Islamic feminism: its discontents and its prospects
By Valentine M. Moghadam
Few debates among expatriate Iranian feminists and leftists have been as contentious as that centered on “Islamic feminism”. The very term as well as its referent have been subjects of controversy and disagreement. Can there be such a thing as a feminism that is framed in Islamic discourse? Is Islam compatible with feminism? Is it correct to describe as feminist or even as “Islamic feminist” those activists and scholars, including veiled women, whose work toward women’s advancement and gender equality are carried out within an Islamic discursive framework? Can the activities of reformist women – who situate themselves within the broad objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and seek the improvement of the status of women – be described as constituting an Islamic feminism? Is Islamic feminism part of a broad reform movement in Iran, or is it an attempt to legitimize the state’s gender policy? Is Islamic feminism benign, or is it a threat to secular alternatives? And are those expatriate feminist scholars who report positively on “Islamic feminism” correct to promote the phenomenon? These are among the vexed questions that have emerged in various writings, and that been met by divergent responses (see, e.g., Afshar 1996; Afshari 1994; Kia 1994; Mir-Hosseini 1996b).
In this essay I will describe the Iranian debate on Islamic feminism, but I will also assess Islamic feminism as a discourse and movement.
The Iranian debate is of course part of a wider debate among scholars and activists – within Middle East Women’s Studies as well as within and among women’s organizations in the Muslim world – concerning the efficacy of the strategy that some Muslim women are using toward their own advancement and empowerment. This strategy is the re-reading of the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic history to reveal or highlight their egalitarian and emancipatory underpinnings, and to challenge the longstanding and conventional patriarchal interpretations that have found their way into Islamic laws, codes, and practices. The U.S.-based academics Azizah al-Hibri, Rifaat Hassan, Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed, and Amina Wadud, the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi, the Malaysian women’s group Sisters in Islam, and in Iran, the publishers and public figures Shahla Sherkat and Azzam Taleghani are all known as Islamic feminists. This listing shows the diversity of Islamic feminists, in terms of their chosen domiciles, their organizational, institutional or political affiliations, and in their dress. What they have in common is that they are educated, urban women who engage in a woman-centered, Quran-centered re-interpretation of Islam in order to recover or recuperate their religion from patriarchal and misguided interpretations and thus give theological legitimacy to the movement for women’s rights in the Muslim world. As such, they may be seen as part of a broader religious reformation within Islam that includes thinkers such as Iran’s Abdulkarim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar; the late Mahmoud Taha of Sudan; Egypt’s Hassan Hanafi and the exiled Zeid Abu Nasr; Algeria’s Mohammad Arkoun; the Iraqi Sheikh Taha Jaber Alalwani, Fathi Osman, and others.
The Iranian debate on Islamic feminism was especially heated in the latter part of the 1990s, though it continues to engage scholars and activists. Those involved in the debate form two opposing camps. On one side are those who explore the possibilities that exist within Islam and within the Islamic Republic of Iran concerning women’s interests. Afsaneh Najmabadi, educated in both the U.K. and the U.S., is a professor of women’s studies in Massachussets, USA; Nayereh Tohidi is a U.S.-trained professor of women’s studies in California; Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a Cambridge-educated social anthropologist based in London. In the 1970s and 1980s Tohidi and Najmabadi were active in the left-wing anti-Shah student movement and later in the anti-fundamentalist and feminist movements; Najmabadi was a founding editor of the feminist journal Dimeh-ye Digar [the Other Half]. Tohidi, who traveled to Iran several times in the 1990s, is in close contact with feminists in Iran, and often publishes in the Iranian women’s press. Mir-Hosseini, along with British filmmaker Kim Longinotto, produced the acclaimed 1998 documentary film Divorce Iranian Style.
In the opposite camp are those who argue vehemently against the possibility that activists and scholars operating within an Islamic framework, especially in contemporary Iran, may be accurately described as “Islamic feminists”. Islamic feminists and their expatriate academic supporters, they argue, either consciously or unwittingly delegitimize secular trends and social forces. They maintain that the activities and goals of “Islamic feminism” are circumscribed and compromised; and they contend that there cannot be improvements in women’s status as long as the Islamic Republic is in place. This group similarly includes Western-educated feminist social scientists with deep roots in the left and in the women’s movement. Haideh Moghissi and Shahrzad Mojab teach women’s studies in Toronto, Canada; and Hammed Shahidian teaches sociology in Illinois, USA. Shahidian’s articles have appeared in the women’s press in Iran as well as in U.S. sociology journals.
