“Many people do not know that there is such a thing as Muslim feminists. My general impression is that there is very little awareness of it.”
These are the words of Marianne Hafnor Bøe, associate professor of religious studies at Department of Cultural Studies and Languages at University of Stavanger and author of the recently published book Feminisme i islam (‘Feminism in Islam’). The book is an introduction to the topic, a textbook for both students and other interested readers.
Admittedly, it is not easy to use the term ‘feminism’ in this context. In her book, Bøe writes that many Muslims who work for gender equality and for women’s rights are hesitant about calling themselves feminists.
“This is not something that only applies to Muslims, however. The problem with the label ‘feminism’ is much bigger than that,” she says.
“But precisely when it comes to people with Muslim background, they often associate feminism with something Western and anti-Muslim, something that is not compatible with religion.”
Many are therefore careful in their use of the term, since it may not necessarily benefit them in their struggle.
“To many of them it is important to have the legitimacy to discuss and interpret Islam. In order not to lose this legitimacy, it may be more beneficial to describe themselves as activists or something else that is met with more approval,” she says.
“Then you have a Qur’an interpreter such as the Pakistani Asma Barlas, who maintains that the term ‘feminism’ has been so closely connected to imperialism and Western colonisation of the Middle East that it becomes difficult to use in a Muslim context.”
In her book, Bøe has nevertheless chosen to use the term ‘feminism’ about the work to promote gender equality within Islam, regardless of whether the activists identify themselves as feminists or not.
She refers to their interpretations and their debates as feminist, not the individuals as such.
“Will display the diversity”
“It is important for me to emphasise that discussions about women’s rights and gender equality in Islam are not just something that preoccupies politicians and public debaters,” she says.
“There is an ongoing debate among Muslims, which has been going on for quite some time. I want to display the diversity of opinions that we find within Islam and show that discussion and critique also takes place within this religion.”
Bøe traces feminist interpretations of Islam back to the beginning of the 1900s in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. But in the 1990s, Islamic feminism experienced new fervour. American Amina Wadud published her feminist interpretation of the Qur’an, Qur’an and Woman, in 1992.
“This book inspired many people, and it has become a Muslim feminist manifesto,” says Bøe.
General we may say that the textual approach has been more common among Muslim feminists in Western countries.
“At the same time, representatives from the feminist movement in Iran began to make use of religious arguments and to read the Qur’an in a new way. This sparked off a new debate that inspired Muslim feminism other places as well.”
Amina Wadud represents what Bøe refers to as the academic and text oriented Islamic feminism, as opposed to the other main approach, which is more activist.
The text oriented approach discusses women’s position based on readings and interpretations of the Qur’an and the extensive hadith literature. Hadith refers to stories about the prophet Muhammad, about his acts and sayings.
The activist approach directs its attention to gender discriminating and misogynistic practices, both within the legal system and in traditions, which are justified by referring to religion.
The Muslim feminists argue that this connection to Islam does not necessarily exist. The activists are also preoccupied with the interpretation of the Qur’an, but they see everything in a larger context of legislation, customs and international conventions.
According to Bøe, the distinction between these two approaches is essential in order to understand feminism in Islam.
“The geographic demarcations are not clear here, but in general we may say that the textual approach has been more common among Muslim feminists in Western countries,” she says.
“These feminists also argue that women may be imams, for instance. That discussion is not as prevalent in countries with a Muslim majority.”
Finds support in the Qur’an
According to several of the Muslim feminists, Islam was originally a religion that supported women’s rights. Some even claim that Muhammad was a feminist.
Bøe writes that these feminists often refer to textual evidence in the Qur’an where women are defined as financial legal subjects, and where women are legally entitled to rights of ownership, rights of inheritance and divorce rights.
They maintain that the many practices that are discriminating towards women are justified by referring to Islam, but in reality, religion has been interpreted in light of traditions and customs that have subdued the religious message.
A feminist such as the Egyptian-American historian Leila Ahmed points out that there is an embedded ambiguity in Islam: There is one hierarchical and male-centred side connected to law and politics, which dominates among the learned and the authorities.
