Presentation on Islamic Feminism. First International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Barcelona, 27th October 2005

Bismil-lâhi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim.

As salamu aleykum, may peace be with you.

abdennurmoghadam.jpgI have the honour of introducing to you today Valentine Moghadam, a woman whose career arouses the greatest admiration, both for her contributions to the academic world and her work as an activist, with her personal commitment to attaining justice for women. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to read her writings are struck by the sensitivity with which she deals with issues, the knowledge she has of the realities she speaks about from the inside, always in touch with the women she speaks of and for whom she works. If I had to in any way summarise Val Moghadam’s career and all the conferences, activities and speeches she’s been involved in, we would have no time for anything else, so I will simply recommend that you read her texts on the economic foundations of patriarchies, the gender issue and globalisation, the plans for a trans-national women’s network, Islamism and Islamic feminism, or the situation of women in Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

No-one better than Valentine Moghadam to explain the emergence of Islamic feminism, some of the responses it has brought about and the web of relationships in which this movement has arisen and attempts to forge a way forward. As Director of the UNESCO Gender Equality and Development section, she will take a global stance on the issue, with human rights as the background to the scene: human and sexual rights, minority rights, rights to one’s own image, the right to profess one’s own opinions and beliefs, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. These are undoubtedly some of the rights that Islamic feminism is calling for, the retrieval of certain rights that have been usurped from Muslim women by a patriarchal and totalitarian interpretation of Islam. On the basis of this, a connection can be made between Islamic feminism and the global feminist movement, defined by Valentine Moghadam herself as:

the discourse and movement of women aimed at advancing the status of women through greater access to resources, through legal measures to effect gender equality, and through the self-empowerment of women within national boundaries but through transnational forms of organizing and mobilizing. (…) The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action may be regarded as the “manifesto” of global feminism (Moghadam, 1996a).

It is essential to consider Islamic feminism in relation to the globalisation process. It must also be seen in the light of the 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Since then, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the main obstacles stopping women from achieving their rights are neo-liberal globalisation and religious fundamentalism. In relation to the first point, this is not the right place and time to discuss it, although it clearly affects the discourse of women in countries of the so-called Third World. It is precisely this steamroller of a neo-liberal market that is rejected by all fundamentalist movements in the name of their endangered traditions, in the name of communities’ right to survive.

Strangely enough, in the very same Beijing 95 forum, while the danger of fundamentalism to women was being highlighted, an alliance was being set up that has been defined by Nareyeh Tohidi as “the Islamic-Catholic conservative religious alliance against women’s rights”, and which has been present in later world conferences for women. We should remember that this alliance was set up on the initiative of the Vatican, which has managed to mobilise several nations against the recognition of abortion as a women’s right.

Putting Islamic feminism into a global context also means putting it into a local context. These very same alliances are repeated in different contexts. Without having to go any further, in Spain, we have recently seen how the more reactionary sectors of the religions present in Spain have formed a united front led by the Catholic Church, in this case to oppose homosexual marriage. It seems as though mankind’s great spiritual traditions are only able to speak as one when it is a matter of defending the patriarchy and perpetuating injustice and discrimination, with the gender issue always there as a backdrop.

Once Islamic feminism has been positioned as part of global feminism, we should listen to what the feminists of Islam have to say, what their arguments and their expectations are, what form of collaboration can be set up on the basis of shared goals. This is the objective of the Congress that we are inaugurating today. It is about entering into a dialogue that aims to draw up joint strategies, on the basis of mutual respect and confidence in women’s ability to transform their reality from the inside out.

From this perspective, one can understand the need expressed by Fatima Mernisi, amongst others, to “open up feminism”. It is a question of breaking away from a hierarchy of feminisms that hinders joint action among women from different realities. This requirement is referred to by Lena de Botton, Lídia Puigvert and Fatima Taleb in the following words:

“Feminism has to start out from the capacity that women have to transform gender practices and relations, so that they are more egalitarian. It must also take into account that the bond between all women is what will make it possible to overcome situations of exclusion. We must trust in the ability of Muslim women to form an agency (they are beings with the capacity for language and action) to reflect on their own reality and to act in consequence. In feminism, taking these women’s voice away from them is not very functional, because it means that we are wasting a huge potential for proposals that can be of great use to all of us” (El velo elegido, 84-85).

