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THE WOMEN OF ALLAH: A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH ISLAMIC FEMINISMS / Anna Vanzan

Saturday 30 June 2012, by admin

Anna Vanzan, University of Milano,Italy

Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies: Alam-e-Niswan, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2012, pp.1-10, ISSN: 1024-1256

Abstract This paper, drawing upon discussions and dialogues with Muslim women, examines the concept and meanings of ‘feminism’ and ‘Islamic feminism’. These Muslim women, including some recent Western women converts, not only reinterpret the holy texts by applying new hermeneutics to them and claim their right to use the veil in a public space but they also fight for making changes in the family laws in their respective societies. The paper brings the voices of these women explaining what feminism or Islamic feminism means to them.

Keywords: Islamic feminism, feminist discourse, Muslim women, veil

There is not just one “Islamic feminism†; this is the conclusion I reached after observing the phenomenon for quite a long time and meeting several theologians
and activists normally labelled as “Islamic feminists†.1 Rather, the locution
implies a diversified reality of women who fight for their rights in an Islamic
frame, either in the country of origin or in a migratory context. The phenomenon
popularly called “Islamic feminism†embraces a variety of Muslim women who
fight for their rights while simultaneously affirming a strong religious identity.
Many of them have embarked on gender-progressive readings of the Qur’an and
of other Islamic sacred scriptures, others are engaged in social activities, but they
all struggle for gender equality and justice using the Muslim doctrine.
However, these feminists do not constitute a real movement, if, by this
term, we mean a public and collective action: rather, we can describe them as
women who are searching for a flexible and personal way of carving a model of
life that might conciliate faith, rights, faithfulness to autochthonous culture and
modernity.

The Western world, as usual, has been quick in laying hands on this
novelty coming from “other†cultures, but, as it often happens, it did not grasp
the real meaning of the phenomenon. So much so that now, in the West, many
Muslim women who wear the veil and/or simply declare they are persuaded
that “Islam guarantees women’s rights†are labelled as “Islamic feminists†. In the
popular discourse, activists such as the Egyptian Nawal al-Saadawi or the
Moroccan murshidates (female preachers appointed by Moroccan authorities) are
labelled as “Islamic feminists†, whereas the former is a Marxist feminist and the
latter oppose the idea of a female ijtihad.

Perhaps the most important feature of “Islamic feminisms†is that
followers are reinterpreting the sources of Muslim religion that also constitute
the roots of the jurisprudence; therefore they claim their rights while remaining
within the frame of Islam. According to “Islamic feminists†’ vision, women’s
rights have already been guaranteed by the egalitarian ethics spread by Islam
since its very beginning; but, in practice, the original Islamic message has been
hindered by the jurisprudence produced by patriarchs in the course of the
centuries. Now it is necessary to re-establish Qur’anic justice, in the light of
contemporary life and its exigencies.

I totally believe in the efficaciousness of the “Islamic feminisms†project;
however, at the same time, I am deeply convinced that this “democratization of
ijtihad†(as it has been defined by some scholars2) though revolutionary and
effective, is not enough to subvert the status quo.

In fact, it is mandatory that both female theologians and activists who are
inspired by the principles of “Islamic feminisms†become enabled to reach and
influence political and religious authorities, thus coming out from the periphery
of theoretical discussion in order to be heard and accepted by the ones who
control power. The principles shared by Muslim female thinkers have to be
converted into political and legal rights; this is the only way to improve women’s
conditions.

