Islamic Legal Tradition and Feminism: Opening a New Dialogue

Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Publication Date: 
October, 2010

(This paper was presented at the IV International Congress on Islamic Feminism in Madrid, 21-24 October 2010)

I am delighted to be here, and I would like to thank the organizers, in particular Abdennur Prado, for inviting me to the Fourth Congress on Islamic Feminism. I am sorry that my co-panelist compatriot, Ms Fariba Alasvand, whose scholarship and writings I have been following from afar for some time, was not able to be here. I am grateful to Mr Joaquin Rodriguez for presenting her paper.

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. I was among the first scholars to use the term to speak of a new gender consciousness that emerged in Iran in the early 1990s, a decade after the 1979 popular revolution that led to a merger of religious and political power in the country. There has since been much discussion and debate and a growing literature on ‘Islamic feminism’, to which I have contributed. Inevitably, there are diverging accounts of the nature of this phenomenon, and of its origins and development.[1] Here I want to revisit this term and offer some reflections on the heavy political baggage that comes with it—as well as with its component elements: ‘Islamic’ and ‘feminism’.

I have two objectives. First, I want to set the record straight and to explain the context in which I have used the term myself, and the kind of feminism that is involved. I shall reflect on the term in the light of developments in the intervening years, culminating in two events in 2009 that, I believe, show how far the debate has moved on, both globally and locally, namely, first, the launch of Musawah, a ‘Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family’, and secondly, the emergence of the Green Movement in Iran. Musawah, launched in Kuala Lumpur in February 2009, brings Islamic and human rights frameworks together to build an overlapping consensus among Muslim women from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and to push for legal reform.[2] The Green Movement in Iran started in June last year as a protest against a fraudulent presidential election, but it soon became a broader civil rights movement in which Iranian women have been the most prominent actors.[3]

My second objective is to point to the political and rhetorical dimension of the debate and the growing literature on ‘Islamic feminism’, and put in a plea for clarity and honesty. The problem with the term Islamic feminism is that both of its components, ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’, are contested concepts that mean different things to different people and 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?  These questions continue to remain unaddressed in most discussions on Islamic feminism, whether in academia or activist forums. This, in my view, to a large extent explains the lack of clarity in the literature on the subject, which is plagued with unstated agendas, anxieties and unresolved issues. I shall argue that the composite term Islamic feminism has become so loaded with disputed meanings and implications, so enmeshed in local and global political struggles, that it is no longer useful in any kind of descriptive or analytical sense.[4]

* * *

I start with explicit issues to do with definition, and with my own definition of the two components. I understand ‘feminism’ in the widest sense: it includes a general concern with women’s issues, an awareness that women suffer discrimination at work, in the home and in society because of their gender, and action aimed at improving their lives and changing the situation. There is also an epistemological side to feminism; it is a knowledge project, in the sense that it sheds light on how we know what we know about women, family and religious tradition, including law and practices that take their legitimacy from religion, enabling us to challenge, from within, the patriarchy that is institutionalized in a legal tradition.

As for ‘Islamic’, I must stress that I firmly distinguish this from ‘Islamist’. ‘Islamism’, as Richard Tapper and I have defined it in print, is no more nor less than ‘political Islam’, that is, 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’.[5]

‘Islamic’, on the other hand, when attached to an -ism such as feminism, means merely finding inspiration and even legitimacy in Islamic history and textual sources. Many people so inspired prefer to call themselves, if anything, ‘Muslim feminists’.[6] This is the case with many distinguished activists, for instance Zainah Anwar in Malaysia and Shahla Sherkat in Iran. Anwar has stated, “I prefer to call myself a ‘Muslim feminist’, because the term Muslim signifies human agency, and how I, as a human beings, understand God and religion”. There is no necessary association of ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ with ‘Islamism’ or political Islam, nor any necessary association of ‘feminism’ with lack of religious faith or inspiration.[7] I challenge those who implicitly do make these associations to make them explicit and to defend them.

As for ‘religion’ more generally, the English word ‘religion’ is full of ambiguities. I argue that those who talk of Islam, or indeed of ‘religion’ in relation to Islam, too often fail to make a distinction now common when talking of religion in other contexts, namely between faith (and its values and principles) and organized religion (institutions, laws and practices). The result is the pervasive polemical-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. Similarly, it is better to avoid contrasting ‘faith’ with ‘politics’ (chalk vs cheese) and rather to note that a term (din, as much as ‘religion’) that is so ambiguous that it can encompass faith and belief, legal traditions and discourses, and organizational structures and positions, has enormous political potential—not least in the Islamist slogans I just mentioned—but is hopelessly imprecise for the purposes of analysis.

