Islamic Feminism: Method and Strategy

Analysis, posted 06.28.2012, from Iran, in:
Islamic Feminism: Method and Strategy (Photo: dpa)

Both within and outside the Muslim world, the issue of feminism in Islam is much discussed and little understood. On the one hand, most of the Western media assume that "Muslim feminism" must be an oxymoron, since they see Islam itself as the major reason for the plight of Muslim and Middle Eastern women. Indeed, the administration of the last US president, George W. Bush, partly justified the US invasion of Afghanistan with the argument that it would liberate Afghan women from the grip of the Taliban.

On the other hand, many Muslims are sceptical about Islamic feminism, as they see it as another aspect of the Western assault on their cultural and religious traditions, so that they consider Islamic feminists to be traitors.

Extreme polarisation

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the conflict between secular and religious women's groups has exacerbated the controversy over Islamic feminism. Iran underwent a radical shift from being a secular monarchy towards becoming a Shiite Islamic theocracy. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has established rule by a clerical caste (velayat-e faghih) whose authority over the social, political and religious life of the country is absolute. It has enforced a kind of fundamentalist Islamism in both theory and practice.

This has led to extreme polarisation among Iranian scholars and activists as to the appropriate method and strategy for achieving gender equality and justice in the context of the Islamic Republic.

One of the most prominent Iranian scholars of Islamic feminism is Ziba Mir-Hosseini currently based in Britain. In addition to the monolithic interpretation of Islam of the authorities, she sees the conflation between sharia (the sacred and immutable divine will) and fiqh (the jurisprudence extracted by humans from Islamic sources) as the source of tension between an egalitarian vision of Islam and the patriarchal context of the Islamic revelation. Far from being a way of realizing justice, the so-called sharia in practice only revolves around the application of gender-biased policies on criminal and family law as well as on dress codes.

In this regard, Mir-Hosseini argues that a new approach – feminist in aspiration and demand and yet Islamic in its language and sources of legitimacy – could develop a gender discourse that meets women's aspiration for equality. But due to the current reality in which Islamists hold the power of definition in the political and gender discourse in Iran, only those who are prepared to engage with Islam's sacred texts and its legal tradition can bring change from within. But as well as Islamic scholarship, Islamic feminists also need socio-cultural analytical tools in order to formulate their reformist gender discourse.

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By Lanny Octavia

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