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Islamic feminism is a form of feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam. It aims for the full equality of all Muslims, regardless of gender, in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, the movement's pioneers have also utilised secular and European or non-Muslim feminist discourses and recognize the role of Islamic feminism as part of an integrated global feminist movement.
Advocates of the movement seek to highlight the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the religion, and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Qur'an (holy book), hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and sharia (law) towards the creation of a more equal and just society.
Muslim majority countries have produced several female head of states, prime ministers, state secretaries: Lala Shovkat of Azerbaijan, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Çiller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. Bangladesh was the second country in the world (after Mary and Elizabeth I in 16th century England) to have one female head of state follow another, those two being Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.
During the early days of Islam in the 7th century CE, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women were not accorded such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of women in Arab societies included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood (see Islamic ethics). Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a status but rather as a contract, in which the woman's consent was imperative. "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property" (see also Dower). "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."
Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work." William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women's rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards." Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."
Whilst in the pre-modern period there was not a formal feminist movement, nevertheless there were a number of important figures who argued for improving women's rights and autonomy. These range from the medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi, who argued that women could achieve spiritual stations as equally high as men to Nana Asma’u, daughter of eighteenth-century reformer Usman Dan Fodio, who pushed for literacy and education of Muslim women.
Women played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859 CE. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.
According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education. He wrote that girls and women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters. Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned scholar of the hadith and military leader. Muhammad is said to have praised the women of Medina for their desire for religious knowledge: "How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."
While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, they did attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. Although there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice. For example, Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:
"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden — how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"
On the question of women in medieval Islam, Abdul Hakim Murad writes
the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher showed that perhaps fifteen percent of medieval hadith scholars were women, teaching in the mosques and universally admired for their integrity. Colleges such as the Saqlatuniya Madrasa in Cairo were funded and staffed entirely by women. The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher: 'If U.S. and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women's history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [. . .] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.' Stereotypes come under almost intolerable strain when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities.
The labor force in the Caliphate came from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.). Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry, the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dyeing, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 12th century, the famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case. In early Muslim history, examples of notable women who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k'ab Al Maziniyyah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira.
In terms of women's rights, women generally had fewer legal restrictions under Islamic law (sharia) than they did under certain Western legal systems until the 20th century. For example, under traditional interpretations of sharia, women had the right to keep their surnames upon marriage; inherit and bestow inheritance; independently manage their financial affairs; and contract marriages and divorce. In contrast, restrictions on the legal capacity of married women under French law were not removed until 1965. Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, notes:
As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them — hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.
In contrast to the Western world, during the 15th century and upward, where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, divorce (talaq) was a more common occurrence at certain points during that era in the Muslim world. In the Mamluk Sultanate and early Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East, at least according to one study. In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on marriage in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times.
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The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the nineteenth century. The Iranian poetess Táhirih was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis. Born and raised in a traditional Muslim family, she would later become a prominent member of the Bábí Faith, during which time she openly denounced polygyny, the wearing of the veil and other restraints put upon women. One of her most notable quotes is her final utterance prior to her execution, "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."
Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), is often described as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. In his work, Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygyny, the veil, and purdah, i.e. sex segregation in Islam. He condemned them as un-Islamic and contradictory to the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today.
Despite Qasim Amin's effects on modern-day Islamic feminist movements, present-day scholar Leila Ahmed considers his works both androcentric and colonialist. Muhammad 'Abdu, an Egyptian nationalist, could easily have written the chapters of his work that show honest considerations of the negative effects of the veil on women. Amin even posed many male-centered misconceptions about women, such as their inability to experience love, that women needlessly (when they had very good reason to) talk about their husbands outside their presence, and that Muslim marriage is based on ignorance and sensuality, of which women were the chief source.
Less known, however, are the women who preceded Amin in their feminist critique of their societies. The women's press in Egypt started voicing such concerns since its very first issues in 1892. Egyptian, Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese women and men had been reading European feminist magazines even a decade earlier, and discussed their relevance to the Middle East in the general press.
Aisha Abd al-Rahman, writing under her pen name Bint al-Shati ("Daughter of the Riverbank"), was the second modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis, and though she did not consider herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. She began producing her popular books in 1959, the same year that Naguib Mahfouz published his allegorical and feminist version of the life of Muhammad. She wrote biographies of early women in Islam, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism.
Recently Islamic feminists have begun advocating for equality in the mosque and equality in prayer, as you can see in the "Equality in the Mosque" and "Equality in Prayer" sections further down in this article.
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One of the major areas of scholarship and campaigning for Islamic feminists are aspects of sharia (Islamic law) known as Muslim personal law (MPL) or Muslim family law. Some of the thorny issues regarding the way in which MPL has thus far been formulated include polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property. In addition, there are also more macro issues regarding the underlying assumptions of such legislation, for example, the assumption of the man as head of the household.
Muslim majority countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Muslim minority countries that already have incorporated MPL into their own law or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India, Israel, and South Africa.
Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation in many of these countries, arguing that these pieces of legislation discriminate against women. Some Islamic feminists have taken the attitude that a reformed MPL which is based on the Qur'an and sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women, and which does not discriminate against women is possible. Such Islamic feminists have been working on developing women-friendly forms of MPL. (See, for example, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women for argument based on the Qur'an and not on what they call medieval male consensus.) Other Islamic feminists, particularly some in Muslim minority contexts which are democratic states, argue that MPL should not be reformed but should be rejected and that Muslim women should seek redress, instead, from the civil laws of those states.
