Islamic Feminism: From an Identity-based Response to an Islamic Knowledge Frame (1)

Luz Gómez-García, Arab Studies Department, University of Alicante (Spain)

Key Concepts: Identity, Knowledge

Overview of Teaching Environment
As a professor of Arab studies in a Spanish university, I am usually confronted with two kinds of challenges when teaching courses on Arab women: the first challenge is posed by my undergraduate students, the second one by the graduates. In both cases, the difficulties stem from a similar source, that is, their lack of acquaintance with interdisciplinary studies as represented by the combination of paradigms and methodologies coming out of disciplines as varied as History, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion, Cultural and Gender Studies (2). In the case of undergraduates majoring in Arab studies, this unfamiliarity is most evident when dealing with gender studies theory, which is completely out of their curricula; for graduates, it is their unfamiliarity with concepts related to the discipline of Islamic studies that is most difficult to deal with, given the fact that masters and Ph.D. students often arrive at our program from a variety of disciplines (History, which is Spanish and European History, Linguistics, Literature, and Philosophy, namely Western Philosophy) (3). Students arrive with preconceived notions and ideas about the subject matter: the oppression suffered by Muslim women, the misogyny present in Islamic societies, or the huge inequality in the treatment of women as prescribed in the Quran. However, it is indeed possible to reconcile this pedagogic experience —plagued with misunderstandings — with a similar misunderstanding that occurs at the level of our subject of study (i.e. the Arab-Islamic world) when talking about feminism. In this regard, I believe that is possible for us as educators to build a framework of knowledge inside the classroom through self-critical mechanisms similar to those that operate within the area that is our object of study, namely Islamic Feminism (4).

Identity and Knowledge in a Transversal Islamic Feminist Framework
The concepts I want to focus on are identity and knowledge (5) as they exist in a transversal Islamic-feminist framework of reference. I would like to demonstrate the possibilities of an inner criticism that simultaneously operates at the individual, social, national and international levels. At the same time, we will see how this inner criticism is a tool for resistance purposes in relation to local societies as well as to the globalized world. I want to note that my analysis rests primarily on English and Arabic language materials (both printed and digital). It systematizes the meanings and terms (both in English and Arabic) that surround these concepts and the translation mechanisms between the abovementioned languages and between them and the Spanish language (6). At the same time, I explore Islamic feminism in a retrospective manner, from its present-day formulation to the uncovering of its epistemological roots. Let me now outline the general frame of my position.

Sabine Grenz has raised central questions: ‘Who actually is traveling? Are the concepts traveling or is it us who moves through different locations, periods of times, disciplines and look at the concepts from changing positions, thereby giving or discovering new meanings to/of concepts?’ (7) Feminist ideas have undergone a significant transformation in the Muslim World during the course of the Twentieth Century. Feminism was born as a movement that demanded the opening of public spaces for women within the new nation-states that were being configured in the colonial and post-colonial world. For instance, Egypt became independent in 1922; Syria, in 1941; Algeria, in 1962; Pakistan, in 1947, Indonesia in 1950, and Niger in 1958. As for Palestine, the decolonization process remains to be completed. Consequently, it is difficult to speak of a single ‘feminist’ movement, which can in fact be divided into different subdivisions across more than fifty years in different contexts.

Overall, feminism converged with the demands put forward by nationalist movements, namely: freedom, equality, and democracy. As Sara Goodman suggests in a different context , this discursive construction of national identity, built upon equality, gave a limited discursive space for conceptualizing differences and inequalities based on gender (8). Two or three generations after the achievement of national independence, and in the context of a confrontational relationship with feminist movements elsewhere in the world, political worries gave way to identity-based ones. Thus, Muslim feminists, especially Arab-Muslim feminists, focused during the 1970s on cultural differences, coupled with the rejection of the paternalistic models of Western feminism (9). They found in religion in general and in Islam in particular several aspects that served their purpose when it came to articulating the meaning of women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice. As a result, a reactive defensive discourse ensued, having as its most visible signpost the appearance of the ‘Islamic dress’ movement (El Guindi, 1999). This stage, which coincided in time with the so-called ‘Islamic revival’, got feminists working within Muslim spaces entangled in bitter debates around Muslim historiography and women (Saadawi, 1988). This debate set the frame for the emergence, during the 1990s, of Islamic feminism.

