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Baraza! 6 - Islam and Feminism: The Beginning
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It has been 400 years since Islam was revealed and spread throughout the world. Yet Muslim women in most, if not all, Muslim countries are still caught up in extremely contentious or acrimonious struggles to claim their rights in the private and public domains of their respective societies. A large part of the problem in claiming Muslim women’s rights is due to the domination of prevailing male-oriented, oppressive or misogynistic readings of our religious texts.

These readings promote practices, rulings, and laws that discriminate against women. Yet these regressive interpretations are also often claimed to be requirements of “authentic Islam”. Seeking and claiming interpretive rights over Islam’s religious texts is currently a crucial feature of a number of Muslim women’s activities, individually and also jointly in groups or in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These women’s struggles have emerged, grown and expanded, especially in the last three decades or so.

Many historians and writers have claimed that Islam is a religion that granted many rights to women of the sixth century Hejaz or Arabian societies, rights that were unheard of in other societies or parts of the “Western” world until the turn of the 9th or even early 20th centuries. Yet now in the third general millennium (and halfway through Islam’s second), Muslim women are still suffering from discrimination, a variety of injustices and even outright violence in the name of religion. Discriminatory or unjust Islamic family laws, punitive and violent rulings, and acts and practices such as child marriages, whipping, stoning, and honour killings are some of the injustices against women – all done in the name of Islam. This “degradation” in the status and situation of women in many Muslim societies is related in complex ways to the impact of local and global economic and political forces – mainly those of colonialism, modernity, globalisation and the rise of neoconservative, fundamentalist or extremist Islamic movements.

The history of feminism and feminist consciousness in Muslim Middle Eastern countries suggests that these injustices, and the dubious religious rationales that are routinely offered to justify or excuse them, may be the result of changing cultural constructs about gender roles and relations stemming from key socioeconomic or political changes. They may have been actively negotiated or advocated by women and some men in response to their experience of lived realities that had been decisively transformed by modernisation, in particular, that resulting from colonial rule since the early 9th century.

These developments arising from economic change and from state policies introduced by an indigenous or a colonial bureaucracy – and the cultural and ideological development that followed from them – had a profound impact on the lives of both men and women. One development of particular significance to women was the emergence of women themselves as a central subject of national debate – as key participants in national life, in the framing of public policy and national “narratives” (Ahmed, 992). In Egypt, for example, feminist discourses were generated by both females (e.g. Nazira Zain al-Din, Huda Sha’rawi, Duriya Shafiq, Nabawiya Musa) and males (e.g. Qasim Amin, Murqus Fahmi, Tahir al-Haddad, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid), but they grew out of different concerns and perspectives. Men’s pro-feminism or “feminist stands” arose out of their contact with European society and tended to be more visible.

Male feminists argued that their Arab society was backward because women were backward, and women were backward because of a lack of education, the adverse effects of social constraints and such practices as veiling and seclusion. These, they affirmed, were not sanctioned by religion. Women’s feminism – initially an upper-class phenomenon – grew out of expanded learning and observation of their own lives during times of great change. Muslim women argued that Islam guaranteed women rights of which they had been deprived because of “customs and traditions” imposed in the name of religion (see Badran and Cooke, 1990; Badran, 1993).

Feminism has been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented both in the Muslim world and in the West. Islamic feminism and Muslim feminists have been attacked as “a Western influence” or as “Western-oriented” ideas. On those grounds they have been accused of undermining the religious foundations of the family and society, and branded as elitist and therefore irrelevant to the majority of Muslims (Fernea, 1998).

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