Islamic Feminism
01 October 2022

Feminism vs. Multiculturalism: an Insight into Islamic Feminism

Merna Aboul-Ezz, PhD candidate in International Law, explores the challenges facing Islamic feminism, a movement liberating Muslim women from the preconception that Islam and feminism are incompatible.

In 2013, the American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod published her iconic book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”. In it she discussed how Western feminists are “obsessed” with Muslim women in a way that makes them ignore their own struggles, abuses and violence, while just focusing on saving Muslim female victims from their static, homogenous and sometimes accused as sexist/misogynist religion, Islam.

In addition to fighting against the paternalistic approach of Western feminists on one hand, there are also the traditional male biases of Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law that Muslim women have to comply with and abide by in their daily lives. It was in this juxtaposition that Islamic feminism found a way to flourish; a concept that is “highly contested and firmly embraced”, as Margot Badran, an expert in Islam and feminism, put it.

Secular feminists often argue that Islamic feminism is a controversial, incompatible and contradictory term, endorsing a view that Islam is oppressive to women. Then there are the traditional scholars who believe that feminism is an imposed Western concept that does not comply with Muslim culture.

To put it simply, Islamic feminism is an attempt led by Muslim women to have their own agency in preserving their culture and fighting for their rights. By doing so, Islamic feminists tend to go back to the main source of Islamic law – the Qur’an – to provide an alternative interpretation or “un-interpretation” of the current established male-dominated exegesis. They do so by applying the classic Islamic methodologies of ijtihad (independent investigation of religious sources) and tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an ).

Further, Islamic feminists apply methods and tools of linguistics, history, literary criticism, sociology and anthropology to help them better understand the Qur’an. In their methodology, Islamic feminists advocate for the importance of context when reading the Qur’an, in addition to endorsing a holistic approach where the main values of human equality, harmony and justice are always considered when interpreting the verses.

As most religious feminists, Islamic feminists tend to apply a restorative approach to connect with their religion. In addition to reforming the existing interpretation and jurisprudence (they perceive the Qur’an as a universal text that should be adaptable to the modern life), Islamic feminists also study how women were treated in the early Islamic days, going back in history and proving how  they were treated with respect, agency and equality. Tova Hartman referred to this strategy as “the way out of is is through the was.”

Islamic feminism is a movement that liberates women from the ongoing struggle that Islam and feminism are incompatible, giving them a sense of harmony, rather than conflict, between their inner faith and their rights. It is a way out of the stereotypical box Muslim women are always placed in.

Hence, instead of being perceived as victims in need of saving, Muslim women decided to step-up and create their own wave of feminism that – like any other form of feminism – saves them from patriarchy and tradition rather than from their own belief or beloved/chosen religion.

Keywords: PhD international law