The Iranian case

Such a target can be reached only by coagulating the energy from various
feminist/female movements, from the secular ones to those who are deeply
imbued by religious principles. In this respect, Iran can be taken as a real
laboratory of feminist strategies. In fact, Iranian feminism, which was born as
early as the beginning of the 19th century as a secular movement (according to the
models also spreading in the West) underwent several transformations,
including a phase of “feminism of State†under the Pahlavis, to be reborn in these
last turbulent decades. Now the movement is channeled into two major groups,
i.e., “Islamic/Muslim feminists†and “secular feminists†. Naturally, in these two
wide and loosely delimited bodies are situated women who are deeply different
from each other, who might have contrasting ideologies and who put in practice
heterogeneous actions. However, some of these women periodically convene in
order to reinforce a common agenda for the benefit of all Iranian women. Suffice
to mention here the coalition which was born in spring 2009 when women from
the major associations gathered in order to sign a program to be presented to the
candidates running for the Presidency of the Islamic Republic. In this program,
in particular, stood out the request to sign the CEDAW treaty and to revise some
Constitutional articles that endorse women’s juridical inferiority. This common
program was elaborated by both “Islamic†women (i.e., Zahra Rahnavard3,
Farideh Mashini4, Minou Mortazi5, Nahid Tavasouli6, to name just a few), and
secular women usually related to the Madrase ye feministi,7 i.e., The Feminist
School which is animated also by radical feminists such as Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani.8

Though this long post-election phase cannot be considered positive to
women’s rights, nevertheless this ladies’ platform is still operating and it has
been even enriched by new contributions, such as that of Faezeh Hashemi
Rafsanjani.9 She is an “Islamic†woman who has been fighting because she wants
Muslim girls around the world to be able to take part in sport competitions while
wearing the hejab, but who, at the same time, is very critical of polygamy and
other misogynistic institutions. Islamic feminisms†, therefore, are taking root in
the country, because even women for whom the religious dimension is
indispensable can now find a tool which allows them to fight for their rights
without betraying their identity as true believers.

This assertion does not mean to suggest that there is complete harmony
between “Islamic†and secular women (by the same token, we may add that
there is no agreement in general among international feminist movements both
inside each single country and at the global level); but it would be a great
mistake to fall into the trap of the total rejection of “Islamic feminisms†by
marking them as an “oxymoron†or as a “by product of feminism†as someone
has affirmed.10 Naturally, we can argue that there might be women activists who,
in a more democratic context, would adopt a more secular type of feminism, but
who are bound to a more religious choice in order to adjust their struggle to the
socio-political situation in which they live and act. However, this option confirms
the force of “Islamic feminisms†also as a strategy, i.e., as an ideal form to
combine women’s rights, local culture and adverse political situation.

Good news, bad news

This process, as any other process in human history, takes time. In 1975, Fatima
Mernissi, a forerunner in preaching the need to reread Islamic sacred texts and to
unmask false and misogynistic ahadith,11 wrote that Arab woman’s liberation
would have taken less time and would have been more radical than that
achieved by Western women.12 More than 35 years have elapsed since then: we
may say that deep and crucial changes have happened in gender relationship in
the Arab world, but it also true that change for better is not linear, due to many
factors, from wars (civil and external) to political and economic hardships. In
addition, improvements in a country often correspond to a return to the past in
other geopolitical contexts.13

Therefore, it is important not to create useless and damaging divisions
inside women’s movements, that are too often prey to internal fights, but rather
to reinforce the idea that women, be they secular or religious, are struggling for
the same common goal, i.e., to improve their conditions of life. At any rate, the
progresses obtained so far, thanks to the rereading and the reinterpretation of
sacred texts according to a gender perspective, are undeniable, if for no other
reason than that women have proved that it is possible to challenge ’ulama’s
authority. “Islamic feminists†have inscribed the woman question in the agenda
of both the male “repositories†of religious wisdom and of the policy makers who
rule their countries.

The global dimensions

Another important aspect of the so called “Islamic feminisms†is their globalized
and dislocated dimension: in fact, the movements are not restricted to a
determined geographical situation or to a single ethnic-linguistic context. The
new activists respond to the conservators who claim the necessity of being native
(or quasi native) speaker of Arabic in order to interpret the Qur’an with the
linguistic and exegetic competence of American converters (i.e., Amina Wadud),
of Iranian theologists (Azam Taleghani among the others), of Turkish activists, of
Indonesian bloggers, etc. As Pakistani thinker Asma Barlas wrote: “...interpreting
does not necessarily requires a mastery of Arabic since interpretation is not an
exercise in philology†.14

