By *Arzu Merali
Abstract: This paper contends that there has been a definitive and negative change in the trajectory of so-called Islamic feminism. This change has been effected in large part in the West, as part of the growing discourse of Euro-Islam, European Islam, indigenization of Islam, etc., a discourse that comes not from governments (though it is mirrored, applauded and rewarded by governments in the region) but from Muslim civil society, activists and intellectuals.
Keywords: Islamic Feminism, Particularism, Women’s Liberation, Muslim Women.
The characteristics of this change include: the move from expressing a universal but co-operative form of ‘feminism’ to a particularist one; the unusual aspect of that particularism as an expression of mutedness as opposed to empowerment, as a form of enclosure and ringfencing rather than an expression of solidarity or an attempt to work / speak / understand co-operatively; a positioning of this ‘feminism’ within an enlightenment rather than a critical and / or decolonial normative framework; an implicit rejection of liberation in favor of assimilation; expression as a peculiar interaction between Islam and the West; an aspiration for inclusion into an unsophisticated and idealized notion of the West and a perceived teleology of progress; a distinct lack of solidarity with other oppressed groups, whether gendered or ethnic or religious or class based; co-option and complicity with neo-colonial projects and policies.
The paper concludes with a re-evaluation of the Islamic feminist project in certain forms as one which has been hijacked and used to undermine the goal of women’s liberation per se and Muslim women in particular by denying Muslim women and by implication all women of color or those who express themselves in political opposition to Western norms and / or domestic and foreign policies, the right to define their own terms for liberation.
The trend for the indigenization of Islam to national and regional cultures is not new. Whilst cultural expressions of Islam have developed all across the world since the divine revelation marked out the period of the Prophetic era of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing of Allah be upon him and his progeny), a common feature of these trends (both territorial and non-territorial) was the adherence to certain transnational tenets e.g. the concept of ummah (referring to the global community of Muslims as a single community of conscience (as opposed to an ethnos)) encompasses a sense of the unity and mutual co-responsibility of the world-wide Muslim community. Another commonly held and often politicized value was that of helping the oppressed. Qur’anic injunction deemed this so important as to be commanded, and to be commanded in support of anyone and against anyone so long as the criteria of oppressed and oppressor applies (Qur’an 4:75 And what reason have you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, (of) those who say: Our Lord! cause us to go forth from this town, whose people are oppressors, and give us from Thee a guardian and give us from Thee a helper. (translation, Shakir))
Transcending all forms of tribalism and subsequently nationalism, these and other distinct features of Islam have occurred and reoccurred, either as a corrective to deviance amongst culturalized forms of adherence, as a form of political or social mobilization either by Muslim governance or as a corrective against un-Islamic governance by Muslim populations (Sayyid, 1997). This introduction does not seek to sanitize Muslim history; however, it is set out here to mark out a perceived distinction between other forms of indigenization of religion in the Muslim world (largely but not solely in the pre-colonial period) and the current state of the Muslim world based on a post-World War II trajectory of normative political discourse. This distinction gives meaning to the author’s contention that a new wave of indigenization movements, namely those in Europe and North America and the effects of their outreach to the South, has meant the destruction or loss of radical Islamic feminism(s).
This paper sets out how, irrespective of stance on the current usage of the term, the idea of women’s empowerment and liberation through Islam, often referred to as Islamic feminism, has been a cornerstone of Islamic revival in the twentieth century, and part and parcel of Islamic liberation movements. This political revival has been a serious challenge to neo-colonial projects masquerading as independence projects post-supposed decolonization. The alternatives offered by these movements included different variations of discourses on women’s empowerment and gender liberation, but all were transformative and involved adherence to and interpretation of sacred text, based on the belief that in the case of the Qur’an, these were Divine Revelation from the ultimate Justice, or in the case of hadith (the (collected) sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him))and seerah (the study of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)) words and examples of the exemplar and final messenger of the faith.