Celebrating Islamic Feminism This Women’s History Month

Humanity! Salaam ‘alaik! It’s Women’s History Month. Of course, women deserve centuries of recognition and celebration, so this one month isn’t sufficient at all. But I’ll meh-ok this one month for now, given how rampant misogyny still is–and that  misogynist in le ‘Murrica can make it this far in elections and be taken so seriously. God protect us from the evils of patriarchy, aameen!

So it’s women’s month, and and I haven’t written one single post about women, Islamic feminism, or Kashmala–my 6-year-old niece and the littlest feminist human we all know, may God grant her a beautiful life, aameen! I feel like I’m betraying my feminism, especially my Islamic feminism, by not having written anything this month, at least to celebrate the work of the many feminist scholars and academics who have influenced and continue to influence my own work and views. And to celebrate those women themselves. (There are some men, too, yeah,  but, I actually have my suspicions, and I feel like, with the exception of at most 3 men, they can never be feminist enough, at least from the conversations I see of theirs outside of their books – like in listservs. But this isn’t a discussion I’m willing to have publicly. Yet. So I’m going to limit my celebration of Islamic feminism only to the women pioneers of the movement.)

But I promise I have legit reasons for not having blogged much! When I grow up, I’ll write about what it’s like being a (future) academic and a blogger, and you’ll all understand then. But basically, I’m working on some dissertation-related stuff that’s taking longer than I thought it would/should, and since much of what I have been blogging about lately is very relevant to my dissertation, I will get back to blogging asap, inshaAllah.

I am tempted to promise to write about at least one Islamic feminist scholar every few days this month, but in case I’m not likely to fulfill that promise, I’m going to plan three things I know I can definitely commit to that shall take place in no particular order:

1. one blog post that provides a general overview of Islamic feminism / Islamic feminist scholarship
2. one blog post celebrating at least a few of the most important contemporary Islamic feminist scholars by sharing brief bios of theirs and talking about their scholarship. These would include: Amina Wadud (who initially didn’t identify as feminist because of what the label entailed until recently, but she does now), Asma Barlas (who does not identify as a feminist, but I certainly think her work can be safely classified as feminist), Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Kecia Ali,  Juliane Hammer, Ayesha Chaudhry, and Aysha Hidayatullah – these are all some of the women I have had wonderful conversations with, and my own work, my feminism, and my sense of spirituality would not be possible without theirs. And they’ve been great mentors and guides for me, and I will always be grateful to them. But, of course, these women are all academics. Muslims are also blessed with a great number of feminist activists, who, like the academics, come in different shades of feminism, and I think they all deserve recognition no matter whether we like their forms of feminism or not.
3. a blog post on Kashmala the Ultimate Feminist 🙂 She’s my little feminist hope for the future of humanity. I have been longing to write a detailed post about what it’s like raising a feminist niece, what it’s like to receive a phone call from this little feminist miracle niece of mine to tell me, “Shanu!! Patriarchy happened today!!” And “Shanu! I was telling my teacher about patriarchy today and she told me I should say that in front of the whole class so I did.” Such words bring a glow to my face and my heart every time she utters them. She can spot patriarchy from a distance, and she calls “patriarchal people” out on their patriarchy. It’s an absolutely pleasure teaching her (and her brothers, too, actually) about the evils of patriarchy, and I have every reason to believe in a fairer world because of little humans like her and her brothers. #DeathToPatriarchy

But anyway. Oh, and before I continue, lemme say something:

I am not of the opinion that “Islamic feminism” is a new phenomenon or that before the Muslim women academics of the late 20th century, no attempts to interpret Islam using feminist approaches or in a gender-egalitarian way were ever made. This is completely false. In the post I just promised above that I’ll share on the history, trends, etc. of Islamic feminism, I’ll address what I think the origins of Islamic feminism are as well. For now, know that I’m highlighting only contemporary, living women scholars of Islam and appreciating their work.

