Feminism: A Muslim Perspective



Feminism as a concept implies the achievement and establishment of cultural, political and economic equal rights for women, at par with men in society. Islamic Feminism “is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm.”[1] Consequently, Islamic Feminists seek their mandate in the Quran and the reinterpretation of both the Quran and sharia from a non-patriarchal perspective.

At various times in the past, in pre-modern societies and cultures, women have often enjoyed greater equality and parity with men. This can be garnered though archaeological sources and materials, as well as anthropological researches, carried out in the twentieth century. Evidence of women’s social, economic and political power is apparent in ancient writings from archaeological sites in Mesopotamia, Assyria and Egypt.[2] Archaeological evidence in the form of burials amongst several nomadic, pre-literate tribes in Central Asia, the Eurasian Steppes as well as ancient Celts and Vikings indicates the diverse role of women and their importance and participation in the crucial life activities of these largely peripatetic tribes.[3] Anthropological and historical studies of the Native cultures and civilizations of the North and South American continents shed light on the position of women in those societies:

“Many Indian societies also accorded women and children a measure of respect unusual in Europe. In societies where women produced food as well as prepared it, their economic role seems to have translated into higher status than that of their European or colonial counterparts. Iroquoian women in particular exerted an influence undreamed of by Europeans.” [4]


While New World civilizations and cultures developed their own set of norms and institutions, the Old World “progressed” along a different path. Thus, Early Modern Europe and Asia experienced the development of patriarchal societies of varying degrees, which often restricted and curtailed the economic and political potential of women. These limitations and boundaries were more often than not sanctioned by the dominant religions that prevailed, which further served to validate and legitimise the secondary role of women in society.

Religious restrictions and rules, however, were often more theoretical than practical, and as can be attested from history, women, especially those from the elite or ruling classes continued to participate directly or indirectly in the political and economic life of the times, while those from the peasant or lower classes continued to labour alongside their male counterparts.

The three major universal religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which arose in the Middle East and developed and spread through large portions of Asia, Europe and North Africa, played an important role in allocating an inferior status to women. In Judaism and Christianity particularly, God manifests himself and is depicted as a strong male father-figure. The religious scriptures too are handled, interpreted and handed down to the masses through a hierarchy of male scholar-priests; this almost exclusively in Judaism and to a slightly lesser degree in Christianity. Traditionally these two religions viewed women as weaker and less intelligent than men and therefore incapable of property ownership and equal participation in commerce, trade and governance.  Theoretically at least, the concept of God in Islam is far more intangible, and the older anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian deity is rejected in favour of an abstract, all-encompassing un-gendered creator. In spite of the gender neutrality of God, much controversy surrounds the position of women in Islam. The traditional school maintains that Islam through the Prophet Muhammad greatly improved the status of women, acknowledged them in many ways as equal and ensured their property and inheritance rights. In the seventh century Arab world this was a revolutionary idea and without a doubt a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition which continued to delegate women to a position inferior to men.  Within the pre-modern world, Christian women, by and large, were not entitled to property ownership, but in reality, elite women, as elsewhere in the world, including Islamic societies, inherited property from their fathers and husbands and often possessed large landholdings that they managed and controlled. And although the number of female rulers is not extensive, queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Spain and Elizabeth I in Christian Europe, Razia Sultan in India, Shajarat al Durr in Egypt, several Mongol queens including Turkan Khatun and her daughter Padishah Khatun, Malika Asma and Malika Arwa in Yemen and many others in the Islamic Asia and North Africa cannot be overlooked.[5]

Within the early Islamic world, women other than rulers and members of the royal family also appear to have played important roles as both the American Historian James E. Lindsay in his Daily Life in Medieval Islamic World[6]and Fatima Mernissi in her Forgotten Queens of Islam show. Early Muslim history is replete with independent strong-willed women, not only within the Prophet’s family but also amongst the sahabiyah or his female companions and disciple. Women like Umm Umara, Umm Hakim and Azdah bint al Harith bin Kaldah are mentioned as participating in battle during the Prophet’s life and after as well. Sakina Bint al-Hussein, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet and a renowned poetess and intellectual who patronised the arts and remained unveiled her entire life,[7] and Aisha bint Talha stands out amongst others.

