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Feminist Expectations and the Response of Muslim Women

Hujjatul Islam
Dr.Saied Reza Ameli,

researcher on Sociology of Culture and Mass Media at the Royal Holloway University of London.

Paper presented at the International Conference on Woman in Islam, held in London on 9th September 2001.

There are variety of theories and movements in feminism which present diversity of idea, values and perspective. In general, the feminist movement is considered as a movement for liberation and protection of women rights in the society.

I. Western Feminism

'Western feminist researchers in general hold the belief that once a society is dominated in certain spheres by men, women will become suppressed and passive group' (Duval, 1998: 46).

Western feminism is the continuation of a historical process. One can argue that the basis of western feminism is the product of sole gender domination of the Church and the crude discrimination between man and women and the denial of women in terms of western social rights. It was the period when males species, governed, culminating to exclusive power and ownership on all aspects of socio-economic life. While women were regards as subservient species denied from any kind of rights either to express her views or to any social participation. Today feminism pursues women emancipation from any kind of bondage, or in which segregates women from the caravan of male supremacy, occupational equality, equality in social and political status, male and female equality in social rights and their rights in regards to children. From their perspective there is no disparity between man and woman in relation to private and public sphere. Feminism is merely a secular ideology. Fundamentally feminism, not only has any concept of divine principles, but on the contrary and in many cases religion is regarded as the main source of inequality between man and women. In other wards like other principles of secular liberalism, main theories and principal values of feminism is arise from mental creation of human desires.

According to the principal that majority of feminist share with regard to subjective equality between men and women in terms of social and individual ability and right, feminist theorists argue that most of the organized religious belief systems which dominate the historical and modem world are profoundly sexist. There are three major feminist theories about religion - the radical, the liberal and reformist critique of existing practice and the utopian creation of a new counter culture practice.

The racial theory of feminism with regard to religion represents the Marxist and Social theory. They believe in principal Religion is the opium of the masses and in particular religion consider as a main reason for the inequality of men and women in the society. The liberal theory also share the same idea that religion and in particular Christianity is major source of typical presentation of gender issue. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her book 'The Woman's Bible' made the first major feminist contribution to changes in Christian religion. Stanton believed that the language and interpretation of passages dealing with women in the Bible were a major source of women's inferior status. The central message of Christianity, Daly (1973, 1978) claims, is sadomasochism legitimized in torture. Susan Griffin (1981) also agrees that a fundamental theme of the Western Christian tradition is its hatred of the flesh, which is based on an idea that woman's body calls man back to his animal nature.

From the reformist perspective religion should be reformulated in a way that religion can create an equality between men and women in all aspects of human life. From their perspective religion has been legitimized masculinism throughout the history, therefore they see a serious need for rewriting the religious doctrine based on feminist principal.

Indeed not all feminist think the same, one can categorized them in the following categories:

1. Amazon Feminism:

Amazon feminism is concerned with 'physical gender equality'. It rejects die idea that certain characteristics or interests are inherently masculine (or feminine), and uphold and explores a vision of heroic womanhood. This is a sort of radical feminism which questions why women must adopt certain roles based on their biology, just as it questions why men adopt certain other roles based on theirs. Radical feminism claims to draw lines between biologically-determined behaviour and culturally-determined behaviour in order to free both men and women as much as possible from their previously gender roles.

Firestone argues that the origin of the dualism lies in 'biology itself - procreation', a natural or original inequality that is the basis of the oppression of women and the source of male power. Men, by confining women to reproduction nature, have freed themselves for the business of the world and so have created and controlled culture. The proposed solution is to eliminate natural differences between the sexes by introducing artificial reproduction. Nature and the private sphere of the family will then be abolished and individuals, of all ages, will interact as equals in an undifferentiated cultural or public order (Pateman, 1987: 111).

Mary Daly (1978) makes Amazon into a metaphor to describe women who are fighting to affirm the true identity of our foremothers. This accepts that aggression can be used by women to develop an entirely separate and self-contained women's culture. This perspective even influenced their interpretation of God. For example, Merlin Stone suggests that the term was used to describe Goddess worshippers who fought to protect their temples.

2. Anarcho-Feminism:

It looks for fragmentation of all old norms, values and customs of the older generation and today's society with regards to women. Their policy is concerned with the deconstruction of all traditional principals without establishing any systematic principal for the position of women within the modem or postmodern society.

3. Liberal Feminism:

This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. Its roots stretch back to the social contract theory of government instituted by the American Revolution. Liberalization of women according to liberal democratic political system is their main slogan for women all over the world.

