Islamic feminism

A combination of Islam and feminism has been advocated as "a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm" by Margot Badran in 2002.[1] Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings,[2] seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere, and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate. Islamic feminism is defined by Islamic scholars as being more radical than secular feminism[3] and as being anchored within the discourse of Islam with the Quran as its central text.[4] As a "school of thought", it is said to refer to Moroccan sociologist "Fatema Mernissi and scholars such as Amina Wadud and Leila Ahmed".[5]

Advocates refer to the observation that Muslim majority countries produced several female heads of state, prime ministers, and state secretaries such as 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. In Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia was elected the country's first female prime minister in 1991, and served as prime minister until 2009, when she was replaced by Sheikh Hasina, who maintains the prime minister's office at present making Bangladesh the country with the longest continuous female premiership.[6]


Islamic feminists

Islamic feminists interpret the religious texts in a feminist perspective. They can be viewed as a branch of interpreters who ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings,[2] seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere, and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate.

Islamic feminism is defined by Islamic scholars as being more radical than secular feminism,[3] and as being anchored within the discourse of Islam with the Quran as its central text.[4]

During recent times, the concept of Islamic feminism has grown further with Islamic groups looking to garner support from many aspects of society. In addition, educated Muslim women are striving to articulate their role in society.[7]

According to Umm Yasmin of the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam, she states that feminism is often mistaken as a western movement, but addresses that Muslim feminists have been active since the early nineteenth century. Muslim feminists tasks aren't to reform the religion of Islam, but rather "promote gender equality within a secular society"[8] . Yasmin further concludes that Muslim feminists have "adapted" their views "in which Islam can be contextualized" in order to advocate equality between men and women paralleling with their faith; for Islam doesn't condone violence against women.[9] Since the 19th century, both men and women question the legal system regarding the Sharia Laws affect on women such as strict veiling, education, seclusion, polygyny and concubinage. In reforming these social issues, Muslims women started advocating for legal change, establishing schools for girls, and opposing to veiling and polygyny. [10] In support of Yasmin's argument, Fatema Mernissi undermines that the ideal Muslim woman being portrayed as "silent and obedient" has nothing to do with the message of Islam. In her view, conservative Muslim men manipulated the religious texts of the Quran to preserve their patriarchal system In order to prevent women from sexual liberation; thus enforcing justification of strict veiling and limitation rights. [11]


Islamists are advocates of political Islam, the notion that the Quran 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.[12] Su'ad al-Fatih al-Badawi, a Sudanese academic and Islamist politician, has argued that feminism is incompatible with taqwa (the Islamic conception of piety), and thus Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive.[13] Margot Badran of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (now the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding) argues that Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive and that "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."[14]


Early changes under Islam

During the early days of Islam in the 7th century CE, changes in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[15] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam argues for a general improvement of the status of women in Arab societies, including the prohibition of female infanticide, though some historians believe that infanticide was practiced both before and after Islam.[16] While other scholars, like Leila Ahmed argue:

However, the argument made by some Islamists, that Islam’s banning of infanticide established the fact that Islam improved the position of women in all respects, seems both in accurate and simplistic.[17]

Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a status but rather as a contract, in which the woman's lack of protest was imperative, either by active consent or silence.[18][19][20][21] "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"[19][20] (see also Dower).

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."[22] 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."[20]

Feminist critics of the notion that Islam significantly bettered the status of women include Leila Ahmed, who states that Islamic records show that at least some women in pre-Islamic Arabia inherited wealth, ran businesses, chose their own husbands, and worked in respected professions.[23] Ahmed is also sure to note that just, because pre-Islamic Arabia was matrilineal doesn't mean that women were necessarily liberated and empowered within their society. Fatima Mernissi similarly argues that customs in pre-Islamic Arabia were more permissive of female sexuality and social independence, not less.[24]

Mahood A, Moel J, Hudson C, and Leathers L. conducted a study and questioned individual women about how their role as a woman in their religion and if it empowering them in any way, an interviewee states "In Islam and its teachings are capable of giving women an equal footing in society to men, and that Islam does not relegate women to the private sphere. I really believe some Muslims have distorted our teachings and forgotten our heritage. I believe that Islam can be used as a source of empowerment for women."[25]

