi (Iran) etc.
  • 3. Muslim Feminism is a category of Muslim
    activists standing at a mid point position
  • between the Secular Feminists and the ultra
    conservative Islamists. e.g. Fatima Mernissi
  • (Moroccan), Aziza Al Hibri (American Muslim
    lawyer) etc.

  • 4.Islamic Feminism stands at a bridge separating
    the Muslim Feminists and the
  • Islamists. Miriam Cooke says that Wherever
    Muslim women offer a critique of
  • Islamic history or epistemology and emphasize
    their right to participate in a just
  • community I call them Islamic feminists. Author
    categorizes Amina Wadud, Riffat
  • Hassan, (Americans) Shaheen Sardar Ali and Dr.
    Riffat Haq as Islamic Feminists
  • Asad (2005) highlighted 2 other streams emerging
    among Muslims in 1980s-90s
  • (5)Pragmatic Feminism Pervin Paidar cited this
    trend from her observations in
  • Iran and may include Secular and Muslim
    Feminists. After the preposition of Law
  • of Evidence in 1982, WAF sent a paper based on
    women friendly
  • interpretations of Islamic texts to the members
    of Majlis-e-Shura. Mumtaz and
  • Shaheed describe WAFs stand at that point of
    time as Pragmatic.
  • 6. The Islamists After 1990s the Islamists
    have also joined this debate, stressing
  • on the liberating potential that Islam has for
    women. They take the re emerging
  • hijab as a symbol of rejection of Western values
    and they adopt it as a political
  • uniform. e.g Sisters in Islam' (Malaysia), Dr
    Farhat Hashmi (Pakistan)

  • Muslim Women's Theological Enquiry is the
    endeavor of Islamic Feminists (men and Women) and
    few Muslim Feminists. Its most common issues are
  • 1. Re evaluation of Islamic Sources Read
    understand and study Quran, Hadith to redefine
    Muslim womens status (Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan
    etc.) and re evaluate Fiqh to reestablish the
    claim of Muslim women on Islamic Law ( Aziza
    Hibri and many others)
  • 2. Criticism of the Use of Islamic Holy Sources
    They contend that Islamic Holy sources are
    epitomes of Masaawat ( equality) Adal ( Justice)
    Ahsaan ( Benovalence for vulnerable ) for all
    human beings but they are used as a source to
    oppress rather than liberate.
  • 3. Ctiticism of the interpretation of Islamic
    Holy Sources For example Abdul Karim Saroush
    says that 1400 years discriminatory
    interpretations on women have been produced these
    are not religion but interpretations of religion.
    (Saroush in Mir Hosseni 2000 253)
  • 4. Equality of Men and Women in the Quran
    According to Margot Badran ( 2003) Muslim
    Womens Theological Enquiry consists of the
    application of hermeneutics to Qurans Tafsir (
    exegetical Studies) and contesting claims of
    female inferiority . It basically takes three
  • a. Revisting ayaats of Quran to correct the
    introduction of al israiliyaat on ccounts of
    Human Creation and accounts of Human Fall from
    Heaven that support male superiority
  • b. Citing Ayaat that enunciate equality of men
    and women inn Quran
  • c. Deconstructing and rereading ayyats that have
    been since centuries interpreted in ways that
    justify male domonation.

  • Islams Concept of Femininity and
  • Focus of Islamic thought is on male and female
    qualities not on men and women and raises deep
    questions. Who is the real man? Who is the real
  • Human beings manifest the Names of Allah who has
    a Jalal side (masculine, powerful majesty) and
    Jamal side (feminine, wonderful kindness) that
    fall together in Allah as Kamal.
  • Theologians see a reference to the Divine Names
    of God (2 complementary categories) in the
    Quranic expression two hands of Allah. Quran
    states that only human beings among all other
    creatures were created with two hands of God
    (Quran 38 76) there is also a Hadith that both
    the hands of God are Right (positive) hands
  • Quran quotes God as saying that Of everything We
    created a pair. One such pair is the Pen (Qalam)
    and the Tablet ( Loh)
  • the symbol of Divine Intellect is the Pen
    (masculine) and the Divine Message (Quran) is
    preserved in the Tablet (Al-Loh-e- Mahfooz, the
    Universal Soul or Feminity) Iqbal in the praise
    of Allah says Loh bhi tou Qalam bhi tou Tera
    Wajood Alkitab

  • Another pair is the Arabic alphabets Alif and
    Bai The Arabic Alif stands for The Divine
    Creator, Allah symbolizing Divine Intellect (The
    First Intelligence) also represented as Qalam.(
    The First Intellect) Alif also represents the
    masculine in the pair Alif Bai whereas Bai
    represents the feminine in this pair . The Arabic
    Alphabet Bai also symbolizes the Loh (Universal
  • The power of the alphabet Bai The first word of
    Quran is Bismillah. The first Ayat of Quran is
    Bismillahir- Rahmanir- Rahim. Thus the alphabet
    with which Quran starts is Bai. There is a
    famous saying of Hazrat Ali that If I start
    disclosing to you the secrets and powers of the
    Alphabet Bai of Bismillahir- Rahmanir-Rahim, all
    the water in all the oceans, if turned into ink,
    will finish but the explanation of the attributes
    of alphabet Bai will still not be complete.
  • According to Islamic thought Quran is summarized
    by Allah in Surah Al Fatiha (Alhamd Sharif) and
    Surah Al Fatiha is summarized in the first Ayat
    of Quran which is Bismillahir- Rahmanir- Rahim
    and Bismillah is summarized in Alphabet Bai

  • Islamic thought views women and men as 2 kinds
    of human being performing complementary
    functions. Humans manifest the 99
    Names/Attributes of Allah who has a Jalal
    (masculine, powerful majesty) side and a Jamal
    (feminine, wonderful kindness) side, that fall
    together in Allah as his Kamal. It is said that
    Allahs Jamali Attributes/ Names are more
    abundant than his Jalali Attributes. Thus his
    Jamal (Rahm), out weighs his Jalal (Qahr and
  • As Gods mercy (femininity) precedes His wrath
    (masculinity), so remaining within this
    framework, the goal for a Muslim feminist/ is to
    again re-establish in this world the vision of
    The Divine Feminine The Al Rahman-i- Raheem.
  • Though women despite the Devine message of
    Justice and Equality in Quran are still
    imprisoned in the dungeon of tribal-feudal
    cultures. I end this Presentation sounding the
    bugle of protest following in footsteps of Hazrat
    Umme Salaama and raising the slogan of the
    Musalman gender activists that
  • If You will Subjugate Me in the Name of God
    then by God
  • I Will Stand Up and Rise in the
    Name of God
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