Monthly Archives: August 2022

Islam and Feminism: Opening a New Dialogue

Islam and Feminism: Opening a New Dialogue

Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Professorial Research Associate, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Law, University of London
Volume 8 Issue 2 December 2012

The term ‘Islamic Feminism’ gained currency in the 1990s as a label for a brand of feminist scholarship and activism that was associated with Islam and Muslims. There has since been much discussion and debate and a growing literature on ‘Islamic feminism,’ to which I have contributed. The difficulty with the term ‘Islamic feminism’ is that both of its components, ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism,’ are contested concepts that mean different things to different people in different contexts. Each is the subject of multiple discourses and widely ranging perspectives that can be addressed at different levels. We need to start by asking: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism? –  Questions that continue to remain unaddressed in most discussions on Islamic feminism.

I define ‘feminism’ in the widest sense – a concern with women’s issues, an awareness that women suffer discrimination at work, in the home and in society, and actions aimed at improving their lives. There is also an epistemological side to feminism which sheds light on how we know what we know about women, family and religious tradition, and law and practices that institutionalize patriarchy by taking their legitimacy from religion.

I distinguish ‘Islamic’ from ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamism’. ‘Islamism’  I define as political commitment to public action to implement what Islamists regard as an Islamic agenda, commonly summarized in slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’ or ‘return to Shari’a’. ‘Islamic’, on the other hand, when attached to an -ism such as feminism, means merely finding inspiration and legitimacy in Islamic history and textual sources.

When thinking and talking about Islam we also need to make another distinction, namely between faith (and its values and principles) and organized religion (institutions, laws and practices).There is a pervasive polemic-rhetorical trick of either glorifying a faith without acknowledging the horrors and abuses that are committed in its name, or condemning it by equating it with those abuses. Words such as din, as much as ‘religion,’ are ambiguous and can be hopelessly imprecise for the purposes of analysis. Similarly, the meaning of Shari’a is widely contested. For some Muslims, Shari’a has become synonymous with patriarchal laws and cruel punishments. For the Muslim masses, Shari’a is the essence of justice, while for Islamists Shari’a is a powerful political ideology. In Muslim tradition, Shari’a is a theological and ethical concept more than a legal one, associated with the sacred, denoting the totality of God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In my work, I have sought to keep the distinction between Shari’a (lit. the path) and fiqh (lit. understanding). While the first embodies the revealed law the second is the science of Muslim jurisprudence, human attempts to extract legal rules from the sacred sources of Islam and make laws that are mundane, temporal and local. Anyone who claims that a specific law or rule ‘is’ Shari’a is claiming divine authority for something that is in fact a human interpretation.

Two events in 1979 marked a turning point in the politics of relations between Islam and feminism. The first was the UN General Assembly’s adoption of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women), which gave a clear international legal mandate to women’s rights as human rights. The second event was the Iranian Revolution, which brought an end to a US-backed monarchy and introduced an Islamic Republic that sought to reintroduce laws that conformed with traditionalist Islamic jurisprudence. Subsequent decades saw the concomitant expansion, globally and locally, of these two equally powerful but opposed frames of reference.

The human rights framework gave women’s rights activists, including those in Muslim countries, language and tools to resist and challenge patriarchy, and the idea that violence against women, rooted in traditions and religious practices, is a violation of their human rights. Meanwhile, Islamist forces started to invoke Islam and Shari’a as legitimizing devices to reverse the process of reform and secularization of legal systems. Their rallying cry of ‘Return to Shari’a’ led to regressive gender policies with devastating consequences for women, including the revival of tribal models of social relations. These developments widened and intensified the conflict between ‘Islamists’ and ‘feminists,’ and reignited old polemics between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West.’

However, the conflict between these bitterly opposed positions found a kind of resolution in the emergence of a new gender discourse that came to be called ‘Islamic feminism.’ The Islamists’ agenda of ‘return to the Shari’a’, and their defence of patriarchal rulings as ‘God’s Law’, had some unintended consequences. Not only did they bring classical jurisprudential texts out of the closet but they enabled a growing number of women to question whether there is an inherent link between Islamic ideals and patriarchy. Relying on the ethical and egalitarian spirit of the Qu’ran, these women saw no contradiction between their faith and their aspiration for gender equality. Paradoxically, political Islam gave them the incentive to critique the gender biases of Muslim family laws in ways that were previously impossible. Since the late 1980s, we have witnessed the emergence of a new brand scholarship from within the Islamic tradition, informed by a feminist analysis that is mindful of gender as category of thought.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA, the politics of the ‘war on terror’, the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both partially justified as promoting ‘democracy’ and ‘women’s rights’ the subsequent revelations of abuses in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, and the double standards employed in promoting UN sanctions, have all discredited international human rights ideals and feminism in the eyes of many. The gap between these ideals and the practices of some of their proponents have increasingly invited accusations of hypocrisy. As the first decade of the new century came to a close, both ‘feminism,’ now commonly identified with international human rights law and its politics, and ‘Islam,’ now often reduced to Islamists and their slogan of ‘return to Shari’a’, lost legitimacy and moral authority in many quarters.

