Literary Reflections, American Stories

'Feminism' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article discusses feminism in Muslim societies as background for Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass, Leila Ahmed's A Quiet Revolution, and Leila Aboulela's Minaret. The article by Margot Badran is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


This article is about the feminism, or feminisms, which Muslim women have created around the world from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first century. Muslim and non-Muslim women in the East and West were among the originators of feminism. Their nascent feminism expressed the awareness that women were subordinated and often oppressed and deprived of their rights in the family and society as women and it moved to change this. Despite the tenacity of the belief that feminism is Western, it is incontrovertibly not a western invention: feminism/s have been developed by women within diverse cultures, religions, and societies around the globe in their own terms.

Muslim women have created two sorts of feminisms, secular and Islamic feminism. Muslim women created secular feminism/s in parts of the East (Africa and Asia) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late twentieth century, women in both the East and West produced Islamic feminism. In Muslim societies, secular feminism/s and Islamic feminism now exist side by side and are re-enforcing each other and are increasingly merging.

Muslim women have historically articulated their feminisms, both secular and Islamic, from within Islam, critiquing the patriarchal versions of their religion and moving beyond constraints imposed upon them. Muslim women as secular and Islamic feminists in Africa and Asia have struggled in their own nations and cultures to redress the inequities of patriarchal domination and the deprivation of their rights. Muslim women as Islamic feminists in their new communities in the West confront patriarchal practices imported from their countries of origin and perpetuated as Islamic while at the same time they navigate the terrain of western secular societies trying to secure rights important to them as Muslim women. Muslim women have sometimes participated in general feminist movements in the western countries in which they live.

Muslim women as feminists in countries of the East while operating within their own religious and cultural contexts have often simultaneously embraced the universal ideals of human rights, citizens ’ rights, and nations ’ rights as compatible with and supportive of their feminisms. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, Muslim women have not been forced to choose between their liberation and rights as women on the one hand and their religion and cultures on the other. This is not to suggest that they have not often been pressured to accept a patriarchal version of Islam and society—in some places such pressures have been impossible for women to resist without being ostracized, nor that women were not made to feel treasonous for proceeding along their own more egalitarian path within Islam. Rather, it is to emphasize that there has been space for Muslim women—which they have used often against all odds and with great risk–to combat gender inequities in their societies.

Secular Feminisms (in Muslim Societies in Africa and Asia, or “The East”)

The feminisms that Muslim women, with women compatriots of other religions, created in different parts of Africa and Asia in the first half of the twentieth century were nation-based. “Secular feminism” has been used to signify the feminisms developed by Muslims as citizens within in the context of nation-states rather than as Muslims solely within the framework of their religious community (ummah). (The term “secular feminism” mirrored the term “secular nationalism” which included all citizens irrespective of religion in a polity not framed by religion but guaranteeing the freedom of religion.) Although there have been striking similarities in the contours of Muslim women 's secular feminism/s in various nations, the plural is used in recognition of the distinctiveness of multiple nation-based feminist movements that have characterized Muslim women 's secular feminist experience.

In the course of modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Muslim women, with female compatriots of other religions, became aware that they—specifically, women of the middle and upper classes—were restricted in their movements, and deprived of opportunities as women. This became evident to them when they compared themselves with men of the same class and circumstances. Drawing upon Islamic modernist thinking then current, women began to understand that many imposed practices such as domestic seclusion, gender segregation, and face veiling (the form of veiling at the time) were not religious requirements as they had been made to believe but simply social customs. Women in Muslim societies in Africa and Asia reveal in their memoirs, essays, and stories that they were reacting against such practices which they saw as restricting the opportunities for advancement that modernization offered. This would later be referred to as a rising “feminist consciousness.”

Women's involvement in national independence movements to free their countries from western colonial rule, or in pushing for national reform in Turkey and Iran in the early twentieth century, first catapulted Muslim women into the public arena alongside women compatriots of other religions. Many more women appeared on the scene as feminist activists during processes of early postcolonial nation-building. Muslim women's secular feminisms emerged as organized social and political movements (unlike the future Islamic feminism which arose as a new global discourse).

