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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Islamic Feminism ‘On the Move’ Among the Forces of Change

Originally Posted on ABC News, September 14, 2010

By Lara Setrakian

If you think Islam and feminism don’t mix, then you’re missing a major force for change in the Muslim world. The named phenomenon of ‘Islamic Feminism’ emerged in the early 1990s, as women began calling for more rights and greater equality based on arguments from within Islamic texts.

They reasoned that the patriarchal and misogynistic practices of some Muslim countries – from domestic violence to women’s second-class status under the law – were not what Islam intended. Using the exercise of tafsir¸ or interpretation of the Koran, female religious scholars developed a body of knowledge calling for changes big and small – arguing for women muftis, against polygamy, and in support of equal status between husband and wife.

‘Islamic Feminism really turned the paradigm upside down, saying we live in modern societies and the Quran can be interpreted in ways that enhance justice and equality,’ said Margot Badran, an expert and author on the subject.

Today, Islamic feminism is ‘resolutely on the move,’ she writes, pointing to groups from the ‘Sisters in Islam’ of Indonesia to South African Muslims mixing genders in the mosque, to American scholar Amina Wadud, controversially leading Friday prayers in New York City. Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Mai Yamani and Iran’s Ziba Mir Hosseini helped build the literature of Islamic feminism, while Pakistani scholar Riffat Hassan forcefully argued that ‘Sexism is not Islam.’

In the Middle East especially, feminism has often needed Islam in order to make change.

‘If you want to reform family law in the Middle East, it being Islamic family law, then of course you have to use an Islamic argument to overturn it,’ said Badran. Family law covers issues like marriage, divorce, custody rights and multiple wives – and it has been the target for reform by many a feminist campaign. In Iran a coalition of feminists and reformist politicians pushed over elements of a controversial new family law that would have taxed women’s dowries and allowed men to take second wives without their first wife’s consent. In Egypt, activists made it easier for women to file for divorce, citing rules laid out by the Prophet Mohammed. In Morocco a coalition of Islamic and secular feminists working together succeeded inrevising the Muslim Family Law, shifting it to an egalitarian model that treated men and women as equal heads of the family.

It’s that coalition of secular and Islamic feminists, says Margot Badran, that gets the most traction. In Lebanon, with its thriving secular space, has seen feminist action from the KAFA campaign against domestic violenceto a local, culturally adapted production of the Vagina Monologues.

‘You’d tend to think that Lebanese women are very liberated, because they go dancing and wear miniskirts. But there’s a huge gap between appearance and how it is inside the home, said feminist and famed cartoon blogger Maya Zankoul.

‘Women are still beaten, harassed, not allowed to work. But they might be driving around with a big car. They may be very rich, but they don’t have their rights.’

Zankoul’s frustration is shared among activists, both secular and Islamic. In Yemen, women have fought to abolish child marriage, only to seeconservative women fight them back. In Egypt efforts to use Islamic arguments to ban female genital mutilation have come up against Islamic arguments defending the practice – a ‘he said, she said’ of Koranic interpretation.

That hints at one limitations of the Islamic feminist approach. There are others.

‘When feminists try to use religion they are also promoting the idea that we should make our life decisions in accordance with standardized religious teachings rather than by appealing to a sense of equity or justice,’ wrote Hania Sholkamy, an anthropologist at the American University Cairo.

‘This utilitarian approach may win over some people but it may precipitate a bigger loss; that is the loss of independent reason.’

She goes on to argue that change is a matter of politics, and all politics of change are local. The most Arab and Muslim feminists can do is keep pushing, hoping to tilt the balance.

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