The Rise of the Islamic Feminists
Women protesting in Benghazi, Libya, in 2011 against the Qaddafi dictatorship (Ryan Calder)
Throughout the Muslim world, a groundswell of feminist sentiment is growing among women who are seeking to reclaim Islam and the Koran for themselves. For decades, many women believed they had to choose between their Muslim identity and their belief in gender equality. It was an impossible choice—one that involved betraying either their faith or their feminist consciousness. Four years ago, a global movement called Musawah—“equality” in Arabic—began to make the case that women can fight for justice and equality from within Islamic tradition. For many Muslim women, this came as a revelation.
Musawah was spearheaded by twelve women, from countries as diverse as Egypt, Gambia, Turkey and Pakistan, who spent two years laying out the movement’s guiding principles. It was officially launched in 2009 at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur that brought together 250 Muslim activists, scholars, legal practitioners and policy-makers from forty-seven nations. The organization is currently based in Malaysia, but will periodically move its secretariat and leadership council from country to country. At its core, Musawah operates on the belief that Islam is not inherently biased toward men: patriarchy within Muslim countries is a result of the way male interpreters have read Islamic texts. With this framework for action, Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, then push for legal reform in their respective countries.
Around the world, Musawah’s members uphold its mission by producing educational materials, fighting for legal provisions and advocating for women’s rights alongside local NGOs. Their work relies on two main tools: progressive interpretations of the Koran and international human rights standards. Musawah’s approach is modeled on a Malaysian organization called Sisters in Islam, which works with Islamic scholars to produce workshops and books that explain that Islam does not mandate injustice. Zainah Anwar, one of Musawah’s key architects, founded Sisters in Islam in 1988 and has made it an important political and religious force in Malaysia. According to Anwar, many Muslim women spend their entire lives believing that their oppression is justified by Islamic teachings, such as the concept of a husband’s authority over his wife. For years, she has gone into rural towns to show women that Islam supports gender equality. “When they are exposed to this new knowledge, they feel duped,” says Anwar. “All these years, they believed that their suffering in the form of abandonment, polygamy and beatings was all in the name of God.”
Marina Mahathir, an AIDS activist who works with Sisters in Islam and Musawah (and is the daughter of Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister), says she has met many women who refuse to protect themselves from getting HIV from their husbands because they believe that any attempt to do so—not just by refusing sex or leaving their homes, but even by insisting on condom use—would be wifely disobedience, or nushuz, denounced in Islam. To convince them that escaping a dangerous marriage is not against God’s will, Mahathir worked with scholars to find Koranic justification for leaving one’s husband under exceptional circumstances. According to progressive scholars, the concept of iddribuhunna, which has traditionally been interpreted as “to beat,” also means “to go separate ways” and can serve as confirmation that it is sometimes permissible for a woman to end her marriage.
Over the past twenty-five years, Sisters in Islam has seen a change in the culture, as more women speak up against their oppression by appealing to Islamic law. I heard stories from Malaysian women influenced by the organization’s work who now deploy religious arguments to curb injustice in their marriages. When their husbands beat them, have affairs or neglect to provide for them, they assert their agency by arguing that this behavior goes against Islam. They say their husbands are much more likely to respond to religious appeals than if they simply point out that their actions are hurtful. “There has been a change in the discourse in deciding who has authority,” says Anwar. “Women are claiming the authority to speak on Islamic law and to participate in the construction of meaning. Musawah’s ambition is to multiply and amplify this voice at an international level.”
In some ways, Musawah operates as a kind of research institute, commissioning the work of international experts in the fields of Islamic jurisprudence, history and ethics to find counternarratives that are liberating to women. One of these experts, Muhammad Khalid Masud, a judge on the Shariat appellate bench for the Supreme Court of Pakistan, argues, “The Koran did not invent or introduce patriarchy.” He says that Islamic scriptures were written at a time when the dominant culture in the Middle East was patriarchal, and must be read in this context. “The Koran must be historicized before applying it to modern issues,” he told me. Musawah is undertaking an extensive knowledge-building project on the issue of male authority over women in an effort to fight for family-law reforms.
In many Muslim countries, Koranic interpretation affects how laws are written and implemented. Sharia, a legal system based on Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence, is a source of legislation in many Islamic states. In Malaysia, for instance, the Sharia court has jurisdiction over Muslim citizens in family-law matters. In June of this year, it found thirty-nine Malaysians guilty of sexual crimes, punishable by public caning. In countries like Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, virtually all courts operate under Islamic law.
One of Musawah’s goals is to persuade Muslims that Sharia laws are not divine but subject to discussion. “We want to emphasize that everything we understand of Islam comes from human intervention with the word of God,” Anwar says. “Human engagement with the divine text produces laws that are fallible and open to change, given changing times and circumstances.” Historically, women have been marginalized in the Sharia lawmaking process, which accounts for how unfavorable many of these laws are toward them. “We want to change the terms of the debate about Islamic family law and to highlight the possibilities of change, reform, equality and justice,” says Anwar.
Musawah’s founders believe that it is possible for women to advocate for their own protection under the law. They were inspired by the groundbreaking legal reforms in Morocco after years of women’s participation in public debates, petitions and marches. In 2004, the Moroccan Parliament passed a bill that defines marriage as an equal partnership between spouses, with equal responsibility for the family. It gave women the right to divorce and also protected them from talaq, an Islamic practice that gives husbands the right to dissolve a marriage at will. This reform sent ripples throughout the Muslim world, and Musawah holds it up as an example of the kind of change that is possible through an engagement with Islamic jurisprudence. Musawah works with women from around the Islamic world for similar reform in their respective countries.
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