In many ways it is the notion of ‘Shari‘a’ that is the problem. We all think we know what Shari‘a is, yet its meanings are widely contested. In the Western context, and for some Muslims, Shari‘a has become synonymous with patriarchal laws and cruel punishments; with polygamy, stoning, amputation of limbs. Yet, for the mass of Muslims, Shari‘a is the essence of justice, while for Islamists Shari‘a is a powerful political ideology. In Muslim tradition, however, Shari‘a is generally a theological and ethical concept more than a legal one; it is associated with the sacred, denoting the totality of God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

In my own recent work, I have sought to keep the distinction—clearly made and maintained in classical Islamic legal texts—between Shari‘a and fiqh, jurisprudence, the process of human attempts to discern and extract legal rules from the sacred sources of Islam, as well as the ‘laws’ that result from this process. What we ‘know’ of ‘Shari‘a’ is only an interpretation, an understanding; while fiqh—like any other system of jurisprudence and law—is human and mundane and temporal and local. Anyone who claims that a specific law or legal rule ‘is’ Shari‘a, is claiming divine authority for something that is in fact a human interpretation. I believe it is crucial to keep this distinction, to separate the sacred from the legal in the body of law that is commonly subsumed under the label of Shari‘a or Islamic law. Without this distinction, reinterpretation and legal change become difficult or impossible.

* * *

In my work I have argued that two events made 1979 a turning point in the politics of religion, law and gender, and in time became catalysts for the emergence in Muslim contexts of a feminism that takes its legitimacy from Islam.[8] The first was the adoption by the UN General Assembly of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), which gave gender equality a clear international legal mandate. The second was the popular revolution that brought clerics to power in Iran and began to reverse the secularization of legal systems that had begun in Muslim contexts earlier in the century.

The decades that followed saw the concomitant expansion, globally and locally, of two equally powerful but opposed frames of reference. On the one hand, the human rights framework and instruments such as CEDAW gave women’s rights activists what they needed most: a point of reference, a language and the tools to resist and challenge patriarchy. The 1980s saw the expansion of the international women’s movement and of women’s NGOs all over the world, including Muslim countries. By the early 1990s, a transnational movement further coalesced around the idea that violence against women was a violation of their human rights, and succeeded in inserting it into the agenda of the international human rights community. In their campaigns, they made visible various forms of gender-based discrimination and violation rooted in cultural traditions and religious practices, and protection from violence became a core demand of women’s human rights activists.

In Muslim contexts, on the other hand, Islamist forces—whether in power or in opposition –started to invoke Islam and Shari‘a as a legitimizing device to reverse the process of reform and secularization of laws and legal systems. Tapping into popular demands for social justice, the Islamist rallying cry of ‘Return to Shari‘a’ led to regressive gender policies, with devastating consequences for women: compulsory dress codes, gender segregation, and the revival of cruel punishments and outdated patriarchal and tribal models of social relations.

All these developments widened the gap between religious and secular Muslims, and intensified the conflict between ‘Islamists’ and ‘feminists’. While feeding (on) older stereotypes, old polemics between Islam and the West were reignited. Islamists continue to portray ‘feminism’ as an extension of colonialist politics, as a Western plot to undermine the Muslim way of life, hence to be rejected in the name of Islam. Many women’s rights activists, on the other hand, have attacked regressive Islamist policies using older Orientalist and essentialist narratives of Islam as a monolith, inherently incompatible with modernity and gender equality.

By the early 1990s, the conflict between these bitterly opposed isms found a kind of resolution in the emergence of a new gender discourse that came to be called ‘Islamic feminism’.[9] I originally used the term to refer to a number of Iranian women who had played a crucial role after the 1979 revolution as Islamists in silencing other women’s voices: Shahla Sherkat, the editor of the official women’s magazine Zan-e Ruz; Azam Taleqani, who took over the pre-revolutionary Women’s Organization and destroyed all their books; Zahra Rahnavard, who wrote the seminal text on hijab and denounced feminism. By the early 1990s, these women had become disillusioned with the Islamic Republic’s official discourse on women, some of them in official positions had stood down, and they had joined the ‘New Religious Thinkers’ who later were the core of the reform movement.