Female education too appears to have enjoyed considerable patronage, often by women themselves, as in the case of the renowned and still functioning University of Al Karaouini in Fez, Morocco, founded by Fatima Al-Fihiri by in 859 AD. The title of Sitt, Mernissi informs us, was a title given to “women of exceptional talent”. Thus, there was Sitt al-Qudat (chief of qadis) who lived in the fourteenth century, taught in Damascus and wrote treatises on fiqh, religious knowledge. Two other experts of fiqh around the same time were Sitt al-Arab and Sitt al-Ajam. A number of women were also recognised for their military prowess; Sharifa Fatima, the Queen of Yemen, who led her force, was also a religious leader.  Amira Ghaliiyya al-Wahhabiyya famously led a military resistance movement in Mecca against foreign aggressors in the eighteenth century.[8] On the Indian subcontinent, along with the redoubtable Razia Sultan, we have examples of women from the Mughal royal family being appointed governors and leading troops in support of the emperors.[9]  Lisa Ann Balabanlilar’s writings on the Turco-Mongol Timurids of Central Asia[10] clearly illustrates the independence of elite women who were allocated positions of power and authority within the ruling class structure. She quotes Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador at the court of Amir Timur, who observed that

“In their luxurious garden encampments, and later in their own garden palaces, women of the Timurid court entertained their own guests, feasted and drank alcohol in company with men, and seem to have veiled with the thinnest of gauzes that allowed the observers to see their faces clearly.


This was the tradition that continued in the Safavid courts of the Turco-Qizilabash of Iran and the Mughals of India. These women actively participated in political councils and decisions and played important roles in diplomacy and negotiations.

The Emperor Babur in his memoirs wrote admiringly about his maternal grandmother, Esan Dawlat Khanim, who constantly guided him and advised his supporters throughout his early precarious rule in Ferghana and conducted her own independent council. This tradition of powerful women is reflected in Babur’s sister, the indomitable Khanzada Begum, who played a pivotal role in negotiating a safe route of escape for Humayun through Safavid territories as he fled with his small group of faithful followers after his defeat at the hand of Sher Shah Suri. Mughal women in India continued to hold positions of authority; Akbar appointed both his mother Hamida Begum and his sister as governors of provinces. Bakht al-Nisa Begum (his half-sister) was made governor of the crucial Kabul province after the revolt and eventual dismissal of Mohammad Hakim Mirza, Akbar’s half-brother.

We have later examples of the Empress Nur Jehan who had coins struck in her name, served as counsellor to her husband, the Emperor Jehangir, and engaged successfully in trade, as did many other members of the ruling elite families at that time. Educated and erudite, Mughal women were renowned for their patronage of the arts and of architecture. They patronised and constructed buildings for social welfare including madrasahs, caravanserais and hospitals from their own wealth and income. Outstanding scholars, writers and poets, women like the princesses Gulbadan Bano Begum, Jehanara Begum, Roshanara Begum and Zebunissa Begum penned scholarly treatises, memoirs and diwans. Some of the earliest but often overlooked Urdu poets included Mahalaqa Chanda and Wazir Khannum, the mother of the poet Dagh Dehlvi.

While a narration of the lives of elite women in various early modern Muslim societies may not serve as a reflection of the position of women within the wider society, historical sources by their very nature are intrinsically limited in their depiction of the masses. Writers and authors tend to be members of the elite or else writing for the elite, and the life experiences of the common man and woman are seldom if ever, recorded for posterity. However, our knowledge about the upper classes in various Muslim cultures clearly depicts women in a more positive light than as commonly acknowledged or recognised.

Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot in her paper on Entrepreneurial Women[11]offers an insight into the role of women in eighteenth-century Egypt. Although part of the Ottoman Empire since the early sixteenth century, Egypt continued to be locally governed by the Mamluk military oligarchy. However, tussles for power and political dominance amongst the ruling Mamluk elite invariably resulted in fighting and confrontations. Often the defeat or death of a grandee resulted in the confiscation of his properties. As a result, the practice of making female members of the family, wives or daughters, custodians of property and wealth became a common and pragmatic means of safeguarding the family assets. Remarriages were common for widowed women and these women thus acquired great wealth that they not only owned or inherited but as practical businesswomen multiplied though investments and acquisitions. Tax-farms and properties that could be rented out were the most common form of investment for these women. Interestingly,

“Such a pattern was not limited to elite women, for we find that women of all strata owned property; bought, sold and exchanged property; and endowed it at will. …Women also bought storage areas, tenement houses, weaving establishments, coffee shops, mills, funeral parlours and bathhouses; in fact any money-making venue was bought or sold.”[12]
These entrepreneurial women also enjoyed a comfortable working relationship with the ulama of the time who themselves were often participants in similar trade and commerce. This symbiotic relationship was beneficial to both; the women of all classes were offered a support system and were in a position to freely and comfortably bring up legal matters, whether dealing with property or personal matters such as divorce in court, where we are told, they appeared unveiled since court registers record the personal appearances of women as a reliable means of identification.  The ulama no doubt benefited and acquired wealth though being made supervisors of trusts and endowments and as commercial partners in the real estate and tax-farming markets.

