Muslim Feminism

A smiling Shadya holds a large Israeli flag across her chest during a karate awards presentation

You have never felt what an Israeli Arab girl feels and you can't understand.

In SHADYA, 17-year-old Shadya Zoabi attempts to balance her own dreams and ambitions with both her family’s and community’s expectations for a young woman. While Shadya’s struggles with gender-based expectations may be specific to her own experiences as an Israeli Arab, the challenges she faces are also familiar to women around the world. Just as “Western” feminism has offered many women a voice and a way to challenge society’s expectations, so too have feminist movements among Muslim girls and women in the Middle East—and within the worldwide Muslim diaspora.

Muslim Women’s Movements

A black and white image of a crescent moon and a star

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

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

Islamic Feminism

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

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

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

A Global Movement

A woman in a light blue, full-body veil walks among several men in hats and robes

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

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

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