The discourse that Muslim women elaborated in the course of their feminist militancy served the goals of their collective agenda. Their secular feminist discourse was a composite of gender-sensitive articulations of Islamic modernist, secular nationalist, and humanitarian discourse. The central tropes of Muslim women 's emergent secular feminisms were liberation and rights: liberation from patriarchal domination and winning the practice of their intrinsic rights. (Liberation and rights were the parallel concerns of Muslim nations suffering colonial domination and deprivation of their sovereign rights.)

Secular feminism focused primarily on the public sphere, or society, which its protagonists saw as “the secular sphere” (or sphere of the nation) wherein they claimed gender equality. First-wave feminists understood the private or family sphere as “the religious sphere” and accepted the prevailing patriarchal family structure within which women and men had separate but unequal roles that were held to be religiously ordained. (In countries where Muslims and Christians together pioneered as feminists, both accepted the framework of the patriarchal family of their respective religions, but it was only Muslims who campaigned for family reform.) Secular feminists acknowledged a public/private split and while working to effect change on the public and private fronts simultaneously, accorded priority to the public or societal sphere as a strategic choice. Later, Muslim women as second-wave secular feminists would challenge the notion of a patriarchal family as “Islamic.”

Muslim women 's feminisms were launched from the starting point of their own lives as women. Their secular feminisms began as gendered Islamic reform projects that disentangled religious prescription from social custom to clear the way for change. Muslim women 's move into the “secular” public space of the nation was supported by religious arguments. The Islamic scrutiny to which Muslim women as incipient feminists subjected practices said to be so ordained, such as female domestic seclusion and face veiling, and their moves to reject practices they discovered not to be ordained by religion would be a hallmark of Muslims ’ secular feminisms. Future feminist Hudā Shaʿrāwī recounted in her memoirs that a group of women (of whom she was the youngest member) meeting in a weekly women 's salon in the 1890s in Cairo discussed how face veiling was not a religious requirement as they had been made to believe. Later the Lebanese scholar of religion, Nazira Zain al-Dīn—tutored at home by her father, also a religious scholar—exposed face veiling as un-Islamic in her book al-Sufur wa al-ḥijāb (Unveiling and Veiling) published in 1928 and aimed at a wider audience.

As a pioneer of women 's independent, organized feminist activism, the feminist movement in Egypt, in many ways, was prototypical of secular feminist activism elsewhere in the Muslim world in the first half of the twentieth century. Women also experimented in public activism in Turkey and Iran, but in these countries the state largely co-opted women 's independent feminist struggle. In Egypt, the first set of feminist demands were presented by teacher and writer Malak Hifni Nasif (known by the pen name Bāḥithat al-Badʿiyya) to the Muslim Nationalist Congress in Cairo in 1911 at the height of the national independence struggle. Delivered in absentia because women were not then permitted to appear in public before men, the demands included women 's freedom to attend congregational prayer in the mosque and their access to all areas of education and work they might choose. In 1923, Muslim women Christian women under the leadership of Hudā Shaʿrāwī formed the first explicitly feminist organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union, through which they agitated for education, work, and political rights for women, campaigned for reform of the Muslim Personal Status Code, and fought to end legalized prostitution (with support from the Islamic establishment at al-Azhar). They also provided health services to poor women and trained them in income-generating work, believing health and economic well-being to be a prerequisite to women 's advance. In 1948 Durīyya Shafīq founded the Bint al-Nīl (Daughter of the Nile) Union, reaching women more broadly throughout Egypt, especially through literacy programs. In 1945, women established the Arab Feminist Union in Cairo as a regional organization through which Muslims and Christians, could jointly further their demands.

From the final third of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, rising second-wave feminists in the Muslim world turned their attention to issues of the woman 's body, sexuality, and violence against women. In Egypt feminist physician and writer Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī, and founder of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association in 1984, in her 1972 book Al-Marʿa wa al-Jins (Woman and Sex) attacked various forms of violence against women including obsessive concern with women 's virginity often leading to psychological trauma, domestic bodily abuse of women, and the sexual exploitation of women for commercial purposes. Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi in Beyond the Veil (1975) drew attention to the oppressive consequences for women of the common belief that women were omnisexual beings who produced fitnah (chaos).

An intensifying focus of feminist attention was wife-beating and the bodily harassment of women. In Turkey in the late 1980s activists struck back at the habitual public molestation in the Purple Needle campaign. They marched in protest of wife battery, which was seen by many as condoned by Islam, and in 1990 opened the Purple Roof Shelter for Women for the victims of abuse. Young women in eastern Turkey embarked on a campaign against wife-beating through the organization VACAD they created in 2004 with branches throughout the area to combat domestic violence.