4. Material Feminism:

A movement in die late 19th century, which aimed at liberating women by improving their material condition. It had focussed on releasing the burden of housework and cooking duties, which was a chore on the shoulders of women in the household.

5. Socialist Feminism

Marxism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/private property system. Thus they insist that the only way to end the oppression of women is to overthrow the capitalist system.

'one of the main theories of Western feminism, socialist feminism believes that women are second-class citizens in patriarchal capitalism which depends of its survival on the exploitation of working people, and on the special exploitation of women. Socialist feminism argues that we need to transform not only the ownership of the means of production, but also social experience because the roots of women's oppression lie in the total economic system of capitalism (see reed 1970).

Socialist feminism argues that men have a specific material interest in the domination of women and that men construct a variety of institutional arrangements to perpetuate this domination. Socialist feminism goes beyond the conventional definition of economy to consider activity that does not involve the exchange of money, for example by including the procreative and sexual work done by women in the home. Socialist feminism has a theory of epistemology which takes the view that all knowledge represents the interests and values of specific social group, by describing historical variations in practices and in the categories by which values are understood (Eisenstein, 1979),

Socialist feminism is now engaged in a more adequate explanation of women's subordination in order to show how types of production, not ordinarily considered economic, can be understood in economic terms. The ideal is that women and men might disappear as socially constituted categories. Socialist feminism is attacked by radical feminism because it obscures and occludes an understanding of how central the institution of heterosexuality is to women's oppression (Ferguson, 1982).

The analytical observation based on social class structure, merely stems from the materialistic perspective based upon the capacity & the aptitude of the members of the society. In this respect, a person who enjoys a greater economic prosperity is considered as a cream of that society, labelled as upper class citizens. On the said ratio, a person or persons with lesser degree of the financial gains are categorized in to lower level of the social ladder. On this respect, women as second class citizenship, from materialistic perspective requires detail analysis in such social milieu. From the divine observation, the aim of a pious & healthy society is to utilize the opportunity of life given by the creator.

To utilize the equal opportunity of life can not be limit to economic opportunities. Hence forth, the spiritual opportunities plays an important to direct the society towards peace & tranquillity. From this point of view, humanity is based on the foundation of utilizing human virtuosity for the purpose of individual classification. In this regards, there exist no difference between male & female. The existence of male and female inequality is the product of cultural, social and political situation in a society, which tolerates such a specified criteria, as a result of unequal material opportunities and the superimposed distinction upon male and female gender.

6. Radical Feminism

Radical feminism argues that women's oppression comes from our categorization as an inferior class to the class 'men' on the basis of our gender. Radical feminism aims to destroy this sex-class system. What makes this feminism radical is that it focuses on the roots of male domination and claim that all forms of oppression are extensions of male supremacy. The central thesis of radical feminism is the belief that the personal is political and that woman-centredness can be the basis of a future society (Eisenstein, 1984).

Certain issues put radical feminism at odds with other feminist perspectives, specifically a socialist view of the centrality of class and a black view of the centrality of race. Juliet Mitchell criticised Firestone in particular and radical feminism in general for not speaking of women's oppression in a historically specific way (Mitchell, 1971).

In the 1970s radical feminism gradually abandoned the 'linear', male style of traditional political theory and moved into a poetic and metaphorical mode. A radical feminist paradigm is till emerging. Radical feminist differ in how they name reality because they use a limited range of concepts, such as rape or slavery, to bring together apparently disparate phenomena such as marriage and prostitution.

What we have explained here so far is different approached of western feminism. With in the diversity of the theories of feminism one fundamental conclusion can be established that feminism no matter liberal, radical, Amazon or socialist feminist share one common idea among them is that religion is one of the major barriers for revitalization of women's right in the society, hence their approach is either secular approach or in some cases anti-religion. The second common idea among all feminists is mono-sexism inclination which caused sacrifization of one sex for the other.

II. Muslim Responses to Feminism

Although the movement for revitalization of women rights has established 'm Islam, it may be argued that social, cultural and political circumstances have resulted different perception of Muslim women in the society. Therefore we are observing variety of responses of Muslim scholars and Muslim women movements to the social phenomenon of feminism in the West.

The position of Muslim women with in the family and society has been central concern of many scholars since the beginning of Islam. The process of modernization and movements of feminists in the West have accelerated the women's discourse in the Muslim world [see Mernissi (1993), Nair (1994), Basit (1997) and Moghissi (1999).