Miriam Cooke (2001) has summarised this trajectory explaining that feminist concepts in the Muslim world had to confront a triple consciousness - national, transnational, and international - articulated respectively along political, religious and gender lines. It’s not difficult to find resemblances between this paradigm, which looks for a new concept of community, and Assimina Karavanta’s when she inquires about immigrant women’s community role in post-national and post-colonial or de-colonized world.

The transformation of the Muslim feminism of the 1970s into the Islamic feminism of the 1990s rests on a transition from idealism to reformism, both at the activist and academic levels. The approach of Islamic feminists is intrinsically different from the abovementioned ‘Muslim feminism’ in that the former have produced their own epistemological system, based on their own textual analysis of sacred Islamic texts (Quran and hadith, that is the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad), which had been exclusively subject to a masculine interpretation (Wadud, 1992; Jawad, 1998; Mernissi, 1999). The novelty for the history of feminism in Muslim societies resides in the fact that this brand of scholarship does not merely reproduce feminist concepts that are transposed, in its view, from a cultural and intellectual frame of reference to another, but it is one that really questions two canons of knowledge: the Islamic on the one hand, and the Western feminist on the other.

In this process of conceptual rebuilding, identity provides a central framework of reference. For some Muslim women, the term ‘Islamic feminism’ does not carry an analytical meaning, but merely an identitarian one (El-Solh & Mabro, 1994; El Guindi, 1999). For this group of scholars, the outside marks of Islamic feminism (the Islamic garb, social and cultural interventionism, and political activism) represent some sort of social, economic, and political upheaval caused by globalization (10).

However, for the articulators of an Islamic feminist discourse, the study of an integral Islamic identity reveals how masculine hegemonies have turned women into invisible elements of Islamic history through patriarchal discursive practices (Arebi, 1994; Nashat, 1999). Among the most negative of such practices, Islamic feminists cite the abrogation of women’s rights to participate in the affairs of the community (umma), or, as argued by Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim scholar, the negation of ‘Aisha’s legacy.’ Aisha, Muhammad’s favourite wife, distinguished herself by her strong character, and after the Prophet’s death she played an active role in the political life of the umma and in its spiritual development. But Islamic historiography has excluded her model. Amina Wadud resorts to this symbol in a double sense: to establish gender as an Islamic category of thought, not just a subject for discourse; and to support the fact that gender yihad is a public duty for nowadays Muslims. This parallel exemplifies the radical emergence of an Islamic religious-based paradigm in the field of gender studies (Yamani, 1996).

A Religiously-based Paradigm for Gender Studies
In order to reestablish an Islamic order, Islamic feminists have deconstructed Muslim conceptual structures, all while leaving untouched the foundational character of the Quran and hadith as texts with a sacred value. They have reinterpreted the ontology of current readings of both sets of texts by situating them in the precise historical context in which they were produced (11), i.e. the andocentric culture and patriarchal structure that dominated Muslim societies between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D. During this time, Islamic law (Sharia) was codified, thus conditioning the creation of an Islamic juridical corpus. According to Islamic feminists, it is necessary to remove from the text the patriarchal conjunctures that conditioned their production in order to be able to extract the concept of Humanity present in the Quran. This notion is not gender specific, they argue, but rather represents the will of each individual to follow her or his path (sharia) in this world. This sort of critical thinking has resulted in the production of basic concepts of justice, identity, citizenship and activism that aim at achieving their goals in opposition to conservative forms of Islamic knowledge.