Islamic Golden Age

Whilst the pre-modern period lacked a formal feminist movement, nevertheless a number of important figures 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.[26] In later eras, Nana Asma’u, daughter of eighteenth-century reformer Usman Dan Fodio, pushed for literacy and the education of Muslim women.[27]


Wealthy noblewomen often funded Islamic religious and learning establishments, though few of those establishments admitted female students until the twentieth century. For example, Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859 CE, though the university only admitted women (the most notable of whom was Fatima al-Kabbaj) in the 1900s. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries: of 160 mosques and madrasahs established in Damascus, women funded 26 through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[28]

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.[29] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers. Muhammad is said to have praised the women of Medina for their desire for religious knowledge:[30] "How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was extremely rare for women to enroll as students in formal classes, they did attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. 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:[31]

[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?

('awra refers to the parts of the body that should remain covered; see also hijab for the rules of modesty governing both men and women.)

On the question of women in medieval Islam, Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) 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.[32]

In the 15th century, Al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume biographical dictionary Daw al-lami to female scholars, giving information on 1,075 of them.[33]

When the Taliban assumed power in 1995, women's education was outlawed, and forced to go underground. Once the Taliban was overthrown, there is an opportunity for women's education to resurface once again, but it is difficult due to remaining stigmas and male power in the system.[34] In August 2012, official Iranian sources released the news that women would be restricted from joining undergraduate courses in 77 technical, science, and engineering programs in 36 different Iranian universities.[35]

Civil and military work

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.[36] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[37] 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.).[38] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[37] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dyeing, and embroidery.

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.[39] 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,[40] Aisha,[41] Kahula and Wafeira.[42]

Property, marriage, and other rights

Women under Islamic law have the ability to inherit and bestow inheritance; independently manage their financial affairs; and contract marriages and divorce.[43] 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.[44]

In contrast to the Western world, where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, divorce in the Muslim world (talaq) was a more common occurrence. 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.[45] 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.[46]

Nineteenth century

The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the nineteenth century. The Iranian poet Táhirih was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis. Born and raised in a traditional Muslim family, she became 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 in August 1852, "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."[47]

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.[48] Muhammad 'Abdu, an Egyptian nationalist[49] and proponent of Islamic modernism, could easily have written the chapters of his work that show honest considerations of the negative effects of the veil on women.[50] 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.[51]

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.[52]

Twentieth century

Aisha Abd al-Rahman, writing under her pen name Bint al-Shati ("Daughter of the Riverbank"), was the second modern woman to undertake Quranic 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.[53] She wrote biographies of early women in Islam, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism.[54] Fatema Mernissi has argued that much of the suppression of women's rights in Islamic societies is the result of political motivation and its consequent manipulative interpretation of hadith, which runs counter to the egalitarian Islamic community of men and women envisioned by Muhammed.[55]

Some strains of modern Islamic feminism have opted to expunge hadith from their ideology altogether in favor of a movement focusing only on Qur'anic principles. Riffat Hassan has advocated one such movement, articulating a theology wherein what are deemed to be universal rights for humanity outlined in the Qur'an are prioritized over contextual laws and regulations.[56] She has additionally claimed that the Qur'an, taken alone as scripture, does not present females either as a creation preceded by the male or as the instigator of the "Fall of Man".[57] This theological movement has been met with criticism from other Muslim feminists such as Kecia Ali, who has criticized its selective nature for ignoring elements within the Muslim tradition that could prove helpful in establishing more egalitarian norms in Islamic society.[58]

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is a women's organization based in Quetta, Pakistan, that promotes women's rights and secular democracy. The organization aims to involve women of Afghanistan in both political and social activities aimed at acquiring their human rights and continuing the struggle against the government of Afghanistan based on democratic and secular - not fundamentalist - principles, in which women can participate fully.[59]

The organization was founded in 1977 by a group of intellectuals led by Meena (she did not use a last name). They founded the organization to promote equality and education for women; it continues to "give voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan". Before 1978, RAWA focused mainly on women's rights and democracy, but after the coup of 1978, directed by Moscow, and the 1979 Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, "Rawa became directly involved in the war of resistance, advocating democracy and secularism from the outset".[34] In 1979 RAWA campaigned against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and organized meetings in schools to mobilize support against it, and in 1981, launched a bilingual feminist magazine, Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message).[34][60][61] RAWA also founded Watan Schools to aid refugee children and their mothers, offering both hospitalization and the teaching of practical skills.[61][62]

