Feminism takes many forms, and Islamist feminism is a worthy and necessary addition to the mix
The definition of feminism has been visited and re-visited several times, by scholars and activists alike. Is feminism about equal rights for men and women, is it about removing sex as a discriminatory or differentiating agent, is it about equal worth, or is it about eliminating the roles which are “social constructions”? These questions highlight a point which is very important for the purposes of this article: the definition of feminism is not an “agreed upon” definition. Most importantly, there is no consensus on what is priority in varying definitions of feminism.
One can say that gender takes priority in one’s discussions of feminism, that feminists ought to always support women, no matter their choices. But that is a distinctly liberal idea of “gender takes priority”—which is not to pass any judgment, only to say that the preference for free choice informs and qualifies one’s claim that gender takes priority. One could also say, “Gender takes priority, so long as women are making liberal choices”—which is very different. In this case, power’s notions of what is liberal and what is not informs that very same idea of gender taking priority. That means that the very same statement could very well be a statement of what is called imperial feminism.
Imperial feminism is often couched in paternalistic language, reinforcing notions of the “hierarchy of civilizations”, an idea discussed by Mary E. Hawkesworth in her book Globalisation and Feminist Activism. She notes that Hegel’s 1807 argument that history is “the progressive unfolding of reason and freedom, manifested in particular cultures at ‘world historical moments’ […] incorporated via social Darwinism into imperial projects abroad and social policies domestically”. What happens when progress and civilization can be attributed to certain societies and not others, when it is distinguished on the bases of race and culture, is that those cultures which have power will presume to claim that progress and civilization for themselves. Michel Foucault, in his essay Truth and Power asserts that truth “isn’t outside power, or lacking in power […, it is not] the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves”. The truth of what constitutes choice and liberal is completely determined by power structures. The truth of what is civilized and progressive is likewise determined. Thus armed with the “truth”, imperial feminists seek to impose their specific ideas of feminism, liberalism, and choice in cultures completely alien to them, which they have decided, by virtue of their lacking the same “truth”, to be needy of “civilization”. It is thus impossible to acknowledge that another society has a different conception of truth—most certainly not one which can, in fact, offer the powerful culture a means of improvement.
Though those who work under the banner of feminism are united by an intention to serve women and secure their rights, what informs their visions of women’s rights, and their priorities differ by the circumstances of these women: their region, religion, culture, and ideological systems etc. There is a long tradition of different feminisms and feminists. There have been socialist feminists, black feminists, Chicana feminists, Arab feminisms, imperial feminisms, American feminisms, liberal feminists, radical feminists, Marxist feminists, ecofeminists, psychoanalytic feminists, postcolonial feminists—the list goes on. Most of these groups have an ideology, which qualifies and specifies their feminism in a way which makes it distinctly different from other feminisms.
It is into this multitude of feminisms that Islamist feminism needs to enter into. Islamist (as opposed to just Islamic) because an Islamist is one who enters into politics with an ethics informed by Islam. theoretically, someone who is “Islamic” and enters into the political sphere with an ethic specifically formulated by Islam and convinced of the truth of islam and what it has to offer society is an Islamist—in the same way that a Marxist is a Marxist, or a liberalist is a liberalist because these ideologies inform his entrance into the political. What is fascinating tough, about the label is that, very much like the label feminist, many are reluctant to adopt the label Islamist. But I would argue that those who are convinced of the contributions Islam has to offer to society ought to let Islam inform their political views, just as self-proclaimed secular liberals do, just as leftists do, just as conservatives do. An actually liberal society ought to be able to tolerate differences in priorities and ethics among their constituents. But, more specifically, Muslims ought to let Islam inform their ideas of feminism, and not assume, like imperial feminists do, that the harms of organised religion in the west will be identical to those which occur in a Muslim context. They are not.
Furthermore, what Muslims who refuse to identify as feminists ought to realise is that not every scholarly interpretation of Islamic law will be women-friendly; especially not that one formula will fit all societies. The reason why Islamists, particularly, should be identifying as feminists is because Islamists often pride themselves on being proponents of justice. Justice cannot exclude half of the population. Nor can justice disregard the differing circumstances and cultures of different women. Unfortunately, what seems to be very much the case among many activists in Islamic work—particularly those who attribute immorality, religiosity and the destruction of the family to feminist activism, is that they see this feminism as a disrupter. These same Islamists then argue that Muslims, if they adhere to Islam correctly, do not need feminism. Thus, they argue, Islamists ought to be concerned with Islamism exclusively.
I would disagree—for two main reasons. For one, Islamists need to engage with feminism because the sorts of feminisms which are present do not include an Islamic idea of feminism. And that ought to be reason enough for Islamists—those who let Islam inform their political ideas and activism—that feminism is an attempt at restoring justice for half of the population. It needs to be a special concern of Islamists, like the question of poverty, public morality, etc. Second, it is more complicated than “restoring Islam”; to give women the rights that different society’s cultures classify as rights. There are different enough opinions among our scholars regarding women’s responsibilities and rights that, theoretically, one could take the most strict opinions or the most liberal of orthodox and accepted opinions, and one could have very different policies. One need refer only to differences among the four mathaahib (Islamic legal schools of thought) as pertains to marriage and divorce laws to see such differences. In different parts of the world, different mathaahib would not function as well with the culture.
This is why Islamists need to have a feminist bent. Because they need to promote those laws which are found in the traditional texts as well as those which have come about through the ijtihād (legal reasoning) of our scholars in the contemporary age, like Shaykh Moḥammad al-Ghazāli, Shaykh al-Qaradawi, Shaykh al-Dedw, Shaykh Juday‘, etc; to promote a feminism which is compatible both with Islamic ideas as well as modern problems and concerns of a globalised world.
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