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In late October, this year’s Fourth Annual International Congress on Islamic Feminism was held in Madrid, Spain. The conference encompassed Islamic feminism in Palestine, America, Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan, inviting speakers from various backgrounds to explain what it means to be an Islamic feminist and how this role has manifested itself in various cultural and national settings to bring about a positive change for Muslim women.
Among the participants were Zahira Kamal, former Minister of Women Affairs in Palestine; Ziba Mir Hosseini, Iranian legal anthropologist, specializing in Islamic law, gender, and development; and Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and wife of the Imam of the intensely debated Park 51 community center.
Durre S. Ahmed and Naila Tiwana from Pakistan spoke of the feminine nature of and gender egalitarianism within Sufi Islam. Ziba Mir Hosseini gracefully deconstructed the terms “Islamic feminism,” “fiqh,” and “shariah,” and explained what these terms mean for women in post-revolution Iran. Zahira Kamal and Fadwa Allabadi of Palestine spoke of how the socio-political landscape of occupied Palestine gave urgency to the need for women’s rights, but also of how fatwas issued by male dominated politico religious elite fail to effectively “articulate Palestinian women’s social reality in the twentieth century.” Lies Marcos of Indonesia spoke of the need for Muslim women jurists as authoritative players in a male-dominated Muslim legal system. Daisy Khan spoke of the same need, because “women’s rights are found under Shariah [law]”—it is just a matter of putting Muslim women in positions where they can effectively participate in the process Islamic legal jurisprudence (fiqh), derived from feminist or woman-centered readings of sacred texts.
Regardless of national identities, whether Iranian, Pakistani, American, Palestinian or Indonesian, and regardless of what Islamic tradition, whether Sufi, Sunni or Shia, these women were coming from, there emerged in their discourse three re-occurring themes.
The first theme was addressed as a question: What is Islamic feminism? In my opinion, Ziba Mir Hosseini tackled this in the most graceful and digestible manner. She says the term Islamic feminism is, “so loaded with disputed meanings and implications; so enmeshed in local and global political struggles, that it is no longer a useful term both analytically or descriptively.” Then she goes on to unpack the term by first explaining the terms “Islamism” and “feminism” separately.
Feminism is characterized by a general concern with women’s issues and awareness that women suffer discrimination. The term Islamic, when attached to another –ism, just means finding legitimacy in Islamic text and sources. In this manner, the word “feminism” in Islamic feminism cannot be used to signify a lack of religion, nor can the term “Islamic” within Islamic feminism be used to signify Islamists.
I found it very interesting that she also says that, although Islamic feminists all seek gender justice, they do not all have the same voice, nor do they all agree on what constitutes justice. She says that it is too futile a task to put all divergent voices into neat categories, instead, we can at least identify, if not a collective voice, collective enemies. Those enemies are those who advocate a return to a male-dominated Shariah, Islamic fundamentalists (political Islam), and also secular fundamentalists who deny that any religious base can result in equality.
Her last point leads me to the next reoccurring theme of the conference: reinterpreting the Qur’an.
The theme of reinterpreting the Qur’an seems to be a common one within the struggle for women’s rights in the Muslim world. When so much of what we know of as “Shariah law” is supposedly derived/interpreted from sacred texts of Islam, a re-interpretation is needed.
The method of arriving at Shariah law involves a process of ijtihad (interpretation) or a human attempt to discern and extract rules from the texts of Islam. Thus far, largely male-dominated and hegemonic institutions have interpreted it, which has proved to be a powerful political tool. Mir Hosseini calls it the, “mundane, temporal, local and man-made” understanding of sacred texts.
This is why many have called for a rereading or reinterpretation of sacred sources, so that women can begin to go back and challenge the patriarchal interpretations that lead to Shariah laws that are contrary to women’s rights, and contrary to the essence of Islam.
The final theme of the conference goes hand-in-hand with reinterpreting the Qur’an. It is the need for Muslim women to study Islamic law, methodology and fiqh, so that they can not only reread and reinterpret the Qur’an, but they can also become legitimate and authoritative, challenging voices within a male-dominated discourse. Islamic feminists must come from within the same tradition (Muslim or Islamic) to oppose those who use patriarchal interpretations of Islam and Shariah.
Lies Marcoes of Indonesia says that it is important for Muslim women to have degrees in Islamic studies and Islamic law so they will be seen as authoritative. Daisy Khan reiterates this need saying that the image of Muslim women “is constantly being defined by those who use the religion to promote and justify things against women’s rights.” So, our job as Muslim women is to, “construct a religiously grounded argument.”
I admittedly have never heard of the International Congress on Islamic Feminism. Perhaps it is because, like so many Muslim women, I shy away from identifying myself fully as a “feminist.” I too often grapple with the term Islamic feminism, finding myself confined and suffocated by the implications of the loaded term-inserted into an already pre-determined space of hegemonic, Islamist and colonialist discourses.
However, I cannot ignore the term that has become a relevant addition to our global lexicon. I keep a watchful eye on it, as it sits uncomfortably on the fence between two seemingly mutually exclusive terms–steadily balancing itself as it rides the waves of change experienced by Muslim women. The Fourth Annual International Congress on Islamic Feminism was a pleasure to watch.