However all this changed drastically in the nineteenth century. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the powerful and semi-independent Ottoman governor, sought to modernise Egypt along western lines and establish a European-style “progressive” state. The Mamluk State was completely dismantled as was the judicial and educative authority of the traditional ulama. Women lost their independent entrepreneurial positions, their ability to negotiate in the market for property and loans and subsequently their stature within the economic structure of Egyptian society.  The peasant (fallahs) women too suffered a severe set back as the system of tax-farming was abolished and as mere labourers, they were paid now half the wages that men were; furthermore, the new technologies introduced by the Europeans which displaced traditional manufacturing skills placed women at all levels of society at the lowest level of economic production. European merchants, traders and financiers took over all the major, large scale commercial activates and soon established their monopolies, which completely sidelined and marginalised the natives. Along with these economic influences came the nineteenth-century European norms and values which regulated women to a secondary role in society and stripped them of their economic viability and the socio-economic advantages they had made as participants and functionaries in the financial market. As Marsot delineates in her study, this European style progress ironically “was clearly a step back following a departure from basic Islamic teachings.”[13] It was only in the twentieth century with the growth of educational opportunities and achievement of independence for the country that women began to gradually regain their status socially, economically and politically in Egypt.

Jean Said Makdisi’s dissertation, The Mythology of Modernity: Women and Democracy in Lebanon,[14]substantiates the proposition that modernity and commonly held ideas of progress and westernisation do not necessarily translate into advancement for women within the economic or political structures of society.  In Lebanon, she writes, women tend to appear freer and self –assured and are indeed far more visible than in the rest of the Arab world,[15] but, she continues, their almost total absence in the government and senior public and private administration and the professional cadre is astonishingly conspicuous. The superficial westernisation and “liberation” of Lebanese women has done them a disservice since it, unfortunately, blindsides society to the fact that this process has not benefited these women or increased their overall participation in the democratic process nor has it enhanced their status legally, politically or economically. Writing from a legal perspective, Souad Mokbel-Wensley takes note of the dichotomy that exists in the legal rights of women in Lebanon.[16] She points out that although the Lebanese Constitution of 1926 theoretically gives equal rights to all Lebanese irrespective of gender, a number of older colonial statutes actually infringe on these constitutional rights and serve in perpetuating women’s secondary status and in maintaining the inherent inequality that exists in that society. These include the Nationality law, which allows the wife and children of a Lebanese national Lebanese citizenship but withholds these rights from Lebanese women who marry non-citizens, even if her children are born within the country. Similarly criminal and adultery laws are harsh towards women and lenient towards men. Women’s ability to engage in trade and commerce is also curtailed by antiquated and restrictive colonial laws based on old French laws long since replaced in France itself. Inheritance and property rights also follow this unequal and biased pattern, thereby annulling and clearly contradicting the principle of equality inherent in the Constitution for all citizens.

It is indeed significant that while Lebanon is unique in the Muslim world for its multi-religious and pluralistic population and secular ethos, women continue to struggle as in present-day Iran, where the Western model of democracy is currently in disfavour. The feminist discourse there is, therefore, purely of a religious Islamist nature. The social and legal anthropologist and activist Ziba Mir-Hosseini writes how the opposition to and consequent dismantling of the Shah’s reforms for women after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, particularly the “Family Protection Laws which restricted polygamy and made divorce easier for women”,[17] along with the compulsion of Islamic garb, was a major setback and concern for women. Women’s rights, present in the Quran and sharia, were severely curtailed by the Revolutionary Council through their own interpretation. An initial supporter of the Revolution and a believing Muslim, Mir-Hosseini besides being one of the most articulate contemporary Islamic Feminist scholars is also a committed activist. She bases her argument on the premises that while the Sharia was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, through the Quran, Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence is based on human understanding and has developed though Ijtihad or interpretation by Islamic scholars or Ulama. And this, thus as a human, man-made law, it is subject to change. She argues that only the Quran and Sharia are divine and infallible, while Fiqh is both human and fallible and that “Fiqh texts, which are patriarchal in both spirit and form, are frequently invoked as God’s law, as a means to silence and frustrate Muslims’ search for legal justice and equality, which are intrinsic to this-worldly justice.”[18]

