Feminism in the Muslim world

By Isobel Colemansenior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) One of the most contentious … Continued

By Isobel Coleman
senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

One of the most contentious issues within Islam today is the role of women in society. Conservatives endorse a narrow reading of Islamic texts to justify restrictions on women’s mobility, legal rights and access to the public sphere, including health care, education and the workplace. Extremists among them use violence to impose their views. Moderate Muslims, on the other hand, find plenty within the Qur’an to support a full role and equal rights for women.

The outcome of this struggle matters enormously. Attitudes toward women increasingly represent a stark fault line between those promoting economic reform, human rights, and democratization on the one hand, and those who adhere to austere, fundamentalist notions of society on the other. In my new book, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East,” I see signs of hope that across the Muslim world, women and men are coming together to push for a more progressive Islamic discourse to promote gender equality in an emerging movement of Islamic feminism.

One question I get is why is there a need for Islamic feminism – isn’t secular feminism sufficient to push for women’s rights? Well, the most conservative countries of the Middle East do not now have, nor will they in the near future, secular systems. Moreover, secularism – meaning the separation of mosque and state – is not viewed in a positive light by millions of Muslims. If Muslim women in these countries must wait for a secular system to improve their status, they will be waiting a long time indeed. That does not mean that secular feminism and Islamic feminism cannot work together. Indeed, some of the most effective women’s rights campaigns in the Middle East in recent years have seen a blended approach between secular and Islamic feminism.

Take the reform of the family code (mudawana) in Morocco in 2004. For years, women activists (largely secular) tried to overturn many of the discriminatory aspects of Morocco’s family code. Yet, when they protested the code, they were labeled as kafirs (unbelievers), and attacked as being anti-Islamic. Undeterred, they launched a formal campaign to reform the mudawana. To showcase the local authenticity of their efforts, they collected signatures from ordinary Moroccans. At the same time, they turned tactically to Islam to bolster their case, working closely with reform-minded clerics to show their supporters and critics alike that Islam supports the equality of men and women. The signature campaign was a huge success. By 2003, women’s groups had collected an eye-opening one million signatures from Moroccans all over the country. With this grassroots support and backing from King Muhammad VI, the country’s king, the women pushed through parliament a series of reforms that included raising the marriage age to 18, restricting polygamy and settling divorces in court.

Women’s groups across the Middle East have been inspired and mobilized by the success of Moroccan women, organizing similar campaigns in their countries. The most notable spin-off effort is the One Million Signature Campaign in Iran, modeled explicitly after the effort in Morocco. Despite government efforts to repress the campaign (its leaders have been harassed and jailed repeatedly, its publications and Web sites shut down), the movement continues to spread and gain adherents. Today, senior Iranian clerics, like Grand Ayatollah Saanei, support the women’s arguments for reform on religious grounds.

Another question I get is how widespread is Islamic feminism? My answer is that while it is not yet a robust international movement, it seems to be moving in that direction. In 2009, hundreds of women (and some men) gathered in Malaysia to launch Musawah – a global organization designed to push for equality within the Muslim family. Musawah declares this goal important not only because so many Muslim family laws are out of touch with the reality of modern life, but because they are not defensible on Islamic grounds. Around the world today, I see more and more examples of people using Islamic arguments to overturn repressive laws and to push for a fuller role for women in society. Even in Saudi Arabia, arguably “ground zero” for conservative Islamic interpretations that restrict women’s rights, there is now an active public debate over whether Islam requires the gender segregation that defines life in the Kingdom today. When a senior government cleric suggested on television last fall that the mixing of the sexes at the newly opened King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) is against Islam, King Abdullah fired him. This spring, several other senior clerics have issued opinions that Islam does not prevent the mixing of sexes in public places like schools and even offices.

I am not naive to think that this process of change will proceed quickly, or will not suffer from set backs. But change is happening – driven by courageous Muslim women and men who are fighting back against narrow, restrictive interpretations of their religion that prevent a full role for women in society. From Morocco to Afghanistan, Islamic feminism is stirring. These efforts are part of a broader reform movement within Islam, and hold out the promise of a more stable and prosperous Middle East. Americans should recognize that Islam is not monolithic, that culture can change and support the many women’s organizations operating in Muslim countries that are helping to drive that change.