As the term ‘Islamic feminism’ gained currency in the late 1990s, most of those so labelled by academics and journalists rejected either the ‘Islamic’ or the ‘feminist’ part of the term. If they came from a religious background and addressed women’s rights within an Islamic frame of reference, they wanted to avoid any kind of association with the term ‘feminism’, and their gender activism was a mixture of conformity and defiance. If they came from a secular background and addressed women’s rights from within broader feminist discourses, they rejected being called ‘Islamic’—even though many of them located their feminism in Islam. Those associated with political Islam took contradictory positions and made confusing statements with respect to gender equality; for them, the wider project of gaining power and establishing an Islamic state took priority over equality and democracy.

I came to realize that the women I called ‘Islamic feminists’ did not speak with one voice. The positions they took were local, diverse, multiple and evolving. They all sought gender justice and equality for women, but they did not always agree on what constitutes ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ or the best ways of attaining them. I saw it as futile and even counter-productive to try to put these diverse voices into neat categories and to generate definitions.[10] To understand a movement that is still in formation, I argued that we might start by considering how its opponents depict it, in other words, the resistance against which it has had to struggle. I saw three broad categories of opponents of what I defined as ‘the feminist project in Islam’: Muslim traditionalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and secular fundamentalists. Muslim traditionalists are those who resist any changes in what they hold to be eternally valid ways, sanctioned by an unchanging Shari‘a. Islamic fundamentalists—or Islamists—are those who advocate political Islam, seeking to change current practices by a return what they claim to be a ‘purer’ version of the Shari‘a, which they hope to implement through the machinery of the modern nation-state. Secular fundamentalists deny that any religion-based law or social practice can be just or equal, or relevant to modern times; in my encounters with them in meetings and seminars, I found them as dogmatic and ideological as religious fundamentalists.

I have argued that what I called ‘Islamic feminism’—feminism that takes its legitimacy from Islam—was the ‘unwanted child’ of political Islam; it did not emerge because the Islamists offered an egalitarian vision of gender relations: they did not. Rather, their very agenda of ‘return to the Shari‘a’, and their attempt to translate into policy the patriarchal gender notions inherent in classical jurisprudence, provoked women to increasing criticism of these notions, and spurred greater activism among secular feminists, who were now internationalized and had the legitimacy of human rights on their side. The Islamists’ defence of patriarchal rulings as ‘God’s Law’, and as promoting an authentic and ‘Islamic’ way of life, brought the classical jurisprudential texts out of the closet. A growing number of women came to question whether there was an inherent link between Islamic ideals and patriarchy, and saw no contradiction between their faith and their aspiration for gender equality. Political Islam gave them the language to sustain a critique of the gender biases of Muslim family laws in ways that were previously impossible, which opened a space, an arena, for an internal critique of patriarchal readings of the Shari‘a that was unprecedented in Muslim history. True that there were always some Muslim jurists and reformers who argued for an egalitarian interpretation of the Shari‘a, but in my view it was only in the late 1980s that we started to see the emergence of critical voices and scholarship from within the tradition in literature that deserves the label feminist in the sense that it is sustained and informed by a feminist analysis that inserts gender as category of thought into religious knowledge.[11]

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 in the eyes of many. The gap between these ideals and the practices of some of their proponents have increasingly invited accusations of hypocrisy. In the first decade of the new century, 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 interesting that some of those who are now classed as key ‘Islamic feminist’ thinkers or advocates were among those who once found ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ irreconcilable. Prominent among them are Fatima Mernissi and Haleh Afshar, who in their earlier feminist incarnations sought to expose the patriarchal inner logic of Islamic texts; for them, patriarchy was inherent to Islam. But in their later writings they have abandoned this position and adopted a new approach, going back to the sources to find feminist texts and readings.[12] Neither has written about how this change of heart came about; both have been silent on their intellectual trajectories—though Mernissi has no qualms writing about her personal life and has provided us with valuable reflections. Likewise, others who have written about Islamic feminism seem to feel that they have no need to talk about their own relationship with the faith into which they were born and raised. 

I find this silence significant; it speaks of the ambivalence that many women, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, feel towards aspects of their identities. It has both strategic and epistemological consequences: strategic, because it allows old polemics and unhealed wounds to fester, and divides women and progressive forces. Epistemological, because feminism, in addition to being a consciousness and a movement, is also a knowledge project; it is part of a critical engagement with all branches of knowledge, including religious knowledge. Feminist scholarship in Islam, as in any other religious tradition, has much to offer to both the understanding of religion and the search for justice. It can tell us how and why Islamic legal tradition became as patriarchal as it is, how the tension between the egalitarian and hierarchical voices and tendencies in the tradition played out; how, by the time that the fiqh schools emerged, women’s voices were silenced in the production of religious knowledge.[13]

* * *

Let me conclude by bringing the different elements of my argument together, and make explicit what has remained implicit in my narrative.

