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A veiled threat to patriarchy

Islamic feminists are re-interpreting the Qur'an to seek full rights as citizens and as Muslims.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2007 19:13 IST
Madhur Singh
Madhur Singh

Feminism Beyond East and West: New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam
Author: Margot Badran
Publisher: Global Media Publications
Pages: 180
Price: Rs 495 
Islamic feminists are reinterpreting the Qur'an in their attempt to seek full rights as citizens and as Muslims. By doing this, they are also resisting typecasting by Western feminism. When you turn the last page of Margot Badran’s book, you are left with a reassuring sense of agency and vibrancy.

Fighting a twin battle against patriarchy and religious fundamentalism, the women in Badran’s chronicles are taking on law, politics, religion, et al. And many of them have courted victory — like the South African feminists whose ‘gender jehad’ has won them the right to pray alongside men in mosques, and the Moroccans who have championed the passing of the most forward-looking Family Law in the Arab world.

Currently a visiting professor at Northwestern University, Badran has been writing on feminism in Islamic societies for over three decades. As a non-Muslim, she is able to temper her empathy and understanding with a degree of detachment, leading to astute observations informed by a broad perspective. This explains her popularity at Al-Ahram, the highly reputed weekly from Egypt, the cradle of Islamic feminism. Many of the essays in this volume first appeared in Al-Ahram, including the much cited ‘Islamic feminism: What’s in a name?’ and ‘Islamic feminism revisited’.

 Professor Margot Badran

While drawing a clear distinction between secular and Islamic feminism in Islamic societies, Badran herself prescribes to the latter school, which she believes is more radical than the secular one. The latter, she asserts, accepts complementing rather than gender equality in the family — a stance less helpful for women seeking full rights as citizens and as Muslims.

However, one cannot help feel uneasy about her portrayal of Islamic feminism as a coherent body of theory and practice. Even as the struggle is broadly against fundamentalism and patriarchy, the concerns of women are bound to differ between countries, classes, educational and professional backgrounds, and so on.

The term ‘Islamic feminism’ gained currency in the Nineties, and the movement(s) now in progress first arose as a backlash against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic feminists share moderate Islamists’ concerns and methodology: How to rescue Islam from the clutches of dogma and backward-looking interpretations of the Qur'an, which, for Muslims, enshrines God’s prescriptions not only for the conduct of religious life but also for politics and law.

Instead of accepting the prevalent interpretations of the Qur'an and the resultant body of law — the fiqh — they reinterpret the Qur'an for modern times. Hence comes the startling assertion from Yasar Nuri Ozturk, a zealous academic from Turkey: “The Qur'an does not accept an ecclesiastical class. It does not accept the idea of a State mosque.” By accepting this methodology , Badran and other Islamic feminists acquiesce to the belief that the Qur'an is the word of God and hence the primary guide for all aspects of life. One wonders if there is an effort here to be pragmatic and not rock the boat too much. But she does insist that Islamic feminism upholds the separation of State and religion — although this is a rather sweeping generalisation.

The movement(s) of Islamic feminism first arose as a backlash against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism

At the same time, feminism in Islamic societies is anti-colonial, resisting both typecasting and co-option by Western feminism(s). Badran’s chapters on the legendary Huda Sharawi, Nabawiya Musa and Saiza Nabarawi’s visit to Rome to attend the 1923 International Woman Suffrage Alliance convention, and her review of Fatima Mernissi’s

Scheherazade Goes West

, are both entertaining and revealing.

‘The Middle East’ is often used as a convenient shorthand for the Islamic world. In fact, Muslims are a majority in some 45 countries, while another 30 have sizeable Muslim minorities. In addition, many of the latter are in the West. Given this, Badran’s work on Bulgaria, Bosnia and Tajikistan is both ground-breaking and of vital importance to document the experiences of women in regions previously unexplored in such works.

However, as a compilation, the collection does not accord the kind of space to Saudi Arabia, South Asia (except India) and South East Asia that it should have, given that a majority of Muslim women live there. The chapter on India, charting the struggle for divorce rights and model nikahnamas, is brief but interesting.

First Published: Jan 22, 2007 19:05 IST

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