We can categorize the theories on the position of Muslim women within the society in five different approaches:

1 Apologetic Feminism

Apologetic Feminism is basically embodied in liberal feminism of Muslim women. Liberal and Secular perspective of Muslim activists and Muslim Scholars have lead them towards apologetic reaction ( Mir-Hosseini, 1996: 285). This group either try to adapt religion to feminist principal or accept feminism as an inevitable way of life for Muslim women whether religious principal could established accordingly or not.

This group of feminist re-reading the sharia texts to introduce women's right according to Islamic values (see Mir-Hosseini, 1996: 286).

It is important to find out whether their aim is reformation or reconstruction of women's position in the family, society and the whole social structure and public sphere.

In the Christian and Judaic feminist tradition the holy text regarded as limited by its historical context and thus fragment it, classifying the fragments according to what is regarded as either universal and essential or culturally relative (Roald, 1998: 18).

According to Duval (1998: 46) 'Islam is viewed as the main origin of the prevalence of sexual inequality in the Middle East'. From western feminist point of view Islam and in particular veiling is the main barrier for Muslim women and in general Muslim society to become civilized. 'In the Western eyes only by giving up these "peculiar" and "intrinsic" practices, would Muslim societies move forward on the path of civilization. The veil, for the colonizers but also in the vision of contemporary western political culture is the most visible marker of the 'otherness' and 'inferiority' of Islamic societies' (Duval, 1998: 48).

Early Arab feminists, such as the Lebanes Nazira Zayn ad-Din, incorporated feminist ideas into an Islamic frame of reference. In 1928 she published a book called removing the Veil and Veiling, which aroused the anger of Muslim scholars (Roald, 1998: 18).

Amin's book, 'Women's Liberation' (1989) marks the entry of the debated around the veil, in which the veil epitomized Islamic inferiority. The veil is an example, other principal and Islamic values which might introduce a sort of gender otherness is and has been considered as inferiority for Muslim women in an apologetic manner to Western feminism.

Apologetic approach is a very secular. According to Jayawardena the emergence of feminist movements is basically a general movements towards secularism, a new concern with social reform and modernity and ascendance of an enlightened indigenous middle class. Their main concern with women's rights included the issues of education, seclusion, veiling and polygamy, coincided with a broader agenda about progress and the compatibility between Islam and modernity(Kandiyoti, 1991: 3).

2. Reactionary or Defensive Feminism:

A movement which emphasis on the idea that Muslim women have already obtained an equal and respectful position (based on Islamic tradition) without the need of further reform.

From their perspective not only western oriented Muslim women have highlighted the status of women in Muslim societies but Islamists, male and female, have also joined the debate, stressing the liberating potential Islam has for women (Roald, 1998).

3. Holistic Approach:

These activists and theoreticians do not isolate women from absolute society. They see women's rights and position within the whole structure of the society and avoid the segregation of society in terms 'Feminism' or 'Masculinism' or any sort of mono-centric approach. In oppose to feminism for the last decades masculinism has become a popular topic across the advanced capitalist world (Connel, 1995).

According to Holistic approach society as whole including men and women are addressed to their individual and social responsibility without any mono-sex inclinations. The major differences between Holistic view points of Muslims and western feminism is refereed to the methodology of understanding and establishing the rights and responsibility of women. While the feminist of western hemisphere, regardless of religious saying, or whether in principle, religion is from against; insists upon woman rights and her role in society, while feminism perspective is mono-sexism perspective and neglecting the valuable place of man and woman side by side as unifying force in family and society, Holistic approach looks at one comprehensive position of women and men in public and private, in society ad politics.

One of distinguish scholar who uphold the Holestic approach was Motahhari. He explained the reasons and the necessity for different treatment of women in Islam according to biological and psychological differences between men and women, while the apologist try to re-read the holy text in line with changed condition of the current society (see Mir-Hussaini, 1996: 316).



Western social scientists' approaches reflect a high degree of ethnocentrism in assuming that liberation for Muslim women has to follow the same mono-centric line as the American and European women's movements. It is expected that these goals are universal and that they should more or less be followed in the same order (Ahmed, 1992 and Joseph 1994).

For the last three hundred years Islamic Thoughts in different spheres has been influenced by western alien thoughts. The common denominator of all imported ideas were in the direct relationship with centres of political powers. Powerful domination of the West was the result of demonstration of wealth and capital against poverty and powerlessness. The transformation period of the industrial revolution, the renaissance in thinking in the west and the formation of the basis of ideological modernism, were the most important vacuums in Islamic world for the past three century. 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the defensive response or ideological and religious resistance or absolute assimilation in to Western Modernism. Western modernism belongs to western history, western religion and changes in western intellectual secular liberalism.

