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FEMINISM. This article examines the feminism, or more precisely feminisms, Muslim women have created as independent agents to redefine their own lives as women, countering patriarchal hegemony and striving for more egalitarian gender arrangements in families, communities, and nations in the modern era. In the second half of the nineteenth century some Muslim women began to articulate an awareness of the unequal construction of gender and the domination of males over females. Elaborations of this understanding and the innovative forms of activism to which it gave rise constitute Muslim women’s feminism. Women of the middle and upper classes have produced diverse feminist discourses and movements in varying communities at different historical moments. A broad definition of Muslim women’s feminism includes women’s awareness of constraints placed upon them because of gender, women’s rejection of these disabilities, and their efforts to construct a more equitable gender system involving new or improved roles for women and more optimal relations between the sexes. Muslim feminists have insisted on the equality of women and men as citizens in the public sphere and have accepted complementarity of roles in the family sphere. Muslim women’s feminisms have been articulated in the discourses of their national, secular, and religious cultures. Forms of feminist thinking have emerged in Muslim societies undergoing modernization, urban expansion, modern state formation, colonization and imperialization, national independence movements, wars and aggression, and democratization. Highly visible, independent organized feminist movements have surfaced in some countries only after national independence or the consolidation of modern nation-states permitting free expression. Muslim women have sometimes been able to sustain camouflaged forms of feminist activism under repressive regimes and hostile societal environments.

Feminist discourses whose central concern is women engage or intersect with other discourses concerned with the nation, Islam, or democracy. Muslim women’s feminisms have contested various patriarchal systems, redeploying the language of the very orders they aim to unsettle. Thus during nationalist movements or at moments of liberal nation-building, some feminists tried to reconfigure patriarchal nationalist ideology into a more gender-egalitarian nationalist ideology. Feminisms in Muslim societies, whether articulated in liberal nationalist terms or socialist terms, have affirmed Islam.

Male-controlled, patriarchal Islamic fundamentalist movements have not accorded ideological or activist space for women’s feminism. Some Muslim feminists using ijtihad (individual inquiry into scriptures), however, have articulated an egalitarian Islam.

There have been three major modes of feminist expression. The first is individual writings such as poems, short stories, novels, autobiography, journalistic articles, essays, and scholarly works which express forms of gender consciousness, disseminate feminist ideas, generate debate, and consolidate women’s networks. The second is “everyday activism,” which includes individual innovations in daily life, creating social service associations, and pathbreaking in education, and pioneering in the modern professions. The third is organized movement activism, which is highly visible and more directly confrontational. Some Muslim women have been guided by their feminist ideas in their daily lives but have eschewed organized political activism and public identity as feminists. Others have found it crucial to declare a public feminist identity and to engage in movement feminism. Some women have combined feminist writing with forms of activism, while others have preferred to focus more exclusively on contributing to the development of feminist theory and analysis or spreading feminist awareness through literary works.

Early individual expressions of Muslim feminist consciousness and thought from the late nineteenth to midtwentieth centuries confronted middle- and upper-class women’s domestic seclusion and veiling, articulated calls for female literacy and education, and sought to absolve Islam from women’s oppression. `A’ishah Taymuriyah, an Egyptian poet and writer, and Zaynab Fawwaz, a Lebanese essayist, broke through their domestic isolation by communicating with other secluded women. The Indian Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain attacked the system of female domestic cloistering in a tale inverting gender seclusion; her countrywomen Nazar Sajjad Haydar, through short stories, novels, and articles, also confronted women’s confinement. Several women produced memoirs of their lives during this period, recording the unfolding of gender consciousness and what were then bold innovations serving as inspiration to other women; they include Raden Adjeng Kartini of Java, Emilie Ruete of Zanzibar, Taj al-Saltanah of Iran, and Huda Sha’rawi and Nabawiyah Musa of Egypt. Fatme Aliye of Turkey and the Egyptian Malak Hifni Nasif, known as Bahithat al-Badiyah, published feminist essays advocating new forms of education and work for women.

