Gender Jihad

Bismil-lâhi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim

As salamu aleykum

The term ‘gender jihad’ is used to describe the struggle against male chauvinistic, homophobic or sexist readings of the sacred texts of Islam. Throughout the 20th century an extensive movement in favour of overcoming patriarchal readings developed, carried out mainly by women demanding equal rights as full members of the Muslim faith. This movement has the interesting feature of having arisen spontaneously and simultaneously in a number of countries with a Muslim majority. Its origin can usually be found in the first decades of the 20th century in Egypt, when some Egyptian feminists posed the majority of the questions which are still being debated today.

Despite the progress to date, at the start of the 21st century the gender question continues to be one of the pending issues in societies with a Muslim majority. It is akin to a Gordian knot around which a conservative reading of the religion has grown, a reading which discriminates, restricts individual liberties and tends to perpetuate hierarchical power structures which exclude the majority of these societies’ citizens.

Today there is an extensive theoretical debate about ‘Islamic feminism’ which includes arguments about the appropriateness of this term. Feminism, as the struggle for women’s liberation, has no specific label. The qualifier ‘Islamic’ cannot be defining of a type of feminism distinct from Western feminism, but rather it is a way of placing in context the problem of liberation in relation to Islam. In no way should it be a ‘limiting’ qualifier, in the sense of reducing the value of the basic claim to female equality. Despite the terminology, the fact is that there is a broad movement which, by confronting the male chauvinistic, homophobic or sexist interpretations that dominate in many areas of the Islamic world, can truly be called feminist.

Overcoming patriarchy

There are those who take it for granted that Islam oppresses women and that this is a state of things which cannot be changed by any means. From this perspective, Westernisation, understood as the renunciation of Islam, is the only path to the liberation of the Muslim woman. Opposing this reading, there is a women’s movement that claims that it is possible to achieve liberation within the framework of Islam. For the most part these are women who do not want to give up their traditions and reject the male chauvinism and sexism that now prevail in Muslim societies. This movement considers that a degradation of Islamic tradition and distortion of the sacred texts have taken place. Moreover, this movement affirms that true Islam contains important elements of liberation and calls for the recovery of these elements as a framework for social emancipation.

Discrimination against women has gone from being thought of as an essential part of Islam to being condemned as a distortion of tradition. Women’s liberation cannot be achieved by attacking Islam as a whole, but rather by attacking those views which require the subordination of women, destroying their arguments and offering Muslim women the tools and insights necessary for their liberation.

A new understanding of the Islamic phenomenon is needed in order to assess this movement’s significance. It involves an attempt to recover the spiritual dimension and the feeling of belonging in the world in the face of those who seek to reduce Islam to an ideology. This is an understanding based on the concepts of complementarity, justice and balance, and rooted in The Message of the Koran. 

Islam, as a cosmic view that provides for the integration of all forces that govern life, should not entail the subordination of women to men. In the indivisible cosmos, all the forces of nature are found integrated, in constant movement, in equilibrium. Within this view, the equilibrium between the two poles of a couple (the masculine and feminine forces) is a determining factor. Masculine and feminine do not correspond to man and woman, but they are rather an internal part of every creature. That which is feminine is in equilibrium with that which is masculine just as much in a man as in a woman. To try to limit that which is feminine to women and subordinate it to that which is masculine as being the exclusive essence of men is to upset the internal equilibrium of men and women, a polarity which is present in all creatures.

Patriarchy upsets this equilibrium established by Allah in nature, fostering a society based on oppression and authority. Male chauvinism is the destruction of Islam as a well-balanced way of life. It breaks with the very order of creation and imposes an artificial order which we call patriarchy. It must be said that the ideological foundations of patriarchy are not found in the Koran or the Sunna. A fresh reading of the sacred texts is needed in order to expose the inconsistencies in the male chauvinist interpretation of the tradition. So we believe that Islamic feminism is not only a political or social movement, but a spiritual restoration of the Message of the Koran.

The dichotomy of the Muslim woman

In relation to those countries which are experiencing a large growth in Muslim immigration, Islamic feminism could constitute an effective part of their integration. It involves an attack on the very roots of discrimination and injustice. An attack, based on the sources of Islam, which refutes the totalitarian interpretation forcibly imposed as the only one and true version of Islam.

Opposing this internal criticism (deconstruction of the patriarchy based on the sources of Islam), we believe that Western culture’s claim to superiority is not an effective argument against fundamentalism, as this attack fails in its objective and tends even further to inflame these opposing stances. The more aggressive the pro-Westernisation stance is and the more it relies on arguments based on a fear of Islam, the more strength is gained by the fundamentalist movements that present themselves as defenders of their religion in the face of these attacks ‘from outside’.

Nor are attempts of ‘social engineering’ effective, such as that of Kemal Ataturk, put in practice in Turkey – banning the veil, closing the sufi associations, replacing the Arabic alphabet by the Latin alphabet, repressing all public expression of religious acts, etc. This policy was a spectacular failure. The social engineering and spread of anti-religious secularism carried out have not achieved their aim. In fact, Turkey has gone from being a region characterised by syncretism, the mixing of cultures and religious pluralism, to being a country in which traditional Islam is threatened by political Islam (Islamism).

Confronted with this Westernisation/Islamism dichotomy, we offer the recovery of and giving of priority to the numerous elements of traditional Islam that are compatible with a democratic system and human rights.

Islamic feminism is having a powerful influence in some countries. This is not an isolated matter, but rather involves the lives of millions of people. It is crucial for the positive development of Islam and the defeat of fundamentalist interpretations that this movement is made known and supported on an international level. It is a common error in the West to point continuously to the dark side of Islam and ignore those Muslims who do face up to this.

In the fight against discrimination, we ought to unite our efforts and go beyond cultural or religious barriers, these being barriers that the very fundamentalists seek to establish as immovable. To go beyond these barriers is the task of all those who desire a globalisation that respects diversity and that does not become the hegemonic plan of one state or part of the world over another.

Muslim immigration

In the context of modern societies, where the weight of the media is so great, it is necessary to make room for pluralistic expressions of Islam. Establishing a different viewpoint breaks with the monolithic belief that the fundamentalists seek to introduce. It is important to offer alternatives, to make room for discussion and to facilitate the breaking of patriarchal and unilateral models.

One of the goals that the Junta Islámica Catalana (Catalonian Islamic Board) has set itself for the following years is to offer an Islamic interpretation of the gender question that is compatible with the modern world and constitutional values. We need this feminist reading to reach Muslim women, so that they can know there is an alternative to the eradication of or patriarchal readings of their traditions. We need to make known this extensive movement in favour of the recovery of women’s rights in Islam.

In this, as in every task of integration of Muslims in society as a whole, the activities of one organisation alone are not enough. Each social sector involved in the task of integration and construction of pluralism is able to provide its own platforms for action and communication in its attempt to make sure this message reaches society in general as much as it reaches the Muslim population. It is a message of coming together, in which a multicultural society may have the chance to develop without loss of the freedoms so painfully gained, in an organic and sensible manner, avoiding pitfalls and offering consensual solutions.

Presentation of the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism

Barcelona, 26 September 2005.

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