Nowadays, feminism comes in many forms. The current existence of an array of feminisms disqualifies (or should disqualify) the commonly held notion that feminism is a singular movement that represents the values of a group of women who are predominantly western, white, and middle-class. An interesting thread of the collective fabric known as ‘feminism’ is Islamic feminism. Generally speaking, Islamic feminism seeks establish gender equality through the use of a distinctly Islamic paradigm. However, given that there is widespread and documented subordination, repression, and abuse of women throughout the Muslim world, much of which done in the name of Islam or via one Islamic prescription or another (a favorite theme in many Western denigrations of Islam), the coupling of the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘feminism’ seems contradictory. In other words, Islam is incompatible with feminism, and vice-versa.

It is within this contradiction that Islamic feminists find their raison d’être. They assert that Islam itself is a gender-equal religion that has been distorted by the male-dominated tradition of Islamic jurisprudence. At the core of this man-made distortion is patriarchy, which was the form of familial and social ordering that dominated the Arabian Peninsula prior to the birth of Islam. Islamic feminists argue that the patriarchal constructs and nature of 7th century Arabia were infused and incorporated by the male jurists who, over the centuries to come, developed and formulated the Islam that we see today. In order to rectify this, Islamic feminists have tasked themselves with deconstructing the gendered Islamic discourses that are unfortunately in the mainstream, especially in contexts where shariah law is implemented, such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Many Islamic feminists strive to cleanse Islam of its patriarchal influences and tendencies in a variety of ways. In Iran, patriarchal shariah law, sharply imposed by the state, is the target of many Iranian Islamic feminists. In their efforts to promote gender equality, Iranian Islamic feminists, such as Ziba Mir-Hosseini, use a dynamic and gender-sensitive form of ijtihad to reinterpret the male-dominated fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and present a version of shariah that upholds Islam’s gender-equal principles. Similarly, notable Pakistani Islamic feminist, Asma Barlas, asserts that the Quran is an “egalitarian and antipatriarchal” document. She seeks to prove this by reinterpreting its text with an interpretative methodology called hermeneutics. Hermeneutical interpretations require analyzing the context within which the text was written, the text’s grammatical composition, and its Weltanschauung, or worldview. In other words, hermeneutics allows the reader to “read in between the lines” and contextualize the content of a given text by taking into account various historical, linguistic, social elements, thus revealing the text’s true character and meaning.

Islamic feminists’ efforts to rid Islam of its patriarchal nature through the use of gender-friendly reinterpretations are quite compelling. By shining a critical light on Islam’s male-dominated jurisprudential tradition, many Islamic feminists have exposed its widespread and theologically unwarranted patriarchal tendencies, and have discredited the notion that Islam is a gender-unequal religion. Overall, Islamic feminism is a highly progressive force within Islam. It provides a mode for Muslim women to advocate gender equality and maintain their Muslim identity at the same time. However, despite the compelling arguments put forth by Islamic feminists, gender equality in many Muslim-majority countries is likely to remain an elusive ideal. Islamic feminist discourses still remain on the periphery and Islam’s male-dominated and patriarchal jurisprudential tradition is highly entrenched. Moreover, patriarchal “(mis)interpretations” of Islam are just one element that underpins gender inequality in the Muslim world. Harsh, regional economic conditions, food insecurity, poor education levels, and violent conflict are other factors, which influence, exacerbate, and perpetuate gender inequality. Thus, for legitimate progress to be made on the gender front, Islamic feminist discourses must be coupled with widespread social, economic, and political reforms. Such reforms would create an environment far more conducive to the spread of gender equality.

Hayden Pirkle, Research intern