I will return to the views of the protagonists in the debate presently, but first it may be helpful to put the debate in its socio-political context.
In the 1980s, some writings had given rise to discussion and disagreement, but in general there was considerable hostility toward the Islamic Republic of Iran on the part of those secularists who had fled Iran, and a huge ideological gulf existed between the expatriate secularists and those within Iran who identified with or helped to realize the Islamic project. The debate on Islamic feminism arose in the 1990s because the climate in post-Khomeini Iran was softening, a number of reforms had taken place, new institutions to deal with women’s issues were set up, and two new women’s journals had emerged. Expatriate feminists and other scholars were able to travel to Iran to conduct first-hand observations, conversations and interviews.
In response to its supporters’ concerns about the status of women, the Islamic Republic established the Bureau of Women’s Affairs in 1992 and installed Shahla Habibi, a biologist with little experience in women, gender or development issues, as its first director. The Bureau worked with a number of Iranian women-in-development (WID) experts, and helped to establish WID or women’s units in various ministries. It also had connections with a nationwide network of women volunteers who engaged in a variety of charitable and social service work among the poor. And it lobbied to improve conditions for Muslim women who had been harmed by the return to Islamic family law after the revolution.
Despite its discourse on the dignity of women and mothers under Islamic law, the Islamic Republic of Iran had in practice devalued motherhood through the family law and attendant civil laws. There was a serious contradiction between the Islamic state’s formal praise for mothers and Iranian mothers’ lack of legal protection and rights, such as the right to custody of their children, the right to open a bank account for their children, and control over their own bodies. Some Iranian women – including those in and around the Women’s Bureau – called on women to engage in ijtihad (independent reasoning and interpretation) to claim their rights on behalf of their status as mothers. Ojrat ol-mesl (wages for housework) was one such example of women’s ijtihad to further their social rights. Another was to argue that in cases of divorce, the courts should calculate the wife’s deferred dower (mahr) according to an index updated for inflation.
Ojrat ol-mesl, or the law mandating wages for housework, was passed by the Majles (parliament) in late 1992. The regime’s Islamist women supporters played an important role in the adoption of this policy – largely because of their dismay over the ease by which men could divorce their otherwise good Muslim wives. As believing women, their protests and recommendations were delivered in a religious idiom. As Hoodfar explains: “Islamist women activists argued that women, like all other Muslims, are entitled to the fruit of their labour on the grounds that Islam is against exploitation; that in Islamic tradition wives have no duties to their husbands beyond being faithful and are not required to work in their husbands’ homes, to the extent that women are not even obliged to breast-feed their children without payment from their husbands. Therefore, because all women do, in fact, work in their husbands’ homes, they are entitled to the fruit of their labour!” (Hoodfar, 2000: 311). In the absence of a concept of “marital assets” and the equal division thereof in the event of divorce, ojrat-ol-mesl seemed to be a step forward.
Not all Iranian feminists supported the new policy, however, and many felt ambivalent about the use of the discourses of “republican motherhood” and the rights of mothers under Islam. Although the law clearly benefited women and increased the “cost” of divorce to men, ojrat ol-mesl was functional for the Islamic Republic in that it carried no financial implications for the government, it reinforced women’s maternal roles, and there was no onus on the state to provide employment or any other social assistance to divorced women. Moreover, these entitlements are due only to wives who are deemed to be not at fault in the case of divorce.
Such innovations in Muslim women’s strategies for a restoration of rights, as well as the establishment of two new journals that appeared to exemplify the Islamic feminist tendency, gave rise to discussions and an intense debate.
