Islamic Feminism and the Role of Unesco

By Ana Peterson,2014-08-13 10:39
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Islamic Feminism and the Role of Unesco ...

    George Washington University

    EDUC 228



     Hiba Arshad


     In the context of today’s changing and post 9/11 world, there is an incredible need for understanding and cultural dialogue to take place in order to foster understanding and build peaceful relationships with the civilizations of the world. Islam, the role of women in Islam, and the need for UNESCO to step in and facilitate the discourse regarding the Muslim world to dissipate assumptions and discourage the stereotypes that have been proliferated by the media has never been so important. In its efforts to create peace in the minds of men, UNESCO must step in and increase the world’s access to people who have knowledge and the authority to speak on the subjects of Islam and women; so that they are able to emit light on dark fears and advance understanding. This paper will an overview of the issues and address the following topics:

    ; Islam

    ; Islamic Feminism

    ; Evolution of Islamic Feminism

    ; Islamic Feminist Movements

    ; Role of UNESCO and the International Community

    ; Current State of Islamic Feminism

    ; Conclusion


     Islam is the religion and way of life for over a billion people on this earth. It is a religion defined by its submission to God, a mantra that is personified by prostrating worshippers in picture depictions of Islam. It is the fastest growing religion on this earth and the second largest religion after Christianity. Muslims do not believe that the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammad, is the maker of a new religion; rather they believe that he is the final prophet teaching about a Monotheistic faith, and comes from the same line of prophets as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

     The Qur’an is the Holy book for Muslims, containing in it references to the Five Pillars

    of Islam - Profession of Faith, Prayer, Fasting, Charity, and Pilgrimage. In addition to the Five Pillars, Islamic law or shari’ah has developed a tradition of rulings and interpretations or ijtihad

    that touch on virtually all aspects of life and society. A majority of the world’s Muslims are

    Sunni and 15% are Shia. These two factions of Islam were originally founded due to political differences. There are four schools of thought that determine Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh in

    Sunni Islam (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, and Hanbali), along with the Ja'fari school of thought in Shia

    1 Islam.

     A religion this of this enormity is bound to go through growing pains in the course of its evolution, and the present situation is seemingly cataclysmic due to the apparent ‘Clash of

    Civilizations’ and sensationalistic attention from the media. Muslims all over the world are facing the realities of traditional laws and interpretations, and the Islamic feminist movement is citing a reinterpretation of Islamic law for an evenly balanced society for men and women as their foremost objective.


     All over the world today, Muslim women are claiming their rights from within the framework of Islam. From Pakistan to Nigeria, women are speaking up about the need for the reinterpretation or ijtihad of Islam law or shari’ah to lessen the gap between the rights of a man

    and the rights of a woman in Islamic society. Many would argue that the first feminist of Islam

    2was the Prophet Muhammad himself. During his prophet hood, many radical reforms were

     1 Ja'afar S. Idris, Islam the Basics (Message of Islam, 2001) 2 Michael Wolfe, Muhammad Legacy of a Prophet (PBS, 2002)

    instituted that concerned the treatment and place of women. With his leadership, Islam sought out to abolish female infanticide, allowed women to possess and implement full control over their wealth and guaranteed women the right to inherit and bequeath property. Strict limits were

    3placed on polygamy, and women were allowed to keep their dowry. Since then, strict

    interpretations of the Qur’an by governments like Saudi Arabia have lead to the exclusion of

    4women from the right to own a business or drive a car. These supposed Islamic laws

    5completely disregard the entrepreneur legacy of the first wife of Muhammad, Khadija.

     These patriarchal versions of Islamic law have lead to women all around the world voicing their need for rights and the international community is helping to facilitate a conversation regarding Islamic feminism. For example, there are conferences being held that are facilitated by UNESCO and one of the major movements developed in these conferences has been to increase access for women in mosques catering to Muslim minority population in the West. Some other issues that Islamic feminism targets in many Muslim societies existing today are the roles of women in the family system, individualism vs. the larger organization, the

    6differentiation of sex roles, the separate legal status of women, and polygamy.