Dr. Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.

CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Portal: www.cfr.org/religion

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  • WmarkW

    Could you get your men to stop trying to blow up New York?Thanks.

  • patriot0523

    A total re-write of your Koran will be necessary to remove all of the barbaric laws, from killing infidels to wearing purdah to safeguard women, before you will see any change in your people. Koran, as it is now, simply has no place in it for individual freedom. Try and see whether you can walk away from your religion, for any reason. It is punishable by death now, everywhere. That is the litmus test. We are a billion miles from 7th century Arabia, yet you are all still there.

  • rohitcuny

    Isn’t there a middle way between feminism and Islamic repression? Most societies have accepted for thousands of years that women and men are different. A lot of contemporary research proves this. But the political power of feminists prevents this research from getting the attention it deserves.Also, we complain about women earning only 80c to the man’s dollar, and we look away from the 58,000 men sent to their deaths by LBJ or the millions of men in America’s prisons. America suffers when women suffer, even a little, and is blind to the sufferings it imposes on men.But the reality is that the genders are partners in the search for happiness and fulfillment. The equality does not consist in women learning to box, but rather in the happiness of each being taken equally seriously.Both repressive patriarchy and militant feminism offend against this normal dance of love and cooperation.Let us hope that Islam does not stay as it is. And let us also hope that it does not follow the deadly blueprint drawn up by western feminists.

  • mapleleaf3

    Repression?? You mean more female suicide bombers…

  • andrew23boyle

    This is great news! I’m glad to see the women of Islamic nations standing up for themselves against the misogynistic religious fanatics that rule so many of them! Every free person should support their efforts against patriachal political tyranny and relgious oppression!

  • abrahamhab1

    Coleman says:It is not only the texts of their scriptures that dehumanize women. It is also the way their prophet, whom Muslims men and women believe to be the perfect human being, had described and treated women that fuel this contempt for the female gender. Ironically it is mainly women who brainwash their daughters to accept this inferior position in society.

  • YEAL9

    From another female Muslim scholar who was driven from Islam:From- Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, “Infidel”.”Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circumcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It’s a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hirsi Ali escaped — and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women.”ref: Washington Post book review.p. 47 paperback issue:”Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly beaten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their screams resounded across the courtyards. “No! Please! By Allah!” p.68:”The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had castes. The Untouchable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were untouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were touchable: we touched them see? but also horrifying to think of yourself as untouchable, despicable to the human race.”p.309″Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating.”p. 347″The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hyprocricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam”.

  • YEAL9


  • YEAL9

    Some minor corrections:As noted above Isobel Coleman is a As per Guidestar, the CFR has over $200 million invested in various funds, bonds and stocks. $100 million of this is invested in the hedge funds. So why does this “non-profit” need dues, donations and grants? Of course, “non-profits” pay no tax on dividends, interest or capital gains. Is this another example of a “not-profit” being used an investment company in order to escape paying taxes by the paid directors/fellows?BTW, Ms. Coleman must be new at the CFR as her salary was not listed on the 2008 IRS Form 990. Other senior fellows at the CFR however make over $200,000/yr including benefits.Some comparison salaries:Rev. Franklin Graham from two of his non-profits, $800,000+/yr.

  • ladyOZ

    Thank you, Ms. Coleman. I just would like to point out that Musawah is a global movement and not a global organization.

  • halozcel1

    Islamic Feminism ?Is there Buddhist Feminism,Feminism is not a Religious/Cult Movement,but,it’s a Seculer One,so,is Islamic Feminism a right term ?*Paradise beneath Mothers’ feet* is an islamic myth and it’s not Feminist word.Its exact notion,Women should stay at house(as written in 33.33) and bear children.Today is Mother’s Day.

  • Montedoro

    Gender equality is the Achilles’ heel or Islam because it flat out contradicts the Koran and Muhammad. — Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other… Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.” (4:34)Muhammad said:If the authority of the Koran and Muhammad can be undermined by women’s rights, then the whole theological edifice of Islam comes crashing down. All the Islamic religious authorities know this, and that is why gender equality can never be permitted in Islam. And because Obama intended to curry favor with Muslims, he will never push the issue of gender equality. On the contrary, he publicly spoke in favor of the right of women to wear the burka — not of the right of women NOT to wear the burka!