Honor killing is a brutal cultural practice which feminist activists have been fighting as a heinous injustice from Mediterranean countries to Pakistan, using the language of human rights. VACAD and Ka-Mer (established in 1996) fought against honor killing rampant in eastern Turkey. When honor killing was transported to Muslim communities in the West, it was claimed by perpetrators—and readily believed by non-Muslim Western observers—to be Islamic.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Muslim women and Christians women in Egypt and Sudan fought for the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM). Although a cultural phenomenon found mainly in countries along the Nile, it has been commonly seen as Islamic, and activists accordingly mobilized both religious and human rights arguments to combat it. In the 1990s the practice, which Islamists were then proclaiming to be religious, was on the upsurge and also appeared in immigrant communities in the West.

To confront the urgent matters of the body and sexuality, Muslim women and men from the Middle East, south Asia, and southeast Asia formed the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, as a transnational solidarity network of activists and academics. The Coalition was cofounded by Women for Women 's Human Rights which was established by Turkish therapist and feminist activist Pinar Ilkkaracan in 1993 and was at the forefront of issues of sexuality. The Coalition confronts the full range of these issues around sexuality, drawing on multiple discourses to combat deeply entrenched regressive thinking and related discrimination and violence.

In the 1980s and 1990s secular feminists focused renewed attention on the reform of Muslim family laws, now agitating for gender equality not for a regime of gender inequality called complementarity. Under the leadership of Marieme Helie Lucas they organized the transnational network called Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) in 1984. Along with engaging in solidarity actions and advocacy campaigns, WLUML undertook extensive research of laws—statutory, customary, and Islamic—in some twenty Muslim countries in Africa and Asia from 1991 to 2001 and published a handbook called Knowing Our Rights. Among the organizations that have been part of WLUML are Shirkat Gah that Farida Shaheed helped found in 1975, Ain o Salish Kendra in Bangladesh founded by lawyer Salma Sobhan in 1986, and Baobab for Women's Human Rights in Nigeria created in 1996 and led by Ayesha Imam.

Shirkat Gah and the Women 's Action Forum founded in 1981, fought against injustices to women arising from the institution of the Hudood Ordinances, criminal and penal law based on sharīʿah, in Pakistan in 1981 employing Islamic and human rights arguments. Later (after the rise of Islamic feminism), secular feminists and Islamic feminists would join forces in the battle against the iniquities of ḥudūd.

From the late 1970s, the gains Muslim women as feminists had made during the first two-thirds of the century were threatened by the spread of conservative political Islam in the Muslim world following the rise to power of an Islamist state in Iran and Islamist movements in other countries which set out to reimpose many patriarchal practices that had all but disappeared. Calls were made for women to retreat from the public sphere and return to their proper place in the home. Secular feminists, who had historically placed their feminism in the framework of an enlightened Islam did not wish to be drawn into argumentation structured by those who deployed a patriarchal interpretation of Islam to control women. Eventually, it would be necessary to combat Islamist patriarchal encroachments and to do this effectively a new feminist language was required. With the spread of Islamism, feminists were buffeted between autocratic secular states and increasingly radicalized Islamist movements, finding themselves stranded between secular and “Islamic” patriarchies.

Islamic Feminism (in East and West)

Islamic feminism first surfaced as new discourse (not as a social movement) simultaneously in the East and West near the end of the twenty-first century. Muslim women created a new feminism that transcended national boundaries: it was a global feminism for a new age. Islamic feminism started as a new interpretative effort by women scholars and intellectuals, and some men, who had embarked on woman-sensitive rereading of the Qurʿān and other religious sources. Their recovery of the gender-egalitarian voice of the scripture spread instantaneously around the world via the Internet.

Women—and a few men—in the Islamic Republic of Iran were among the pioneers of Islamic feminist discourse; they circulated their ideas of a gender-just Islam in a journal called Zanan, founded by Shahla Sherkat in 1992 and one of the first in which the term “Islamic feminism” was used. Other early sites of nascent Islamic feminism included Turkey where some disaffected Islamist women were moving away from the constraints of patriarchal political Islam, in Egypt where some religiously-identified women sought to ground a discourse of women's liberation (they were uncomfortable with the term “feminism”) firmly in the Qurʿān, in Malaysia where professional and activist women challenged gender injustice in the name of religion, and in South Africa where anti-apartheid activists were turning their attention from the newly won liberation of their country to the liberation of their Muslim community. Meanwhile, in the West, specifically in the United States, Muslim scholars elaborated what others came to call Islamic feminism, which was circulated widely through the Internet by Muslim women's and progressive Muslim groups.