In the second half of the twentieth century, when upper- and middle-class women had gained fuller access to public life and integration into society, feminists wrote about gender roles and relations in both the family and society, about sexual abuse and exploitation, misogyny and patriarchy, and women’s combined gender and class oppression linked with imperialist oppression. The Egyptian physician and socialist feminist Nawal alSa’dawi has written essays and articles on social, economic, sexual, and psychological issues, and as a novelist has reached out to wide audiences, treating issues in the context of everyday life. The Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi has published sociological and historical works, and with the Pakistani Riffat Hassan has produced works of religious interpretation. The Algerian Assia Djebar, in novels and essays, has exposed women’s oppression and the obstruction of feminism under patriarchal nationalism. Women have continued to convey complex feelings about body and soul through poetry, exemplified by the works of Furugh Farrukhzad of Iran, Huda Na’mani of Lebanon, and Fawziyah Abu Khalid of Saudi Arabia; the Lebanese authors Ghadah Samman and Hanan al-Shaykh have explored sexual and social issues in short stories and novels. Continuing to record personal memoirs -and creating a new genre of prison memoirs-women such as the Egyptians Nawal al-Sa’dawi, Latifah al-Zayyat, and Inji Aflatun have exposed the oppressive workings of family, society, and state on women. Such writers and their works have provoked debate but not consensus about feminism and women’s lives.

There have been a wide range of feminist organizations and movements in Muslim countries, which have arisen under diverse state systems and societal conditions. Several trends can be discerned in twentiethcentury feminist movements; these include attempts to construct modern women citizens, moves to reform family law, respecting women’s bodies, and confronting issues related to women’s dress and mobility.

Muslim feminists have undertaken diverse forms of collective action to help construct the modern woman citizen. In Egypt this was done by the Egyptian Feminist Union formed under the leadership of Huda Sha’rawi in 1923. Following the nationalist struggle, in which women participated, the new state conferred political rights upon male citizens only. The EFU mounted a well-organized, highly visible, independent feminist movement calling for educational, professional, and political rights for women, rights to health care for all citizens, reforms in family law, and an end to stateregulated prostitution. In 1948 Durriyah Shafiq founded the Daughter of the Nile (Bint al-Nil) Association, which led a militant suffragist campaign and a countrywide effort for female literacy. Both organizations were shut down by the state in the mid-1950s after women had been granted the right to vote, ending three decades of independent feminist activism.

As the new state of Turkey was being consolidated, feminists tried unsuccessfully to organize a political party in 1923; the following year they were permitted to form the Turkish Women’s Federation under the presidency of Latife Bekir. Women who found it difficult to organize independently of the state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were nonetheless granted many rights by the government. The state led the way in an unveiling campaign and in 1926 enacted the Civil Code, a totally secular code of law regulating the family. Although women thus gained certain rights in marriage and divorce, the man was officially pronounced the head of the family, and women were required to take their husband’s name at marriage. The state granted women the right to vote in 1934, but shortly afterward the Turkish Women’s Federation was forced to dissolve.

In Iran during the 1905-1911 Constitutionalist movement, women organized many small feminist groups and journals. These included the Patriotic Women’s League founded in Tehran in 191o, the Association of Revolutionary Women established in Shiraz in 1927 by Zandukht Shirazi, and the Isfahan Women’s Association founded by Sediqeh Dovlatabady in 1918. These scattered and often loosely organized groups supported women’s education and were attentive to health issues; some favored unveiling and women’s political rights. With the consolidation of the power of Reza Shah in the early 1930s, Iranian women, like Turkish women, lost the ability to conduct an independent feminist movement. The state outlawed the veil in 1936 and promulgated a liberal family law as part of a drive to modernize and to contain religious forces. Women were granted the vote in 1963. Following 1979 and the advent of the Islamic Republic in Iran, public feminist activism ended.

In the early 1960s, after Kuwait became fully independent and was granted a constitution, women were deprived of their full political rights by an electoral law. Feminists mounted public protests, burning their `abayahs (concealing garments). Women formed a number of associations, including the Women’s Social and Cultural Society and the Young Woman’s Club, to campaign for political rights. Following the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq at the beginning of the 1990s, when women formed the backbone of civil resistance, feminists renewed their suffrage demands with greater urgency and enhanced claims on the nation. They have defended their cause in the media and through public protest, but they have been unable to organize a broadbased feminist movement under a united leadership in a country where the ruler and most political parties affirm the principle of women’s political rights but stop short of implementing it. Kuwait and several other countries in the Arabian Peninsula are the last Muslim countries to withhold full political rights for women.

