Jamadi Awwal 1424 H
Volume 16-07 No : 199
Camps \ Workshops
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Margot Badran is a historian and specialist in women's and gender studies focusing on the Middle East and Islamic world. She took an M.A. from Harvard University, her D. Phil. from Oxford University and a Diploma in Arabic and Islam from Al Azhar University. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, she is currently a visiting fellow at ISIM (the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World) in Leiden, Netherlands. Her books include Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (translated into Arabic) and Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (co-edited; translated into German and Dutch) and numerous articles on feminisms and Islam. She has written for numerous newspapers in the Middle East, for the International Herald Tribune, and contributes regularly to Al Ahram Weekly. Here she speaks to Yoginder Sikand on issues related to Islamic feminism.
What do you understand by the term "Islamic feminism"? How is it different from the term "Muslim feminism"?
"Islamic feminism" is a discourse about women and gender grounded in religious texts, the principle being the Quran and everyday behaviour and activist practices related to this discourse. I do not use the term "Muslim feminism" nor is it in wide circulation. A Muslim may be a feminist who uses a feminist discourse which includes and elaborates several discursive strands such as nationalist (Arab, Egyptian, Turkish, etc), Islamic, human rights, democracy etc. in ways specifically meaningful to her; it is her own discourse fashioned according to her own needs and cultural formation. Islamic discourse is part of this feminist discourse which has plural stands, whereas Islamic feminism is grounded in Islamic discourse as its paramount or exclusive discourse. Muslim women may use their own general (or many-stranded) feminist discourse as well as using Islamic feminist discourse. Let us take a historical example. Egyptian feminists who were Muslims, alongside Christian Egyptians, used nationalist arguments to fight for expanded educational rights under British colonialism and in the early post-colonial movement. Simultaneously, Muslim Egyptian feminists also marshalled Islamic arguments to strengthen their case, demonstrating that Islam enjoined the pursuit of knowledge upon all believers. But when it came to the feminist campaign to reform the Muslim Personal Status Code, this was an exclusively Muslim campaign led by Muslim feminists who employed purely Islamic arguments to push the case for a more progressive Shariah-based law.
How did you get interested in writing and researching about Islamic feminism?
I became interested in Islamic feminism as a new discourse at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s at the very moment when I began to observe a major paradigm shift in feminist discourse among some Muslims. I discovered this in Egypt in the course of doing oral histories seeking to discover how professional and activist women defined feminism. In my previous scholarly research, I had focused on feminism in Egypt from the end of the 19th century into the middle of the 20th century. Later I wanted to discover how contemporary women defined and understood feminism. So, that was when I saw the genesis of an Islamic feminism.
How do Islamic feminists deal with aspects of the fiqh tradition that might seem to militate against women's rights?
Women scholars (whether they embrace the label Islamic feminist or prefer to think of themselves simply as Muslims engaged in ijtihad) recognise the nature of traditional fiqh. Engaging in fresh tafsir or interpretation of the Qur'an is a foundational step in the reconsideration of fiqh, of building a new jurisprudence. Some scholars engage more directly with jurisprudence such as legal scholar Aziza al-Hibri. As for Hadith, people are widely familiar with the work of Fatima Mernissi who has used the tools of classical Islamic methodology to examine Hadith relating to issues of women and gender, demonstrating how many widely circulating Hadith are weak or spurious and how some that are authenitic have been read out of context.
In the face of the insistence by some ulama that the gates of ijtihad are closed, how can Islamic feminists argue their case for re-reading the corpus of fiqh from a women's perspective?
By now in most places it is more widely understood-and admitted-that the notion of "closed gates" is mythic. After the four major madhabs or schools of law (jurisprudence) were consolidated in the 9th century C.E. the notion was spread (and this doctrinal notion had a political dimension) that things were fixed and hence the gates were "closed." Think about it: how can thinking (reflecting on the Qur`an) ever be closed? It makes no sense. So the new musarrifat (Qur'anic interpreters) do not see before them anything that looks like a "closed door." Islamic feminists see the open door. Iqra'! They as Muslims are exhorted to read, to reflect on the sacred text. That is exactly what they are doing.
How can Islamic feminist insights be introduced into the madrasas? Do you know of any women's madrasas where some sort of Islamic feminist texts are taught?
In many places, madrasas or schools run by religious teachers no longer exist as part of the state or quasi-state system. But becoming more widespread in recent times in the Middle East, for example, are private religious schools which are usually not called madrasas and must conform to state educational requirements if their degrees are to be recognised. The Dean of the Women's College at al-Azhar,
Dr. Suad Salih, is also a Professor of Comparative Fiqh. She teaches in the Women's College and also sits on the boards that examine candidates for the PhD; she evaluates men's and women's intellectual grasp of the religious sciences, especially fiqh. This highly qualified and respected alimah knows her fiqh and knows there is no gender impediment keeping women from becoming muftis or dispensers of religious rulings in answer to requests. She submitted a request to be appointed a mufti knowing full well there is no religious impediment in the way of women becoming muftis. In fact women have historically functioned as muftis. The most illustrious early example is Sayyidna `Aisha, the wife of the Prophet. Dr. Suad was thrust into the role of campaigning for women to be able to be officially appointed muftis. So, yes, "Islamic feminist" ideas percolate in these high halls of religious learning.
How does one counter the oft-heard argument that Islamic feminism is a western import and represents a distortion of the faith as the salaf-i saleh, the early Muslims, had understood it?
Islamic feminism as a discourse grounded in the Qur'an and other religious texts is not "western", nor is it "eastern". It is a universal discourse. There are many ayats in the Qur'an firmly indicating that Islam is a universal religion, knowing no geographical or cultural boundaries. This is exquisitely imparted in Sura al-Nur.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp...lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor the West. 24:35
The specific forms Islamic feminist activism takes are locally grounded. They are from within. For example, we have the long campaign of many years led by some women in Egypt using the discourse of Islamic feminism to argue that there was nothing in the religion of Islam barring women from becoming judges. This finally ended in victory this January when three women were finally appointed as judges. In South Africa, Muslim women have been campaigning for greater access to participate in congregational prayer alongside men (that is, to occupy adjacent rather than behind or in some altogether separate space) and to give talks at Friday prayer prior to the khutba, and have met with successes - for example, the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town where women speaking at Friday congregational prayer is now commonplace.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing a book on Comparative Islamic Feminism/s that looks at practices in Egypt (a majoritarian Muslim country with a strong Coptic minority), Yemen (a nearly one hundred percent Muslim country), Turkey (another country whose inhabitants are mainly Muslim but one that is officially secular), and South Africa (where Muslims constitute a very small minority). I am looking at local activist priorities and activist styles that differ as conditions themselves differ, and at the same time I am observing the two-way flow between the local and the global in the continual elaboration of Islamic feminist discourse that is facilitated and speeded by the worldwide web.