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Face to Face with Islamic Feminism

Are Islam and feminism mutually exclusive?

It’s not usual to hear these two terms in the same sentence, unless you wish to emphasize how incompatible these terms are. But is that really so?

Islam has been stereotyped and stigmatized in media for quite a while. The evidence is there for all to see. The image of Islam has been so distorted over time so much that, swept up in the islamophobia fever, some Westerns feel and think that Islam is the enemy somehow, that Islam ought to be construed as the enemy. And this discredit dates back to long before the fateful 11th September 2001.

Portraying it as promoter of terrorism and social backwardness, media has twisted the true essence of Islam. “Muslim women are accomplices of their own conditions”, “women with veils can never be free”, “all Arabs are terrorists”, “Muslims don’t have equal rights” they say.

Web Islam

This faith has been so demonized that “Islam”, “terrorism” and “fundamentalism” are often used as synonyms in Western public opinion. Nothing could be more incorrect. By definition, fundamentalism is a strict adherence to the basic principles of any idea or discipline.

Going back in time, Islam was introduced in 610 CE to improve the world and put an end to the “Age of Jahiliyyah” (literally, the “Age of ignorance”) during which no respect was given to women. Islam completely changed what women were supposed to be, from something to be ashamed of to human beings with a political voice, a legal entity and an economic personality. Indeed, before Islam, when daughters were born, they were buried alive because they didn’t bring honor to families, as sons did. On the contrary, Muhammad guaranteed them the right to vote, the ownership of property, freedom to have and use their own incomes. If you go back to the basic principles, feminism was prevalent. “Islam was a hipster in feminism” says Aabiya Baqai an activist and doctoral student in community and regional planning at the University of Texas at Austin.

So, this religion has liberated and even improved the situation of Muslim women but what we see now is a different situation. Misinterpretation, misuse and manipulation of the Quran and scriptural verses have relegated women into a condition of powerlessness and silence. The passage of the Quran whose misinterpretation most condemned woman and represents the key obstacles holding back gender equality within Islam is the following: “men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other”. For centuries Muslim scholars have taken this verse to mean that Muslim men have a God-given authority and guardianship, or “Qawama” over women.

The decision maker – in Islam as in almost all other world faith – is not female, religious institutions are dominated by men and driven by male leaderships. And since they create policies following these principles, this vicious circle without any loopholes will perpetuate until we’ll get to change the system entirely. Before this moment, we can’t realistically expect to have full economic and political participation of women “because our foundations are broken” believes Alaa Murabit, founder of The Voice of Libyan Women. “We are equal in the eyes of God, but we are not equal in the eyes of men”. Her own ONG is aimed to help Muslim women struggling against those misogynistic and the misinterpretation of the scriptural sources of the Quran. Reclaiming religion is the key to restore Muslim women’s honor and amplify their voices. “We have to be at the table, we have to stop giving up our position because by remaining silent, we allow for the continued persecution of women worldwide” she continues. A big step forward has been made: Imams have started discussing taboo issues such as domestic violence, condemning this practice.

photo credit: Gaia Guarnotta

Reclaiming religion by scrutinizing verses within the Quran that concern gender roles and building a brand-new paradigm is vital because laws and customs have their basis on the Quran, and they are intertwined. In many Arab countries Islam has become an expression of power and a backbone of the law. In a nutshell, it degenerated into Islamism, a pathological form of Islam itself. In Muslim countries religion and law are entangled: suffice it to think about Sharia law, a legal framework derived from the Quran and Muhammad’s teachings which influences law throughout the Muslim nations. Islamic feminists don’t want to abolish it, they suggest that it should be reformed and implemented under a very different kind of interpretation framework.

At this point, which faith is truly fundamentalist?

It’s crucial to debunk all these prejudices: religion is not to blame. Female emancipation is possible in the name of Islam. Today we must recover the original spirit of Islam if we want to build a fairer society. In this sense, the Quran and its reinterpretation in a feminist key are a tactical tool to make this change more acceptable to the masses, or rather, islamically acceptable.

By Giulia Peroni

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