Is Muslim Feminism More Than Just a Hijab Defense?

There may be 1,001 Muslim feminist critiques on the European burqa ban and its attendant jokes and jibes, insults, and ridiculousness. But what should remain clear is that we Muslim feminists are not just about the hijab. The recent discussion on LGBT acceptance on MMW revealed the cracks in the Muslim “sisterhood” and it began with a post on gay Muslim women in Indonesia.

Homosexuality and Islam has always been a divisive topic, a topic that leaves many in breathless contempt for the LGBT community, Muslim or not. Is this a discursive space Muslim feminism should step in? I’m not advocating for a single stand on homosexuality that Muslim feminists should take, but I am simply suggesting that we broaden our horizons.

If we take a minute to consider the current trajectory of contemporary feminism, yes, the one that’s dominated by mostly White, middle-class, straight women; we find that their activism has moved beyond Woman-centric navel-gazing and has taken into account other intersecting elements that define a woman’s identity: race, sexuality, class. Other than gender, a woman may be a mother, disabled, transgender, Asian, and yes, Muslim. Is Muslim feminism really inclusive of the concerns of a Muslim woman who may also be White, lesbian, or working class?

This question may be a little far removed from what is expected of Muslim feminism. As Muslim feminists, we are concerned about what empowers us as Muslim women. The obvious place where many of us find strength is in our faith, and many more turn to sacred scripture for self-affirmation. This is perhaps where the lines between Muslim feminism and Islamic feminism blur.

Islamic feminism is often regarded the preserve of the scholarly elite who analyze scripture in microscopic detail. There is much to be learned from Islamic feminists and at many points Muslim feminists will find their activism converging with academics on matters that need to be certified “halal.” There are difficult issues that many Muslims do not see eye-to-eye with in which knee-jerk unchecked prejudices often bring discussions into a standstill (because on a moderated Muslim feminist website, offensive comments are deleted). A lot of religious people are afraid of being critical about certain things that are taught to them by those deemed more knowledgeable, pious, and respected in their communities.

Being critical may be akin to being anti-Islam, challenging the very core of the faith. Systems of oppression rely on unchecked prejudices, rumors, and assumptions. Without statistical data, there would be little proof that women are under-represented in government and in the boardroom for example, and hence proof that women still have little power in decision-making public roles. This enough debunks the assumption that women are already equal to men in society. When it comes to Muslim feminism, we are left with scripture, data, and the voices of Muslim women themselves.

I feel incredibly blessed to be part of MMW, which is one of the most recognizable Muslim feminist groups on the web, cited by “mainstream” feminists in their books—albeit as a fleeting, “oh, by the way” reference to the diversity of the global feminist movement. At the moment, the Muslim feminist agenda (even if there was a hazy idea of one) is limited both by the media’s obsessive preoccupation with the hijab and small scope of issues we can tackle from a Muslim feminist perspective. Do we take our Muslim feminist hat off to put another one on when we talk about reproductive justice? How would a Muslim feminist feel about capitalism and unethical consumerism? These may be issues that may be beyond the remit of Islamic feminists who turn to strictly theological sources for answers, but is definitely within the purview of Muslim feminism.

There may be Muslim women who would prefer to distance themselves from identifying with “Western” White feminism, but take on the keywords that are cornerstone of the same feminism they reject. “Choice” and “empowerment” can easily be appropriated like empty semantic vessels to fill according to one woman’s liking. But as Muslim feminists, must we take “choice” and “empowerment” so trivially? Choice and empowerment should not be about individualism; it’s not just about you, but also about other women who are like us in many ways. All of this wraps up the reason why this article wanted to be written. Besides dispelling myths about what goes on “under the veil,” issues that capture the political/personal concerns of Muslim women should be on the agenda.

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  • mariam

    very well said, thank you so much.


  • Sumayyah

    This is worth thinking about. So many people believe that that feminism and Islam are mutually exclusive. We need more open discussion in the Ummah.

  • Rochelle

    Really loved this article.

  • Arwa Abuarwa

    Thank you for this really great article Alicia

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  • Melinda

    Great post. I really liked the section about being critical and challenging assumptions. It’s great to see analysis outside of a specific incident or story. Will there be any follow-up posts on this?

  • arwaa

    I know it isn’t just a hijab defense. And yet that seems to be what it is. It needs to change. We should really get working on that :)

    A Muslim feminism that is not also about being queer and being poor and being secular and being disabled and wearing or not wearing your hijab and war/colonialism and being black or latina/o or chinese or brown is not feminism. It’s “we only care about people who agree with such-and-such scholars and who we’ve blessed with our approval. the rest of you are going to hell” feminism.

    How can we organize/build a politics that is inclusive when so many so-called members of it reject the most marginalized people who most need islamic/muslim feminism? How can we mainstream muslim/islamic feminist political thought and action into western feminist circles?

    I think this article can be an amazing conversation starter.

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  • Sara

    Great post.
    We Muslim feminists need to be careful that in the process of freeing ourselves, we don’t enslave others. Anyone who calls themselves a Muslim IS a Muslim, and none of us should say anything about it.

  • Humayra’

    As long as Muslim feminists continue to think largely within the “mainstream” Muslim (meaning, socially conservative) box, they will not be able to represent anyone who is not middle class, immigrant, straight and fairly conservative.

    This is partly because looking to our “mainstream” Muslim leaders for guidance on gender issues seldom leads to a forward-looking or liberatory result. Look at the “It gets better”
    campaign which has been going on in the US for the past several weeks in the wake of several teens who committed suicide in the wake of anti-gay bullying. To his credit, President Obama spoke out against the bullying of LGBTQ teens. Even right-wingers like Laura Bush (!) have publicly spoken out against it, for goodness’ sake.