Meena was assassinated in Quetta on February 4, 1987 by Afghan agents of the Soviet KGB, who were colluding with fundamentalist Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Twenty-first century

In 2015 a group of Muslim activists, politicians, and writers issued a Declaration of Reform which, among other things, supports women's rights and states in part, "We support equal rights for women, including equal rights to inheritance, witness, work, mobility, personal law, education, and employment. Men and women have equal rights in mosques, boards, leadership and all spheres of society. We reject sexism and misogyny."[63] The Declaration also announced the founding of the Muslim Reform Movement organization to work against the beliefs of Middle Eastern terror groups.[64] In 2015 Asra Nomani and others placed the Declaration on the door of the Islamic Center of Washington.[64]

Feminism in the Middle East is over a century old, and having been impacted directly by the war on terror in Afghanistan, continues to grow and fight for women's rights and equality in all conversations of power and everyday life.[65] There is currently an ongoing debate about the actual status of women in Islam, with both conservatives and Islamic feminists using the Quran, the hadith, and prominent women in Muslim history as evidence for the discussion on women's rights, with feminists arguing that early Islam represented more egalitarian ideals, while conservatives argue that gender asymmetries are "divinely ordained".[66]


Sister-hood is an international platform for the voices of women of Muslim heritage founded in 2007 by Norwegian film-maker and human rights activist Deeyah Khan through her media and arts production company Fuuse.[67]

Sister-hood was relaunched in 2016 as a global online magazine and live events platform promoting the voices of women of Muslim heritage. Within six month of its relaunch as an online magazine, sister-hood won Espoke Living Best Website at the 2016 Asian Media Awards for highlighting female equality as well as creating awareness of issues affecting Muslim women.[68] Sister-hood magazine ambassadors include Farida Shaheed from Pakistan, Egyptian Mona Eltahawy, Palestinian Rula Jebreal, Leyla Hussein of Somali heritage and Algerian Marieme Helie Lucas.

Sisters in Islam

Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a Malay civil society organisation committed to promoting the rights of women within the frameworks of Isla] and universal human rights. SIS work focuses on challenging laws and policies made in the name of Islam that discriminate against women. As such it tackles issues covered under Malaysia's Islamic family and syariah laws, such as polygamy,[69] child marriage,[70] moral policing,[71] Islamic legal theory and jurisprudence, the hijab and modesty,[72] violence against women and hudud.[73] Their mission is to promote the principles of gender equality, justice, freedom, and dignity of Islam and empower women to be advocates for change.[74] They seek to promote a framework of women's rights in Islam which take into consideration women's experiences and realities; they want to eliminate the injustice and discrimination that women may face by changing mindsets that may hold women to be inferior to men; and they want to increase the public knowledge and reform laws and policies within the framework of justice and equality in Islam.[74] Prominent members are Zainah Anwar[75] and co-founder Amina Wadud.[76]

Muslim Women's Quest for Equality

Groups like Sisters in Islam and RAWA, have done substantial work in uniting members of Islam for the uplifting of women. Major members of this movement have argued for increased recognition in theological approaches as seen when Ziba Mir-Hosseini says:

‘Secular feminism has fulfilled its historical role but it has nothing more to give us’ […] I will simply repeat here that rejection was not my intent, but rather, then as now, I call for a reconciliation and transcendence of the distinction. We are all heading in the same direction, but we also need to recognise and value the diversity in our approaches and create spaces where different feminisms and voices can work together towards the same goal. [77]

Many Islamic feminists argue that their inequality doesn't come from the Koran, but how people have interpreted the messages of the Koran.[78] More specific efforts include those of the group Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality when they petitioned the Supreme Court of India against the practices of talaq-e-bidat (triple talaq), nikah halala and polygyny under the Muslim personal laws illegal and unconstitutional[79][80] in September of 2016.