The Islamic feminism that emerged seeks rights and justice for women and men in all aspects of their lives. It is based on a rereading of the Qurʿān and the sunnah (or the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad preserved in the ḥadīth and revisits fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Ijtihād (independent intellectual investigation of religious sources) is the methodology of Islamic feminism, and more specifically, tafsīr (interpretation of the Qurʿān) which has taken two forms: a close reading the scripture as text, and a dynamic dialogue with the scripture such as Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, and Naṣr Abū-Zayd have undertaken.

Islamic feminism articulates the principles of gender equality and social justice, shifting from an earlier primary focus on rights and liberation, found in the Qurʿān. It is more radical than secular feminisms in enunciating full gender equality across the public/private spectrum in keeping with its understanding of a holistic Islam. It does not accept, as secular feminisms had done until more recently, the patriarchal model of the family in which complementary but unequal gender roles are understood to be religiously ordained, but rather it promotes an egalitarian model of the family. Islamic feminism, moreover, demands gender equality not only in the secular part of the public sphere but in the public religious domain, insisting on women 's Islamically licit access to the religious professions and ability to publicly perform religious rituals. Islamic feminism conceptualizes a public sphere inclusive of the religious and the secular rather than equating the public sphere solely with the secular. Islamic feminism disrupts the binary oppositions of East/West, secular/religious, and public/private, and it supports the separation of religion and state.

Two seminal treatises considered to be foundational texts of Islamic feminism are Qurʿān and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman 's Perspective in which African-American theologian Amina Wadud laid the groundwork for a Qurʿānic exposition of gender equality and social justice, and ‘Believing Women’: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʿān in which Pakistani-American scholar Asma Barlas deconstructed the patriarchal takeover of Qurʿānic egalitarianism.

In Islamic jurisprudence, legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini and lawyer and legal scholar Aziza Al-Hibri have produced compelling critiques of fiqh. Importantly, they have made clear that sharīʿah, commonly translated as “Islamic law” and thought to be sacred and immutable, is simply the product of human thought and consequently subject to change. Focusing attention on ḥadīths, Fatima Mernissi and later Turkish religious studies scholar Hidayet Tuksal have used traditional Islamic methodology to expose widespread misogynist ḥadīths as spurious.

The theoretical basis of Islamic feminism is the gender-sensitive analysis of religious sources which the creators of these analytical works place in the framework of the intellectual endeavor of religious reinterpretation. Muslim women as secular feminists recognized this as a feminist endeavor and called it “Islamic feminism.” Those who wrote the pathbreaking texts of Islamic feminism did not identify themselves as feminists (except for Mernissi) but as scholar-activists. Eventually, however, many came to accept, though not to prefer, the designation of their work as “feminist” and themselves as feminists. The issue of identity and the term “Islamic feminism” have been hotly debated. Given the volatile environments in which Muslim women now find themselves, most women who think and act as feminists tend, for political and pragmatic reasons, not to use feminist terminology, or they employ it guardedly.

A pioneering organization that exemplifies the combined intellectual and activist work of Islamic feminism is Sisters in Islam (SIS), founded by professional women in Malaysia founded in the 1980s, supporting the rights of Muslim women within an egalitarian framework of Islam. SIS reached out to the broader Muslim community by disseminating booklets on subjects like the equality of women and men, and the Islamic view of wife-beating. SIS connected with the broader transnational community of Muslim women, a practice that was to be a hallmark of Islamic feminism.

Islamic feminism in Indonesia from the start reached out to rural areas through organizations like the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies founded by activist Lily Munir and the NGO Rahima spearheaded by Kyai Muhammad Hussein. These organizations promote egalitarian Islam through curriculum revision in the grassroots Islamic boarding schools (pesantrens) found throughout the country.

