Islamic feminism is a form of feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam. It aims for the full equality of all Muslims, regardless of sex or gender, in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, the movement's pioneers have also utilized secular and European or non-Muslim feminist discourses and recognize the role of Islamic feminism as part of an integrated global feminist movement. Advocates of the movement seek to highlight the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the Qur'an and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Qur'an (holy book), hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and sharia (law) towards the creation of a more equal and just society.
Muslim majority countries have produced more than seven heads of state including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Çiller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. Bangladesh was the first country in the world to have a female head-of-state succeed another Sheikh Hasina was elected Prime Minister in 2008, following Khaleda Zia who held the post from 1991 to 1996, and was elected again in 2001. Many Muslim women are successful lawyers, doctors, professors and journalists, including Qasim Amin, an early advocate of women's rights in Islamic society; Alya Baffoun, a psycho-sociologist; Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003; and Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan writer.
Islamic feminists are critical of the subordinate legal and social status afforded to women by law and custom in Islamic nations and communities, but deny that Islam itself is responsible for this state of affairs. They argue that Islam has historically been interpreted in patriarchal and often misogynistic ways, that Sharia law has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that both the spirit and the letter of the Qur'an have been distorted Sharia, the body of Islamic religious law, is derived from the Qur'an (the religious text of Islam), hadith (sayings and doings of Muhammad and his companions), Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and centuries of debate, interpretation and precedent. Islamic feminists challenge the patriarchal interpretation of what they call “medieval male consensus” and cite female-supportive verses of the Qur’an and sayings from the hadith to promote the egalitarian ethics of Islam.
In recent decades the concept of Islamic feminism has expanded, promulgated by Islamic groups seeking support from as many components of society as possible, and by educated Muslim women striving to articulate their role in society. In modern Islamic countries, upper-middle-class women who have the economic security to violate widely-held beliefs have been the primary voice of the Islamic feminist movement.
The rise of feminism in the Islamic world has also been linked to the increase of Western influence and political and economic attempts to align with powers and markets promoting ideas such as universal suffrage, human rights and access to education. Some Islamic conservatives have come to acknowledge the need for reform of laws regarding women’s rights within the context of Islam.
There are subtle yet substantial differences among the terms 'Islamic feminist,' 'Muslim feminist' and 'Islamist.' Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings, seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate. Muslim feminists consider themselves Muslims and feminist but may use arguments outside Islam, for example, national secular law or international human rights agreements, to counter gender inequality. Islamists are advocates of political Islam, the notion that the Qur'an and hadith mandate an Islamic government. Some Islamists advocate women's rights in the public sphere but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private sphere.
William Montgomery Watt (1909 – 2006), one of the foremost non-Muslim interpreters of Islam in the West, portrayed Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights and instituted rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, giving women certain basic safeguards which had previously been unavailable to them. Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that helped to improve women's status in society."
Early reforms under Islam in the seventh century affected women's rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women were not accorded such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later. The improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognition of the full personhood of women.  The dowry, which had previously been treated as a bride-price paid to the father of the bride, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property. Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract," in which the woman's consent was imperative. Women were given the right to inherit property in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives.
During the pre-modern period a number of important figures argued for improving women's rights and autonomy, ranging from the medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi, who argued that women could achieve a high spiritual level equal to that of men to Nana Asma’u, daughter of eighteenth-century reformer Usman Dan Fodio, who promoted literacy and the education of Muslim women.
Women such as Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the University of Al Karaouine in 859, played an important role in the establishment of many Islamic educational institutions. During the Ayyubid dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, 26 of the 160 mosques and madrassahs established in Damascus were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.
The twelfth century Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir wrote that women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers, indicating that there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters. Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:
"How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."
There were no legal restrictions on female education. It was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, but women attended informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. Some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behavior of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:
"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her 'awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden—how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"
During the twelfth century, women accounted for no more than one percent of Islamic scholars. There appears to have been a significant increase in the number of female scholars by the 15th century, when Al-Sakhawi devoted an entire volume of his 12-volume biographical dictionary Daw al-lami to female scholars, giving information on 1,075 of them.