In 2009, twelve women from the Arab world formed the global movement Musawah, whose name means "equality" in Arabic. Musawah advocates for feminist interpretations of Islamic texts and calls on nations to abide by international human rights standards such as those promulgated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Musawah's approach is modeled after that of Sisters in Islam. Secular feminists have criticized Musawah, arguing that Islam is shaky ground on which to build a feminist movement, given that interpretation of Islamic sources is subjective.[81]

Areas of campaign

Personal law

One of such controversial interpretations involve passages in the Quran that discuss the idea of a man's religious obligation to support women.[82] Some scholars, such as anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban in her work on Arab-Muslim women activists' engagement in secular religious movements, argue that this assertion of a religious obligation "has traditionally been used as a rationale for the social practice of male authority."[82] In some countries the legislative and administrative application of male authority is used to justify denying women access to the public sphere through the "denial of permission to travel or work outside the home, or even drive a car."[82] On Sept. 26, 2017 Saudi Arabia announced it would end its longstanding policy banning women from driving in June 2018.[83] Various female activists had protested the ban, among them Saudi women's rights activists Manal al-Sharif,[84] by posting videos of them driving on social media platforms.

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 Quran and sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women, and which does not discriminate against women is possible.[85] 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.

Dress codes

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. There is mixed opinion among Muslim feminists concerning externally imposed control. Sufi groups such as Al-Ahbash do not make it mandatory for women to wear traditional Islamic clothing, even allowing jeans.[86]

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."[87] When some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Amara was said: "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."[87] 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."[88]

Sihem Habchi, 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.[89][90]

Alternatively, there is also strong support in favor of the veil. Both men and women now view the veil as a symbol of Islamic freedom. As a growing number of individuals have accepted and incorporated the hijab into their cultural dress, women are beginning to reclaim the meaning behind the veil. The veil itself acts as a different experience lived by each woman who wears it.[91] “It is no longer a bandanna version of the all-encompassing Afghan burqa, signaling a woman's brainwashed submissiveness or at the very least her lack of choice”.[92] Many scholars agree that there is no scripture that requires women to wear the hijab but many still do as an act of religious piety.

A growing number of women have begun to incorporate the hijab into their cultural dress, whether they live in predominantly Muslim countries or not. The veil itself acts as a different experience lived by each woman who wears it, rather than a homogenizing item of clothing. Over the past ten years, the hijab has become more prominent in countries of the world where wearing the hijab itself is not required of women by state law.[91] The willingness to wear the veil outside of required states acts as a radical statement in some instances, in a way reclaiming the symbol and meaning of the veil. Where the veil once stereotypically represented the oppression of women, it now acts as a power statement of pride in religion, femininity, and sexual identity. Feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray also note that the veil can take on the role of empowerment regarding a women's sexual difference from man.[91]

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). However it 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.[93]

Rachel Woodlock points out that the wearing of hijab is contextualised by culture. In addition, modern Muslim feminists believe that ultimately the importance lies in a woman's freedom of choice---her choice to wear the veil or not to, and not have her right to do so threatened. Muslim women should be able to define dress codes for themselves and what they deem to be morally right.[94]

In her book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, London College of Fashion Cultural Studies professor Reina Lewis states that the evolution of mainstream hijab fashion serves as an outlet for Muslim women to demonstrate creativity and individuality in their development of a personal style that adheres to the code of dressing modestly (see Modest fashion). This gives Muslim women, particularly those of younger generations, the personal decision to wear the hijab is an opportunity to express their contemporary ideas on Muslim femininity.

Not only is clothing modesty widely symbolic in Muslim communities and Islamic religious beliefs, but the method of head covering has many connections between religions as well. Reina Lewis discusses this connection of religious practices in her book, “Modest Fashion: Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith,” where she brings up the political divide between Jews and Muslims.[95] Muslim headwear designer, Wegdan Hamza, was intrigued to find out the large appeal of her website to Orthodox Jewish Women. Hamza was born and raised in Egypt, and had been wearing a Hijab for her entire life. Hamza speaks out about how she was delighted that her designs had become of interest in interfaith modesty, since she sees head covering as "a link between all the Holy religions", which can further help to "reduce anger between mankind".[95]:84 The "tichel" is compared to the muslim "hijab" in Judaism, which is Yiddish for headscarf. According to the "Encyclopedia of Judaism", written by Sara E. Karesh, and Mitchell M. Hurvitz, the tichel is discussed in the Jewish laws of modesty as a required article of clothing worn by married women.[96] There are many variations of the headscarf in Judaism, such as "mitpachat" in Hebrew, or "shmateh", all meaning the same thing. While they are called many different things in both Judaism and Islamic religions, they have many of the same rules, and coincide on many ideological levels.[95]