The debate proper on Islamic feminism may be said to have begun in February 1994, when Afsaneh Najmabadi gave a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. There she described Islamic feminism as a reform movement that also opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists. In that talk and in subsequent writings, Najmabadi focused on the women’s magazine Zanan and the quarterly Farzaneh, both published in Tehran. Zanan, which was founded in 1992 by Shahla Sherkat, the former editor of the establishment women’s magazine Zan-e Rouz, had become by 1994 the major voice for reform of the status of women. Najmabadi argued that Islamic feminists – and especially the editor and writers of Zanan – had become open to Western feminism. Proof of this was their translation and publication of the writings of Western feminists. She described how articles in Zanan – particularly a series of articles that appeared in the initial issues – challenged orthodox Islamic teachings on the differential rights and responsibilities of women and men by claiming women’s right to equality. She explained that part of her enthusiasm for Islamic feminism, and especially for Zanan, lay in her belief that they have entered a common ground with secular feminists in their attempts to improve women’s legal status and social positions.
Najmabadi discussed how formerly Islamist women now insisted that gender discrimination had a social rather than a natural (or divine) basis, and she interpreted this as opening the door to new possibilities for gender equality. She pointed out that Sherkat and similar women, well-versed in the Quran and who refer directly to the Quran in their writings, raised the issue of the right to ijtehad (independent reasoning, religious interpretation), and the right of women to reinterpret Islamic law. This, she felt, challenges one of the foundational concepts of the Islamic Republic: deference to the rulership of the supreme jurisprudent, or the velayat-e faghih. (See Najmabadi 1995, 1997, 1998.)
Like Najmabadi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini has focused on Zanan. But she may be said to hold the “strong thesis” on Islamic feminism. In her writings, she has drawn attention to new discourses on gender among Islamic theologians, the challenging of Islamic family laws by ordinary women, and the emergence of reform-minded Islamic feminists. Mir-Hosseini argues that an unexpected outcome of the Islamic revolution in Iran has been to raise the nation’s gender consciousness. (See Mir-Hosseini 1996a, 1996b, 1998, 1999.)
Mir-Hosseini has written most extensively about how family law, and in particular, marriage and divorce, became a contested arena in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The official discourse promoted domesticity and motherhood for women as ideal roles, and the Islamic constitution promised to guard the sanctity of the family. Yet, the return to Sharia law after the revolution had given men a free hand in divorce and polygamy. This, she argued, subverted the very sanctity of the family as understood by women, thus going against the constitution’s promise. Many Muslim women and even Islamist women who had at the beginning genuinely, albeit naively, believed that under an Islamic state women’s position would automatically improve, became increasingly disillusioned by the new discriminatory and patriarchal discourses and policies. The Islamic Republic’s failure to deliver on its promise to honor and protect women, Mir-Hosseini argued, led to the emergence of the Islamic feminist challenge, as she puts it, “an indigenous, locally produced, feminist consciousness.” This consciousness and challenge led to amendments to the divorce law in 1992, intended to make divorce less accessible and more costly to men. This new consciousness also led to the widespread use of concepts such as mardsalari, which refers to male dominance or patriarchy. And it led to the proliferation of social analyses by and about women and gender, particularly in Zanan but increasingly in a growing number of other feminist publications.
Nayereh Tohidi argues that Muslim women in Iran and elsewhere are able to renegotiate gender roles and codes, and find “a path of compromise and creative synthesis”; in a sense, they are “bargaining with patriarchy” (to use a term coined by the Turkish sociologist Deniz Kandiyoti), but undermining it, too (Tohidi 1997a: 106; Kandiyoti 1988). Tohidi has explained how her visits to Iran during the 1990s, and in particular her interviews and observations, compelled her to shift her focus from repression to resistance and empowerment (Tohidi, 1997b). Moreover, she listed a number of scholars who, like herself, changed their mode of inquiry, mainly on the basis of empirical research. (I am one of those listed.)
Tohidi warns that “secular feminists should differentiate between those Islamic women who are genuinely promoting women’s rights and hence inclusionary in their politics from those who insist on fanatic or totalitarian Islam.” And approvingly citing the feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, she stresses that a “reformist or women-centered interpretation of religious laws should be considered not as an alternative to secular and democratic demands but as a component of more holistic social change” (Tohidi 1998: 187-88).
