Muslim Feminists on the Internet
“…while one can maintain that Islam as a religion may not need feminism, when it comes to predominantly Muslim societies in which patriarchal systems prevail, many will argue that feminism is needed.”
About seven years ago I was introduced to the Blogosphere and began following the blogs of Muslims who discussed a variety of topics from halal food to polygamy. I live in the Middle East region, and from the blogs of Western Muslims I saw an obvious difference between the way Islam is practiced by Muslims living in the non-Muslim West and the way it is practiced in Muslim countries.
Most people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, erroneously view Islam (a religion) as a contrast to the West (a geographic location) and furthermore, fail to realize that Muslim societies are just as diverse and non-monolithic as the West. This was one of my first observations about Muslims blogging about religion when I stepped into the Blogosphere.
My second major observation was that many of the Muslims living and writing from non-Western countries looked down upon the concept of feminism. Feminism, even Islamic feminism, is generally perceived as an innovation of the West. For as long as I can remember I maintained that Islam, a religion that scores of women convert to annually for its stance on women’s rights, doesn’t need feminism. In most situations I will still maintain this argument. However, while one can maintain that Islam as a religion may not need feminism, when it comes to predominantly Muslim societies in which patriarchal systems prevail, many will argue that feminism is needed.
Islamic feminism is a relatively new movement for and by contemporary Muslim women who demand the basic rights that Islam has promised them but that are not given to them by their cultures. There are also Muslim women who enjoy either secular rights or the rights Islam has given them based on gender roles but they reject the idea itself—the idea of social roles that are based on gender. In other words, they believe that gender roles are created by socialization, and such roles are unnatural and harmful to women. Some examples of demands for equality outside the confines of gender roles include the demand for women to pray alongside men (rather than separately or behind them) and the demand to lead men and women in prayer.
From the brief description of Muslim feminists above it is clear that the concept of Islamic feminism itself is diverse and vibrant: There are Muslim feminists who accept gender roles and there are also those who challenge them. Indeed there are Muslim feminists who fight against headscarf and burqa or niqab bans, for example, although they may or may not wear the veil themselves. These same feminists who are fighting for the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf will also surprise you by fighting for the rights of Muslim women who believe that Quran does not mandate any form of veiling of the head or the face. The dialogue surrounding the veil is used here as an example to illustrate the point that Muslim feminism is diverse; certainly, the movement encompasses much more than issues related to the practice of veiling. Most Muslims who challenge Islamic feminism fail to see the dynamic nature of this movement, which embraces all types of Muslim women who not only demand their rights but also define these rights for themselves. On the other hand, Western non-Muslims are hardly aware of the existence of Muslim feminists, and some who are aware perceive Islamic feminism as a so-called oxymoron.
Muslim women who challenge gender roles as laid out in traditional interpretations of Sharia (Islamic law derived from Quran and Sunnah) are usually not supported by traditional Muslims, who claim that “from the Islamic point of view, the question of the equality of men and women is meaningless… Feminism is an unnatural, artificial and abnormal product of contemporary social disintegration, which in turn is the inevitable result of the rejection of all transcendental, absolute moral and spiritual values.”[i]
When I began reading the blogs of Muslim women, who did or did not identify themselves as Muslim feminists, I realised that more and more Muslim women are actively reinterpreting Islamic texts through a feminist lens. Many Muslim feminists argue that the root of misogyny in Muslim societies lies in the fact that traditional interpretation of Quran is completely male-dominated and therefore favours men. Women who reinterpret the Quran, like Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, “describe their project of articulating and advocating the practice of Qur’anically-mandated gender equality and social justice as Islamic feminism.”[ii]
While it was heartening for me to read that after centuries of male-dominated interpretations of the Quran, there are Muslims who are now arguing that Quran is not gender biased, I could not help noticing that these Muslims were rather scattered and did not exist as a unified and recognizable body.
In 2010 I applied at a British university to study online Muslim feminists for a doctorate degree in Theology. I wished to explore how Muslim feminists understand Islam and negotiate their religious rights and duties on the Internet. Since no formal academic research has been done in the area of how contemporary Muslim feminists are using the Internet to understand Islam, my study aimed to be an original contribution to modern Islamic studies in the era of the World Wide Web.
While working on the research, I began writing a blog on Islamic feminism and created the Muslim feminists page on Facebook. This was the first step to try and bring Muslim feminists together, to give them a platform to discuss Islam, and to initiate dialogues on topics related to feminism. To date there are 1,235 members on the Page, although not all of them are feminists or even Muslim. The next step was to create a webspace for Muslim feminists (which is largely still under construction) so they can exist as a body, at least in the virtual world.
The honour to write for Connection Point about the Muslim feminists’ webspace is another wonderful opportunity for Muslim feminists to be recognised and discussed in cyber-media. In the past couple of years I have learned that women truly do “build cultures of peace” and even a cursory look at the Muslim feminists Facebook page would exhibit how closely feminists can work with harmony, empathy, and genuine interest in the welfare of Muslim women.
Muslim feminists need to be heard. These brilliant women and men are not fighting for something that is “meaningless,” and they are not fighting for an oxymoron. There is nothing “unnatural, artificial or abnormal” about feminism. A society disintegrates when it refuses to regard one half of its population as human and equal to the other half. In fact, the “moral and spiritual values” of Islam uphold the “status of women” which is just what Muslim feminists wish to reclaim. The Muslim feminist webspace is a humble attempt to bring together Muslim feminists in all their diversity so they may be recognized as an organized movement that is not only demanding, but actively building a culture of peace.
[i] Jameelah, M. (undated).The Feminist movement and the Muslim woman. Islam 101. Retrieved from the WWW on July 2, 2010 from http://www.islam101.com/women/jameelah.htm
[ii] Badran, M. (2002). Islamic feminism: what’s in a name? Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Issue No.569. Retrieved from the WWW on July 2, 2010 from http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/569/cu1.htm
[iii] Yuksel, E. (undated) Beating women, or beating around the bush, or … Retrieved from the WWW on January 28, 2010 from http://www.yuksel.org/e/religion/unorthodox.htm
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.