Equality in the Mosque

A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations showed that two out of three mosques in 2000 required women to pray in a separate area, up from one out of two in 1994.[97] 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.[98][99] In 2003, Asra Nomani challenged the rules at her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, that required women to enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony.[97] She argued that Muhammad didn't put women behind partitions, and that barriers preventing women from praying equally with men are just sexist man-made rules.[97] The men at her mosque put her on trial to be banished.[97]

In 2004, some American mosques had constitutions prohibiting women from voting in board elections.[100] In 2005, following public agitation on the issue, Muslim organizations that included the CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America issued a report on making mosques "women-friendly", to assert women's rights in mosques, and to include women's right to pray in the main hall without a partition.[97]

In 2010, American Muslim Fatima Thompson and a few others organized and participated in a "pray-in" at the Islamic Center of Washington in D.C.[97] Police were summoned and threatened to arrest the women when they refused to leave the main prayer hall. The women continued their protest against being corralled in what they referred to as the "penalty box" (a prayer space reserved for only women). Thompson called the penalty box "an overheated, dark back room."[97] A second protest also staged by the same group on the eve of International Women's Day in 2010 resulted in calls to the police and threats of arrest again.[97] However, the women were not arrested on either occasion.[97] In May 2010, five women prayed with men at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, one of the Washington region's largest Islamic centers.[98] After the prayers, a member of the mosque called Fairfax police who asked the women to leave.[98] However, later in 2010, it was decided that D.C. police would no longer intervene in such protests.[101]

In 2015 a group of Muslim activists, politicians, and writers issued a Declaration of Reform which states in part, "Men and women have equal rights in mosques, boards, leadership and all spheres of society. We reject sexism and misogyny."[63] That same year Asra Nomani and others placed the Declaration on the door of the Islamic Center of Washington.[64]

Equality in leading prayer

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.

On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud led a mixed-gender congregational Friday prayer in New York City. It sparked a controversy within the Muslim community because the imam was a woman, Wadud, who also delivered the khutbah.[102] Moreover, the congregation she addressed was not separated by gender. This event that departed from the established ritual practice became an embodied performance of gender justice in the eyes of its organizers and participants. The event was widely publicized in the global media and caused an equally global debate among Muslims.[102] However, many Muslims, including women, remain in disagreement with the idea of a women as imam. Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, argued that prayer leadership should remain restricted to men[102] He based his argument on the longstanding practice and thus community consensus and emphasized the danger of women distracting men during prayers.

The events that occurred in regards to equality in the mosque and women leading prayers, show the enmity Muslim feminists may receive when voicing opposition toward sexism and establishing efforts to combat it. Those who criticize Muslim feminists state that those who question the faith's views on gender segregation, or who attempt to make changes, are overstepping their boundaries and are acting offensively. On the other hand, people have stated that Islam does not advocate gender segregation. Britain's influential Sunni imam, Ahtsham Ali, has stated, "gender segregation has no basis in Islamic law" nor is it justified in the Quran.[103]

Muzammil Siddiqi states that women are not supposed to lead prayer because “It is not permissible to introduce any new style or liturgy in Salat.” In other words, there must be no deviation from the tradition of men teaching.[104]

Feminism in Islam

Margot Badran explains that Islamic feminism “derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”[105] She explains in her writings that the radicalization that Islamists (political Islam) have corrupted Islam with the image of patriarchy and oppression to women. This image is what the rest of the world sees and understands Islam to be.[106] Asma Barlas shares Badran’s views, discussing the difference between secular feminists and Islamic feminism and in countries where Muslims make up 98% of the population, it is not possible to avoid engaging “its basic beliefs.”[107]