It has been within the sphere of the family that Muslim feminists have met with the least success. Although they have won certain changes in repressive family laws, in many countries reactionary regimes mobilizing a highly patriarchal form of Islam have rescinded liberal laws. Egyptian feminists, who began agitating for family law reform in the 1920s, saw only minor changes until a 1979 revision that the state revoked in 1985 but reinstated in modified form after an intensive and united feminist campaign. The most liberal family laws in Muslim countries-such as the 1926 secular Civil Code in Turkey, the 1956 Tunisian family law, and the Iranian Family Protection Acts of 1967 and 1975 (rescinded after 1979)-did not result from feminist agitation but were issued from above to serve the regimes’ larger political objectives. In Algeria in 1981, feminists mobilized a broad base of women in protest against a draft family law, meeting with temporary success; three years later, however, the government promulgated the first code of family law since independence, based on a conservative reading of the shari`ah. The Algerian feminist activist Marieme Helie-Lucas and the Lebanese feminist lawyer Azizah al-Hibri have exposed the divergent manifestations of patriarchy in family laws in Muslim countries through comparative examination, demonstrating the different modes of control over women.

In the past three decades feminists have also addressed issues relating to women’s bodies, which include physical and psychological health, beating, sexual assault, and prostitution. In Egypt in the 1970s, the feminist physician Nawal al-Sa’dawi wrote about female psychological trauma relating to obsession with female virginity, the physical and psychological dangers of clitoridectomy, and the problem of incest. The Egyptian Feminist Union had earlier fought the legal regulation of prostitution by the state; al-Sa’dawi documented its destructive effects on prostitutes themselves in a fictional rendering of a real-life tragedy. In Turkey in the 1980s a new generation of feminists organized around personal everyday problems such as wife-beating and public sexual harrassment. In 1987 women marched in Ankara and Istanbul to protest the battering of women in the home. Women held public discussions on the issue and set up groups such as the Association of Women against Discrimination in Istanbul and the Women’s Solidarity Association in Ankara to organize against public sexual harassment of women, state-sanctioned attestation of virginity for female state bureaucrats, and domestic violence against women; in 1990 feminists opened the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Waqf. They also published a booklet containing testimonies of battered women. Meanwhile, in Malaysia feminists also spoke out against domestic violence; a group calling itself Sisters in Islam, formed in 1991 to explore Islamic teaching on women, published a booklet condemning wife-beating by using Qur’anic arguments. Malaysian Muslim women joined forces with women of other religions in 1985 to found the All Women’s Action Society in Kuala Lumpar and Selangor, and a publication called Waves, to speak out against physical and sexual abuse of women and more generally to confront “structures and systems” oppressive to women. In Pakistan feminists also confronted issues relating to violations of the female body when they created the Women’s Action Forum to protest the implementation of the Hudood Ordinance of 1979; this law, imposed by a right-wing military regime, called for severe “Islamic” punishments for criminal offenses in a manner discriminatory to women-for example, blurring the distinction between adultery and rape and excluding a woman’s evidence in assigning maximum punishment. Feminists mobilized in cases of poor women who acknowledged rape and then were accused and convicted of adultery, while the rapists were exonerated for lack of acceptable evidence (the testimony of four Muslim male witnesses).

Dress, in particular covering of the face or hair (both of which have been referred to as veiling), has been a perennial feminist issue. In Egypt, where turn-of-thecentury feminists discovered that covering the face was not required by Islam, Muslim women decided for themselves when to unveil. In Lebanon Nazirah Zayn al-Din published a treatise in 1928 condemning faceveiling as un-Islamic. In Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s and in Iran in the 1930s, the state through different means imposed unveiling the face. In various Muslim countries and communities in recent decades Islamist movements have been encouraging reveiling (mainly of the hair rather than the face) and promoting a retreat of women back to the home, but feminists have stood their ground. In Iran women have been unable to oppose the veiling imposed by the Islamic Republic. In Saudi Arabia the state and religious authorities have continued to enforce face veiling, except for women in rural areas. Here, where women are also forbidden to drive cars, several feminists staged a driving protest in 1990 on the eve of the Gulf War, when Western troops, some of them female, came to defend their country. The state and Islamic authorities, including the mutawwa’ or “morals police,” arrested these protestors and imposed severe punishments, including firing women from their jobs. Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country where women are prohibited from driving cars.