     Notably, there are three types of feminist movements in Islam Islamic feminists,

    7Muslim feminists, and Islamist feminists. Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam

    and its teachings, seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate. The Muslim feminists believe in Islam and feminism but also tend to use arguments outside Islam such as an international human rights agreement to counter gender inequality. Islamists are advocates of a political Islam, the notion

     3 Katherine Young, Women in World Religion (State University of New York Press, 1987) 4 Mai Yamani, Feminism & Islam (New York University Press, 1996) 5 Ismail R. Al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (Macmillan Publishing Company,1986) 6 Dr. Lois Lamya' al Faruqi, Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement ( 7 Val Moghadam, Islamic Feminism and the Politics of Naming (Iran Bulletin, 2000)

that the Qur’an can mandate an Islamic government; they advocate women's rights in the public

    sphere but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private sphere. The most dominant and popular movement is the Islamic feminist movement, which is also to focus of the UNESCO conferences on feminism and Islam. All three have different strategies but also share a common goal of closing the gap between men and women in Muslim societies.


     The modern day Islamic feminist movement is a reaction to the conservative Islamic society in a post modern world. Political leaders, extremists, and fundamentalists have hijacked the religion of Islam and use it to propagate their own cause. For a religion whose namesake is a derivation of the Arabic word for peace, its name has been usurped and used to propel violence and campaigns against the ‘West’. Islamic feminism calls for an authentic reinterpretation of the Qur’an to make it relevant and applicable to the current state of affairs. This evolution is necessary for positive steps towards spreading peace in the Islamic world.

    A restoration of the ‘original’ Islam is what leaders of the modern Islamic feminist movement are citing as their chief intention. The leaders believe that the archetypal society exists in their religious belief system, but over the years this prototype has been tainted by cultural and political interpretations of Islam. The theoretical core of Islamic feminism continues to be grounded in the interpretation of the Qur'an, and the central focus remains the illumination of gender egalitarianism in Islam. The leaders of the movement seek to amend the current ‘patriarchal’ laws into making them more focused on integrating equality for men and women in Islam. As opposed to the western women’s movements where religion is viewed a chief enemy

    of its progress, Muslim women view the teachings of Islam as their champion and supporter. The prescriptions that are found in the Qur’an and in anecdotes from the life of the Prophet Muhammad are regarded are the paradigm to which modern Muslim women wish to return. In regards to Muslim women, the source of impediments to progress experienced today are not in Islam and its traditions, but in alien ideological intrusions on our societies, ignorance, and

    8 distortion of the true Islam, or exploitation by individuals within the society.

    The status of women in Islam, as codified in the family law or personal status codes of Muslim countries has been under debate for centuries. Islamic feminists’ claim that Islam must adapt to the current era, and reinterpret the texts or else it will fall to be used as political leverage is certainly a valid point that needs to be discussed in the public discourse. The dominating leaders will continue to take words out of context and use them to substantiate their actions and assemble supporters if discourse about ijtihad, or the reinterpretation of shari’ah, or Islamic law.


     Islamic feminism is pan-Islamic phenomenon propagated by Muslims in diverse locations all around the globe. The movement of feminism and Islam generally consists of educated, middle to upper class women and some men who have struggled for decades to voice the need for more equal rights for women. In the early 1990’s, the Muslim women of Iran along with male clerics called for the realization and practice of women's rights they found being infringed upon or rolled back during Khomeini’s government, and they grounded their arguments in the Qur'an as the virtual constitution of the republic.

     8 Dr. Lois Lamya’ al Faruqi, Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement Confrontation or Cooperation?


    The individuals in the second generation and convert immigrant Muslim communities of North America seek guidance from the Qur'an in a complex environment which they did not have an existing template. In response to the patriarchal lifestyles in the cities and villages from which first-generation Muslim immigrants come from that were being re-imposed on women in Western Muslim communities under the guise of Islam, Muslims are fighting back with what they understand to be ideals of justice and equality stated in the Qur'an. In ‘Quran and Woman:

    Rereading the Sacred Text from a Women’s Perspective, Amina Wadud, an American convert to Islam, established a new hermeneutical approach to reading the Qu’ran that is female inclusive. Historically, patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an have ensued due to the lack of female

    Muslim scholars, and now emerging female Islamic scholars like Wadud are bridging this gap.

    During the immediate post- apartheid period in South Africa, the Muslims who had engaged as South Africans in one of history's most intense battles for human dignity and justice began to focus their attention upon questions of gender justice within their own Muslim community, and fought for equal access to mosque and communal space for all Muslim men and women alike. This 'mosque movement' in South Africa created an action plan for Islamic feminist to demand gender equality or "gender jihad", a term created by Rashied Omar, a religious leader in South Africa. The ‘mosque movement’ was a catalyst for mosque-centered

    movements that are currently underway in the US and Canada with women and men demanding for female access to main mosque space during congregational prayer and women beginning to assume the role of imam, leading gender-mixed congregational worship.