Fatima Seedat agrees with both Barlas and Badran about the importance of feminism in the Islamic world. However, she debates the term “Islamic Feminism” is unnecessary since feminism is a “social practice, not merely of personal identity.”[108] Seedat believes the convergence of both Islamic and feminism creates more conflict and opens more doors for “Islamists” to interpret or misinterpret the Qur'an to suit their political needs. She believes it is important to speak about and illustrate how feminism has existed in the lines of the Qur'an. By separating the two and giving their own space, it will be more inclusive to everyone (men, women, Muslims and non-Muslims). In the same article, “Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability,” Seedat explains that the existence of such a term separates Muslims and isolates them from the rest of the world and the universal feminist movement. She states in her essay the importance of sharing with the rest of the world what Islam has to offer feminism, and to show the true image of Islam by not referring to themselves as Islamic feminists.

Zakir Naik shares examples from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, emphasizing "the negativity of disobeying the mother more than the father," to show how just Islam is to women, and not oppressive as many people around the world think of Islam. He uses the example of separate sports teams rather than unisex. Women do not even play tennis unless each opposing couple is one male and one female. Tennis matches do not consist of two women against two men.[109]

Moroccan writer and sociologist, Fatema Mernissi is widely recognized as the founder of modern Islamic Feminism. Her famous feminist piece Beyond the Veil exploits the oppressive status of women in Islam, sexual ideology and gender identity through the perspective of Moroccan society and culture.[110] Beyond the Veil argues against the discourse on women's sexuality by breaking their silence with providing a voice against the dominance of male patriarchy. [111]

Women in Islam

Khawla bint al-Azwar,[112] was a female Muslim warrior/soldier during the life of the prophet Mohammad. Her brother, Dhiraar al-Azwar, trained her to fight and she fought with him in many battles. It is said that it was not known that she was a female when in battle because all soldiers were dressed in loose clothing and wrapped themselves in cloth to protect themselves from the sand and dust. After proving herself as a soldier by showing her talent and skill in combat, she revealed herself to the men she fought next to. Since then, Khawla was essential to have in every battle that followed.

In Sahih Muslim, which is one of the books which include the teachings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Huraira (one of the Companions) reported that a person came to the Prophet and asked: “Who among the people is most deserving of a fine treatment from my hand? He said: Your mother. He again said: Then who (is the next one)? He said: Again it is your mother (who deserves the best treatment from you). He said: Then who (is the next one)? He (the Holy Prophet) said: Again, it is your mother. He (again) said: Then who? Thereupon he said: Then it is your father.” This is one example that many scholars use to show the inclusion of women and their rights in the Quran/Islam.[113]

From the Quran: Surah 4:19[114] O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may Take away part of the dower ye have given them,-except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and God brings about through it a great deal of good.[115] In this scripture it is explained by Sahih Muslim that this speaks to men to take care of their wives, and those who do not will suffer the consequences. Naik explains that this is not to give men a higher status than women, but to give them the role of caretaker because they are created physically stronger than women. He stresses on the different roles they are given as men and women because of how God created them. Men are providers and women are the caregivers at home, given more patience, resilience, and the ability to forgive more than men.

Allah states in the Quran that [116] : Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men, and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women" [117]. This demonstrates that Muslim men and women are spiritually regarded as equals and woman can attain the same of devotion to God as men. Allah created men and women to equally follow the same commandments and entitled the same rights, but only distinguished them base on their martial status. Even still both men and women are expected to fulfill the same duties; worship, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage to Mecca.[118] The Quran goes again to explain that [119] : fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and of its kind created its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women. Single soul signifies that both sexes are unified together as one soul, belonging to the same species and having the same propensities.