First, the linkage between the religious and political dimensions of identity in Muslim contexts is, in my view, one of the key issues that Muslim women confront in their struggle for equality. This linkage is not new—it has its roots in the colonial era—but it took on a new and distinct expression in the 1970s with the resurgence of Islam as a political and spiritual force. With the end of the colonial era, the rise of secular and despotic regimes in Muslim countries and their suppression of progressive forces left a vacuum that was filled by Islamist movements. These movements, strengthened dramatically by the success of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, gained momentum with the subsequent perceived defeat of communism. But it was not until the rise of the neo-conservatives in the USA, and their response to the events of 9/11—in particular the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003—that Muslim women found themselves in the crossfire. Both invasions were partially justified in the name of ‘saving Muslim women’; US neo-conservatives and rightist parties in Europe noisily promoted women of Muslim backgrounds such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, who openly voiced criticism of what they understood as Islam, though their understanding of Islam was in effect as dogmatic and patriarchal as that of the Islamists whom they opposed.

Secondly, if ‘Islamic feminism’ is going to have a future, it must now focus on the production of feminist knowledge; to do so, the silence of which I spoke should be broken. A new and meaningful dialogue with Islamic legal tradition should be opened. Muslims—whether male or female—must have the courage to stand up for justice, which in our time and our context is not possible without gender equality. Faced by an apparent choice between the devil of those who want to impose patriarchal interpretations of the Shari‘a, and the deep blue sea of those who pursue a neo-colonialist hegemonic global project in the name of enlightenment and feminism, those of us committed to achieving justice for women and a just world have no other option than to bring Islamic and feminist perspectives together. A clear distinction must be made between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’, and women and progressive forces should not allow the media to confound them.

There always have been, and will be, competing interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts. The power of any interpretation depends, not on its correctness, but on the social and political forces supporting its claims to authenticity. Fully aware of this, feminist voices and scholarship in Islam are challenging, on their own terms and from within the same tradition, those who use religion to justify patriarchy. The women in Musawah and many of the reformists in the Iranian Green Movement insist that the Shari‘a is an ideal embodying the justice of Islam, that justice today must include equality, and that consequently patriarchal interpretations of the Shari‘a are completely unacceptable.

[1] See for instance Yoginder Sikand’s recent online interviews with Margot Badran () and myself ().

[2] For the launch of Musawah see the website (in particular the pressroom) and Mir-Hosseini (2009d).

[3] For an analysis of the centrality of gender and the place of women in this movement, see Ziba Mir-Hosseini “Broken Taboos in Post-Election Iran”, Middle East Report Online, December 17, 2009

[4] See my response to Hania Sholkamy, “Islam and Feminism: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism?” Contestation: Dialogue on Women’s Empowerment, 2010, Issue 1, Islam and Feminism,

[5] “Islamism: Ism or Wasm?” (with Richard Tapper), in Richard Martin and Abbas Barzegar (eds), Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam (Stanford: Stanford University Press), pp 81-86.

[6] “Zainah Anwar on Islam and Muslim Feminism”, interview by Yoginder Sikand, Friday, October 16,

[7] I hesitate to use the term ‘secularism’, for which there are many very different definitions.

[8] See for instance Mir-Hosseini (2007), “Islam and Gender Justice”, in Vincent Cornell & Omid Safi (eds), Voices of Islam, Vol. 5, Voices of Diversity and Change (Westport: Greenwood), pp 85-113; “Towards Gender Equality: Muslim Family Laws and the Shari‘a”, in Zainah Anwar (ed.), Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family (Kuala Lumpur: Musawah: An Initiative of Sisters of Islam).

[9] There is now an extensive literature on this ‘Islamic feminism’; for overviews, see Badran (2009), Mir-Hosseini (2006).

[10] It is here that my approach and my account of the evolution of ‘Islamic feminism’ differ from those of Margot Badran.

[11] On this point too, my analysis diverges from that of Badran.

[12] Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton: Princeton University Press; London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), pp 5-6.


[13] For a fuller treatment of these issues, see Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Beyond ‘Islam’ vs ‘Feminism’,” forthcoming in IDS Bulletin Volume 42 Number 1, January 2011.