Is there such a thing as “Islamic feminism”?

Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University leading men and women in prayer.

Bassam Zawadi goes through different types of feminist theories and poses the question whether they can be reconciled with normative Islamic concepts, beliefs and values.

Central to every feminist claim is an underlying presupposition that men and women are entitled equal rights in every conceivable respect. This basic presupposition stands at odds with Islam, which takes more of a complementarian approach to gender roles and rights. This complementarity is upheld through a mutual exchange of rights that are, in a number of important respects, decidedly inegalitarian (e.g. household authority, having spouses outside the Islamic faith, custodial rights after a divorce, right to a dowry, right to financial provision, etc.)

Despite this manifest conceptual conflict, there are some people who insist that feminism and Islam are reconcilable. This alleged reconcilability is advanced – and, indeed, can only be maintained – by diminishing the relationship between gender and worldview (i.e. it is either Islam that is remarkably portrayed as egalitarian, or feminism that is curiously presented as inegalitarian).

These efforts beg the question of plausibility. Is conciliation achievable? Is there a “feminism” that can be described as both academically recognised and conceptually coherent? How has feminism been understood historically, and how can it contribute to the current impasse?

In the following article, we will briefly take a cursory look at each of the feminist waves and some of the most popular theories of feminism, and see whether there does exist any academically recognised notion of feminism harmonious with Islamic teachings.

Feminist waves

1) First wave feminism

Description: Primarily focused on women’s suffrage.

Islam’s ruling: Women are allowed to vote in Islam (see Dr. Fahd al-‘Ajlān, al-Intikhābāt wa-‘Aḥkāmuhā fil-Fiqh al-Islāmī, p. 109).

First wave feminism focused on women’s emancipation.

Given this permission, seeking the right to vote in a society is permissible provided there are no mitigating factors that support a context-specific prohibition.

At the same time, it must be noted that Muslim women are not entitled by Islam to have such rights, just as they are entitled to financial provision, dowries, etc.

 

Thus, Islam cannot be said to be in full conformity with first wave feminism, which stipulates that voting is an unconditional right which women are entitled to.

2) Second wave feminism

Description: Focused on a range of issues including reproductive rights, domestic violence, and women’s literacy.

Islam’s ruling: In principle, the advocacy aims of this wave are haram due to the presumptions underpinning them (i.e. strict equal rights for both men and women).

Second wave feminism focused on abortion-on-demand.

However, certain elements may be acceptable and even recommended if they abide by Islamic standards (for e.g. combating domestic abuse against women, abortion rights strictly regulated according to Islamic standards, etc.). Other elements such as the proliferation of contraception as an instrument to provide for pre and extra marital sex without consequences while deliberately discouraging marriage is unconditionally haram.

3) Third wave feminism

Description: Advances gender identity and corresponding roles as purely constructed without any inherent basis or correlation to the biological makeup of the individual.

Islam’s ruling: Stands in stark contrast to Islam and is therefore haram.

Fourth wave feminism

Description: Focuses on opposition to workplace harassment against women and rape culture.

Islam’s ruling: As a matter of principle, Islam obviously agrees. However, there is no doubt that the mechanisms which Islam promotes to counter such problems (e.g. gender segregation, Islamically legislated modest clothing, etc.) would be staunchly rejected by fourth wave feminists.

Different varieties of “feminisms”

Dr. Judith Lorber in her article, The Variety of Feminisms and their Contribution to Gender Equality, lays out and discusses some of the most popular theories of feminism. Let us see whether any of them are harmonious with Islamic teachings.

1) Gender Reform Feminisms

1a) Liberal Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

“Theoretically, liberal feminism claims that gender differences are not based in biology, and therefore that women and men are not all that different — their common humanity supersedes their procreative differentiation. If women and men are not different, then they should not be treated differently under the law.

and:

“The main contribution of liberal feminism is showing how much modern society discriminates against women. In the United States, it was successful in breaking down many barriers to women’s entry into formerly male-dominated jobs and professions, helped to equalize wage scales, and got abortion and other reproductive rights legalized.

and:

“Liberal feminism argues that women and men are essentially similar, and therefore women should be equally represented in public arenas dominated by men — work, government, the professions, and the sciences.”

Islam’s ruling: Liberal feminism is not compatible with Islam since it would reject Islam’s outlook on differing gender roles. It would reject Islam’s stance that in at least some situations and circumstances, men and women’s rights and roles are not equal.

1b) Marxist and Socialist Feminisms

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

Marxist and socialist feminisms severely criticize the family as a source of women’s oppression and exploitation.”

and:

“Marxist and socialist feminisms argue that the source of women’s oppression is their economic dependence on a husband. Their solution is full-time jobs for women, with the state providing paid maternity leave and child-care.”

Islam’s ruling: Marxist and socialist feminisms are not compatible with Islam, since they reject Islam’s outlook on gender roles, Islam’s stance on the importance of the family unit, and the male and female complementarity as delineated in the Sharī’a.

1c) Development Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

“In addition to gendered economic analyses, development feminism addresses the political issue of women’s rights versus national and cultural traditions…The Platform for Action document that came out of the UN Conference condemned particular cultural practices that are oppressive to women – infanticide, dowry, child marriage, female genital mutilation….. The development feminist perspective, so critical of colonialism and yet so supportive of women’s rights, has found this issue difficult to resolve.”

and:

“For development feminism, the theoretical emphasis on universal human rights is reflected in pressure for the education of girls, maternity and child health care, and economic resources for women who contribute heavily to the support of their families. However, when gender politics calls for marital rights and sexual autonomy, development feminism frequently has to confront traditional cultural values and practices that give men power over their daughters and wives.”