standing on the shoulders of the giants in the field


Image from Facebook friends

A good friend of mine, who’s also a graduate student, and I were discussing the different, let’s say “levels,” of feminism in the first and second generations of Islamic feminist scholars’ works. With the second generation now starting to critique some of the earlier Islamic feminist work, in respectful ways that still acknowledge the contributions of the earlier generation and the fact that the latter generation’s work is basically incomplete without the works of the earlier generations of scholars. And my friend and I agreed that this is critique is actually a testament of how far Islamic feminism has come that different feminist scholars can now draw from each other’s scholarship, critique it constructively, and offer new ideas for the advancement of Islamic feminism and for future generations of feminist/Muslim scholars. And this goes without saying, but, again, I think the second generation (and my generation, too) is not only fully aware but openly acknowledges that our scholarship would be impossible without the scholarship, the work, the findings, the contributions of the earlier generations of feminist scholars. I mean, while Fatima Mernissi (may she rest in peace) might make some potentially problematic points and conclusions, or use potentially problematic terms, in some of her work (such as in Beyond the Veil), we can’t deny that her work is incredibly important and without it, we’d still be far behind in a more egalitarian understanding of Islam. Similarly, while Amina Wadud’s Qur’an and Woman might read and look like a very simple book that makes “obvious” points, it’d be ignorant and silly to deny that the book was groundbreaking in its own time, and, actually, those points weren’t and still aren’t “obvious” at all. Same thing with Riffat Hassan’s works on Islamic feminism.

And speaking of Riffat Hassan and Amina Wadud (and add to the list Azizah al-Hibri), I highly recommend Aysha Hidayatullah’s remarkable book Feminist Edges of the Qur’an for a critical and constructive discussion of these women’s scholarship. But I suggest reading Hidayatullah’s book really as a celebration of Islamic feminism, as a continuation of the conversation on Islamic feminism, as the “What’s next?” step towards advancing the movement.

The point is that when we read the earlier texts written by Muslim feminist scholars (or by scholars of Islamic feminism or gender-egalitarian interpretations of Islam), we have to respect the contexts in which they were writing. We have to acknowledge that they were among the firsts addressing issues that for some people today feel like nothing. Every step that the earlier generations of Muslim feminists took was a milestone that brought us to where we are today, where I as a graduate student can use certain terminology, make references to certain sources, rely on certain scholarship, raise certain points on social media and in the Muslim community that all make it possible and easier for me to say what I need to say because the harder parts of the struggle have already been accomplished by others before me.

Juliane Hammer makes an excellent point in her Feminism And Religion article titled Invisible Giants: On Women, Mosques, and Radical Activism. Discussing an ISNA panel in which the panelists were emphasizing the changes that the mosques in America have witnessed regarding the inclusion of women in mosques, she writes:

I really did try to appreciate the efforts, the speeches, and in a way, I also appreciate the ISNA statement. I was, however, disappointed and dismayed that no one mentioned Dr. Amina Wadud, who, in March 2005, led a mixed-gender congregation Friday prayer in New York, Asra Nomani, the lead organizer of that prayer, or Laury Silvers, one of Muslims involved in a gender inclusive mosque in Toronto. It was as if acknowledging their work, their tears, and their contributions to this conversation and effort would taint the statement. When I inquired about this omission (gently, I swear) I was told that it was too important to achieve and then maintain community consensus and any mention of “progressive Muslims” would jeopardize that goal. I have argued in my writing on the woman-led Friday prayer in 2005 that the event played an important role in moving the debate about women, mosques, space and leadership forward and that that connection has been ignored. The women’s mosque initiative, launched in January 2015 in Los Angeles, albeit a very different radical space for (only) Muslim women, too, I suspect, has something to do with this 2015 ISNA initiative.

Shabana Mir, also on this idea that we must “work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change,” puts it well when she says:

With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.

We have to be honest with ourselves and our communities and openly, publicly appreciate the role that all sorts of warriors play in fostering positive change in our world. Often, the more radical they are, the higher the expectations that they’re setting! Besides, they’re all a fuller, better, more honest reflection of actual Muslim societies and communities, where we have women that will fall on every milli-inch of the spectrum from extreeeemely A to extreeeeeemely Z. And that’s not just all right, but it’s actually necessary.

I think it is arrogant of anyone to attempt to downplay the contributions of women, however “radical” these women might be, only because of the fear that appreciating them openly would “jeopardize” some goal towards egalitarianism. How can we reach any goal towards egalitarianism when our struggle and intentions are founded on exclusion and rejection?

That should be all for now. More another time, inshaAllah.

9 thoughts on “Celebrating Islamic Feminism This Women’s History Month

  1. Mernissi’s opinions on early Islam seem to change drastically between Beyond the Veil and the Veil and the Male Elite. I’ve read both.

