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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

ĎIslamic feminism means justice to womení 

Tahir Mahood
Prof Margot Badran is a historian and senior fellow at Centre for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University (USA). She specializes in "Islamic feminism" and has authored many essays and books interpreting Islam on feminist perspectives. "Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt" and "Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing" (co-edited) are her important books. She has been a columnist for Al-Ahram weekly. Recently she toured in India, delivering lectures on "Islamic Feminism" at different places including Aligarh, New Delhi, Chennai and Calicut. Mohammed Noushad spoke to her at Calicut where she spoke on the topic amidst anti-American protest from some Muslim organizations. Excerpts:

How did you come across "Islamic feminism"?
Iím a historian. I did my PhD on the rise of feminist thinking in Egypt in late 19th century. I came to Egypt in early 1960s and got married in 1969 to an Egyptian Muslim. Iíve studied Arabic and after marriage we started moving around to different countries as part of international academic community. I happened to discover at the end of 1980s that men and women of the Middle East are making more statements about equality and justice to women based on religious texts. It was a new kind of discourse being evolved. I was in Egypt and decided to study Egyptian feminism. Egypt was undergoing the process of modernization in late 19th century and the question faced by Muslims was how can one be a Muslim and modern simultaneously. This question was answered by Mohammed Abdu in a balanced way. He talked about the sprit of Islam, how it encouraged the pursuit of knowledge, enquiry and scholarship for all believers. Islam encouraged education for all believers. But in some societies, Muslim men did this but the women were kept home. In Egypt, with different circumstances, the idea was to get the (British) colonizers out and empower all women. I was interested in this discourse, both as a woman and a historian.
 
In the post-colonial discourses, one can argue that the discourse on "Islamic feminism" is the result of an Orientalist approach to the so-called problems of women in Muslim societies in comparison with that of western women whereas the two sets of circumstances are entirely different.
It is a brilliant observation. But there is difference between Islamic feminism and Orientalist approach. Islamic feminism goes back to the text. Itís Muslims talking to Muslims. Orientalists are people from the west and they talk back to the west. Islamic feminists are looking into the basic texts of Islam in context of real life situations for concrete ideas. Islamic feminists are using Islamic categories like the notion of ijtihad. The tools can be different like linguistic methodology or historiosizing. But the frame should be within Islam, not foreign. You donít have to be confused with the term. The project is not alien, itís Islamic. Youíve to work within the premises of Islam, only the descriptive term seems weird. 

Whether the theory and practice of "Islamic feminism", as an ideology, is more close to Islam or feminism?
No, you canít put it like that. Islamic feminism is speaking for justice to women as Islam stands for. Itís a tool to remind people what Islam is for women. Itís not more Islam or more feminism. The term Islamic feminism is an idea of awareness preaching that men and women have equal rights based on re-reading the Quran, re-examining the religious texts and telling people to practice it. Some people, who do this for the sake of women, donít call themselves Islamic feminists. They wonít say it Islamic feminism. Some have stereotypical notions about feminism, so they donít use. Some others believe that we need a term to develop a discourse and fight the cause, so they use. Itís a rethinking process anyway. I agree that thereís difficulty in the term. At one point I also stopped using the term and started to use Ďgender activismí. You donít have to term it Islamic feminism always, because people get scared. I use it now because Muslims themselves are using and people understand. Whatís important is the discourse, not the term. Weíve to tell them, religion is not a problem, but it is the solution. The problem is with the way it is misinterpreted. 

What is the methodology of "Islamic feminist" interpretations?
Different techniques are being used. Towheed is the central principle of Islam; it says none should be equaled to the God. But some men say you should obey me and should not obey this and that. This is against towheed. Islamic feminism wants to go back to Quran, not to the jurisprudence created by different people. According to Islam, only the Quran is divine, Shariah is not divine. Here, you go back to history, understand it and come back to the present. There are linguistic analysis and contextual analysis. For doing ijtihad, you have to understand Quranic Arabic, modern Arabic and the context of revelation. 

What is the space of Sunnah or prophetic traditions in the methodology?
Islamic feminism understands many hadiths are taken out of context; some hadiths are weak and shaky. So people and scholars are re-reading and re-analysing them. They are called women-hating hadiths by Islamic feminists.

There are many verses in Quran which directly address men or prefer men to women. How do you understand this?
Islam came in a patriarchal society. It gave clear and explicit rights to women; it addressed men particularly because men were leaders of the society. They were very powerful in a tribe-like situation. Men were committing many injustices against women like keeping hundreds of wives and female infanticide. 

Are there any male Muslim scholars who candidly support Islamic feminist notions?
There are some scholars who are very friendly to women in their interpretations. Yusuf-al-Qardawi and late Muhammed-al-Ghazzali are examples. They are liberal scholars. But regarding the emancipation of women, they donít have a holistic project as Islamic feminists have. They may be helpful to a particular kind of Islamic movement. But Islamic feminism wants to implement its notions in everyday life. That way, these scholars have not been helpful. Islamic feminism connects theory and practice as these scholars only theorise. 

Is there any conflict between Islamic feminism and radical or socialist feminisms?
No. Feminism is an idea where women stand for dignity, honour and equality as women despite their ethnic or national or other differences. Feminists from other religions and non-religions have started to pick up on Islamic feminism and rather Islam itself. These days in the US, many women are converting to Islam. I am not speaking about theorists whose job is only to theorise for radical or socialist feminist thinking. But those who struggle for women are picking up the Islamic feminism. 

What about the injustices meted out to Christian women and Jewish women?

Yes, they suffer many. That was why we have fascinating feminist movements. Thatís why we have liberation theology. 

Do you think the solutions of "Islamic feminism" are applicable to non-Islamic societies also, like European or Indian? In India, we have problems like sati. 
No, because Islam is very sophisticated. But at certain level, notions offered by Islamic feminism can be applicable to other societies too. Islamic feminism is like Christian feminist theology. It has to criticize the community first. Like feminisms in other contexts, Islamic feminism is also for implementing justice and hence good for all. In the first phase, it is internal critique and internal improvement and then youíll have the spill over effect. 

One of the oft-repeated criticisms of Muslim women life is related to her dress code. Your comment?
There are different opinions about covering head even among Muslim scholars. Islamic feminists also share different points of view. Most of the ulema say it is necessary. Personally, I say what other Muslims say. Anyway, there should not be compulsion to wear hijab. I feel there should be priority of issues to deal with as there are problems of nafaqa, wife beating etc.
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