Muslim activists employing Islamic arguments, as Pakistani feminists had done earlier, continue to fight injustices arising from ḥudūd laws. A landmark victory was achieved in Nigeria where ḥudūd laws had been recently instituted in several northern states. Two secular women 's organizations, Baobab, and the Women's Rights and Protection Association (est. 1999) supported two women condemned to death for zināʿ (adultery) in lower sharīʿah courts by providing them with legal support to appeal the cases in the higher sharīʿah courts; after studious examination of fiqh these appeals led to acquittals.

Jurisprudential arguments were also successfully used in Morocco. Feminist activists from many associations such as the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (est. 1985), the Union of Feminine Action (est. 1987), and the Democratic League for Women 's Rights in long years of struggle employed democracy and human rights arguments and, in the final round, stepped up Islamic feminist arguments. Relentless campaigning by the activist women played an important role in achieving the overhaul of the Mudawwanah or Family Law in 2004 which is now the most egalitarian sharīʿah-based family law in the Muslim world, and the only explicitly Islamic law that provides for dual headship of the family by the wife and husband. A victory of another sort was won in Yemen in 1997, when women activists across the ideological spectrum banded together, mobilizing the discourses of secular feminism and Islamic feminism to stave off the enactment of a new Family Law.

Muslims in the West as immigrants, new citizens, and converts are employing Islamic feminist discourse as they move forward with their new lives in the communities they are building and in society at large. Women need advice on a wide range of legal matters. In the United States, Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights was created in the late 1990s by Aziza al-Hibri to provide such advice and to develop woman-sensitive Islamic jurisprudence. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW, est. 1982), which is concerned with issues of gender and the interface between their Muslim and Canadian identities, fought a proposed change in the Arbitration Act in Ontario that would have made legally binding outcomes of family disputes that were mediated in a religious community. They argued that the existing Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected the equality of citizens and that that equality would be jeopardized by the legalized use of any religion (which could be defined in a patriarchal way) in mediating family disputes. The CCMW asserted that Canadian laws were compatible with the egalitarian principles of Islam and succeeded in defeating the bill that could be detrimental to all women.

The problem of wife beating that was a concern of secular feminists continues to be tackled by Islamic feminists. In Spain when an imam published a book declaring that beating one 's wife is sanctioned by scripture, Muslim women 's organizations comprising immigrants and converts, including Asociación An-Nisa, Asociación Cultural Inshal-lah, and Asociacióon Baraka protested and successfully sued the imam who was convicted for incitement of gender violence which is prohibited by the Spanish Constitution; it was ruled that his personal interpretation did not constitute the only possible reading of the Qurʿān.

Muslim women face problems relating to the importation of brutal practices such as honor killing into their new communities in the West. These practices are understood in their countries of origin to be simply the products of custom, but are passed off in the West by their perpetrators as Islamic. Accordingly, Muslim women in the West use Islamic feminist discourse against honor killings. L ’Associazione delle Donne Marocchine under the direction of its founder Souad Sbai and in collaboration with others opposed to the practice took the lead in fighting honor killing in Italy.

The mosque and other forms of sacred space are central in feminist efforts to realize an egalitarian Islam. Issues manifested mainly in the West but which also appeared in South Africa concern women sharing main mosque space with men and giving khutbahs (sermons), and, more specifically to North America, women acting as imams leading mixed congregations in prayer. Theologian Amina Wadud led the way in South Africa by pioneering what was called the “pre-khutbah” talk in a mosque in Cape Town in 1994 which occasioned women entering the main mosque space for the first time. A decade later, Wadud acted as imam leading a congregation in New York in prayer and delivering the khutbah. This activist move provoked a debate on the lawfulness of a woman acting as imam before a mixed congregation of women and men, in which readings of the ḥadīth and jurisprudence texts in favor of the practice were widely circulated. In Saudi Arabia, where feminist debate goes on behind the scenes, women were catapulted into public protest when they were told that women would be removed from the broader area around the Kaʿbah called the mataf. Their protest in the press in which they quoted from the Qurʿān to support their determination not to be shunted away was echoed by an outcry from women in other parts of the Muslim world. The matter was resolved when it was officially announced that the removal would not take place.

In the contemporary global ummah the distinction between secular feminism and Islamic feminism today is increasingly blending in concept and action. Muslims as feminists who accept gender equality and social justice as core principles of Islam and seek to implement them include those who announce their feminism publicly and many more who think and act as feminists but without demonstrating their attitude openly.


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Badran, Margot. "Feminism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #188: 'Feminism' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 18, 2024