Accepting the emergence of Islamic feminism leads us to acknowledge a plural reality and to bringing this reality to the forefront, to attach all its inherent importance to it. Feminism is not a monolithic movement, but a series of ideas designed to achieve gender equality. It is rooted in the actual history of women and adopts different expressions depending on the circumstances. In the words of Mary Nash, author of Mujeres en el Mundo, feminism cannot be reduced to a philosophy or a metaphysic, nor to an essentialist common denominator. From a historical point of view, it is clear that the cultural, social, political or religious environments have affected and continue to affect the development of feminist theory and have played a decisive role in the very way feminism is interpreted.

From this perspective, there is no doubt that the fact that an enormous number of women call themselves Muslim must affect the way they look at feminism. Amongst Muslim women, those that see themselves as feminist are those that have reached the conclusion that there is nothing incompatible between their religious beliefs and the basic vindication for women’s equality. Moreover, as we will have occasion to see over the next few days, it is their very condition as Muslims that leads them to call for the repeal of discriminatory laws and to vindicate equal treatment, to reinterpret their traditions and to cast doubt on the very textual foundations on which patriarchy is built.

In this case, the key is to understand that the adjective Islamic does not imply a reduction in the basic demand for gender equality in its more global sense. In the words of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirín Ebadi:

“If Islamic feminism means that a Muslim woman can also be a feminist and feminism and Islam do not have to be incompatible, I would agree with it. But if it means that feminism in Muslim societies is somehow peculiar and totally different from feminism in other societies so that it has to be always Islamic, I do not agree with such a concept.”

According to Shirín Ebadi, there are two ways of understanding the term “Islamic feminism”. First: feminism… but with the restrictions (supposedly) imposed by Islam. In other words: a (supposed) feminism in which the adjective Islamic implies a reduction of the basic objectives of feminism: the end to all discrimination on the grounds of gender, the fight against patriarchy. Second: feminism, but within a specific framework (of situations and reference points). From the understanding of feminism as a historical movement, one has to contextualise women’s struggle for equal treatment. The feminism of a 19th century American suffragette is very different to that of a 21st century American woman, but they are both feminism. In the same way, the feminism of a Muslim activist in Nigeria cannot be identical to that of a European atheist academic.

Once Islamic feminism has been positioned not in opposition to but as an integral part of global feminism, we can more accurately deal with the key question: What is Islamic feminism? Of all the definitions that I am aware of, one of the most complete is precisely that of Valentine Moghadam:

“Islamic feminism is a Koran-centred reform movement by Muslim women with the linguistic and theological knowledge to challenge patriarchal interpretations and offer alternative readings in pursuit of women’s advancement and in refutation of Western stereotypes and Islamist orthodoxy alike. Islamic feminists are critical of women’s legal status and social positions and agree that women are placed in subordinate positions – by law and by custom – in the family, the economy, and the polity. In particular, they are critical of the content of Muslim family laws and the ways that these laws restrict women’s human rights and privilege men. And yet they vigorously disagree that Islam is implicated in this state of affairs. Their alternative argument is that Islam has been interpreted in patriarchal and often misogynistic ways over the centuries (and especially in recent decades), that Sharia law has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that both the spirit and the letter of the Koran have been distorted. Their insistence that what appears as God’s law is in fact human interpretation is an audacious challenge to contemporary orthodoxy. (…) Islamic feminism is part of what has been variously called Islamic modernism, liberalism, and reformism – a transnational effort to marginalize patriarchal, orthodox, and aggressive forms of Islamic observance and emphasize the norms of justice, peace, and equality.”