    UNESCO along with the Islam & Laicite, has been holding colloquiums for the past few years to ‘deconstruct the stereotypes and understanding the discourse and emerging movement of Islamic feminism’. These forums assemble key leaders from Muslim communities all around the

    world so they can converge and participate in the International Congress on Islamic Feminism. Leaders like Amina Wadud, a professor at VCU in Richmond, VA, attend and lead the prayers in these meetings as well as participate in sessions that create a platform for open dialogue between feminist leaders and Muslim women in shaping the Islamic feminist movement. The attendees are prominent pioneers of the modern day Islamic feminist movement, such as Fatima Mernissi, Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed, Azizah al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, and Khaled Abou el-Fadl among



    It is now, more than ever that UNESCO’s unique position of facilitating dialogue and encouraging cross cultural exchange is put to use to discourage stereotypes and encourage woman’s rights in an Islamic society. The feminist movement of Islam is currently growing rapidly in countries all over the world, and has been since the earliest days of the religion itself. The Islamic feminist movement is not bound to a certain region of the world such as the Middle East. In fact many of the conferences being held for leaders and activists to converge and develop strategies take place in the West. UNESCO and the international community hold a vital role in continuing the dialogue and providing a platform for the voices of the Islamic feminist movement.

    It is obvious today that the predominant political discourse is a speech that generates fear and stereotypes. Terrorism is now intimately linked to Islam due to thorough media campaigns that propel fear and xenophobia, and portray an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In all the attempts to encourage dialogue with all religions and societies, there needs to be an

     9 Aqsa Nomani, Standing Alone in Mecca (HarperCollins, 2005)

    awareness of how to successfully reshape the intolerable stigma towards Muslims worldwide. With the profiling of Muslims being commonplace, Muslims tend to find themselves in a vulnerable position of having to explain what they are not, what they should not be, and what they are.

    The Muslim identity has become highly suspicious and much harder to manage with the ideological hype existing today, and it is the role of UNESCO to facilitate this discussion. It is necessary for UNESCO to provide ‘Food for thought, and thought for action’. The status of

    women in Islam is a topic that inevitably comes about when beginning a semblance of dialogue between cultures because of the incredible amount of stereotypes and prejudices associated with Islam. Globalization of the world has brought these issues to the forefront of the media and the time is now to generate a fair stance that focuses on tackling the issues rather than spreading stereotypes. These types of UNESCO forums seek to placate the fear of Muslims and create an understanding where dialogue is encouraged and the beginnings of a worldwide Islamic Feminist movement can blossom.


    Governments of majority Muslim countries are increasingly applying the Islamic feminist theory into modern reforms that have been lobbied for by their active constituents in the name of Islam. An example of this type of reform can be observed in the newly revised Moroccan Mudawwana or Civil Code; now the most gender-egalitarian shari’ah based civil code in

    existence. This awareness of feminism is also apparent in the new revision of the Family Code in Indonesia, developed by a commission of religious scholars consisting of men and women

    10 Another situation where the appliance of a equally, appointed from the Ministry of Justice.

    gender-egalitarian interpretation of Islam is found is in the arguments marshaled through a dynamic investigation of fiqh which led to the acquittal of two Nigerian women accused of

    11adultery and condemned to death while their partners were not held accountable.


    However hopeful all of these reforms may seem, a closer look exposes the realities of the situation at hand and the vast chasm that exists between the idea and the implementation. The Mudawwana reforms took nearly fifty years to actualize and may take many more to materialize in the lives of Moroccan women. This protracted history demonstrates the difficulty of enacting laws that facially appear to contradict the traditional Islamic jurisprudence. In addition, the Moroccan example demonstrates the need for reform to be homegrown and understood in the argot of the country in question. Laws are a reflection of prevailing attitudes in societies, and change must be a natural result of a shift in prevailing attitudes. Until attitudes towards women’s

    rights and modernization change in the Islamic world, enacting laws that reflect this will be difficult in coming.

    Currently, the term ‘Islamic feminism’ is widely received and acknowledged. The Islamic feminist movement is also an integral part of the development of a more progressive Islam. These movements, along with the UNESCO conferences as well as the local and national groups have created a platform in which Muslim women can engage with civic society in voicing their concerns and preference for rights.

     10 Margot Bardon, Feminism Beyond East and West (Global Media Publications, 2007) 11 Margot Bardon, Islamic Feminism (

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