Notable people

See also

Further reading

  • Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and gender in Islam: historical roots of a modern debate. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300049428.
  • Ali, Kecia (2014), "Feminist thought in Islam", in Fitzpatrick, Coeli; Hani Walker, Adam (eds.), Muhammad in history, thought, and culture: an encyclopedia of the Prophet of God, Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, pp. 195–197, ISBN 9781610691789.
  • Anwar, Zainah (May 17, 2003). "Islamisation and its Impact on Democratic Governance and Women's Rights in Islam: A Feminist Perspective". Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Archived from the original on March 8, 2005.
  • Badran, Margot (2001). Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400821433.
  • Badran, Margot. "Islamic feminism: what's in a name? Islamic feminism is on the whole more radical than Muslims' secular feminisms". Al-Ahram Weekly Online. 17–23 January 2002, Issue No.569.
  • Noushad, Mohammed (January 16, 2004). "Islamic feminism means justice to women". The Milli Gazette. Interview with Prof Margot Badran.
  • Baffoun, Alya (1982). "Women and social change in the Muslim Arab world". Women's Studies International Forum. 5 (2): 227–242. doi:10.1016/0277-5395(82)90030-9.
  • Baffoun, Alya (1994), "Feminism and Muslim fundamentalism: the Tunisian and Algerian cases", in Moghadam, Valentine M. (ed.), Identity politics and women: cultural reassertions and feminisms in international perspective, Boulder: Westview Press, ISBN 9780813386928
  • Baffoun, Alya (1989). African women participation for research and development: roles and functions of AAWORD. Tunis University. n:7.
  • Baffoun, Alya (1980). African women participation for research and development: roles and functions of AAWORD. Tunis University.
  • Baffoun, Alya (1980), "Some remarks on Women and Development in the Maghreb", in Rivlin, Helen Anne B. (ed.), The changing Middle Eastern city, Binghamton: State University of New York, OCLC 251755375
  • Baffoun, Alya (1984), "Critical Methodological Approach to the problem of Sexual Asymmetry", in UNESCO (ed.), Social science research and women in the Arab world, London Dover, NH Paris: F. Pinter, ISBN 9789231021404
  • Djait, Badra (August 2006). "More to life than window dressing". Archived from the original on January 11, 2013. In this special feature, a successful Belgian-Algerian Muslim woman recounts what it was like growing up immersed in two cultures with divergent views of women.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock (1998). In search of Islamic feminism: one woman's global journey. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385488587.
  • Women and Islam in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  • "Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity". Archived from the original on 2009-01-21. Retrieved 2009-02-12.
  • Canadian Council of Muslim Women Several examples of closely argued essays for female equality, based on the Qur'an.
  • The Modern Muslimah Forum å
  • Farooq, Mohammad Omar. "Women Scholars of Islam: They Must Bloom Again". Archived from the original on 2006-06-15.
  • Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Women, Islam, and Equality, an ebook
  • Jameelah, Maryam (July 13, 2005). "The feminist movement and the Muslim woman". Islam 101.
  • Jeenah, Na'eem (2001). "Towards an Islamic feminist hermeneutic". Journal for Islamic Studies. 21: 36–70. doi:10.4314/jis.v21i1.39954.
  • Jeenah, Na'eem (January–February 2006). "The national liberation struggle and Islamic feminisms in South Africa". Women's Studies International Forum. 29 (1): 27–41. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2005.10.004.
  • Khader, Serene J. (December 2016). "Do Muslim women need freedom? Traditionalist feminisms and transnational politics". Politics & Gender. 12 (4): 727–753. doi:10.1017/S1743923X16000441.
  • Lamya' al Faruqi, Lois. "Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement: Confrontation or Cooperation?".
  • Muñoz, Gema Martín (2012). "Feminism in the Arab World: The Silent Revolution".
  • Nomani, Asra (November 6, 2005). "A Gender Jihad For Islam's Future". Washington Post.
  • Perry, Eleanor H. (June 1, 1993). Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Article for Domes
  • Safarian, Alexander (2007). "On the history of Turkish feminism". Iran & the Caucasus. 11 (1): 141–152. doi:10.1163/157338407X224978. JSTOR 25597322.
  • "A Declaration of the Rights of Women in Islamic Societies",, undated
  • Seker, Nimet (2012). "Islamic Feminism and Reformist Islam: Against the Politicisation of the Koran".
  • Shaikh, Shamima. "Articles by the South African Islamic feminist". Archived from the original on 2006-02-07. Articles by a South African Islamic feminist
  • Simons, Marlise (December 4, 2005). "Muslim women take charge of their faith". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 5, 2011.
  • Sutherland, Joan (April 4, 2006). "The ideas interview: Phyllis Chesler". The Guardian.
  • Webb, Gisela (2000). Windows of faith: Muslim women scholar-activists in North America. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 9780815628521.


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