The initial ethos of the Iranian Revolution was a strong opposition to laws and rights perceived as Western and therefore hostile to Islam. But in 1992, the Iranian Parliament or Majlis approved an Amendment to Divorce Laws, a virtual recapitulation of their original 1979 rejection of the Shah’s laws on this issue. Although the new laws continue to create problems for women, Mir-Hosseini sees them “a radical, and if you like feminist, interpretations of shari’a divorce provisions.”[19] These laws not only restrict men’s rights to talaq but also put a monetary value on domestic work thus ensuring women “domestic wages” for their work during the marriage. She further suggests that the current debate about women’s issues, so severely repressed during the first decade of the Revolution, can bring about a positive shift in the Islamic Republic’s ideological understanding and interpretation of Islam. The very nature of intellectual discourse as offered though the magazines such as Zanan in Iran have opened up public debate and discussions on the essential issues of gender equality, rights and justice in that country and has helped in developing what Mir Hosseini refers to as the “New Religious Thinking in Iran.”[20] For Mir-Hosseini this reformist movement, which started in 1997, is a step in the right direction since it rejects the earlier revolutionary language of inflexibility and anti-western rhetoric and uses a less stringent tone in its dialogue with women. She reiterates the fact that the recognition of the temporal nature of Fiqh in Iran is not new; the great eleventh-century Muslim philosopher, theologian, jurist and mystic Al-Ghazali had already made that claim. What are new, however, are the political institutions of the modern world, the need to separate religion and state, more significantly the recognition of judicial renderings of the Quran and Sharia as manifestations of a patriarchal interpretation. Mir-Hosseini elucidates her own stance on the crucial issue of feminism within the Islamic framework:   “A movement to sever patriarchy from Islamic ideals and sacred texts and to give voice to an ethical and egalitarian vision of Islam can and does empower Muslim women from all walks of life to make dignified choices. This, in the end, is what Islamic feminism is.”[21]

This approach, which bases its premises or legitimacy on Islam as the intrinsic source of feminism in the Muslim World, has been gaining ground since the later part of the twentieth century. A considerable number of renowned Muslim feminists, who are not merely activists but also highly erudite academic scholars, have devoted their intellectual lives to clearing up the myriad of fallacies and misconceptions that surround the position of women in the context of Islam. The iconic Beyond the Veil, by the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, has long been well established as one of the classics of Muslim feminism. One of the earliest intellectual Muslim feminists, Mernissi has been a prolific and crucial voice on the status and position of women in the modern Muslim world. Strongly critical of the western/Orientalist stereotyping of Islamic society, particularly the oversimplified depiction of Muslim women, which she found was also evident in the writings of western feminists, she set about challenging this colonial mindset and in the process differentiated herself from the European/western feminists.

Mernissi’s controversial reinterpretation of Muslim history from a feminist viewpoint and her re-writing of the history of early Islam with its emphasis on the important role that women played in the Prophet’s life has been a major break-through in re-establishing those women’s often overlooked contribution to the establishment and spread of Islam.  In her Women in Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, she furthers the controversy by making the argument that men have intentionally subverted and manipulated the sharia to keep women in a subservient position. This patriarchal tendency has also manifested itself in the popularly accepted Hadiths that have also deliberately subverted the egalitarian message of the Prophet. While the elevated position of the Prophet’s first wife, Khatijah, is well established as is her occupation and her economic and social stature in Meccan society, other women too were also important and essential companions of the Prophet, and he was known to have conversed with them on various vital matters. They, however, were totally neglected in the compilation of the Hadiths, which she holds, have been largely fabricated to serve the purpose of the strongly patriarchal ethos that developed soon after the Prophet’s death. False, misogynist Hadith have been skilfully used to disfranchise and subjugate women and prevent them from active and meaningful participation in economic and public life. Thus the problem lies not in the religion but the manipulative interpretation by elitist men. A prolific writer, Mernissi has consistently sought to rewrite and reinterpret the past from a fresh perspective with the aim of demonstrating that the currently accepted principles of human rights and democracy are in no way incompatible with Islamic values. [22]

The Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed also approaches the Muslim Feminist discourse from a similar historical perspective. In her Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate[23], she delves into the pre-Islamic history of the Middle-East and the gender systems that existed at that time. She identifies the various cultural influences that impacted early Muslim societies; the segregation and veiling customs of the conquered Sasanian Persians and the Byzantine as well as the progressive ideas of Ibn al-Arabi and Sufism, which questioned and debated the elitist norms of the times. Like Mernissi, Ahmed argues that it was the advent of colonialism with its stereotypical depiction of Muslim women, particularly colonial feminism, which was responsible for distorting and portraying Islam traditions in a negative light and depicting Muslim women as second class citizens. It was this assumption which introduced the notion that the only way to improve the status of women in these backward societies was through an abandonment of traditional cultures in favour of Western values and norms. Writing about the currently controversial issue of the headscarf she laments the fact that it has always been patriarchal men, Muslim or non-Muslim, who have been influential in the banning or enforcing of the Islamic headscarf, or “declaring it important to feminist struggle.”[24]

While Muslim secular feminists like Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Margot Badran, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot and others argue their case from a historical, analytical perspective, questioning the authenticity and viability of the Hadith, or like Ziba Mir-Hosseini seek to challenge the Fiqh or judicial interpretation of the Sharia, Islamic feminists approach the discourse from a theological Islamic angle, underscoring their basic premises that the Quranic message is one of affirmation of equality for all humans, irrespective of gender. Islamic feminism pragmatically contests the long-established legacy of male-dominated theology and seeks to dismantle and deconstruct long-held patriarchal notions that have used Quranic verses to justify male domination and distorted the egalitarian ethos of the Quran.[25]

This hermeneutical approach has been adopted by Islamic feminist scholars in developing a Quranic based theology which is gender-sensitive and used to challenge the long-established male-dominated renditions they see as inaccurate and gender-biased, and clearly oppressive towards women. Pioneers in this field include the Egyptian Aisha Abd al-Rehman and the controversial Zeniab al-Ghazali, whose association with the Muslim Brotherhood puts her in a somewhat separate camp from the more Progressive Muslim feminists such as Amina Wadud and Pakistani scholars Riffat Hassan and Asma Barlas.

Amina Wadud, the African-American Islamic scholar, is perhaps the most widely and internationally renowned scholar of this genre, her progressive focus and visibility at the pulpit has made her both a controversial figure as well as a positive representative of twenty-first-century Islam. Wadud made international headlines when she read a sermon and then led a mixed congregation of Muslims in prayers in New York City in 2005.  Several Muslim texts acknowledge that women led mixed-gender prayers in the early days of Islam, the best known being Umme Warqa bint Abdallah, a close companion of the Prophet, who is known to have sanctioned her Imamate. Hazarat Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, and Umme Salamah are also known to have led mixed-gender prayers as is Nafisah bint Al-Hassan, a great-granddaughter of Imam Hassan and a renowned scholar and teacher, who led the funeral prayers for Imam Safi. Thus for the Islamic feminists, this is not simply a modern interpretation of the practise, but merely a revival of one that was current and acceptable in the Prophet’s lifetime and during the early Caliphate. Moreover, the Quran itself does not specify the gender of the individual entitled to lead the congregation.

Wadud, who converted to Islam in 1972, acknowledges the distinguished Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rehman as her mentor and based her hermeneutical approach to the Quran on his ijthadist methods.[26] Her tafasir or commentary of the Quran follows the chronological development of what she refers to as “the Quran programme for women”[27], the social reforms and actions required for bringing these about in society. She questions the flawed interpretation of words, syntax and context which have led to misconceptions and miscomprehension of meanings in Quranic verses.  Starting with the idea of Creation in the Quran, she reiterates the theme of gender equality, since unlike the Christian or Jewish versions, the first male and female are created together and the ruh of Allah is blown into each being, this “primal equality” being the very basis of equal status of equality. She goes on to discuss the Quran’s perspective on women through an analysis of the role of key Quranic female personalities and “the Quran’s sociological implications[28] for women”.