At the end of 20th century more than six hundreds million Muslim populations were subjected to the system of political democracy, still western politics blaming Islam for non-democratic doctrine and labelling Muslims as a fundamentalist and terrorists.

According to Brian Turner (1994: 78), 'Islam was perfectly compatible with the modernization project involving, as it did, a high degree of secularization of traditional religious cultures', but from his perspective 'Islam cannot deal satisfactorily with post-modernity which threatens to deconstruct religious messages into more fairy tales and to destroy the everyday world by the challenge of cultural diversity. The problem of cultural perspectivism is an effect of the pluralization of life-words brought about by the spread of a diversified, global system of consumption'. This is due to the fact that in post-modem era, the subject matter of human life is in ongoing changes, therefore no definite verdict can not be issue.

Western feminism is also the product of modernism and postmodernism. This movement and school of thought fundamentally and principally is in serious conflict with Islamic tenets. However, in many instances and subject matters propounded by feminism, are in uniformity with the Islamic views on woman, but from Islamic perspective entering into this domain, is another background for loosing the principles and values of the Islamic divinity.

No doubt that throughout the history, women were suppressed and deprived from their fundamental rights. Also without a shadow of a doubt, that women natural disposition and their talents and strength in many fields are far more intelligent then men, but unfortunately has been unjustly damaged. The vanquished of women talent and potentials resulted in nonentity, unable to manifest their natural dispositions. Throughout the history, with men took such advantages that the inability of women's true potentials and her gifted abilities were totally ignored. History witnesses the bitter truth of male unjustifiable supremacy.

This is a fundamental theory in sociology that 'you can not have modernization technology, urbanization and bureaucratization without the cultural baggage that goes with it and this baggage is essentially a post-Enlightenment system of thought (Turner, 1994: 8).

From the holistic approach the oppression of women in the past should not result institutionalized oppression based on secular feminism. The Islamic world and Muslim women societies must observe their duties and rights from divine perspective. From their perspective, if this principle is accepted that the wisdom of almighty God is the absolute benefactor for any society at large and He knows the best deliberation for social happiness or aberration of a society. Consequently, the policies of our social and individual rights must be based upon such wisdom. Salvation of Muslim world emphatically depends on independent observation for the need and the interest of society facing the western vacuum, depends on returning to the pure massage of religion and the revival of Muslim women integrity and emphasis must be on manifesting the rights of Islam. Total submission of holistic Islam indicates that man and woman are two fundamental members of the society. Islam has provided independent and cooperative roles for them. This will be the revival of Muslim women, individual and social rights.

While feminism will lead to social deviance, also masculinism will unbalance the coherence of individual members of the society creating deviance and unhealthy social setting. Mono-sexism create social deviation and social fragmentation.

From the holistic perspective the direction of western feminism, in essence is a negative and secular out look to religion. In reality the foundation of feminism thought is a serious confrontation to divine observation, therefore can not be a reference to the revival of Muslim women rights and neither can guarantee the happiness and healthy Muslim society at large.


Ahmed, L. (1992) Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modem Debate, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Basit, T. N. (1997) Eastern Values; Western Milieu: Identities and Aspirations of Adolescent British Muslim Girls, Aldershot, Brookfield USA, Singapore and Sydney, Ashgate.

Duval, S. (1998) New Veils and New Voices: Islamist Women's Groups in Egypt, in Karin Ask and Marit Tjornsland (eds.), Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on Gender relations, PP. 45-72, Oxford and New York, Berg.

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Joseph, S. (1994) Gender and Family in the Arab World, Special MERIP Publication.

Kandiyoti, D. (1991)Introduction, in, Deniz Kaniyoti (ed.) Women, Islam & the State, London, Macmillan.

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Pateman, C. (1987) Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy, in Anne Phillips, Feminism and Equality, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Roald, A. S. (1998) Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources: Muslim Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian Tradition of Feminist Thought, in Karin Ask and Marit Tjomsland (eds.), Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on Gender relations, PP. 45-72, Oxford and New York, Berg.

Mir-Hosseini, Z. (1996) Stretching the Limits: A feminist Reading of the Shari'a Post-Khomeini Iran in Mai Yamani (ed.), Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, pp. 285-319, London, Ithaca Press.

Other Resources
Lecture (realaudio): Feminist expectation and Response of Muslim Women by Saied Reza Ameli