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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A 2009 meeting of the International Advisory Group of Musawah (“equality”)

What does it take for a vibrant Islamic feminism to take shape? Why has it taken so long for a movement like Musawah to come into being? The answer to these questions has to do with the intertwined histories of feminism and the Islamic state. When feminism first emerged in Europe and America, much of the Islamic world was still under colonial occupation, and Muslim women associated this new ideology with regimes that had oppressed their people.

Over the twentieth century, as Muslim countries gained independence, the rise of political Islam only exacerbated the tension between Islam and feminism. The divide between the two ideologies was particularly obvious in 1979—the year of the Iranian Revolution and, simultaneously, the year that the United Nations ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“We saw a clash between two ways of thinking and two frames of reference,” says Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian legal anthropologist. “One was political Islam and the other was the idea of human rights and equality before the law.” When the Iranian people established the Islamic Republic, Muslims worldwide began to see the possibilities of Islam as a force for justice and democracy. Meanwhile, with CEDAW, feminists found the tools they needed to improve the lives of women through political legislation in secular states.

Without the option of being both Muslim and feminist, some chose to abandon their faith altogether. As Mir-Hosseini recalls, “Many Iranian women of my generation who were politically active and who had a feminist consciousness were forced out of the country. They took an anti-religious attitude, and they saw religion as the main source of oppression—and especially Islam.”

By the end of the 1980s, a resolution between Islam and feminism was desperately needed. Zainah Anwar founded Sisters in Islam because she saw that a human rights framework would not have meaning to the average Muslim woman. She describes going into Malaysian villages to tell women about their rights and being confronted with questions about Islamic law: Doesn’t Islam say a man has a right to beat a woman? Doesn’t Islam say a woman must obey her husband? Doesn’t Islam say a man has a right to four wives? “Religion matters to the lives of the women we claim we want to help,” Anwar says. “Invoking CEDAW is not enough to convince these women of their rights, because it has no resonance to them. Islam, on the other hand, is a source of values and principles. We needed to engage with religion and provide answers to these questions in ways that were relevant to their lives.”

Malaysia has proved to be a particularly fertile ground for Islamic feminism for many reasons. Although Islam is the state religion, Malaysia remains a pluralistic democracy, which has made it easier for women to challenge Koranic teachings and Islamic jurisprudence. Malaysian Islamic feminists have not faced much resistance from the government; indeed, when Sisters in Islam was founded, Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister at the time, expressed his support for its work.

Malaysia also has a robust middle class, with women who are active in the workforce. In many other Muslim countries, few women work outside the home, thereby limiting their independence and awareness of political issues. Recent Gallup surveys show that the rate of women’s participation in the labor force in Arab countries is among the lowest in the world. In developing countries like Yemen, there are few opportunities for women within the economy, while in oil-rich countries like Qatar and Kuwait, women do not need to work. In both extremes, women do not have as much motivation to organize.

Sisters in Islam showed activists in other Muslim countries the value of integrating Islamic and human rights frameworks. Indeed, Musawah is a product of sustained interest in Malaysia’s Islamic feminist model. However, there has also been resistance from secular feminists who say that pursuing justice within Islam is a losing battle because the process of interpreting Islamic sources is inherently subjective. They warn that building a movement on such shaky ground is unwise.


These arguments signal the kinds of battles that lie ahead for Musawah. Since Islamic feminists operate out of the belief (shared by many Muslim scholars) that there is no single authoritative understanding of the Koran, there is no end to the interpretive process. Those who reject Islamic feminist interpretations need only arm themselves with convincing counterarguments to shift the debate back in their favor. “At this point in time, you can argue that giving women the right to interpret the Koran is an equalizing force,” says Sarah Tobin, an economic anthropologist who studies Jordan. “But over time, as men learn about their tradition and equip themselves with rebuttals, this is going to change. Gender inequities perpetuate in profound and durable ways.” It is also possible that Islamic feminists will begin to disagree among themselves about specific interpretations of the Koran and Sharia, which may lead to divisions within the movement.

Islamic feminists will have to continue to provide a defense of their work in order to enlist the support of secular feminists, who avoid the subjectivity that accompanies religion by focusing on universal human rights. Secular feminists believe that while it may take more time to educate Muslim women about CEDAW, human rights instruments are less likely to be challenged and blocked in the long run. If Musawah is going to be able to work alongside secular feminists and NGOs fighting for many of the same goals, it will have to explain why it is valuable to argue for human rights from within Islam.

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As the events of the Arab Spring unfurled, Muslim women’s involvement in the political process gained a new visibility. Muslim women have been active in political and social movements for many years, but the international media were particularly attentive to women’s presence in the demonstrations that swept Muslim countries in late 2010 and early 2011.

Ryan Calder, a sociologist who covered the events from Libya, says he noticed a distinct shift in the way men treated women at the time of the Arab Spring. “There was a collective effervescence,” he remembers, “driven by solidarity and a sense that we are all valuable human beings.” This outpouring of respect for women was evident when demonstration leaders cordoned off areas for women in rallies, encouraging more of them to participate. “This may sound backward to someone who lives in the West,” says Calder, “but these areas gave women a space where they felt safe. Ordinarily, a woman might not go out among men by herself because her family would not allow her to, or she would be made to feel uncomfortable.”

Mulki Al-Sharmani, a scholar from Cairo who has worked closely with Musawah, watched the movement unfold in her city. “Lots of women took part in the revolution in Egypt,” she says. “It was Asmaa Mahfouz—a woman—who sparked the January uprising and called for young people to take to the streets.” Even as women engaged in political struggles, she says, it is important to remember that they also faced gender-based discrimination at the front lines, which has continued long after the protests. “There was what looked like planned and deliberate harassment of women and sexual attacks, particularly a year and a half later, to stop women from protesting. But this didn’t deter women. They’re still active.”

In the midst of these protests, many women chose to remain veiled even as they expressed their sentiments. As they called for democracy and human rights, they were asserting their identity as Muslim women. “At the forefront of the revolution, women were wearing hijabs,” says Marina Mahathir. “They were calling for greater equality and justice, but they were not rejecting religion. To these women, it was possible for both to exist at the same time.”

In the wake of the Arab Spring, women are continuing to fight for change. In June 2012, Jordanian women demonstrated to protest a law that allows rape charges to be dropped if the perpetrator marries his victim. In August 2012, 6,000 Tunisian women marched through the city to push for more equality for women in Tunisia’s new Constitution. In May of this year, the King Khalid Foundation in Saudi Arabia ran a highly visible campaign demanding legislation against domestic abuse, and in September, in an unprecedented move, the kingdom passed the law. In early October, after Sudanese women were detained in anti-government protests, women formed a silent wall to demand their freedom, which resulted in President Omar al-Bashir releasing them. On October 26, more than sixty Saudi women collectively took to the streets in their cars to challenge the law that bans them from driving.

At a time of change and upheaval within the Muslim world, women are increasingly articulating a vision of the future that includes gender equality and social justice alongside their faith. The future of the Islamic state will depend on leaders’ ability to incorporate human rights into an Islamic framework. Islamic feminism has an important role to play in this process. “Political Islam, if it is going to have a future, has to democratize,” says Ziba Mir-Hosseini. “A large part of this process involves taking into account the rise of women and minorities. This process is unfolding differently in each country because of different political structures and social conditions, but it is happening.”

In our issue for June 27, 2011, Katha Pollitt talked with Saudi women’s rights campaigner Wajeha al-Huwaider about women and driving in Saudi Arabia, a feminist Islam and the chances for a “Saudi Spring.”