Wadud’s affirmation of women’s equality within Islam was a result of her in-depth studies, her voluntary conversion and the fact that she was undoubtedly “unfettered by centuries of historical androcentric readings and Arabo-Islamic cultural predilections.”[29] Her unorthodox background, her progressive stance and her critique of the establishment has however left her open to criticism from traditionalists who continue to decry her as a “Western feminist” and an “American agent.” In spite of that, her seminal and pioneering Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective continues to be one of the most widely read dissertations on the position of women in Islam. Wadud boldly continues to confront challenges and address social inequalities, to improve the status of women within the Islamic framework and “struggle for justice”, in her crucial rendering of women’s issues, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, [30] in which she draws upon her own experiences as a contemporary progressive Muslim woman in North America. Jihad for Wadud is all about “effort “and “exertion” and “struggle” to establish legitimacy and recognition for women as a fundamental and God-given right ensured by the agency of the Quran.

For a considerable period of time, Asma Barlas resented the label of feminist; for her, it connoted ethnocentricity and had definitive, racist undertones. Though eventually, the label stuck, she adamantly asserts her mandate as the Quran itself and distances herself from “Muslim Feminists” who she views as secular and critical of religion. First and foremost, Barlas sees herself as a “believing woman” who has set out to discard gender-biased preconceptions of Islam and to open up a perspective which is not inherently patriarchal or privileges men above women. In her “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, she categorically asserts that “the teachings of the Quran are radically egalitarian and even antipatriarchal“.[31] She further maintains that the engendering or sexualizing God in order to anthropomorphize or humanize God as male “underwrites male privilege”.[32] This gross misrepresentation is one of the major sources of misogyny and the underlying bias that has governed the long-standing patriarchal traditions of established religion. In her conclusion, Barlas reiterates her view that “Islam is not based on the idea of male epistemic privilege, or in a formally ordained interpretive community, or clergy.”[33] Thus, Barlas continues, all Muslims qualify as interpreters of religious knowledge or mujtahid. Unfortunately, religious knowledge has become the closely guarded monopoly of those with high stakes in maintaining the status quo and the abuse and oppression of women at the hands of religious clerical is perpetuated. She emphatically concludes that “we need to be willing to rethink our own knowledge of Islam.” [34]

While a generalised analysis of women within a Muslim or Islamic perspective is and has been a subject of intellectual discourse throughout, what we must not overlook is the underlying reality of diversity in culture. Muslims do not constitute a monolithic culture or civilization. While certain values and patterns of behaviour do derive from a shared religious tradition prevail, so do differences in history, ethnicity, languages and norms.  The assimilation of pre-existing dynamic cultures with any given religion creates many configurations, and that then is the underlying reality of the “Muslim” world. The spread of Islam in pre-modern times took two broad cultural routes, the Arab-Islamic culture which at various times covered regions of Spain, North Africa, the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian Peninsula and South East Asia, and the Perso-Islamic which under the patronage of various Turkish tribes and overlords covered the entire Central Asia including the Russian Steppe and Western China, Western Asia from the Aegean to the Euphrates, Iran and South Asia. The cultural ethos within each broad spectrum remained indebted to the ancient civilizations they were rooted in and as such affected the cultural norms related to women’s participation in state politics, economics and social life. In the final analysis, the tendency to see or expect a universal Islamic culture, world-view or perspective is ultimately an Orientalist, Colonial construct, which mandated an essential compartmentalisation of the subject States and their inhabitants.

Diversity and variations are the hallmarks of all religious traditions. Within the Muslim tradition one common component, however, appears universal and intrinsic: Sufism. This spiritual, mystic tradition from its inception accepted and embraced female practitioners. Since Sufis, male and female lived, and, continue to do so, beyond the constraints of normative society, they were, and continue to be, free of the restrictions of the gender-specific tasks, status and roles assigned to regular members of society. If feminism’s main premises are women’s equality and their right to control their own lives then the inherently egalitarian principles of Sufi culture would make female mystics some of the earliest Muslim feminists in history.