Muslim women have also formed wider regional and international feminist alliances. One example of regional organizing is the Arab Feminist Union, founded by Muslims and Christians in 1945 as countries of the Arab East were achieving freedom from colonial rule and forming independent nation-states. They adopted a broad feminist agenda drawn up at a conference in Cairo the previous year. The Arab Feminist Union, which acquired a semiofficial character, has expanded over the years to include women from more than twenty countries.

A group of women formed an international network to advance the causes of women who live under Islamic laws and “laws of custom” in Muslim communities throughout the world. The International Solidarity Network of Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLML) grew out of an action committee formed in 1984, founded explicitly as a network to facilitate contacts among women and the flow of information. The information gathered by the WLML reveals the diverse and sometimes contradictory ways Islamic law is interpreted and codified in modern statutory family law codes and the varying ways in which interpretations of the shari `ah have influenced customary law and everyday behavior; this information is disseminated in the network’s Dossier and information packages. The network is also actively engaged in defending women against human-rights abuses and protecting women’s endangered rights, supporting the freedoms not only of Muslim women but of all women through circulating news of abuses and encouraging women’s protests to official bodies. The network also holds workshops, conferences, and exchanges.

Another way in which Muslim feminists have transcended the barriers erected by nation-states and nationbased feminisms is by articulating a Muslim liberation theology. Muslim feminists have historically located their movements within the context of Islam, applied Islamic modernist arguments to revise family law and end veiling and domestic confinement, and evoked Islam to legitimize calls for education and work rights for women, educing the examples of women in early Islam to authenticate these rights; however, the majority of women have historically been deprived of literacy and education, and most are still forbidden formal training in such religious subjects as theology and jurisprudence necessary to become religious scholars or jurists. Only recently have Muslim women begun systematic investigation using ijtihad to expose the flaws in patriarchal interpretations of Islam detrimental to women. The scholars Riffat Hassan of Pakistan and Fatima Mernissi of Morocco undertook an examination of the Qur’an and hadith, entering an interpretive arena Muslim men had monopolized. Riffat, through careful interpretation of Qur’anic verses, demonstrates the absolute equality between women and men, exposing the androcentric readings that have created a patriarchal construction of Islam. Mernissi’s historical and methodological investigation of hadith has exposed misogynist hadiths and demonstrated the historical operation of patriarchy. Insights of liberation theology were transmitted at an international Qur’anic interpretation meeting held by WLML in Karachi in 199o. The Malaysian Sisters in Islam published a booklet intended for popular distribution, explaining Qur’anic pronouncements of gender equality in Islam and stating, “Our research has shown that oppressive interpretations of the Qur’an are influenced mostly by cultural practices and values which regard women as inferior and subordinate to men.” Liberation theology struggles for a postpatriarchal Islam. Patriarchal readings of the Qur’an and hadith which have informed the shari`ah have had the most direct and pervasive effects on women through codes of family law based on the shari`ah.

Muslim feminists, whether in secular discourse accommodating Islam, or increasingly, in religious discourse, strive for nonsexist and postpatriarchal societies in which women will enjoy their rights in the family and in society and will have the opportunity to realize their full potential. Muslim women’s feminisms call for implementation of democracy, respect for human rights, and a nonpatriarchal Islamic state and society.

[See also Family Law; Women and Islam; Women and Social Reform; Women’s Action Forum; Women’s Movements; and the biographies of Mernissi, Musa, Nasif, Shaftq, and Sha’rawi]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, 1995

Badran, Margot, and Miriam Cooke. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Bloomington, 1990.

Nasif, Malak Hifni (Bahithat al-Badiyah). Al-nisa’iyat. Cairo, 1909. Hassan, Riffat. “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam.” In After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions, edited by Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel, pp. 39-64. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1991.

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Mernissi, Fatima. Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry. Oxford, 1991.

Moghadam, Valentine, ed. Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Boulder, 1994

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Sa’dani, Nuriyah al-. Al-masirah al-tarikhhiyah lil-huquq al-siyasiyah lil-mar’ah al-Kuwaytiyah. Kuwait, 1982.

Sa’dawi, Nawal al-. Al-mar’ah wa-al fins. Cairo, 1971. Sa’dawi, Nawal al-. The Hidden Face of Eve. London, 1979. Sanasarian, Eliz. The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran. New York, 1982.

Sirman, Nukhet. “Feminism in Turkey: A Short History.” New Perspectives on Turkey 3 (Fall 1989): 1-34.

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MARGOT BADRAN

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/feminism/
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  • writerPosted On: November 26, 2012
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