In the opposite camp, Haideh Moghissi has criticized expatriate feminists for their supposed fascination with Islamic feminism. In a number of articles she targets “apologists of the Islamic government and uninformed observers” who attribute legal changes in the Islamic Republic to “the enlightenment of conservative Islamists… ” (Moghissi 1995: 251). At the same time, she does not claim that there have been no achievements by Islamic feminists in Iran. In fact, she refers to the opportunities afforded to Islamic women and to the accomplishments of the female political elite. She notes that the Islamic Republic’s gender ideology has faced the imperatives of a capitalist system, which requires sexual desegregation, and that the clerical state has tried to accommodate the demands of activist women – points also made by Tohidi, Moghadam and others. But then she also opines that the “exaggerated reports” about recent legal gains by women, and the role of Islamic feminists in bringing them about, divert attention away from societal opposition to the economic, social, and cultural conditions brought about by nearly two decades of Islamization. It serves to strengthen the legitimacy of the Islamic system in Iran and “weakens the struggle of women inside Iran” (Moghissi 1998: 43). She does not elaborate on this statement.
In an article published in the Persian-language journal Kankash, Moghissi takes to task a number of expatriate feminists that she calls “neoconservative.” In her 1999 book on Postmodernism and Feminism, she writes of “the masterful manipulation of observers by the fundamentalists” (Moghissi 1999: 104). As in her Kankash article, Moghissi singles out expatriate feminist authors, finds faults with their analyses, and labels them. But whereas the Kankash article deemed then “neoconservative”, in her book she brands them “postmodernists” and “cultural relativists”. She writes: “Charmed by ‘difference’ and secure from the bitter fact of the fundamentalist regime, outsiders do them [Iranian women and men] a disservice by clinging to the illusion of an Islamic path” (Moghissi 1999: 121) Again, she does not elaborate on this assertion.
Hammed Shahidian suggests that the enthusiasm for Islamic feminism is reflective of a “deepening identity crisis” among secular Middle East feminists. And he argues that the emphasis on the achievements of Islamic women obscures the contributions of the Left and secularists in the face of continued Islamist repression in Iran. Shahidian notes that Islamic feminists in Iran have been attentive to and influenced by Western feminism. But he is critical of them for neglecting key issues of veiling and sexuality – including the right to premarital sex and homosexuality. His reading of Massoumeh Ebtekar, Zahra Rahnavard, Shahla Sherkat, and others, leads him to conclude that Islamic feminism fails to offer a liberating alternative to the dominant Islamic discourse and practice of gender and sexuality (Shahidian 1994, 1998). In his recent book, he argues that Islamic reformists, Islamic feminists, and those secularists who support their strategies or cooperate with them are engaging in “defeatist strategies” that are “mindful of proposing demands acceptable within an Islamic framework”. These discourses and strategies merely redefine gender identities (e.g., womanhood, manhood, motherhood, fatherhood, modesty, heterosexuality) rather than subvert them (Shahidian, 2002: 16-17).
In an article published in the Persian-language magazine Arash, Shahrzad Mojab (1999) criticized Najmabadi for suggesting that Zanan is the new “democratic forum” and that it can help to feminize democracy. She disputed Najmabadi’s hopeful prognosis about the reinterpretation of Islamic texts and stressed that the ruling religious elite could dismiss, delegitimize, or prohibit radical or feminist reinterpretations. What Iran’s Islamic feminists have achieved is, at any rate, quite limited in content and consequence. Real change – real democratization – will come about outside of the religious framework, Mojab wrote. In an earlier, English-language article, Mojab argued that notwithstanding the enhanced role of believing women in the movement for women’s rights, Islamic feminism was more of a contradiction and a compromise with patriarchy than an alternative (Mojab 1995).
The debate on Islamic feminism is to a certain extent a debate among leftists. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, for example, has not been criticized the way former leftists Nayereh Tohidi and Afsaneh Najmabadi have been, even though she holds the strong thesis on Islamic feminism. More meaningfully, however, the debate should be understood as part of three broad and at times overlapping debates and political realities. The first pertains to Islamic fundamentalism, its origins, gender dynamics, and contradictions; the second to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its gender regime and its political evolution; and the third to the definition of feminism, as well as to the nature of women’s movements around the world. Pertinent questions are: what is the relationship between Islamic feminism and Islamic fundamentalism? What is the relationship between Islamic feminism and the reform movement in Iran? And what are Islamic feminism’s relationship with and implications for the women’s movement in Iran, and what some have called global feminism? I will respond to these issues while also staking out my own positions on the matter.