One of the consequences of this shifting perspective is that the main
articulators of Islamic feminist discourse are non-Arab Muslims: they are located
at the so-called "periphery" of the Muslim world in countries like Iran, Turkey,
Indonesia, and also among Muslims in the West. As a consequence, much of
their publishing work is coming out not in Arabic, but in languages such as
English, Persian, Turkish, and Bahasa Indonesian. While working for my book15 I
have met some of these women who reinterpret the holy texts by applying a new
hermeneutics to them; and/or claim their right to use the veil in a public space;
and/or fight to improve the family law in their countries. I have interviewed
Iranian, Turkish, Bosnian, Malaysian, Egyptian and also Western women
converted to Islam, each of them engaged in a different articulation and practice
of “Islamic feminism†. Many interviewees do not recognize themselves as
feminists, others openly admit to using the religious frame as a strategy, and still
others try to merge secular and religious feminisms. Here I give a brief account
from three of these interviewees, as they well represent the rich cultural
spectrum offered by the women who animate the complex mosaic of “Islamic
feminisms†.

From the Balkans

In the West, the Balkans are often neglected in the common discourse about
Islamic societies, as if those regions were not home to eight million Muslims,
roughly one-third of all Muslims in Europe. However, when Western media
cover Bosnia, they like to scream about “the spread of radical Islam†in the area
by representing “victimized†Bosnian women with the hair covered by scarves.
The realty is, of course, quite different: Islam came to the Balkans with the
Ottomans (about 15th century), and remained silent only during the forty years of
real socialism, to flourish again after the recent wars in the 1990s. There are
several versions of Islam which are competing in the Balkans, such as the
Wahhabi and the Sufi; women are crucial for the final success of one of these
interpretations.

I talked about these issues with Dzevada Susko, who well represents
Bosnian women’s new deal: she is a fervent Muslim who teaches International
Relations at Sarajevo University and she is an activist of the NGO “Nahla†.16
Nahla organizes courses for women who want to reinforce their knowledge
about Islam from the basic level up to a specialization in Islamic law and in tafsir.
I asked Dzevada to locate herself in the debate about women’s rights and
feminism in Islam, and here is her answer:

Basically there is no need for feminism in Islam, as women are
not inferior according to our religion. On the other hand,
massive misinterpretations of the Qur’an and of Sunnah, lack of
dealing with the original sources of Islam, traditional influences
and lack of education of men and women have led to an inferior
position of women in Muslim societies. I am not a feminist if
you consider “feminist†a person who aims to change the
religion: I am a feminist if you think of a person who tries to
understand the religion’s original message in the current
context.

Bosnian women are perfectly aware of the potentiality of “Islamic Feminisms†,
so much so that some of them qualified themselves as “Islamic feminists†as
early as 1993.17 Moreover, it is interesting to underline how Bosnian women are
trying to develop an autochthonous Muslim feminism, a model that might
combine their religious identity with the principles of the Bosnia-Herzegovina
constitution, a secular law which ratifies the separation between state and the
religious communities who live within it. For instance, Bosnian Family Law
forbids polygamy, prescribes the same inheritance share between male and
female heirs, grants children’s custody to both parents when they divorce, etc.
However, an individual may attempt to bypass the law by contracting a second
“secret†marriage; therefore local “Islamic feminists†rise up by both supporting
the new perspective and the re-reading of Muslim holy texts, and by reminding
the community of the tenets of the local model of Islam, which has always been
open and fair towards women. Bosnian women are particularly proud of their
national religious blend, so much so that NGOs such as Nahla invite people to
join them and see how their real life is. In addition, one of their aims is to show
how their potentiality and agency are being reinforced, thanks to the
“rediscovery†of Islam.

Agency and türban in Turkey

Bosnian Muslim women are also inspired and helped by several Turkish female
associations. In Turkey, in fact, traditional secular feminism is accompanied by a
rising movement of religious-Muslim inspiration. In the last few decades,
“Islamic Feminisms†have become influential as Muslim/Islamic women are
particularly active in many aspects of Turkish society.

