“The struggle against discrimination should involve men and women equally”

From November 3-5 2006, the Catalonian Islamic Council will be organizing the II International Conference on Islamic Feminism, focusing on issues of the Sharia and family-related codes currently in force in countries with Muslim populations. In anticipation of this gathering, we interviewed Abdennur Prado, event director.

Question: Please tell us how this idea came about, and what the objectives are.

The project originated out of our work with Webislam. As we verified some of the current news concerning the Islamic world, we discovered the other side of the picture, precisely that which the mainline Western press tends to conceal: the existence of a broad intellectual movement within Islam, critical of both modern Western society and of codified tradition. We realized that in recent years many collectives of Muslim women have appeared, groups which fight against discrimination and claim their rights from within the framework of Islam, in countries as far away as Malaysia, Nigeria or Pakistan, to mention a few. All these movements had something in common which we have called «Islamic feminism»: Muslim women claiming their rights from within the framework of Islam. Out of this came the idea of gathering together some of these intellectuals and activists in an international conference, so that Islamic feminism could be visualized as a whole, a renewal movement of the Ummah , from within. It was a pioneering initiative, carried out in the year 2005. The enthusiasm generated by the first conference has encouraged us to move forward.

Some people believe that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, a contradiction. What is meant by Islamic feminism?

It’s a terminology problem. For many Muslims, the word “feminism” is something linked to modern Western society, with all the rejection that that entails, especially with regard to memories of colonialism and to the degradation of the human condition inherent in neoliberal globalization. Faced with the destructive aspects of modern life, Islam appears as an essential tradition, a way of being in a world that considers the human being as God’s caliph over the earth, a creature capable of transcendency. This explains the difficulties of some in accepting the term “Islamic feminism”. But if we reflect for a moment, we realize that such a contradiction does not exist. If we understand feminism to mean the struggle for respect of women’s rights, in harmony with the egalitarian Message of the Koran, no Muslim would doubt that feminism is fully Islamic. In fact, as Sheija Amina Teslima states, the word “feminism” is redundant, since it is implicit in the word Islam. On the contrary, for many non-Muslims, the expression “Islamic feminism” appears to be a paradox, breaking away from prevailing ideas about women in Islam. Thus the term’s impact in the media.

Within Islamic feminism there is great diversity of postures, as is the case with global feminism.

Diversity is inherent to feminism, as a movement that is merged with the real life of women. The feminism of an English suffragist from the 19th century cannot be identical to that of a Moroccan woman in the 21st century. Each woman must respond to a concrete historical situation. In the same way, large cultural and contextual differences in the Islamic world have always existed. Muslim women do not constitute a homogeneous block; their conditions are very heterogeneous and vary according to their social class, their level of education and their geographic location. In some places patriarchy has a more aggressive face than in others: Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan. But there are Arab countries where women enjoy great autonomy, such as Syria. In sub-Saharan Africa we find Muslim societies where the woman has had much impact. Within Islamic feminism there is great awareness of this diversity as something positive, as opposed to both Western cultural imperialism and the Pan-Arabianism being promoted from Arabia. Thus, an Indonesian activist, Lily Zakiyah Munir, is able to reject any link between the Islamic feminism which she defends and Arab feminism, affirming that her feminism is rooted both in Islam and in the tradition of the island of Java.

Could you comment on some of the different types of feminism within the Muslim world?

At the ideological level, three main trends are usually distinguished. On one hand, we find Western-style feminism, which feels that there is no possibility of gender equality within Islam, and that Islam itself should be fought against. This feminism is a sub-product of colonialism. In contrast to this we find Arab feminism, which calls for women’s liberation from within an Arab/Muslim cultural paradigm. Arab feminism is culturally Muslim, but it denounces Islam as a patriarchal religion which has historically been detrimental to women. The difference between Arab feminism and Western-style, secular feminism lies in Arab feminism recognizing Islam as a rightful, defining heritage, with positive aspects that can be drawn out. However, both denounce Islam as a patriarchal religion.