It is against the backdrop of these developments that we should place the feminist voices and scholarship in Islam. Realizing the close link between religious and political identity in Muslim contexts, more and more women came to realize that there can be no justice and no sustainable change until patriarchy is separated from the Shari’a. To abolish patriarchal laws and customs among Muslims it is insufficient, and counterproductive, to attack these on human rights grounds alone. To achieve sustainable change injustices arising from patriarchal laws must be revealed as taking their legitimacy from a particular reading of Islam’s sacred texts, and offer defensible and comprehensible alternatives within a framework that recognizes equality and justice within Islam through interpretations of its sacred texts. Scholarship must join activism to bring together fresh perspectives on Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, and the lived realities of women and men today, and to argue that equality in the Muslim family is now both necessary and possible, and that denial of this equality in the name of Islam and tradition should be firmly rejected.

This century has given birth to a new gender discourse that is Islamic in its sources of legitimacy yet feminist in its demand. A constructive dialogue between feminism and Islamic legal tradition has begun; but a true dialogue is only possible when the two parties treat each other as equals and with respect; otherwise it will remain a dialogue of the deaf. For those committed to justice for women there is no other option but to bring Islamic and feminist perspectives together.

CBEC Urdu Baithak

CBEC Urdu Baithak - 'Resistance Poetry of Two Eras: A Dialogue'

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Urdu Baithak is a public forum conducted by CBEC-SIUT focusing on various aspects of Urdu literature. This year’s Baithak titled “Resistance Poetry of Two Eras: A Dialogue” will bring together seasoned poets Iftikhar Arif and Harris Khalique.

Resistance literature uses artistic expression against oppressive power structures and dominant ideologies. In Urdu, poetry in the form of Marsiya or Sheher Ashoob has historically been the medium for this purpose. However, following colonialism, modern state structures and social movements, new forms of resistance emerged in contemporary Urdu literature.

Join us for an evening of poetry recitals by these two poets representing two different eras highlighting the evolution and differences across time. This will include a discussion between the two, moderated by CBEC faculty member Dr. Nida Wahid Bashir.

Iftikhar Arif is a poet, scholar, and critic who requires no introduction. For the past fifty years, his overarching presence on the literary landscape of Pakistan has left enduring traces of his style. His four volumes of poetry have recently been anthologized and some of them have been translated into several languages.

Harris Khalique is a multilingual poet, author, and a noted human rights campaigner. He has authored ten collections of poetry, which have been anthologized. His poetry has also been translated into several languages. He has two non-fiction books to his credit.

This session will be held at the Suleman Dawood Auditorium and also streamed on our Facebook page and Zoom. 

Wearing face masks for all participants in the auditorium is a mandatory part of the Covid-19 policy.

As always, the CBEC-SIUT event is free, but we require registration by phone (021-99216957) or email cbec.siut@gmail.com before August 29, 2022. 

To attend online, please register on the Zoom link below:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZcpduCsqTMsEtfdjdaPBy2mH0Vvb7PBK36i

Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC), SIUT

WHO Collaborating Centre for Bioethics,
Karachi, Pakistan.

Website: http://siut.org/bioethics/

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Archives Perspectives

The inexorable march to progress: Sadequain, Industry and Agriculture II, 1984. Section of mural on display in State Bank of Pakistan Museum, Karachi

A few of our alumni from both PGD and Master’s programs share short video commentaries on their bioethics experience by answering these three questions:

1. How have you utilized your bioethics training in your professional work?

Caroline Kithinji

Faisal Rashid Khan

Quratulain Omaeer

Elizabeth Anne Bukusi

Jamshed Akhtar

Mariam Hassan Chaudhry

2. What challenges have you faced?

Caroline Kithinji

Faisal Rashid Khan

Quratulain Omaeer

Elizabeth Anne Bukusi

Jamshed Akhtar

Mariam Hassan Chaudhry

3. What future do you see for bioethics in your context?

Caroline Kithinji

Faisal Rashid Khan

Quratulain Omaeer

Elizabeth Anne Bukusi

Jamshed Akhtar

Mariam Hassan Chaudhry