Religion has been always central for Islamic-centred feminists (Abu-Lughod, 1988; Badran, 1996) (12), but for a self-labelled ‘Islamic feminist’ there is no contradiction between being a religious Muslim and a Muslim feminist. Feminism becomes an awareness tool, a mechanism that allows for the rejection of restrictions placed upon women because of their gender, together with an effort to build a fully egalitarian gender system. They note that the configuration of gender in Islamic epistemology has been a process rooted in history (Ahmed, 1993). In their view, the Quran needs to be re-examined within a double synchronic context: the Revelation one, and the reader’s one, that is labelled ‘contextual theology’. Cultural criticism, or more precisely, cultural feminism (13), can offer new venues for proving how the Revelation champions a radical equality between man and woman (Ask & Tjomsland, 1998), an equality not even dreamed of by secular Muslim feminists. The globalization of modern information encourages and even demands this kind of synchronic approach over diachronic analysis. In this sense, it is a brand of thought that operates northwards, from outside the institutional gender knowledge to the euroamerican centred one, and from peripheral Islamic thought to its heart.

The Islamic pattern is seen and felt by these women as a necessary connection between themselves and their own societies, as well as a powerful weapon. This Islamic pattern is also seen as a reaction against dominant globalized culture, while at the same time it allows them to go beyond the national context and to operate within the more Islamic concept of umma. Going from the individual to the transnational level, Islamic feminists are thus able to overcome the pitfalls imposed by the realities of the nation state, which has been the main obstacle confronted by secular feminists in postcolonial societies (Moghadam, 1999; Al-Ali, 2000; Shaaban, 2000). Consequently, Islamic feminism can operate within countries with Muslim majorities as well as in countries with Muslim minorities, whether they be long-standing or newly established, Diasporic or mostly composed of recently converted individuals.

Despite the fact that English is the main language for expression (14), and that modern technology facilitates access to the texts and serves as a means of communication among a great number of Muslim women all around the world, Arabic remains as a necessary tool for Quranic interpretation and Hadith criticism. The meaning of these new identities is expressed trough literary creations, women-centered sites on the World Wide Web, periodicals and, more recently, works of theory. As Joan Anim-Addo and Giovanna Covi say, quoting Gloria Anzaldùa: history (social reality) and story (lyrical, mythical reality) coexist dialogically. So, texts become a site for resistance, resistance within their inner Muslim societies as well as resistance faced with our Western feminism (15). We find also a blend of Islamic science’s methodological tools and secular ones (from History, Sociology, Anthropology, Literature). This blend also contributes to an accurate interdisciplinarity and dislocation, and is of service to critical thinking and consciously engaged knowledge, which are the main tasks of teaching in my opinion.