This definition generally coincides with the one given by Margot Badran: “it is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”

Seen from the outside, this insistence on “saving the Qur’an” may seem disconcerting. However, it is a constant in the movements to which we are referring. It means nothing more and nothing less than that there is an absolute belief that the Qur’an does not justify patriarchy. Indeed, patriarchal readings of the Qur’an have resulted in the patriarchal structure of most Muslim societies. On the basis of this certainty, a deconstruction process is needed, a form of hermeneutics with a feminist narrative by which the message of the Qur’an can be regained, along with its call for an egalitarian society.

There are now countless studies along these lines. Some of them will be among us over the next few days. Reading these texts is an unforgettable experience: the books of Amina Wadud, (Qur’an and Woman) and Asma Barlas (Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an); or the essays of Riffat Hassan, Aziza al-Hibri, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and others.

This is not a vindication that keeps itself to the academic sphere, but one of the principles invoked by organisations known for their fight for women’s rights. On their website, the Malay group Sisters in Islam, whose executive director Zainah Anwar is also here with us, introduced itself as:

“Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a group of Muslim professional women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam. Our efforts to promote the rights of Muslim women are based on the principles of equality, justice and freedom enjoined by the Qur’an as made evident during our study of the holy text. We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.”

This is undoubtedly what gives rise to our particular link to feminism, as men and women who call themselves Muslim, who voluntarily recognise their submission to the Creator of the heavens and of Earth: the fact that we are dependent and incomplete, that everything depends on the Will of Allah, a mercy that creates and that touches everything. Our point of view is not sociological, but the point of view of believers practicing a faith that has been revealed, for whom Islamic feminism is above all an action and implies hope. This hope is that we can live by our faith fully, with harmony and equity, overcoming situations of oppression in which many Muslim women are engulfed. As action, Islamic feminism is based on recognition. Recognising the structural injustice of most Muslim societies inevitably leads us into confrontation with these structures (be they legal, ideological or mental) which support this oppression.

In particular, Islamic feminism is opposed to the implementation of a codification of the Sharia or Islamic Law that goes back to the 10th century and which aims to rule as though it were an undeniable truth which all Muslims must obey, and which in practice means nothing other than corporal punishment, justification of domestic violence against women, dress codes that restrict freedom, highly chauvinistic and discriminatory family laws restricting women’s right to divorce or inheritance or to exercise certain professions. A whole system of thinking that aims to relegate women to a lower level, to erase them from the public space, from the centres of knowledge and decision-making, from all the tasks by which Muslim women could develop their own creativity, in a word: free themselves from power structures that have been created to subjugate them. Islamic feminism declares that this alleged Islamic Law is not “God’s law”, as is claimed by those who promote it, but a human creation (all too human, as Nietzsche would say) codified centuries ago in the context of societies in which women were considered to be the property of men and religious discourse lay in the hands of men.

To finish, and coming back from the global down to the specific, we have pinpointed as one of the priorities of the congress to set up a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim feminists in relation to shared objectives. We must not forget that in most western countries, Islam is controlled by the more conservative sectors, with the difficulties that this brings to its integration into the value system of democracy. In Spain, too, there exists the possibility that a patriarchal and deeply reactionary form of Islamic leadership will be generated, similar to the one that dominates in countries such as France, the United States and England. To give just one example, we cannot take away from the fact that many mosques in Spain forbid the entry of women or relegate them to poky little rooms at the back.

In view of these and other discriminatory situations threatening Muslim women in Spain, I believe it is necessary to plan some form of collaboration with the various organisations and bodies responsible for safeguarding equal rights between women and men. The First International Congress on Islamic Feminism also aims to be seen as the beginning of such a collaboration, and the participation of the Instituto de la Mujer of the Spanish Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs, the Institut Català de les Dones of the Government of Catalonia and Barcelona City Council’s Concejalía de la Mujer leads us to hold the greatest hope in this regard.

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2 Responses to Presentation on Islamic Feminism. First International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Barcelona, 27th October 2005

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