For many, the term “Islamic feminist” may seem like an oxymoron, but when it was coined in the 1990s by Iranian activist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, it was the battle call for women to be allowed to work at universities.
At the time, she had also been seeking a divorce from her husband, who refused to comply. Having completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge where she studied Islamic law, she used her research in Islamic history to find legal grounds for divorcing her husband—a notoriously difficult task in most countries governed by Islamic law.
She spent months frequenting courts until she finally succeeded in divorcing herself from her husband, and returned to the UK, where she resumed her studies in Islamic family law. She has since made it her life’s mission to combat legal systems that are fraught with conflict between religious regulations and the realities of modern life.
Fast forward to 2009, and Islamic feminism made a leap during a conference in Malaysia, attended by representatives from 50 countries. The conference was organized by the Musawah (Equality) movement, which describes itself as a “Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family”.
The movement is active in numerous Arab countries, and in Iran. It has participated with UN Women in researching religious frameworks to end discriminatory practices against women that are committed in the name of religion, such as female genital mutilation (FGM).
In Egypt, the idea of Islamic feminism is not particularly widespread, with only a select number of researchers and activists working through this approach, within a limited framework.
Umaima Abu Bakr, a professor of English literature and one of the founders of Islamic Feminism in Egypt, says: “The idea of Islamic feminism in Egypt can be introduced as an ideological and epistemological project undertaken by Muslim researchers and specialists in Islamic studies, with the purpose of critiquing paternalism in Islamic heritage, and building another, more equitable alternative. This project has been active on a local, regional, and international scale.”
She explains that Islamic feminism in Egypt works on an individual level, through an organization named the Women and Memory Forum, a secular organization that works with feminists from all schools of thought.
“We are only known among other researchers. Over the past years, and following the January 25, 2011 revolution, we began organizing seminars, conferences, and workshops. With time, the term [Islamic feminism] has become more prevalent,” she notes.
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With regards to how the project relates to al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost, and the world’s oldest, institution of Sunni jurisprudence, she says: “We cooperate with al-Azhar, although we disagree over major concepts such as that of guardianship, which is considered the basis of the system of marriage in Islam. We have worked with certain sheikhs and important figures in al-Azhar to issue a document on the rights of women in Islam. However, al-Azhar backtracked on adopting it at the last minute.”
The document was nonetheless issued from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, entitled the Alexandria Declaration, in March 2014.
It affirmed a number of foundational points for the rights of women, most prominently the condemnation of politicizing women’s issues and exploiting them in political struggles between different forces. It also endorsed 'centrist' values in Islamic culture, distancing it from extremism and isolationism.
The declaration upheld equality as one of the integral concepts defining male-female relations in Islam, thus pushing toward a wider participation of women in the public sphere.
Most notably, the declaration prioritized equal rights and responsibilities in a framework of partnership.
As for the issue of guardianship, which a large portion of men exploit to exercise more power, the declaration explains it as “a financial commitment toward the family." It is a concept that organizes the participatory role of the husband, as "a responsibility for providing the financial needs of the family in ways that ensure that the wife's and children's needs are met and that they feels safe and secure."
The declaration insists that "guardianship in Islam does not denote a man’s right to absolute discretion in his actions and dominance over the wife and children.” In addition, the declaration refers to women’s political and economic rights as equal to those of men.
Kawthaw el-Khouly, director of the Noon Center for Women and Family Issues and one of the researchers who worked on the declaration, says: “We began working on the declaration in 2012, following the January revolution, when the parliament, which was under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to revoke certain laws guaranteeing women’s rights, such as the khul’ law [a law based in Islamic Shariah, granting women the right to seek divorce], as well as the law criminalizing female circumcision [FGM]."
She adds: "It was crucial for us to connect with a number of religious figures, from al-Azhar or elsewhere, to work together on ensuring women’s rights in Islamic law.”
The declaration addressed other related issues, like sexual harassment that women are subjected to daily in Egypt. It further indicated that “the issue of women’s clothing has been settled in the Shariah, and the crux of it is that modesty and covering up are legitimate demands, but the state must also commit to its role in tightening the legislations that criminalize all types of sexual, physical and verbal assault against women.”
The declaration also states that “men must realize that God did not create the earth for them alone, but for all people of both genders. Women have the right to protection in their homes and during their travels.”
Is It Realistic to Discuss Islamic Feminism?
Despite its relative novelty, Islamic feminism has been criticized. Many question how a feminist approach can be reconciled with Islam, which critics view as an inherently patriarchal ideology.
Abu Bakr responds to such critiques by saying that: “Such definitions of feminism are superficial and are limited to liberal feminism. In reality, there are various different kinds of feminism, such as leftist feminism, as well as the Christian and Jewish feminist movements."
Adding: "Feminist movements that take off from within religious circles are not novel, and feminism is not exclusive to liberal ideology; it is diverse and naunced.”
Another critique of Islamic feminism draws a parallel between them and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Bakr also views this line of inquiry as lacking, and explains that Islamic feminism is subjected to a two-sided attack. On the one hand, it is attacked by liberals, who seek to monopolize feminism for their own causes, according to her, while on the other comes from conservatives and traditionalists who condemn them for being too liberal and for questioning the tenets of Islam that they view as inviolable.
Between both the liberal Western critiques and the attempts by Islamist fundamentalists to squeeze them out of the picture, it is often the voices of Muslim women themselves that are left unheard.