First, the relationship between Islamic feminism and Islamic fundamentalism appears to be antagonistic. The very emergence of Islamic feminism seems to be a response or a reaction on the part of women who have been either disappointed with the promises of Islamic movements (as with the current crop of Islamic feminists in Iran, who were initially very enthusiastic about Khomeini’s project) or who rejected the fundamentalist project at its inception and sought to recuperate their religion from what they regarded as a flawed or dangerous political movement (as with Fatima Mernissi, Rifaat Hassan, Azizah al-Hibri, and Sisters in Islam). Certainly Islamic feminism is a more dynamic and ascendant movement and set of ideas than is Islamic fundamentalism, which appears to be on the wane, especially in Iran but also in a number of other Muslim societies. In many countries, Islamic fundamentalism seems to have exhausted its possibilities and promises, while the violence of a politicized Islam has repulsed many Muslims. Many Muslims are now searching for alternative ways to live their lives and organize their societies without compromising either their religious identity or their human rights. Shirin Ebadi – the activist lawyer from Iran and the first Muslim woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize – is an example of a believing woman who invokes international human rights and calls for legal reforms. In her acceptance speech of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, delivered in Oslo, Norway, Ebadi said: “The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states … has its roots in the patriarchal and male dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. The culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of men and women and the liberation of women from male domination.” She also asserted that: “To disregard women and bar them from active participation in political, social, economic and cultural life would, in fact, be tantamount to depriving the entire population of every society to half its capacity. The patriarchal structure and discrimination against women, particularly in the Islamic countries, cannot continue forever.”
Along with Islamic feminists, many Muslim scholars are engaged in a kind of religious reformation, some of which is Quran-centered and some of which addresses issues such as Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights, and Islam, science, and philosophy – the concerns of the so-called “religious intellectuals” in Iran, such as the well-known scholar Abdolkarim Soroush. Thus Islamic feminism has arisen on the cusp of this new alternative formulation and religious reformation.
Second, the relationship between Islamic feminism and the reform movement or democracy movement in Iran is a close one, even though Muslim and Islamic feminists have been critical of some reformists’ tendency to marginalize or to politicize women’s issues. The prominent Islamic feminists in Iran explicitly see themselves as part of the reform movement and as part of the movement to democratize the Islamic Republic of Iran. It should be noted, too, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has evolved from the fundamentalist nightmare that it was in the 1980s to a more open environment in which the political and cultural status quo can be openly questioned, by reformists and by Islamic feminists alike. Of course, Iran is not yet a democratic country with full popular sovereignty and freedoms of press, association, and opinion; and the Conservative forces, while enjoying less than half the electoral support, are fully in command of the police, military, judiciary, and much of the media. Thus the reform movement has faced serious constraints to its progress – and many observers have argued that the reform strategy of President Khatami and his associates has failed. Internal disagreements and divisions may have contributed to the reform movement’s setbacks and disappointments, and to the political stalemate that has been in place since 1997, when Khatami became president. Internal disagreements have existed over strategy and tactics, and these involved the left and right wings, or radical and moderate factions, of the reform movement. Islamic feminists in Iran have tended to be aligned with the right wing or the moderate faction of the reform movement (with Khatami and the religious intellectuals). In terms of their own strategy and tactics, they have not engaged in any collective action that might challenge the authority of the Conservatives, and they have not experienced the arrests, jail terms, and fines that secular feminists and male reformists have had to endure.
