Between Power and Freedom: The Challenge in the Future of Islamic Feminism
Ahmad Fuad Rahmat | Research Fellow, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF): It is an evident, although often unacknowledged, fact that Islam’s long history and intellectual tradition is comprised of a rather impressive list of important women thinkers and figures. The Qur’an itself included “believing women” in its scope and statements. Further precedent was set through the leadership of Aisha and the historical significance of Fatimah. Spiritually, even the most conservative of Muslim men have taken the example of Rabiah al-Aldawiyah to heart.
This inclusive worldview towards the empowerment of women developed more comprehensively in the modern era in the Islamic Feminism of Imam Muhammad Abduh. So influential and compelling were his calls for gender justice and equality that they inspired a global network of students and activists, including Syed Sheikh Al-Hady in Malaya and Qasim Amin in Egypt. In Tahrir al-Mar’ah [The Emancipation of Women] Amin lamented of how in Muslim culture “freedom for men is countered by enslavement of women, education for men is countered by ignorance for women. Men develop their rationality and mental faculties, leaving for women only idiocy and retardation...The whole universe is for men, while women occupy only the peripheries and the dark corners.”
The point that the ideals of feminism are deeply inherent to the Islamic tradition was the message of Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa as he began the forum on “The Future of Islamic Feminism” at ISTAC on the 18th of September 2011. The forum was well attended by a diverse audience, as the main hall reached near maximum capacity.
Zainah Anwar, the founder of Sisters in Islam and now the director for Musawah, the Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, was the first speaker out of the three. She stressed the importance of Muslims to accept the reality of change in the contemporary world. Muslims can no longer be indifferent to the fact that now human rights, equality and freedom together constitute a legitimate, if not the most compelling, ethical paradigm for politics.
To be indifferent to that is to be indifferent to reality. If Islam is to be what it truly has been meant to be, that is, a source of inspiration and enlightenment for all, rather than just a set of claims to justify punishment and control by the few, then it is all the more important that we confront the challenges in Muslim society as they are evolving in the here and now, not as they were there and then.
It is with an acute sensitivity to the realities of social change that Zainah Anwar stressed the importance of human agency in interpreting and exploring the Qur’an and Sunnah. Our reception and engagement with the Muslim canon do not occur in a vacuum, devoid of historically and culturally specific considerations. Different generations will find different ways of appreciating Islam to address the challenges and problems of their time and contexts. Even the conservative insistence that the Qur’an should always be read as unchanging and unconditional would be of no value if it was not compelled to address something specific that is occurring when that insistence was reiterated.
What happens to the reputation or future of Islam and Muslims then are only as good as the decisions we are willing to make and accept (or not) in the process of reading and rereading our canon and history. Given this reality, we must do all we can to ensure that our representation of Islam remains as true as possible to its inherent concern with justice for all. This is why, to Zainah Anwar, we should consider the more accurate term of “Muslim feminism”, instead of Islamic feminism. It is after all Muslims, in their everyday basic sincere concerns that will be the agents of change in the name of Islam.
Dr. Muhammad Uthman el-Muhammady’s part of the panel was perhaps the most complex of all, as his delivery was interlaced all at once with references to the Qur’an and Julia Kristeva, among others. It would suffice to say, however, that his message was essentially a reminder to Muslim feminists to be cautious of the intellectual traditions they engage for their activism.
Dr. el-Muhammady reiterated the claim that Islam does not compromise when it comes to justice, rights and freedom. Nonetheless, we must be careful of the epistemology defining those categories, in particular, the strong social constructivist elements that dominate 20th century Western feminist thought. The human being, conceived in Islamic terms, is first and foremost a creation of Allah, who is granted rights in accordance to his or her nature as to conduct the necessary duties as the Khalifa in this universe.
In this picture, justice is rooted to God’s moral authority as the main source and architect of all creation. This is fundamentally in contradiction with the idea of the secular human being whose traits of gender and sex are fundamentally constructed by social norms. Justice, given this profane view of the world and our place in it, is cannot be divine but is rather nothing more than an outcome of society’s trials and errors.
Who and what we turn to as content for our ideals shapes a great deal of the possibilities we can envision. To Dr. el-Muhammady, if we are more moved by justice as it has been by and large defined in the Western tradition, then the ideals we champion can only inevitably lead to a state of affairs that is not as Islamic as it can be. Much worse, such a tendency divides Muslims and places our tradition in a fragile position to be exploited by outsiders and orientalists.
Farish Noor, the third and last speaker, did not add much to define Islamic Feminism. Instead, and rightly, he focused more on situating the debate in the broader context of geopolitics. The reality is that any discussion of the future of Islamic feminism would be fruitless without coming to terms with the present fact that any form of progressive activism in the Muslim world is a part of the larger, and anxious, power struggle that Muslims across the globe are facing.
With any mention of “Muslim” and “Islam” bound to trigger automatic fears among non-Muslims and suspicions, it is no wonder that many Muslims are typically reluctant to engage with feminism, preferring to view it as another non-Muslim “threat” in a precarious time. Any attempt to strategize and plan for progressive changes among Muslims must keep this in mind.
Farish Noor emphasizes, however, that changes will happen whether we like it or not and the changes will see an improvement in the status of women (for example, it is currently and by and large the trend across the Muslim world that there are more women in higher learning than men). But whether or not this will happen peacefully or anytime soon, and whether or not it will be met with resistance, it is hard to say for sure for now.
The following Q&A session was highly spirited as one would expect. In essence, what lied at the heart of most disagreements was a preoccupation with authenticity and the fear of foreign influence. All the panellists agreed and emphasized – to the point of overcompensation - that Islam is clearly and profoundly concerned with the welfare of women.
But which sources – which examples, figures and events, which philosophical and literary traditions - beyond the Hadith and the Qur’an, we are to turn to, to further inspire us in our quest for justice in this increasingly complicated and uncertain world, was something less determined. How far can the Muslim feminist project go? How far should it go and at what price? How do we remain loyal to our commitments to the words of the Quran and Sunnah while being open to the uncertain changes before us?
These questions are impossible to answer in a single afternoon but we only need to turn to our own tradition for clues on how to proceed: It was Ibn Rushd, in 14th century Andalucia who claimed that women ought to “have the very same standing as men” so “that there would be among them warriors, philosophers, rulers and the rest”. He made that statement not in a tafsir or in his countless treatises on the Sharia, but in his commentary on Plato’s Republic, a text replete with its pagan references and mythology.
Similarly, we need only to recall that Islam was founded amidst the cultural and religious diversity of 6th century Mecca, where the earliest Muslims had to critically engage with, and seriously consider, the concerns and claims of the neighbouring Jews, Christians and Sabeans, among many others. The point here is that there are enough examples in Islam to remind us that the most inspiring moments in our history was due in large part to our readiness to be creative, NOT our anxieties to remain authentic.