    In Beyond the Veil, she focuses a lot of her argument on women under the formation of Islam being denied previous, cultural rights and being sexually repressed by Islam (by polygamy, ‘iddat, lack of repudiation, and wali for marriage). Personally, it’s a little confusing how someone can believe Islam brought about patriarchy and patrilineality and still identify as a devout Muslim and also a feminist.

    I did like the book though.

    The Veil and the Male Elite argues that Islamic traditions are misunderstood, or even falsified, and that Islam is not inherently misogynist. She focuses on Abu Hurrera being a sexist, and not God. She spends great amounts of time refuting the idea a woman may not be Caliph. She highlights how Islam brought women inheritance rights.

    It’s like she is presenting two alternative views that contradict each other – Islam is sexist and took away women’s rights, or Islam brought women rights and is not inherently sexist.

    What did you find problematic?

    I finished Ibtissam Bouachrine’s book on women in Islam, Vaguely named, but is really a feminist critique of Islamic feminism. She includes a chapter on Mernissi. Her criticism of Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood are that it fantasizes the concept of a harem. She also points out that dreaming and story-telling are very ineffective ways to trespass against patriarchy. You are living the way patriarchs want because you are only dreaming and stroy-telling of things which cannot come true. To her, it is only a form by which women lived with an impossible situation.

    Another one of her criticisms is how in “The Veil and the Male Elite” Mernissi purposefully avoids talking about the female dress code or 24:31. I don’t agree. Mernissi’s point was that hejab in Islam has myriad meanings beyond “headscarf”. Trying to throw in a critique of what a khimar is or whether this verse mandates khimars for everyone ever would any devalue her argument by connecting hejab, which she is arguing is more universal and not lady specific, right on back to female dress code.

    Also, she clearly was aware of this verse anyways. She quotes it in the end of Beyond the Veil.



    • Thanks so much for this, Em!
      I’ll explain later how I understand her perspectives in the two books (I don’t read them as contradictory or opposing each other because I think she uses different terms to mean different things in both books. E.g., “Islam” doesn’t always mean Islam as the religion of God but rather Islam as the patriarchal interpretations of men, the historically dominant accepted interpretations of the Qur’an & Sunnah).

      In her earlier works, it’s her categorizations/generalizations of Muslims, Muslim cultures, etc. that I think can be problematic. They weren’t in the time she was writing, of course. Her work will always be among the most essential works on Islam of all time. It’s much like how early anthropology scholarship uses certain terms & concepts that today’s scholars would never accept as legit scholarship, but those guys are huge deals & essential readings for Anthro students (& many related fields) today nonetheless.

      I’ll share more thoughts later. Love reading your insights! Thank you!


  2. I’m totally willing to trash talk male liberal Muslim interpretations of Islam.

    Muhammad Asad translated and interpreted 24:31 and 33:59 clearly against traditional interpretations of the female dress code in Islam to allow for considerably more freedom. Then, he interprets 4:34 to vaguely allow hitting your wife “gently.” He’s not a feminist anyways though.

    Or Muhammad Ali Syed whose book focuses on refuting traditional beliefs in Islam about women, but then says the superiority of men is in the right to divorce. Divorce is getting a little bit too crazy for you? I think it’s still a worthwhile, but derivative, book.

    I like Khaled Abou el Fadl though.


    • I absolutely *love* that you’re sharing these thoughts with me! Thank you for enlightening me and other readers!

      Yes! My thoughts exactly on Asad. I also think his 4:34 translation is just apologetic. Sometimes you can just tell they’re evading the real issue at hand. And I’m supposed to be grateful that my husband is allowed to ONLY “gently” hit me, as opposed to “beat” or “scourge” me… SubHanAllah.

      Muhammad Ali Syed’s book is one of those “hey, Islam liberated women, okay? Here are examples. But lemme glorify the idea that women are to be subservient to women BECAUSE men earn for them.” Uh. It’s one of those infantilization of women, the idea that women are to be treated like they’re children who need discipline because, well, their husbands are earning for them. All these assumptions, all this glorification of patriarchy. All they do is just try to maintain patriarchy in ways that today would keep women as disempowered as possible. No, thanks.

      Khaled Abou el-Fadl is definitely my favorite male scholar working on these issues! He’s so raw, so honest. He’s also a wonderful human being 🙂 Such a kind man, may God reward him infinitely for his kindness, generosity, and sharing his knowledge, aameen.
      (BUT I have my thoughts on why he doesn’t directly and clearly challenge fiqh on the traditional prohibition on Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslim (Jewish and Christian) men. Not very impressed in that regard, but I appreciate his other work and thoughts.)

