In Context

Feminism is often assumed to be a Western construct, yet Muslim women outside the West have been active in modern forms of feminism since the 19th century. Different feminist movements reflect the cultural contexts in which they arise, and Muslim feminists have adapted their own ways of working within an Islamic framework, allowing women to counter gender oppression and expectations as a part of their faith. Umm Yasmin of the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam Policy Studies at Australia's Monash University defines a Muslim feminist as "one who adopts a worldview in which Islam can be contextualized and reinterpreted in order to promote concepts of equity and equality between men and women; and for whom freedom of choice plays an important part in expression of faith." Many Muslim feminists insist that violence against women is anathema to Islam, and that their faith does not condone it.

Muslim women's movements have also been traditionally aligned with nationalist, democratic and humanitarian movements, as well as postcolonial struggles and religious reform. In Egypt, which has been in the forefront of feminism in the Muslim world, the fight for women's rights dovetailed with the rise of secular nationalism and social justice.

Islamic Feminism

Because some secular Muslim feminists are less interested in reforming Islam and more concerned with promoting gender equality within a secular society, the term "Islamic feminism" arose to distinguish those women who work specifically within Islam.

The term Islamic feminism became popular in the 1990s, defining an emerging feminist paradigm by scholars including Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mai Yamani, Nilufer Gole and Shamima Shaikh. As a global phenomenon, the movement strives to transcend binary notions of East versus West, secular versus religious and traditional versus modern, encompassing the Muslim diaspora around the world.

Islamic feminism also aims for the full equality of all Muslims, male and female, in both public and private life. Margot Badran of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding asserts that Islamic feminism is more radical than more secular Muslim feminisms. She writes, "Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur'an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism is both highly contested and firmly embraced."

A Global Movement

As the global Muslim diaspora grows, many Muslim women face struggles between the ways of life in their current countries and the traditional practices of their parents' culture. These women have developed their own feminist practices and ways of articulating their own concerns.

For instance, "veiling," the Muslim custom of wearing hijab, is often viewed by non-Muslim feminists as an oppressive act that silences Muslim women and exemplifies the myth of Islam as inherently sexist and patriarchal. Yet, growing religious revivalism in the Muslim world has led to an increase in Islamic dress, including head coverings. For many Muslim women, wearing the headscarf has become a feminist act, serving as a symbol of their identity and a way to counter cultural imperialism. This is just one example of how Muslim women are defining and developing feminism -- on their own terms.

Caption: 3 generations of women in the Habash family: Houda, Enas and Yazda
Credit: Laura Nix
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