Islam and Feminism in a Global World

As discussed in my post yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI brought the tensions between Muslims and Catholics into the open and discussed them with religious leaders at a conference this month. The conference was held to address the open letter from Muslim leaders who were offended by a speech the Pope made in 2006. They demanded a dialogue to dispel the stereotype that Islam is inherently irrational and Muslims are prone to violence.

While the conference failed to make progress on the practical implications of religion and politics, like addressing poverty, leaders agreed that freedom of religion and condemnation of terrorism were shared values between Christian and Islamic traditions. The conference’s shortcomings put questions in the Pope’s mind about the ability of religious leaders to make any final recommendations. He instead charged the larger public with intercultural repercussions of their decision.

Margot Badran, a fellow with the Alwaleed ibn Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, wrote that

Islamic feminism has much to contribute to furthering the promotion of shared values and especially to assure that these shared values are egalitarian values and not patriarchal ideas.

The Islamic feminist movement has great significance in cross-cultural discussions around issues like restoring women’s rights and gender equality. Since it rejects the division between secular and religious, East and West, it may also contribute a model for similar groups to develop shared common values and create a global community through dialogue. Whether or not this happens, Islamic feminists* have actually been able to bridge intercultural differences that religious leaders like Pope Benedict XVI struggled to even articulate in the first place.

Defining Women’s Rights in Islam

Islamic feminists lead a growing movement in cross-cultural dialogue on religion. They think it’s time for the global community to decide if interfaith dialogue can ease tensions between cultures rather than leaving it to traditional leaders in power. In October 2008, Muslim women met for the International Congress on Islamic feminism to advocate freedom of religion and gender equality worldwide. The BBC published statements from feminists who attended the event. Rafiah al-Talei, a journalist from Oman, writes:

Sharia is fair, but it is the wrong interpretations that are the problem. Male judges often don’t understand the principal goals of sharia. We feel the law is fair, but ends up being unfair for women because of how judges interpret it.

Cultural and social factors often get mixed up with religion. Educated women can be more empowered and separate the two, but many don’t dare challenge the conventions.

In creating a community of diverse Muslim voices, feminists question the dominant interpretation of Islam and push for a more authentic understanding of what religion and sacred texts mean. The movement breaks down into two general approaches, each with the same end in mind. First, women who were part of immigration to the West speak about their experiences between the cultures of their parents and the one in which they grew up. As second generation immigrants, these women negotiate a shared ground between the traditional values and the secular ones in the West.

Second, women in Muslim countries generally pursue an individual interpretation of the Quran rather than unquestioningly accepting the one passed down to them by patriarchs and tolerated by the majority of believers. Traditionally, this interpretation is justified by the Hadiths, or teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, written after his death. Islamic feminists question the validity of the mainstream interpretation of the hadiths and its contradictions with the message of gender equality in several Quranic passages. In the search for the truest meaning of this message, they go first to the source, translate the Quran themselves, and use their own experience as women to interpret what it means.

Reza Aslan writes about interpreting the Quran and the difficulty of translation in “How to Read the Quran” (Slate Magazine). Translating the holy book is made more difficult by the fact that it was originally written in Arabic, a fluid and poetic language where words can have multiple meanings. For this reason, it is generally not permissible to translate the Quran’s message into other languages. Islamic feminists have had a momentous role in translating the Quran to other languages.

The cultural taboo and religious tradition against translation became an issue for women and the majority of practicing Muslims, including non-Arabic speakers, because they had to rely on male clergy to interpret the book’s meaning and message for them. Discerning between conflicting interpretations in religious disputes is challenging for Muslim leaders, but it became even more difficult for individuals since, as Aslan writes:

Arabic is a language whose words can have multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings, so how one chooses to render a particular word from Arabic to English has a lot to do with one’s biases or prejudice.

Since scripture is sacred, the authority to use its words carries power. As Aslan points out, “The words of the Quran are thought to be infused with divine power.” They are written in calligraphy as one of the highest art forms, recited as a musical gift, and inscribed on objects for all kinds of sacred reasons. Islamic feminists have extended the interpretation of the sacredness of words from a privilege of a few readers to a right of all followers. In trusting their own experience to interpret and translate the Quran rather than depending on traditional teachings, Islamic feminists invigorate the traditional message and restore the balance of power between the sexes.

Pope Benedict’s offensive remarks against Muslims and the translation taboo in Islam are two prime examples of the connection between language and power. Between different cultures, language is a barrier but it is also a potential tool for building common ground. Freedom of expression can help people relate to one another in new ways and explore their differences. The power of words is the basis of interfaith dialogues, diplomacy, and any other cross-cultural conversations aimed at approaching conflict without relying on force to end disputes.

For this reason, Islamic feminism may be a key movement in modeling the type of successful intercultural collaboration that religious leaders lack. It could also draw attention away from negative attitudes and radical opinions about religion in general. A global community engaged in interfaith dialogue and intercultural collaboration would be invaluable alternatives to the unyielding ideological warfare of modern times.

For more on this issue, see this related entry on Inside Islam: Pope Hosts Interfaith Conference With Muslim Leaders.

*End note:

Margot Badran, Senior fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, writes a comprehensive definition of the term “Islamic feminism”. She clarifies that the use label of Islamic feminist is a type of identity. There are other Muslim women, secular or religious, who also do similar work to advance human rights, social justice, and an authentic reading of the Quran without identifying with the label. Badran says:

The producers and articulaters, or users, of Islamic feminist discourse include those who may or may not accept the Islamic feminist label or identity. They also include so-called religious Muslims (by which is typically meant the religiously observant), so-called secular Muslims (whose ways of being Muslim may be less publicly evident), and non- Muslims. Many Muslims use the adjectives religious and secular to label themselves or each other; other Muslims feel uneasy with these terms. It is important to historicise or contextualise the use of these terms as they do mean different things in different times and places. Also, it needs to be stressed that the terms religious and secular are not hermetically sealed terms; there are, and always have been, imbrications between the two.

Islamic feminism: what’s in a name?” by Margot Badran (Al-Ahram) Islamic feminism is on the whole more radical than Muslims’ secular feminisms, argues Margot Badran.

Comments are closed.