Men and women of various ethnic and religious backgrounds were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities in Islamic caliphates. Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and occupations in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.) Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry, the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labor were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The famous twelfth century Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, declared that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to excel in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case. Notable female Muslims who fought as soldiers or generals during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) of early Muslim history included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira, and Um Umarah.
Under Islamic law, women generally had fewer legal restrictions than they did under certain Western legal systems until the twentieth century. For example, under traditional interpretations of sharia, women had the right to keep their surnames upon marriage; inherit and bestow inheritance; independently manage their financial affairs; and contract marriages and divorce. In contrast, restrictions on the legal capacity of married women under French law were not removed until 1965. Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, notes:
As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them—hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.
In contrast to the Western world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, and in contrast to the low rates of divorce in the modern Middle East, divorce was a common occurrence in the pre-modern Muslim world, where it was known as talaq. In the medieval Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East. In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on marriage in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times.
The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the late nineteenth century. Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), is often described as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. In his work, Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygyny, the veil, and purdah ( sex segregation in Islam). He condemned them as un-Islamic and contradictory to the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today.
Less known, however, are the women who preceded Amin in their feminist critique of their societies. The women's press in Egypt started voicing such concerns in its very first issues in 1892. Egyptian, Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese women and men had been reading European feminist magazines even a decade earlier, and discussed their relevance to the Middle East in the general press.
Aisha Abd al-Rahman, writing under her pen name Bint al-Shati ("Daughter of the Riverbank"), was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis, and although she did not considered herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. She began producing her popular books in 1959, the same year that Naguib Mahfouz published his allegorical and feminist version of the life of Muhammad. She wrote biographies of early women in Islam, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism.
Another aspect of modern Islamic feminism is the activism of Muslim women born and brought up within Western societies, who have often faced racism from their host community and sexism within their own communities. Young Muslim women in France led by Fadela Amara created Ni Putes Ni Soumises (usually translated "Neither Whores Nor Submissives")to address issues ranging from endemic sexual violence to the forced wearing of the hijab. This movement has spread to other countries.
One of the major areas of scholarship and activism for Islamic feminists is Muslim Personal Law (also known as Muslim Family Law). MPL includes three main areas of law: marriage, divorce, and testation, the power of a property owner to determine who will receive it upon the owner's death.
Muslim countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Nations with Muslim minorities that have operating MPL regimes or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India and South Africa.
In many of these countries, Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation on the grounds that this type of legislation discriminates against women. Some Islamic feminists believe that a reformed MPL based on the Qur'an and Sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women and which does not discriminate against women, is possible, and have been working on developing forms of MPL that acknowledge the rights of women. Other Islamic feminists, particularly some in Muslim minority contexts which are democratic states, argue that MPL should be rejected rather than reformed, and that Muslim women should seek redress, instead, under the civil laws of those states.
Islamic feminists challenge the way in which MPL regulates polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property, as well the underlying assumptions of such legislation, such as the assumption that the man is head of the household.
One issue concerning Islamic feminists is the dress codes imposed on women by Islamic law and culture. In some countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia women are expected and even required to wear an all-covering burqa or abaya; in others, such as Tunisia, Turkey and France, they are forbidden to wear even the headscarf (often known as the hijab) in public buildings. Islamic feminists feel that style of dress should be a personal choice based on an individual’s understanding and belief, not a legal requirement. In countries where the wearing of a veil is required, some feminists have chosen to regard it as a vehicle for being active in society rather than remaining at home in seclusion. Others have minimized and diversified the compulsory hijab and dress code into fashionable styles.
Another concern is the social control imposed on women by traditional cultural expectations that women should remain inside the home, associate only with males that are relatives, and follow strict moral precepts.
All links retrieved April 23, 2014.
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