Islamic Feminism Around the World

As an academic, I must admit I enjoy conferences. Alright, not all conferences nor everything about them, but I do enjoy the prospect of learning new things, expanding my mind, and meeting new people. Last week saw two conferences on and for Muslim women. One was held in Barcelona, Spain, and the other in New Delhi, India, and both with very different agendas and attendees.

Unfortunately the MMW team weren’t able to attended neither, but we thought we would highlight them and their coverage here nonetheless, in an effort to demonstrate that Muslim women are indeed helping themselves. Eat your hearts out, Islamphobes!

October 24th through to the 27th saw the Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism being held in Barcelona, Spain. The perspective of Islamic Feminism that the conference forwards is as follows:

Islamic feminism is a Koran-centered reform movement by Muslim women with the linguistic and theological knowledge to challenge patriarchal interpretations and offer alternative readings in pursuit of women’s advancement and in refutation of Western stereotypes and Islamist orthodoxy alike. Islamic feminists are critical of women’s legal status and social positions and agree that women are placed in subordinate positions –by law and by custom– in the family, the economy, and the polity. In particular, they are critical of the content of Muslim family laws and the ways that these laws restrict women’s human rights and privilege men. And yet they vigorously disagree that Islam is implicated in this state of affairs. Their alternative argument is that Islam has been interpreted in patriarchal and often misogynistic ways over the centuries (and especially in recent decades), that Sharia law has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that both the spirit and the letter of the Koran have been distorted. Their insistence that what appears as God’s law is in fact human interpretation is an audacious challenge to contemporary orthodoxy. (…) Islamic feminism is part of what has been variously called Islamic modernism, liberalism, and reformism –a transnational effort to marginalize patriarchal, orthodox, and aggressive forms of Islamic observance and emphasize the norms of justice, peace, and equality.

Speakers attended from around the world and included both men and women, though mainly women. Muslim feminists such as Asma Barlas from the U.S./Pakistan, Amina Wadud, and Margot Badran from the U.S., Sabin Malik (pictured below right) from the U.K., Subhashini Ali from India, and the list goes on.

Sabin Malik. Image from the conference website.

Sabin Malik. Image from the conference website.

BBC News highlighted this conference on the 27th by presenting the words of some of the speakers themselves – an approach I felt appropriate for a conference meant to give voice to Muslim feminists – and the common theme among all speakers was a critique of traditional interpretations of Islam which have been seen as misogynistic. Thus, these women contend, un-patriarchal and non-misogynistic re-interpretations are required in the Muslim theological world. For instance, Rafiah Al-Talei of Oman stated “Sharia is fair, but it is the wrong interpretations that are the problem,” and Norani Othman of Malaysia said “[o]ur arguments are rooted within Islam – we want renewal and transformation within the Islamic framework.” This desire to work within the Islamic framework was also seconded by Dr. Amina Wadud of the U.S. when she said “Islam has much more flexibility, but patriarchy tends to have the same objective, and that is to limit our ability to understand ourselves as Muslims.” As can be seen from the above description, and the words of these women, this desire to remain within the framework of Islam but RE-interpret it was the common theme of the conference.

However, the conference in Spain was obviously for those who could afford to travel halfway around the world. As necessary and important as their work is, it is not accessible to all. And this leads us to the second conference, which had a much different tone.

Image of working Muslim women in India from Telegraph article.

Image of working Muslim women in India from Telegraph article.

This conference took place in New Dehli, India and the women attendees and speakers were from within the country. As this Telegraph report tells us, the focus of this conference was not on Islamic feminism but rather the everyday living problems of Muslim women in India, problems that mainly stem from poverty and lack of education.The story makes apparent the difficult situation within which many Muslims in India live. And these difficulties do not stem from clothing issues or honour killings, as many news reports would have us believe to be the main problem of Muslim women.* Rather, these difficulties stem from unfair wages that make it difficult for these women to survive, let alone support families. This particular news report tells us of many Muslim women’s heart-wrenching stories of trying to survive on minimal finances. However, these women do not have their stories told passively, but tell their stories actively, as the reporter, Githa Hariharan, tells us:

But these are not merely heartrending stories told by pathetic victims. Onstage, Naseem, Malka and Mujiba hold the audience with their articulate description of their living and working conditions. They know their rights. They know they can fight for these rights more effectively if they pool their individual strengths together to construct a collective strength. They know that a collective struggle will give greater meaning to their demands as struggling individual women.