Finally, the relationship between Islamic feminism and the women’s movement in Iran, on the one hand, and global feminism on the other, is an evolving one. It is telling that former member of parliament Faezeh Hashemi (and daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) defined feminism in the following way:
Feminism is about defending women’s rights and fighting for equal rights for women and men. In this context I do believe that I have been involved in defending women’s rights. There are issues which affect all of us. Even in the parliament, we may disagree on political issues but most women members are agreeing on most issues in relation to family law, women’s education and employment. This is very encouraging, especially as I see this on a global level, where there is a global women’s movement that is unstoppable, like a stream. [cited in Povey, 2001: 63]
Shahla Sherkat has said:
I prefer to use
the term feminism boomi [indigenous feminism], because it relates
women’s rights to the social and cultural specifics of Iran. For example, at
present, we may not be able to raise the issue of abortion in our society. But
we could raise the issue of women’s rights to have control over their sexuality
and fertility. This is a very important issue in a society where the
traditional interpretation of the Islamic law gives a man the right to have
sexual relations with his wife and decide when and how many children he may
want to have, and the wife has to obey his wishes. Therefore, the demand for a
woman to have control over her sexuality and fertility challenges the
patriarchal rights of men within Sharia law.
Such statements indicate a compatibility with the consensus reached at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, regarding the global nature of the women’s movement and the cross-cultural legitimacy of the struggle for women’s equality, autonomy, and empowerment (United Nations 1996).
There is an emerging women’s movement in Iran, and Islamic feminism – along with secular feminism – is part of it. Despite the lack of feminist organizations and overt forms of collective action, Islamic and secular feminists alike have discussed, debated and exchanged ideas through the media, especially in the lively and prodigious women’s press. Shahla Sherkat, Azzam Taleghani, Faezeh Hashemi, Mahboubeh Abbas-Gholizadeh (editor of the women’s studies journal Farzaneh), and several women members of parliament, along with secularists such as the lawyers Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kaar and the publishers Shahla Lahiji and Noushin Ahmadi-Khorasani, have converged and collaborated around issues such as the modernization of family law and the need for more political participation by women, and they have even questioned reformists’ commitment to women’s rights or gender equality. Abbas-Gholizadeh has criticized herself and other Islamist women for the long rift they had with secular women, and she has urged unity over the critical issues facing Iran’s women. Shahla Sherkat, the editor of Zanan, has said:
Zanan magazine has pioneered the debate between secular and Muslim feminists over the issue of women’s rights. Women’s rights issues in Iran are so complicated that we must start from somewhere that we could agree with each other and work through until we arrive at areas of disagreement. Not to forget that beside secular women we also have religious minorities and national minorities where the issue of feminism could mean different things for different women. [cited in Povey, 2001: 62]
Many Iranian secular feminists welcome the new practical and non-ideological approach of Islamic feminists and the importance that they now attach to women’s rights. But there is ambivalence, too. For example, feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kaar says:
I support those who may call themselves Muslim feminists. But, in principle, I disagree with them. I write for Zanan magazine because this is an opportunity for me to express my views and I admire them for facilitating this opportunity for me. Similarly, as a lawyer I do not agree with the constitution but within my work I struggle to change the Islamic law and hopefully the constitution. I believe that with the existing constitution it is impossible to talk about the equal rights of women and men and the rights of citizens. But until we achieve the separation of politics from religion, we need to overcome obstacles and in this way I welcome cooperation with Muslim feminists and I hope that in the long run they will come closer to us. [Povey, 2001: 65]
The separation of religion and politics remains a key objective of secular feminists. In my view, it will soon be adopted by many Islamic feminists, too. This is because their project of reinterpreting Islam and challenging patriarchy cannot be realized within the theocratic framework currently in place in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Place of a Conclusion: Reflections on the Potential and Limits of Islamic Feminism
Noushin Ahmadi-Khorasani (2002), the secular feminist founder of Jensse- Dovvom and the Women’s Cultural Center, has pointed out that the term “Islamic feminist” was coined by observers outside Iran and living in the West. But she and others (e.g., Motiee 2003) accept the term as denoting a distinctive strand of women’s rights activism, including their own (e.g., Abbas-Gholizadeh 2001).