(1) When speaking of an Islamic frame, I speak of an extra-European frame, as it is through its languages (Arabic or American English chiefly) its history, geographies and nationalities. This makes me feel something of a stranger in the Athena project, as the concepts that concern me are not primarily European ones (as van der Tuin proposes our travelling concepts to be), nor ones with a symbiotic relation with the European environment (as creolization is for Joan Amin-Addo or francophony for Josefina Bueno Alonso). By the same token, I do not mean that Islamic feminist concepts are non-European, because they were born from a dialectic relation (of history, culture, politics, language) with the European feminist epistemology, and they are more and more present in European lives. So, I’ll try to continue within the project.
(2) I think that it’s crucial that the concept of interdisciplinarity not be evacuated of meaning Following, Biljana Kasic’s ‘knowledge map’, an openness to know, constant self critical positioning and developing spiral models of creativity and research are essential to interdisciplinarity. But these are not recognised in official Spanish scholarship, nor in the alumni curricula.
(3) The alumni’s request for a more culturally inclusive curriculum and the problems that this sort of internationalization of knowledge generates is repeated in several papers, as for example Clare Hemmings and Veronica Vasterling’s. In spite of their very different perspectives on the limits of a multicultural curriculum for advancing critical thinking, I do not totally agree with their general perception of the difficulties (Hemmings), if not impossibility (Vasterling), of real critical thinking in gender studies through multicultural curricula. Through matters such as Islamic feminism we can take advantage of the students’ preconceived notions and confront them with the critical thinking that operates within the Islamic feminist tradition; and then, from here, we can try to reorganize together the existing map of critical thinking. At least, this has been my methodological starting point, and now I’m working in this way with the concept of ‘gender’ as Enikő Demény suggests.
(4) Liana Borghi expresses a similar concern about her two teaching/learning contexts.
(5) In my initial paper, I had proposed identity and equality as key concepts for my research. But I have reconsidered the possibility of integrating equality into identity after reading Korvajärvi’s reflections. This allows me to study an other concept that is fundamental for Islamic feminism, as it is namely knowledge (interdisciplinarity, translation, and global/local).
(6) As Giovanna Covi maintains, translators must look for the meanings of words in each context and be prepared to create new words to express such complexity in order to neither silence any witch nor facilitate the witch-hunters’ return.
(7) These questions worry several of us in the group: see Joan Anim-Addo’s, Sara Goodman’s and Melita Richter’s papers.
(8) See the Swedish case in Sara Goodman’s paper, ’A reflection on resistance to developing understandings of ethnicity and racism in Women’s Studies –developing theory in Swedish Women’s Studies/Gender/Feminist Studies’.
(9) Still today, many Arab intellectuals consider feminism and gender studies to be a Western import and an academic fashion, as Eniko Demény indicates also occurs in Romania.
(10) It would be a new form of hybridisation but in a negative way, this is, complementary to the positive (my emphases) hybridisation (dislocation) that Josefina Bueno notes for the francophone literature. In either case, one who studies Arabic and Islamic culture doesn’t stop asking, as Anim-Addo puts it: ‘Whose ideas become global and by what process?’
(11) I would like to notice here Liana Borghi’s assessment in a previous draft of her paper: ‘Culture, as we know, is/are being produced “through topographies of power/time/space” (Ferlito)’, and to emphasize how Islamic culture has usually seen itself out of power/time/space. So, Islamic feminism is also radically new, and modern, in this other sense.
(12) Mónica Moreno (in a previous draft for Athena’s travelling concepts, no longer here) points out that Catholicism and the national question in the Spanish state are determinant actors for the history of feminism in Spain. They are guidelines that enable us to liken the Spanish case to the Arab one, with Islam, nationalism and pan Arabism as the main actors.
(13) Through the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony, Silvia Caporale Bizzini insists on the necessity of emphasizing the meaning of the historical process in the formation of identity.
(14) How this lingua franca (Vasterling dicit) conditions the frame is part of the travel of the concepts, but I don’t believe that undermines their authenticity.
(15) Anim-Addo’s paper has reminded me of one of my first concerns, as has Grenz’s ‘obsession’ with marginalised voices and whether one can speak for anybody else at all, that is, to give voice to Islamic authors, and not to nourish the tradition of white women speaking for Arab/Muslim women.

Abu-Lughod, L. (Ed.) (1988). Remaking Women. Feminism and Modernity in the Arab World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Al-Ali, N. (2000). Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: the Egyptian Women’s Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arebi, S. (1994). Women & Words in Saudi Arabia: The Politics of Literary Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ask, K., and Tjomsland, M. (Eds.) (1998). Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on Gender Relations. Oxford-New York: Berg.
Badran, M. (1996). Feminists, Islam and Nation (Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt). Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Cooke, M. (2001). Women Claim Islam. Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature. London: Routledge.
El Guindi, F. (1999). Veil. In Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. Oxford-New York: Berg.
El-Solh, C. F. and Mabro, J. (Eds.) (1994). Muslim Women’s Choices: Religious Belief and Social Reality. Oxford-New York: Berg.
Jawad, H. A. (1998). The Rights of Women in Islam: an Authentic Approach. Londres: Macmillan.
Mernissi, F. (1999). El Harén Político: El Profeta y las Mujeres. Guadarrama: Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo.
Moghadan, V. M. (1994). Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies. Londres: Zed.
Nashat, G. (1999). Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Shaaban, B. (2000). al-Mar’a al-arabiyya fi-l-qarn al-`ishrin. Damascus: al-Mada.
Saadawi, N. (1990). Dirasat `an al-mar’a wa-l-rajul fi-l-mujtama` al-`arabi. Beirut: Al Mu’assasa al-`Arabiya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr.
Wadud, A. (1992). Qur’an and Woman. Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti Publications.
Yamani, M. (Ed.) (1996). Feminism and Islam (Legal and Literary Perspectives). London: Ithaca.