    So, one wonders, where is ISNA? What about CAIR? You know, the Muslim organizations which are always talking about civil rights and the need to combat prejudice? Why can’t they issue even one damn press release condemning anti-gay bullying? Surely it’s not because they think that LGBTQ Muslim kids–or Muslim kids who are wrongly perceived to be gay–don’t get bullied. They know that’s not true. Or, that Muslim kids never bully other kids who they think are gay or lesbian. They know that’s not true either.

    But as long as Muslim communities don’t demand that these orgs speak out, they won’t. And I doubt that there will be a huge demand from Muslims in the near future that these orgs denounce anti-gay bullying either.
    These are hardly folks to take one’s cues from, if the point of Muslim feminism is to actually combat rather than sugar-coat oppression.

    Frankly, I think that a key reason that many Muslim feminists happily focus on defending hijab over and over again is that it’s an issue which won’t attract opposition from the conservatives. Whereas issues like domestic abuse, or unequal marriage laws, or marital rape quickly become “controversial” and pretty much invite conservative opposition, as soon as the conversation gets beyond the usual niceties and incisive questions start to be voiced.

  • Tec15

    @Humayra’ : Exactly how many gay organizations have ever denounced Islamophobia ?

  • Krista

    @ Tec15: Standing up against oppression shouldn’t be contingent on other groups doing the same. Remember, also, that “Muslim organisation” and “gay organisation” are not necessarily mutually-exclusive terms (and that gay Muslim organisations are often very aware of Islamophobia and the need to condemn it.)

    That said, this is veering off topic; please everyone try to focus your comments on Alicia’s post.

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  • Alicia

    Thanks for your kind comments, everybody!


    I think you have some good and rather thought-provoking points to share.
    It does raise another question : how important are “mainstream” Muslim groups to Muslim feminists anyway? As far as I know, the successes of social justice movements do not necessarily depend on the establishment or mainstream organisations. As long as mainstream groups care little about an important group like women and sexual minorities, they would be of little use.

    I’m never really sure why hijab and not other more “controversial” topics are staple issues for Muslim feminists. But perhaps you have a point about Muslim feminists appeasing conservative views: perhaps our aims to be inclusive may be at the expense of having clear aims of dismantling the status quo. And what I mean by this is that we may be strong, self-assured, and opinionated, but we still have to be on the right side of the concerns of Muslim women, for better or worse. Muslim feminism as a movement is still small, either a little monolithic or too hybridised by other feminisms to have a clear shape and identity. For me it’s (lamentably) an offshoot of “mainstream” feminism with faith simply added in.

    Everyone is welcome to bite back at me on this, because I’m still agonising over this topic.

  • Majeeda

    In answer to the title – YES!!!! It’s about a whole lot more.

    “A lot of religious people are afraid of being critical about certain things that are taught to them by those deemed more knowledgeable, pious, and respected in their communities.”

    Absolutely true. I have just written a post touching on these very issues. The fear is genuine too. It’s not in our heads. If you question, often that will be accepted up to a point. But once you come to a conclusion that does not fit with the ”general consenus” so to speak, even if you have come to that decision through study, reading, testing etc, then I’m sorry, but you better watch out.

    Much of the time it’s ok to question but after you question your understanding must come inline with that of the majority.

    Thanks for a great post.

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  • Jack Fertig

    An excellent opening to an important conversation.

    This is a classic dynamic that has also been seen in other “minority” communities and was much debated among African-American radicals in the early 1970′s. Most people would agree that the power of women strengthens the power of the community, but too many think that women should best support their communities by being supportive to the men of the community. Certainly we should all support each other, but not in such an imbalanced way that preserves misogynist premises.

    While the feminism of our Ummah must deal with theological questions that don’t apply to most other “minorities,” there are a lot of political questions raised here that have been examined in depth by others and offer good precedents to learn from.

    And while it is off topic, as a gay Muslim I would like to answer the question:
    “Exactly how many gay organizations have ever denounced Islamophobia ?”
    and the similar question
    “Exactly how many Muslim organizations have ever denounced homophobia ?”
    On both sides, not nearly enough, way too few. but you don’t get anywhere standing around waiting for others to make the move.
    On both sides it is important for people of good will to move forward towards mutual understanding and support. Rather than asking “Why should I support them when they don’t support us?” give them reason to support us. They’ve been fed fear and lies just like everyone else. And on either side we should know how fear and lies have been used against us, and how they work in general, how to dissect them. We and they should, but don’t always. We and they should take responsibility to work through that and bridge the gaps. Can we afford to wait for them to make the first move? Whichever side of this divide you’re on, please take steps towards establishing trust, support, and unity.

  • Lurker

    This is a great post. Although I read this blog quite a bit I have not left a comment before, because I am a non-Muslim and I understand that learning about the issues of groups I do not belong to means listening far more than I speak. But I would like to say that some of us white queer feminists do try to call out Islamophobia. For those looking for examples of queer activists fighting for the acceptance of Muslims, you might be interested in this blog post by a queer feminist academic, which is about how the queer feminist movement has called out Islamophobia and how we can be better about this in the future:

    It’s not my place to say what the priorities of a Muslim feminist movement should have. I know that mainstream white American feminism and queer feminism both have a lot of work to do in terms of making sure we recognize the importance of Muslim feminist issues. But I can say that some of us do genuinely want be allies with you, and we really appreciate your support of our issues when you are able and willing to give it. So, thank you to Alicia for such a thoughtful post.