In Turkey there are several associations of “Islamic feminists†, very
diverse and sometimes conflicting with each other. However, not only do these
groups often meet and interact, they also cooperate with secular feminists’
associations from which they receive training in order to acquire the necessary
skills to play an effective role both at a domestic and at an international level.18
One of the crucial issues on which they work together is the problem of the so
called “honor killing†, a scourge which afflicts Turkish women, including those
who migrate abroad. “Islamic feminists†’ support is crucial in this battle: for
example, the NGO AKDER (Organization for Women’s Rights against
Discrimination), whose members are mainly lawyers and judges, is particularly
active in lobbying for better legislation regarding women’s protection; in urging
municipalities to build shelter houses for abused women; and in counteracting
the possible “religious justifications†that underline these crimes, by declaring
that Islam never preached the right to mistreat women.

To my question about the nexus between Islam and feminism, AKDER’s
secretary Neslihan Akbukut replied:
We members consider AKDER as an association that works for
human rights, especially for women’s rights. We do not consider
ourselves as a feminist association...we monitor women’s status in
our country whose constitution declares equal rights between men
and women, but whose national statistics show a deep gap
between genders in matter of opportunities and rights. However,
we believe that men and women are not genderized by social
constructions, as the feminists would assert. We Muslims believe
there are differences between men and women. Feminism has its
own values that cannot be renounced, but also we Muslim women
have laws and traditions that cannot be renounced. If we are
forced to make a choice, we choose to be Muslim. But I hate to say
that I am not a feminist!

Maybe some Turkish Muslim women might suffer from the apparent
contradiction between religion and feminism and do not feel like proclaiming
themselves to be feminists. However, in any case, their life, actions and
engagement for women’s rights prove that they are true feminists, with no need
for the specific label.

The converts

The same conflict, between being framed by a definition (i.e., that of Islamic
feminist) and clinging to the true essence of their deeds, is also shared by some
Italian women who converted to Islam. More often than not, converts to
whatever religion or belief have to prove that they are overzealous, sometimes to
the detriment of reason, in order to be accepted by the new community: or, at
least, this is how they believe they have to behave.

In the light of this quite common situation, the position of Patrizia
Khadija del Monte, a former Catholic lady trained in theology who later became
Muslim, is particularly interesting. Patrizia Khadija, who does not need to prove
her faith, as she is well known and esteemed in the Italian Muslim community
(so much so that she recently became vice President of the largest Muslim
association in Italy), fully approves the “Islamic feminism†project:
I am very close to the Islamic feminism’s discourse ... because it
works on the interpretation of the holy texts and therefore it goes
to the very heart of the matter. In fact, the arbitrary exercise of
power against women (and we cannot deny the existence of
despotic abuse of authority against women) is due to the
misinterpretation of some Qur’anic verses inside certain Muslim
communities.

Patrizia Khadija also points out the importance of changing the approach
according to the context; by explaining why she does not belong to any female
associations, she says:

Perhaps, if I had to live in one of those Arab countries whose laws
need to be changed, I would devote myself exclusively to the
feminist discourse... Here [i.e., in Italy] I prefer to devote my
engagement to general problems... because we need to talk to
everyone, especially to men. What I like about Islamic Feminism is
also its capacity of placing itself in a non conflictual position
towards men.

Conclusion

At this time, there cannot be a conclusion, as the phenomenon of “Islamic
feminisms†is still underway. However, as a final comment, I want to restate that
the so called “Islamic feminism†in reality is a variegated discourse that mainly
proves how Muslim women, who are aware of their multiple identities, cling to
the religious one while striving along the path of justice and equality. As such,
“Islamic Feminisms†constitute a crucial process that everybody should
encourage, regardless of her/his own religious belief and political agenda.

Endnotes

1 I keep the locutions “Islamic feminism†and “Islamic feminist†in quote because the
majority of the new Muslim thinkers do not want to be labelled as such. As a mater of
fact, few of them want to be addressed as “feminists†at all.

2 Y. Haddad e B. Stowasser, Islamic Law and the Challenges of Modernity, Walnut Creek,
AltaMira Press, 2004, p. 7.

3 Zahra Rahnavard was until recently the chancellor of Al-zahra University in Tehran and
a political adviser to the former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. She was the
first female chancellor since the Iranian revolution, but she was ousted because of her
active participation in her husband Hossein Mousavi’s protest movement (the Green
Movement).