The third trend is Islamic feminism, which calls for the possibility of attaining equal rights for men and women within the framework of Islam. These are believers who reject the male chauvinism which prevails in the majority of Muslim societies. This movement considers that there was been a degradation in the Islamic tradition and distortion of the sacred texts. It is a spiritual movement, in a very profound sense. Thus, Amina Wadud insists that her feminism is a result of her faith, that she will always consider herself first a believer, and second a feminist. I identify deeply with this outlook: if I consider myself feminist it is precisely because I am Muslim, someone who recognizes their submission to the Creator of heaven and earth, and who tries to act accordingly.

To what extent are these feminisms opposed to one another? Do you think they can work together?

I have no doubt in the least: not only can they, but they must work together. But in order to do so, the culturally Muslim feminists need to revise their concept of Islam as a patriarchal religion, and the anti-religion feminists must reconsider their belligerent posture towards religious reality. In other words: they should gracefully accept the presence of millions of human beings who wish to live out the spiritual dimension of their existence, without their having to accept any discrimination on that account. Other than this, from within Islamic feminism there is no difficulty in collaborating with secular or lay Arab feminists, just as there is no difficulty in collaborating with Christian, Buddhist or Jewish feminists. We must be aware that we live in a time of globalization, where global responses are required of us, beginning with full respect for our differences. It is necessary to overcome any kind of sectarianism..

What are the biggest challenges for Islamic feminism, and why is it important to carry out this task of claiming rights for Muslim women within Islam?

Several levels must be differentiated. On one hand, there are the concrete challenges: social projects which tend to improve women’s lives, the demand that states respect international agreements referring to women’s rights, the struggle to abolish or reform discriminatory laws, campaigns against abuse and crimes of honor, or for access to education as a right of Muslim women. It is necessary to move forward in consolidating Islamic feminism as a cross-national movement, a legitimate trend within Islam, creating cross-national networks which share information and strategies for fighting. There need to be forums available for intellectuals and activists to meet one another, to develop a solid plan for emancipation. It should be clear that only local movements have the power to change things: they are the ones who know what their needs and possibilities are. On the other hand, there is a general, long-term objective which is shared by all branches of feminism: the abolition of patriarchy. On this matter it must be clear that Islamic feminism does not mean a reduction in feminist demands in their more universal sense. Islam is not a patriarchal religion, and we cannot accept that patriarchy continues to govern social relations in the framework of Islam.

The Conference focuses on the topic of the Sharia and family-related codes. Can you explain why this was chosen?

The reason is obvious: if we speak of Muslim women’s struggle against sexual discrimination, we must analyze the content of these family-related codes, which in many aspects are strongly discriminatory. We must speak about divorce, polygamy, abortion, segregation of the sexes, man’s guardianship over woman… about all those topics where the real teachings of Islam are being distorted. All of this means being critical of our legal tradition, and recognizing that the large schools of Islamic jurisprudence were codified under parameters of patriarchy. We do not mean throwing out the classical fiqh, but making a critical examination which will allow us to preserve what is most valuable from this immense legacy. Today such a review is essential. We cannot forget that political movements exist which demand application of Islamic law just as it was codified ten centuries ago, in a context completely unlike our own, which ends up meaning a loss of rights for Muslim women.

Is Islamic feminism, then, opposed to the Sharia?

Not at all. This idea can only come from someone who is ignorant of the pretensions of Islamic feminism. Insistence on fighting against injustices which are committed in the name of the Sharia is not fighting against the Sharia: it is fighting against injustice. Furthermore, the Sharia contains not only punitive laws, as some ignorant people think, but also how to do prayers and fast: how could any Muslim be against the Sharia? Actually, the big enemies of the Sharia are those who try to apply discriminatory laws. I am not speaking of abstractions, but of stark reality. During the conference, Shaheen Sardar Ali will speak to us about the houdud laws in Pakistan, where the woman who reports a rape is required to have four male witnesses who corroborate the facts. Otherwise, she may be accused of zina, adultery, or even be punished for reporting a rape that she cannot prove. Under these circumstances, most rapes are not reported, thus giving incentive to rapists, who know they will go unpunished. And all this because of the strong pressure from Islamic parties to maintain this terrible law, which has nothing to do with Islam, but is presented as a part of the Sharia. These Islamic fundamentalist groups are the ones who are creating a strong rejection of the Sharia among the Muslims themselves. Faced with this reality, Islamic feminism can be seen as a defense of the Sharia in modern society, based on an egalitarian reading of the Koran. One good example of this attitude is Ayesha Imam, who after her fight against sentences of stoning and other punishments imposed by the Sharia courts in Nigeria, has publicly defended the right of Nigerian Muslims to be governed by the Sharia.