Islam’s ruling: Development feminism would appear to reject Islam’s stance on certain issues such as age of eligibility of marriage and Islam’s views on gender roles, such as the husband having authority over the members of his household. However, it must be stressed that at the same time, development feminism in principle primarily stands up for things that Islam would as well (e.g. securing the economic rights of women who work).

Thus, some nuance would be required when discussing development feminism from an Islamic perspective.

2) Gender Resistant Feminisms

2a) Radical Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

Radical feminism argues that patriarchy is very hard to eradicate because its root — the belief that women are different and inferior — is deeply embedded in most men’s consciousness. It can best be resisted, radical feminists argued, by forming nonhierarchical, supportive, woman-only spaces where women can think and act and create free of constant sexist put-downs, sexual harassment, and the threat of rape and violence.”

Islam’s ruling: Pushed to its logical conclusion, radical feminists would accuse and condemn the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the generation of his Sahabah for having approvingly lived in, and contributed to, a patriarchal society which subjugated women. This is an unacceptable stance to hold according to Islam.

2b) Lesbian Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

“Why not go all the way?” asked lesbian feminism. Stop sleeping with the “enemy,” and turn to other women for sexual love as well as for intellectual companionship and emotional support.”

Islam’s ruling: This is clearly and indisputably haram according to Islam.

2c) Psychoanalytic Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

“Psychoanalytic feminism claims that the source of men’s domination of women is men’s unconscious two-sided need for women’s emotionality and rejection of them as potential castrators. Women submit to men because of their unconscious desires for emotional connectedness.”

Islam’s ruling: Psychoanalytic feminism would disagree with the wisdom of Allah who knows what the best allocation of roles to each gender should be. Psychoanalytic feminists would instead insist that Islam’s laws were instituted by men for the purpose of dominating women.

2d) Standpoint Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

“Standpoint feminism is a critique of mainstream science and social science, a methodology for feminist research, and an analysis of the power that lies in producing knowledge. Simply put, standpoint feminism says that women’s “voices” are different from men’s, and they must be heard if women are to challenge hegemonic values.”

and:

The grounding for standpoint theory comes from Marxist and socialist feminist theory, which applies Marx’s concept of class consciousness to women, and psychoanalytic feminist theory, which describes the gendering of the unconscious.”

and:

“Although men could certainly do research on and about women, and women on men, standpoint feminism argues that women researchers are more sensitive to how women see problems and set priorities, and therefore would be better able to design and conduct research from a woman’s point of view.

Islam’s ruling: Islam certainly appreciates the importance of seeking the consultation of women, particularly on issues which are specific to women. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that this sets a dangerous precedent, which may lead to the infamous “mansplaining” accusation one often hears these days.

It is not a prerequisite that Islam’s stances pertaining to women be commented on by Muslim women. The Prophet (peace be upon him) and the Sahabah never stipulated this condition, nor did any of the respected jurists in the past. Though Muslim women have contributed to the development of Islamic juristic rulings over the centuries, their opinion and approval was never a strict condition which was required to make a stance pertaining to the affairs of women credible.

3) Gender Revolution Feminisms

3a) Social Construction Feminism

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

In social construction feminist theory, inequality is the core of gender itself: Women and men are socially differentiated in order to justify treating them unequally.

and:

Activist from the Femen movement at a protest in Paris.

 “In the social construction feminist perspective, the processes of gender differentiation, approval of accepted gendered behavior and appearance, and disapproval of deviations from established norms are all manifestations of power and social control.

“Religion, the law, and medicine reinforce the boundary lines between women and men and suppress gender variation through moral censure and stigmatizing, such as labeling gendering appropriate behavior sinful, illegal, and insane.

Islam’s ruling: This theory stands at odds with Islam, which would contend that some of the fixed and permanent differing gender roles are divinely legislated by Allah and are not merely socially constructed. This does not mean however, that certain cultural practices alien to Islam and abusive to women could not arise due to social construction.

3b) Postmodern Feminism and Queer Theory

Description: Dr. Judith Lorber said:

Post-modern feminism and queer theory go the furthest in challenging gender categories as dual, oppositional, and fixed, arguing instead that sexuality and gender are shifting, fluid, multiple categories.

Islam’s ruling: The notion of gender fluidity is clearly at odds with Islam. It is recommended to read Mobeen Vaid’s article, And the Male Is Not like the Female: Sunni Islam and Gender Nonconformity, which touches upon this issue.

Conclusion

It is clear that there is no academically recognised theory of “feminism”, which could be regarded as compatible with Islam. Though each of the different “feminist” theories and waves tend to shift their primary focus on different areas, what remains consistent is the underlying presumption of strict gender egalitarianism. This is not something that could be reconciled with Islam. Thus, it is best to drop the terminological use of “Islamic Feminism,” as it is unhelpful at best and misleading at worst. Alternatives such as the motto “Women’s Islamic Rights Advocacy” would appear to be less controversial, and more conceptually coherent and helpful.

Bassam Zawadi has been active in the area of comparative religion for the past 13 years. Working closely with his fellow peers, Bassam has authored several articles and conducts debates and workshops around the world. You can find his works at www.call-to-monotheism.com and https://independent.academia.edu/BassamZawadi. Bassam is currently pursuing a Masters degree in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from the University of Leeds. 
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