4 Farideh Mashini was the chairwoman of the Women’s Committee in the reformist
Participation Front Party. Now she is working for several female ONGs.

5 Minou Mortazi is an women’s rights activist who belongs to the religious reformist
movement “nouandish-e din†(new religious thinking) whose aim is to propose more
modern interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence.

6 Nahid Tavasouli is an expert in tafsir and holds readings on the Qur’an. She launched
and directed the monthly feminist magazine Nafeh, now suspended.

7 The Madrase ye Feministi (http://www.feministschool.com/) was born as an electronic
journal in which women could voice their demand for equality. It has been filtered
several times, and now it is available on Facebook

(http://www.facebook.com/FeministSchool).

8 She is a writer, an editor and women’s rights activist. Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is
one of the founding members of the One Million Signatures campaign launched in
2006 in order to collect one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory
laws against women.

9 Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of the former President of the Islamic Republic Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, is woman’s rights activist, a politician (she served one term in
Iran’s parliament), the head of several female NGOs. She was the founder and chief
editor of Zan, Iran’s first ever daily women’s newspaper, closed down by the
authorities.

10 One of the most critical observers in this respect is Haideh Moghissi. See her: Feminism
and Islamic Fundamentalism: the Limits of Postmodern Analysis, New York, Zed Books.
1999. Another harsh critic of Islamic Feminism is the late Hammed Shahidian,
“Feminism-e islami va jonbesh-e zanan-e Iran†(Islamic Feminism and Women’s
Movement in iran), in Irannameh, 16,4, 1998, pp. 611-639.

11 Plural of hadith- sayings of the Prophet.

12 In Beyond the Veil. Male-female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Societies, Indiana University
Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1987 (1st edition 1975), p. 177.

13 For instance, women in Iraq and Palestine have been suffering from a serious setback
after the wars they went through and are still suffering in the never ending post-war
period.

14 “Still Quarreling over the Quran. Five Interventions†, in ISIM Review, 20, 2007, pp. 32.

15 Le donne di Allah. Viaggio nei femminismi islamici (Women of Allah. A Journey through Islamic
Feminisms), B. Mondadori, Milano, 2010.

16 Nahla (www.nahla.ba) is a Bosnian NGO founded in 2001, whose main aim is to
provide women’s education and well being. Their course range from foreign languages
(English, Arabic, Turkish) to aerobics, from Quranic readings to jewellery making.
While Nahla is opening to everyone, it has a strong “Islamic†bend.

17 See Elissa Helms, “The Nation-ing of Gender? Donor Policies, Islam, and Women’s
NGOs in Post War Bosnia-Herzegovina†, in Anthropology of East Europe Review, 21, 2,
2003, pp. 85-92, p. 89.

18 According to Nilufer Narli, a secular Turkish feminist who has taken part in some of
these training projects: see in particular her “Turkish Women’s Movement and Turkish
Migrant Networks in Europe†, paper presented at ASA conference, University of
Maryland, 2009.

Anna Vanzan holds a degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures (University of Ca’Foscari,
Venice) and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. She is currently
teaching Arabic-Islamic Culture at the University of Milano and is visiting lecturer at the
European Master M.I.M. Ca’Foscari University (Venice) where she teaches Gender and
Islamic Thought. She has many publications in Italian and English: her book, La storia
velata: le donne dell’islam nell’immaginario italiano, (Edizioni del Lavoro, Roma, 2006) a
history of the image of Muslim women in Italian culture from the Middle Ages has been
awarded with the International Prize Feudo di Maida 2006. Her book Figlie di Shahrazad,
scrittrici iraniane dal XIX secolo a oggi (Bruno Mondadori, Milano 2009) is the first story of
Iranian women’s literature. Her last book, Le donne di Allah, viaggio nei femminismi islamici,
(Bruno Mondadori, Milano, 2010) is dedicated to the emergence of Islamic Feminisms. She
is editor of the Italian journal Afriche & Orienti.

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