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The term "Islamic feminism" began to be heard in the 1990s in various global locations. In this new conjuncture, women from within Islam and Islamist movements in far-flung places around the world--from Malaysia, to Morocco, to Iran, and to the United States--began to articulate a holistic, gender-sensitive construction of citizenship within the framework of an Islamic modernity. Confronted with social practices imposed in the name of Islam that many found difficult to accept, they sought answers through their own investigation of the Islamic religion on issues of gender, equality, and social justice. Margot Badran, a feminist scholar and historian of the feminist movement in Egypt, was among the first secular observers to label this new discourse and practice "Islamic feminism" and to claim that it amounted to a new form of radical feminism within the Muslim world.
In this collection of essays, written over a period of twenty years, Margot Badran makes several important points. First, she reminds us that feminism has a long history in the Middle East. The foundational moment of Arab feminism may be traced to late nineteenth century's Egypt. Feminist discourse first emerged in the writings of women of privilege and education who lived in the secluded world of the urban harem. Gaining new exposure through expanded education and widening contacts within women's world, they began to contest the Islamic justification for their seclusion, hijab (then meaning the veiling of both face and body), and related controls over their lives.
Early in the twentieth century, women's feminist writing became more visible and reached a wider mainstream audience, blending themes from secular nationalism, Islamic reform and humanitarian discourse. The feminism that Muslim women, together with their compatriots of other religions, created at the turn of the century was called "secular feminism" to connote a feminism that, like the secular nation, was organized around a nationalist ideology of equality of all citizen, irrespective of religion, race, and gender.
The second point to bear in mind is that Middle Eastern feminism was a homegrown movement, not a foreign import. Women's nascent feminist consciousness and evolving feminist discourse emerged directly out of their own experience. They were, in Badran's terms, "the mothers of (their own) feminism". Or to put it differently, "the West is not the patrimonial house of feminism, from which all feminisms derive and against which they must be measured." Feminism in Egypt and other places was not borrowed, derivative, or "second hand".
To be sure, the pioneers of the feminist movement who first declared themselves feminists (through the name of their new organization, l'Union féministe égyptienne, when they established it in 1923) announced this in French, which was the everyday language of the upper class at that time. Partly for this reason, feminism in Egypt came to be considered, especially by its detractors, as foreign. But the nationalism of Egyptian men who also spoke French and wore Western dress was not denigrated in the same way. And modern feminists in the Middle East, especially those of the Islamic brand, "talk back" to feminists in the West, even generating a critique of Western "feminist imperialism".
Third, Margot Badran shows that feminism and Islam have not always been antagonistic, and have often advanced hand in hand. Indeed, during the period of first-wave feminism in Egypt and until the 1950s, there were cordial relations between feminists and Islamist women, who shared many goals. The Muslim Sisters, the twin organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, finds its origin in the Egyptian feminist movement. More broadly, Muslim women in Egypt located their feminism firmly within the parameters of their Islamic religion.
They drew their inspiration from the Islamic modernism expounded towards the end of the nineteenth century by Shaikh Muhammad 'Abduh, a distinguished teacher and scholar from al-Azhar, who proposed that believers could go straight to the sources of religion, principally the Qur'an and the Hadith, for guidance in the conduct of everyday life. Through ijtihad (independent inquiry into the sources of religion) and tafsir (interpretation of the Qur'an), 'Abduh demonstrated that one could be both Muslim and modern, and that many traditional practices in Muslim societies violated the principles of Islam. In dealing with gender issues, 'Abduh confronted the problem of patriarchal excesses committed in the name if Islam. He especially decried male abuse of the institutions of divorce and polygamy.
However, 'Abduh's successors did not expand or perpetuate his Islamic modernist discourse on women, while soon the new secular intellectuals turned to nationalist and humanist discourse to argue for women's rights and advancement. Fundamentalist women came to call Egyptian feminism "secular", implying that it was outside the bounds of Islam. Even now the scholars and activists who engage in rereading of the Qur'an to articulate a new feminism in an Islamic voice shy away from the word "feminism". For the most part, they don't see themselves as Islamic feminists, but simply as committed, thinking Muslims who are trying to give voice to another reading of Islam.
Fourth, Badran suggests that the new radical feminism in Muslim societies--and this includes diaspora societies--as we begin the twenty-first century will be "Islamic feminism". Ijtihad, the exercise of rational thinking and investigation of religious sources, is the basic methodology of Islamic feminism. In reexamining the Qur'an, along with Hadith, Islamic feminists, answering back to those who alleged otherwise, are making cogent arguments that Islam does not condone wanton violence against women. They underscore that violence against women is indeed anti-Islamic.
For Badran, Islamic feminism insists on full equality of women and men across the public-private spectrum, going further than secular feminists who historically have accepted the notion of complementarity, as opposed to full equality, in the private and the family sphere. Indeed, Islamic feminism rejects the notion of a public-private dichotomy. It conceptualizes a holistic Umma (Muslim community) in which Qur'anic ideals of gender equality and social justice are operative on all planes.
This is where Margot Badran's scholarship turns into militancy, which undermines her cause. It is one thing to affirm, with Iranian Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, that "the discriminatory plight of women in Islamic societies, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam." But it is another thing, as Badran writes in her last chapter, to label Islam "the only religion that appeared with a message of gender equality embedded in its scripture."
As a matter of detail, I am also not convinced when the author writes that "globally, English is the major language in which Islamic feminist discourse is articulated and circulated." Leaving Arabic aside, Badran may be more read and discussed in the French-speaking world, along with Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, another pioneer on the issue of Islamic feminism. But leaving militancy and approximations aside, this book provides a useful introduction to the diversity and vibrancy of feminisms in Islam.