A common belief around the world, and especially in the Western world, is that Muslim women lose their rights when they practice Islam. The religion has been, and still is, frequently portrayed as driven by patriarchy. Thus, Muslim women and feminism is almost seen as paradoxical. However, there are many females around the world who identify as a feminist and Muslim. Most recently the young advocate Malala Yousafzai brought the idea of Muslim feminists into the spotlight, by taking the world by storm with her “progressive” views about female education in Middle Eastern countries, while other female Muslim activists have been outspoken about feminism and Islam for quite some time.
Before one can speak specifically on the issue of feminism and Islam, one must first look at the history of Islam and Muslims as seen through the eyes of the Western world. Due in large part to the fact that a lot of the conversation and judgement that surrounds this topic comes directly from the Western world.
The Western world has primarily been founded in Christian beliefs, as such, from the beginning of the spread of Islam, Christians have always viewed Muslims in a negative light. During the medieval period many Christians did not believe that Muhammad had divine origin, instead deeming him a fraud. They saw his actions as anything but religious, primarily because Muhammad had political ambition and had married multiple women. He was a far cry from Jesus for many Christians during this period. Speed forward to the colonial era, and we see Americans and Muslims cross paths. The slave trade was the source of origin as some of the African slaves were practicing Muslims. The results were that Muslims and Islam were seen as extremely negative, due to white supremacy and Christian ideals. These are elements we still find present in contemporary times, especially after the “war on terror”, and the negative light Islam and Muslims are constantly portrayed through in the media. Anti-Islamic attitudes can be found everywhere, and for many the extremist actions of very few Muslims have taken over the face of every other Muslim.
These anti-Islamic attitudes and the “war on terror” have put Muslims and Islam, in a sense, on trial. The media has picked apart Islam in many demeaning ways, one of the major ways being the treatment of women. In America, we’ve categorized Islam as degrading to women based off of a few contentious passages in the Qur’ran, specifically passages 24:31, 33:59, and 4:34. These controversial verses are as follows:
Yusuf Ali: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess or male servants free of physical needs or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah that ye may attain Bliss.”
Yusuf Ali: “O prophet! tell they wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient that they should be known (as such) and not molested: and Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.”
Yusuf Ali: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them form their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”
In America we focus on the fact that, as previously stated, these are degrading actions for women, yut we never stop and ask how actual Muslim women see their religion in connection with their sex. Due to that fact that America itself runs on a patriarchal system, but also because so many people have readily accepted that Islam is a religion fueled by negativity and sexism. However, many Muslim women would argue that that is not the case, in fact many Muslim feminist women would argue that as well.
Feminism has no one complete and direct definition, it can be taken in many directions but at its core, feminism is the belief in equal political, economic, and social rights for women. In America, we see the definition of feminism and quickly write off Muslim women because they have to abide by “degrading and oppressive” social norms and in some places laws, directly influence by these passages in the Qur’an.
However, Amani Alkhat argues in her blog post that because of the call for equality, dignity, and respect that feminism uses, not only between the sexes, but across all social, economic, and religious classes; feminism and Islam are directly related because that is also what Islam calls for. Thus, Muslim women are inherently feminists. She says that in the first Islamic society women had financial, social, and even sexual entitlements. One can see that in Muhammad’s first wife Khadija. She was a business women prior to Muhammad’s revelations, but even after them Muhammad did not take away any rights from her.
Activist Nayyar Javed echoes such sentiments as Amani Alkhat, as she says: “Muslim women who have a very strong orientation and knowledge of feminism and Islam see lots of possibilities, and those possibilities are right in the text of the holy Koran
Another feminist is Dr. Amina Wadud and she see’s feminism and Islam in this light:
Lastly, we have Malala Yousafzai. She’s a 16 year old Pakistani girl who is an education and women’s rights activist. On October 9th, 2012 she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunmen on her way home from school. While she remained in critical condition the Pakistani government issued a fatwa against the man responsible for her assassination attempt. Showing that Pakistan stood behind this young feminist. She recovered from the shooting and just early this year made her way around the world, speaking and portraying her message in the hopes that young women can have access to an education. She united her Muslim faith and the idea of Islam around the world, and since then people have expressed their belief that she should have received the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s important to note that Malala does not blame her religion for the treatment of women, but the men who run the government, a very crucial distinction. One that does not get echoed in the Western world.
While these are only a few women of such a large population of practicing female Muslims, the message they present needs to be recognized. The Western world moves so rapidly and at its own pace that it’s not taking the time to look or consider the women who actually practice Islam and find peace and equality within it. Caught up in point the finger at everyone else, America forgets to realize that their are two sides to every story, and just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s correct.