At the same time, there is an ethical and egalitarian dimension that we see in regular Muslims’ everyday life. This is the background for why many Muslims argue that Islam is not discriminating towards women and instead emphasise justice and equality among its people.
“In my opinion, all religions may be used in order to justify both equality and oppression – this is nothing unique for Islam. But my impression is that the multiplicity of interpretations within Islam is little known. Even in the scholarly literature, I would say that Muslims are often described as very attached to their religion and with little flexibility. But this does not really correspond with reality,” says Bøe.
“One common argument among feminist Muslims is that authorities that approve of discrimination and oppression are not in line with their view of Islam. We thus find a clear criticism of religion and authority on the one side, but there is also a criticism of the term ‘feminism’ here.”
Fight for civil rights
When many public debaters, also in Norway, argue that Islam is incompatible with gender equality, it is often based on certain passages from the Qur’an. In her book, Bøe addresses various interpretations of some of these passages.
One example is verse 4:34. In the Norwegian translation of the Qur’an, this verse says that men are women’s custodians, and it admonishes men to punish disobedient women*. This verse is used to justify a number of practices that are oppressive of women. But the verse is much debated, and Bøe demonstrates how it has become subject to various feminist interpretations.
Some argue that ‘custodian’ just means that men are women’s financial custodians, and that the verse therefore only applies to certain types of families under specific circumstances. Others maintain that ‘custodian’ is not the only possible translation of the Arabic term ‘qawwamun’. For instance, the word can also mean ‘guardian’ or ‘responsible’. Based on this, they claim that the verse concerns guidance and care as equal acts of friendship rather than dominance.
Organised feminist movements were established in the Middle East in the early 1900s, at about the same time as in Norway.
Such feminist interpretations are used as a foundation for campaigns against practices that are discriminating towards women and for extended women’s rights.
“In Iran for instance, which is the country I know best, the right to travel without permission from their husband has been a central issue for women for a long time. According to Iranian law, women need permission from either their father, husband or brother to do a whole number of things. The Muslim feminists want to challenge this guardianship.”
The struggle for basic civil rights for women has not been easy, but according to Bøe, there is no doubt that the situation for women would have been much worse than it is today without this struggle.
“Just a few weeks ago, the government in Iran decided that women who are Iranian citizens are now permitted to extend their own citizenship to their children. This used to be a right that only applied to men. Therefore, children with a father from another country were deprived of benefits such as schooling and health services. But that has changed now.”
Feminism not only a Western phenomenon
Her book has already received a lot of attention, which shows that many people are interested in knowing more about feminism in Islam. When it comes to Norwegian Muslims, Bøe encounters both those who identify with the feminist interpretations of Islam and those who maintain that feminism is unnecessary since Islam already provides women with all the rights they need.
“But younger Norwegian Muslims in particular often say that ‘yes, this is how I understand my religion’ although they do not find it necessary to refer to themselves as feminists,” says Bøe.
She refers to research that indicates that young Norwegian Muslims are engaged in understanding gender equality values as something that is in line with Islam. And this applies to both women and men.
“I think that this way of interpreting Islam has always been there, but it is only now that it is emphasised in a more strategic way.”
Bøe hopes that her book may contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the term ‘feminism’.
“I think that the history of feminism is often presented through an American or European lens. This book may help to demonstrate that feminism is not just a Western, secular phenomenon. Organised feminist movements were established in the Middle East in the early 1900s, at about the same time as in Norway,” she says.
Bøe also stresses the fact that presentations of Norwegian feminism largely fail to address religious voices such as the feminist movements that originated in missionary organisations.
“There is this idea that you cannot be a proper feminist until you dispose of religion. But there are other ways of being a feminist. We can disagree about what is right, but this is part of the complexity,” she says.
Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro.
*Kilden note that this is the translation of the article that was originally published in Norwegian. We are aware that the English translation of the Qur'an surah 4:34 varies.
The book addresses the diversity of feminist interpretations of Islam, and demonstrates the span and the contrasts in the debate on gender in Islam.