Despite the taboo status of sex and sexuality in many Muslim societies, some Qur'anic scholars have argued that the Qur'an itself discusses these subjects openly and positively, and that Islam is one of the most sexually accepting of the major world religions.
The University of Southern California Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement has published the official Arabic translation of Surah 4:34 to justify wife-beating: Qur'an 004.034 YUSUFALI: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
As for Surah 4:34 of the Qur'an, which has been used to justify wife-beating, many Islamic feminists claim it was never meant to do so. In 2007 Laleh Bakhtiar published a translation of the Qur'an, with her translation of Surah 4:34 substituting "go away" for "beat" (they are the same word in Classical Arabic). Her translation of Surah 4:34 reads: "Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them ; truly God is Lofty, Great". "
There is debate over the interpretations of the Qur'anic verses that have been cited to outlaw homosexuality, principally the verse relating to the story of Lot (see Qur'an verses: 11:69-83, 29:28-35). Qur'anic verses appear to relate specifically to male homosexuality. Contemporary interpreters and campaigning organisations are working to reinterpret texts to allow for a wider spectrum of sexual relationships, including homosexual and bisexual, but there is much resistance from the mainstream Muslim community.
Another issue that concerns Muslim women is the dress code expected of them. Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly; this concept is known as hijab and covers a wide interpretation of behavior and garments. In some countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia women are expected to wear the all-covering burqa or abaya; in others such as Tunisia and Turkey they are forbidden to wear even the headscarf (often known as the veil) in public buildings. There is mixed opinion among Muslim feminists over extremes of externally imposed control.
A number of Islamic feminists, including Fadela Amara and Hedi Mhenni support bans on the hijab, for various reasons. Amara explained her support for France's ban of the garment in public buildings: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system." When some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Amara saw red. "It's not tradition, it's archaic! French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria, French feminists supported them. But when it's some young girl in a French suburb school, they don't. They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. It's nothing more than neocolonialism." Mhenni also expressed support for Tunisia's ban on the veil: "If today we accept the headscarf, tomorrow we'll accept that women's rights to work and vote and receive an education be banned and they'll be seen as just a tool for reproduction and housework."
Sihem Habchi, Muslim feminist and director of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, expressed support for France's ban on the burqa in public places, stating that the ban was a matter of 'democratic principle' and protecting French women from the 'obscurantist, fascist, right-wing movement' that she claims the burqa represents.
The Qur'an does state that both men and women should be dressed modestly (33:59-60, 24:30-31; in translation by Ali, 1988, 1126–27). It however does not use the words veil, hijab, burka, chador, or abaya. It uses the words jilbab meaning cloak and khumur meaning shawl. These do not cover the face, hands or feet. Furthermore until the third through the ninth century women prayed in the mosques unveiled. The whole body covering with the burka, chador, and other items of clothing is a tradition and cultural manifest from a conservative reading of the Qur'an by Mullahs; men. It is not what the Qur'an itself states. The Qur'an, 2:256, states "Let there be no compulsion in religion".
A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations showed that two of three mosques in 2000 required women to pray in a separate area, up from one of two in 1994. Islamic feminists have begun to protest this, advocating for women to be allowed to pray beside men without a partition as they do in Mecca. In 2003, Asra Nomani challenged rules at her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, requiring that women enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony. She argued that since in the 7th century the Islamic prophet Muhammad didn't put women behind partitions, that the barriers were just sexist man-made rules. The men at her mosque put her on trial to be banished.
In 2005, following public agitation on the issue, Muslim organizations, including CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America, issued a report on making mosques "women-friendly", asserting women's rights in mosques, including the right to pray in the main hall without a partition.
American Muslim Fatima Thompson and a few others organized and participated in a "pray-in" in 2010 at the Islamic Center of Washington in D.C. . Police were summoned and threatened to arrest the women when they refused to leave the main prayer hall and continued their protest against being corralled in what they referred to as the "penalty box" of a prayer space reserved for women. A second protest staged by the same women on the eve of International Women's Day in 2010 resulted in calls to the police and threats of arrest again. However, the women were not arrested on either occasion.
Furthermore, in May 2010 five women prayed with the men at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, one of the Washington region's largest Islamic centers. After the prayers, a member of the mosque called Fairfax police, who asked the women to leave. However, later in 2010 it was decided that D.C. police would no longer intervene in such protests.
According to currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed gender congregation in salat (prayer). Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars—including Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923), Abu Thawr (764–854), Isma'il Ibn Yahya al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) considered the practice permissible at least for optional (nafl) prayers; however, their views are not accepted by any major surviving group. Islamic feminists have begun to protest this.
There are subtle yet substantial differences to be noted between the terms 'Islamic feminist', 'Muslim feminist' and 'Islamist'. Any of these terms can be used of men or women.
Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings, seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere, and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate.
In recent times the concept of Islamic feminism has grown further, with Islamic groups looking to garner support from as many aspects of society as possible, and educated Muslim women striving to articulate their role in society.
Islamists are advocates of political Islam, the notion that the Qur'an and hadith mandate a caliphate, i.e. an Islamic government. Some Islamists advocate women's rights in the public sphere but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private sphere.