Is Islamic feminism an oxymoron, as Shahidian, Moghissi, and Mojab argue? My answer is: No. I consider Islamic feminism to be both an important part of the emerging women’s movement in Iran and a historically necessary contributor to the Islamic reformation. I would also argue that Islamic feminism is part of what a number of feminist scholars, myself included, are analyzing and theorizing as “global feminism” (Afkhami 1995; Moghadam 2005). This discourse and movement for women’s rights, crystallized in the Beijing Platform for Action, cannot be reduced to any one geographic unit or ideological frame. Instead, it reflects and encompasses the struggles of women around the world for equality, autonomy, and empowerment. Islamic feminists are aware of global feminism and many even identify with it (as we shall see with the quotes below). They have attended international women’s conferences and read international feminist texts in translation or in the original. But as believing women, they are keen to make their case for women’s rights in a religious idiom.
In a thought-provoking book, Patricia Misciagno (1997: 70-71) argues for a “bottom-up”, or a materialist, approach to feminist identity that hinges on women’s praxis, rather than their ideology. She defines “de facto feminist praxis” as “activity that runs counter to the ideology of patriarchy, even while not directly addressing the issue of patriarchy as an ideology.” Similarly, historian Leila Rupp and sociologist Verta Taylor note that “a concentration solely on ideas ignores the fact that feminists are social movement actors situated in an organizational and movement context.” In their historical study of the women’s movement over the 20th century, Rupp and Taylor show how the meaning of feminism has changed over time and from place to place, and often has been disputed. They emphasize the need to understand “what women (or men) in a specific historical location believed” but also “how they constructed, sometimes through conflict with one another, a sense of togetherness.” Feminist disputes, they argue, “take place within a social movement community that, as it evolves, encompasses those who see gender as a major category of analysis, who critique female disadvantage, and who work to improve women’s situations.” They conclude by asserting: “In every group, in every place, at every time, the meaning of ‘feminism’ is worked out in the course of being and doing” (Rupp and Taylor 1999: 364, 382).
Thus, if feminism has always been contested, if feminists should be defined by their praxis rather than by a strict ideology, and if a feminist politics is shaped by its specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, then it should be possible to identify Islamic feminism as one feminism among many. Indeed, in my view, it is not particularly useful to create absolute boundaries between Islamic feminism, Western feminism, Latin American feminism, African feminism, Jewish feminism, and so on. In the same way that liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical, cultural, and postmodern feminisms are part of the feminist tradition, so are the various regional manifestations part of the evolving political philosophy of feminism and social movement of women.
This is not to say that Islamic feminism is the sole answer to women’s problems in Iran – far from it. Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are facing serious social and economic problems such as unemployment, a crisis of affordable housing, prostitution, drug addiction, and family breakdown (see Moghadam 2002). A feminist re-reading of the Quran will not resolve these problems or help formulate strategies for a rights-based development model. Indeed, the focus on the recuperation of religion could appear to be a privileged exercise by elite women that distances them from the very real socio-economic issues facing Iranian women, especially working-class and low-income women. Islamic feminists need to acknowledge that as important as their theological enterprise is, an equally important feminist activity is to draw attention to the systematic discrimination that women have faced at the hands of the Islamic state, and to call for the restoration and expansion of women’s civil, political, and social rights.
However, given that theocratic rule and religious patriarchy in Iran has based its legitimacy on a certain reading of Islamic texts, one can understand why some Iranian women – especially believing women – turned to interpretation to challenge the patriarchal system. Iran’s discriminatory and oppressive legal frameworks, including its family law, are based on a patriarchal translation of the Quran and the Sharia, and the Islamic feminist enterprise could undermine the legitimacy of those laws and force reforms. And given the historical importance of religious reformation and modernization, we can only welcome and encourage Islamic feminism. Indeed, I would venture the observation that if the Islamic Reformation is at least as important, historically, as the Christian Reformation, a key difference lies in the gender make-up. That is, while the major figures of the Christian Reformation of the Middle Ages were almost entirely male, in the case of the ongoing Islamic Reformation, it is women intellectuals – Islamic feminists – who are playing a key role in the reinterpretation and modernization of the religion. At the dawn of the 21st century, a “critical mass” of educated, enlightened, and empowered Muslim women have emerged, in Iran and around the world, and their fundamental questions about Islam, women, and rights may help to transform Islamic laws and bring about modern, egalitarian Muslim societies.
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