The dialogue on what constitutes a Muslim or Islamic feminist continues in the wider arena beyond the hallowed walls of academia and intellectual debate. Those women who consider themselves Islamic feminists ground their discourse on the Quran and sharia, though they might dispute the authenticity and validity of the hadith. Progressive and intellectual perceptions often colour the path or course of debate, but the rise of twenty-first-century Islamist orthodoxy has created a new challenge, which advocates a political and hitherto unknown Islamic reality and an inherently harsh, male-dominated political order. Within Muslim states, feminist and activists continue to question the colonial and pre-colonial writing of their history and the accuracy of current myths about their past. The difficult and controversial issue of Sharia and Sunnah dominates the legal and legislative dialogue across the Muslim world. The current political upheavals in the Middle East have thrown a damper on intellectual discourse within a number of Muslim states, but the conversation continues in the West amongst the Diaspora. The all-important debate about the hijab or veil continues unabated. While most Muslims agree that the Quran advocates a modest dress code for both men and women, disagreement over the implication of this modesty for women continues. Most Muslim and Islamic feminists perceive the hijab as a symbol of female subjection; many however now under the influence of Islamist orthodoxy view it as a symbol of Islamic identity and freedom. Muslim women in the west continue to challenge the male privilege of leading the congregation in prayer and appear to be steadily gaining ground in that area of religious practice. In a number of Muslim States changes and reforms have been achieved through the intervention and influence of feminist women; an outstanding example is Morocco which implemented the mudawana, or family code in 2004, the most progressive Sharia-backed family law in any Muslim country which restricted polygamy, promulgated that divorce be settled in courts and raised the marriage age to eighteen years; this has encouraged similar discourse in other Muslim countries as distant as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Turkey, with its secular constitution and principles, has in recent years seen an orthodox backlash blessed by the long-established ruling party, but in the popular uprisings and protests in Taksim Square in 2013, women were in the forefront.  “The Arab Spring”, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, saw the renewed emergence of women activists as participants in the movements and generated hope for a more egalitarian society, though such a vision has had to be discarded or at least delayed in the face of rising fundamentalism. In South Asia, particularly Pakistan, the issue of women’s rights and protection continues this pendulum swing pattern.  Women actively participated in the struggle for independence, and in the early years that followed that achievement, Pakistan emerged as a secular progressive state. The 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance offered a secure environment for women and guaranteed their civil and legal rights; it restricted polygamy, ensured divorce rights and settlements and safeguarded women’s and children’s inheritance rights. But the discriminatory and oppressive Hudood Ordinance promulgated by Zia ul-Haq changed everything. It was in this repressive environment that the feminist movement under the banner or the Women’s Action Forum emerged in 1981 to confront a slew of issues and laws that discriminated and disadvantaged women.  Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, the growing challenge of orthodoxy and fundamentalism with its ruthless and harsh world-view remains a constant impediment to progress and enlightenment in these early decades of the twenty-first century.




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Yamani, Mai, ed. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.


[1] Margot Barden, Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences (Oxford: One World, 2007),242

[2] Daniel C. Snell, Life in the Ancient Near East: 3100-332 B.C.E. (Yale: Yale University Press, 1997).

[3] Mike Adamson, “An Archaeological Analysis of Gender Roles in Ancient Non Literate Cultures of Eurasia” (PhD diss., Flinders University of South Australia, 2005).

[4] Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 191.

[5] Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[6] James E. Lindsay, Daily Life in Medieval Islamic World (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005).

[7] Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (London: Saqi Books, 2011).

[8] Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 20.

[9] Ruby Lal, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[10] Lisa Ann Balabanlilar, “The Lords of the Auspicious Conjunction: Turco-Mongol Imperial Identity on the Subcontinent” (PhD diss., Graduate School of the Ohio State University, 2007).

[11] Mai Yamani, ed. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 33-47.

[12]   Mai Yamani, ed. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 37.

[13] Yamani, Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary, 4.

[14] Ibid. 2 31-250.

[15] Ibid. 231.

[16] Ibid., 321.

[17] Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law (London: I.B.Tauris, 1993), 55-56.

[18] Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism”, Critical Inquiry 32, no. 4 (Summer 2006), 629-645.

[19] Yamani, Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary, 286.

[20] Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism”, 629-645

[21] Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism”, 629-645.

[22] Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (New York: Addison –Wesley. 1992).

[23] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[24] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam.

[25] Margot Badran, “Feminism in Islam”, Talk given at the American Research Centre in Egypt, subsequently published in al-Ahram weekly, 17-23 January 2002.

[26] Amina Wadud, Quran and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[27] Ibid, 101.

[28] Ibid, 12.

[29] Ibid, ix.

[30] Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (Oxford: One World, 2006).

[31] Asma Barlas,  “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, ( Austin, University of Texas Press, 2002), 93.

[32] Ibid, 94.

[33] Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, ( Austin, University of Texas Press, 2002),94.

[34]Ibid, 209-210.

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