There may be a world of difference between the women at the two conferences, but their ultimate message was the same – making changes to better the lives of Muslim women. While one conference tackled the issue of theology, sharia, and the need to re-interpret patriarchal readings of Islam, the other, not concerned with theology, vowed to ensure fair wages and thus an increase in financial security for the Muslim women of India. Both are necessary parts of a larger dialogue and discourse to improve the situation of Muslim women from within the Muslim world. To ensure that the issues important to Muslim women are addressed fairly and in a just manner, the involvement of Muslim women at all levels of change is necessary and these conferences are proof that Muslim women are aware of their responsibilities and capabilities.

*Though many Muslim women do face problems related to the aforementioned issues but for most Muslim women these are not the most pressing problems, nor are they that common in the Muslim world. Nonetheless they are problems which need attention.

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  • Philip

    “islamic feminism is part of what has been variously called Islamic modernism, liberalism, and reformism –a transnational effort to marginalize patriarchal, orthodox, and aggressive forms of Islamic observance”
    (emphasis on “marginalize orthodox forms of islamic observance”)

    could someone expand on the part i quoted?

  • Sofi

    just thought i’d add i heart attending conferences too!

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    To me you cannot simply take out the “orthodox” part and focus on that. The rest of the sentence provides context for that term and I think explains things pretty clearly.

    There is an effort to minimize the orthodox interpretations of Islam which have been patriarchal and aggressive. “Patriarchal” and “aggressive” explain the criticism of “orthodox.”

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Actually the phrase that causes me concern is “Koran*-centred”. Don’t be scared of the sunnah sisters! We must take the hadith back from those who misquote and misuse it in their ignorance. It is our heritage as this brilliant article explains:

    Women used to be at the heart of the legislative and scholarly process in “mainstream/orthodox/term of your choice” Islam and we need to be there again if things are going to change.

    All Muslims make wudu before they pray, but how many know that the hadith narration we learned this process from, was narrated by a woman, Rubiyya bint Muawidh b. Afrah. Her word was considered trustworthy enough to describe one of the most important acts in Islam.

    If people knew things like this then they wouldn’t be so quick to believe false hadith like “Consult a woman and do the opposite”, which leads a lot of women to feel alienated by the sunnah, seeing it as something put together by men, when actual history shows, that women played a massive part in hadith compilation.

    *Pet peeve, I don’t like the transliteration of Qur’an as Koran. It’s incorrect and it really chafes me, but that’s just me.

  • Philip

    Yes you got a point. My question then changes to, “what does that actually mean?”

    for example “aggressive forms of Islamic observance”, maybe i am not working on the same wavelength as you guys but i can’t for the life of me figure out what that refers to.

    and words like Patriarchal are open to debate since for example there are people who argue that the hijab is a sign of “Patriarchal version of Islam”, while other people see it as the opposite.

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    I think you answered your own question when you acknowledge that “and words like Patriarchal are open to debate.”

    There can be various interpretations/views of these terms and I think that within Islamic feminist discourse as long as you clarify what you mean, acknowledge that it is your version of it and present justifications for it (as you would for any arguement) then it is easier to engage in a dialogue about it. You know where everyone stands.

    Most of these words have their basic meanings, then we build upon them.

    As far as “aggressive forms of Islamic observance” – it can mean what one wants it to mean within the Islamic feminist discourse. For example, to me it refers to those violent (phsyically, mentally, emotionally, verbally etc.) practices toward women which use Islam as justification.

  • Ethar

    I’m a conference junkie too!

  • susan

    Safiya, i completely agree with you. I really feel strongly about the need to re-claim, re-interpret, and *gasp!* re-categorise the authenticity of some, if not all, ahadith. The strides feminist theologians have made in quranic reinterpretation have been vital and much needed. I hope we can now turn our attention to the hadith canons. Khaled About El Fadl makes a brilliant start in ‘Speaking in God’s Name’, but that is really the tip of the ice-berg. And as you point out, this was an area that was once very much the women’s domain. I really hope we can return to that.

  • natashalatiff


    I was wondering if you could forward this to your fellow authors and readers. We are looking for researchers to compile a manual on gender-neutral interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah to increase the availabitlity of these interpretations in Afghanistan.


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