      I’m on listservs where academics (usually almost all-male, by the way) have conversations on issues of gender, sexuality … and they’ve been so disappointing and occasionally so shocking. I absolutely cannot, not at all, appreciate their other work because of that. It’s like, in private, you’ll be so misogynistic “because this issue is not black and white” (e.g., the issue of marital rape!! Because, the idea went when I was following it for a while, “what’s a man to do when his wife just constantly says no she doesn’t wanna have sex?”…), but in public, in your books, in your articles, you’ll pretend to be all supportive of women’s rights and consent and all. It’s hopeless.

      OH! But do you know Mahdi Tourage? HE is one of the three, at most four, men I know who are unconditionally pro-feminism and supportive of women’s rights and concerns. Here’s a link to his site if you don’t know him yet: http://www.mahditourage.com/ An amazing guy, may God bless him infinitely, aameen.


  3. I checked Asad’s other comments about women in his interpretation with mixed results. Some of his interpretations are very positive to women actually. Some he completly obfuscates or just ignores. Some he is quite sexist.

    We see him now as being inconsistent (Really, women can wear what they like but their husbands can hit them?) and sexist, but I think he could be considered as almost intentioned to be less misogynist and failing in execution added to that male failure to understand women’s perspectives. Time-period also comes into play. He was so influenced by rationalism and modernism which reflects obviously in the commentary. Being influenced by sexism in general and by traditional Islam also fits.

    He isn’t taking the worst interpretation of 4:34 possible which is endorsement of actually seriously punching your wife. The worst interpretation is literal wife-beating apologia presented by people like Daryabadi. It’s like he thought “Yeah, I guess this means that” and then argued for the least violent position from there that he still thought fit the meaning I suppose? It’s still pretty awful though to give instructions on how to properly hit a woman. It’s ehhhhhhggghhh. Some interpretations of 4:34 make me feel physically repulsed. This makes me feel jaded from the tired, attempted “hitting your wife properly” apologia. The intention to not be so sexist is there (repudiating actually beating women) and then that failure to execute in saying you can only hit them lightly. Gee, thanks.

    And on women witnessing he says, in the present tense, the verse says nothing about the intellectual capacities of women but only of their lack of economic knowledge. Dude, no woman understands finances, really? A perfect combination of desire to not be so sexist (by saying women are not intellectually inferior), twentieth century misogyny (women are ignorant financially), male cluelessness, and then a failure to follow through in not being sexist.

    He isn’t like absolutely awful, he’s surprisingly progressive on slavery and dress code, but not some feminist vanguard either. He is fairing considerably better than Maududi and Yusef Ali by my comparing all the translations for an hour. Maududi is just insidious. He says women should wear headscarves in front of their brothers and father! Oh, and I appreciate all the restrictions on how to use your female slaves for sex! Freud would have had material for years!

    I’ve never heard of Mahdi Tourage. Who are the other male feminists you like?

    I love your blog. It’s great. 😊


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  6. I’ve been both confused at and skeptical of Fatima Mernissi’s work for a while. I read about her views in ‘Beyond the Veil’ (cited in other work) in which she apparently puts forth the view that Islam views femaleness as dangerous and is against love between a husband and wife. While so many people view her as an Islamic feminist(?) who believes that Islam supports women’s rights. Despite my confusion I’d really like to read some of her other work. What would you recommend (that’s not ‘the veil and the male elite’ as it’s banned in my country )? I’ve heard ‘The Forgotten Queens of Islam’ is great (and available at my local bookshop), would you recommend I start with that book?


    • I didn’t get that idea from The Veil and the Male Elite at all. If you haven’t read the book yourself, I highly recommend it. I’ve assigned it to students, who loved it & were amazed to hear that perspective (& no it doesn’t posit that femaleness is dangerous – though male scholars have historically certainly viewed femaleness as dangerous, yes! But male scholars and their scholarship don’t equal Islam, so).
      I have a PDF of the book if you’d like to try it yourself? Let me know.

      (Email me at orbala1@gmail.com so you don’t have to share your email address here, if you don’t want.)

      Forgotten Queens is excellent. I only recently read it and have also been assigning it. I love her writing style, her courage, her ideas, her interpretations of things.

      Her writing & even the ways she expresses her views (or even her views) change with time & you see it in later works after The Veil.


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