How can men contribute to improving the discrimination situation in which many Muslim women find themselves?

By not accepting discrimination which is committed in the name of Islam, denouncing this fearlessly. We must reject the idea that Islam has assigned differentiated, inflexible roles to woman and man, and recover the Message of the Koran as an expression of an order based on the ontological equality of men and women. The Muslim woman must be recognized in her condition of a caliph of Creation, charged with caring for the world, capable of fulfilling all roles. One key issue is revising Arab patterns of masculinity, which have nothing to do with the example of the Prophet, may he rest in peace. We must recognize our feminineness, the fact that the masculine and the feminine are a part of us, as qualities that should be balanced. In a more concrete sense, promoting women to positions of responsibility, not attending meetings where women are rejected or segregated, demanding women’s access to our mosques in equal conditions as men… feminism affects our general attitude toward life. From an Islamic point of view, it is clear that the struggle against discrimination should involve men and women equally.

You say that “We must reject the idea that Islam has assigned differentiated roles to woman and man”, but, isn’t it biology itself which has defined these differentiated roles?

Of course, motherhood and fatherhood are different and very concretely affect the lives of men and women, alhamdulil-lâh. But I am not referring to what is obvious. The problem comes about when, beginning with biological differences, some people derive a whole system of thought where the man should occupy the dominating social positions, and the woman should be relegated to the domestic arena. The next step is to decree total segregation of the sexes, such that woman’s presence in society becomes invisible. Already in the 12th century, Averroes (the andalusian thinker Ibn Rushd) predicted that the separation of women from productive life would mean ruin for Muslim cities: you cannot keep half of the population in passivity. This has no justification in the Koran or in the Sunna of our beloved prophet, who married an extraordinary woman, Khadiya, who not only was an merchant, but was also his boss for many years. The prophet cleaned her house and cooked. His women were not his maids, but his companions in a community-based spiritual adventure. Of course there is nothing wrong with a woman dedicating herself to the tasks of the home, if this is what she wishes. The point is that, based on biological differences, we cannot deny women the right to become judges, scholars or national presidents, to occupy any post for which their natural talent has suited them. Ontological equality between men and women takes a higher place than any biological difference.

Critics state that Islamic feminism belongs to a small minority group, restricted to academic circles. What can you tell us about this, what are the expectations?

We must visualize Islamic feminism as a cross-national movement which is finding its way into every corner of the ummah. There are important women’s movements in all Muslim countries. The list of organizations and their objectives is impressive. We are speaking of groups against ablation, against crimes of honor, against forced marriages, against sexist family codes. We speak of activists who are carrying out important literacy campaigns and campaigns to help women. Some of these activists are recognized as feminists and others are not, but their struggle concurs in many ways with the purposes of Islamic feminism. From my point of view, we must connect these movements with the discourse of female thinkers such as Asma Barlas, Lily Zakiyah Munir, Ziba Mir Hosseini, Amira Sonbol or Shaheen Sardar Ali… and so many others. This discourse is rooted solidly in Islam, and provides all the keys for answering the orthodox pretensions of reactionary ulemas. Once this becomes known, I am sure that it will be seen as something necessary. There is much to do, but my confidence in the possibilities of Islamic feminism is enormous. We are dealing with a movement that can be preached broadly among Muslim youth around the world, and can take effect in communities which are fed up with fundamentalism, a line of reasoning which does not respond to their expectations of life and spirituality. I am convinced that the mental and legal structures which seek to justify segregation are doomed to disappear, and that this disappearance will open immense possibilities for the future.

International Congress on Islamic Feminism

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