Muslim Feminism Quietly Flourishes

Wed, Oct 10, 2001


San Francisco Chronicle / By Nanette Asimov

Women’s Groups Active In Even The Most Patriarchal Nations

An Islamic feminist, many Americans believe, is a contradiction in terms.

That view has been widely reinforced during the past month as images of all- male power structures, schools and businesses in the Middle East appear nightly across TV screens. Women also appear, shrouded and segregated, perceived as secondary.
Yet even in the most patriarchal of Muslim nations, feminism quietly thrives.

  The Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association rallied against Afghan leaders last year in Pakistan. Associated Press photo by Tariq Aziz  Photo: TARIQ AZIZ / Associated Press

The Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association rallied against Afghan leaders last year in Pakistan. Associated Press photo by Tariq Aziz Photo: TARIQ AZIZ / Associated Press

“Every country has women’s rights groups,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, author of “Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World.”

The common view of repressed, cowed women incapable of standing up for themselves is a distortion, say feminists such as Minnoo Moallem, chairwoman of women’s studies at San Francisco State University.

“What we don’t talk about is women as active agents in their societies and cultures,” Moallem said. She pointed out that in such places as Saudi Arabia, where the sexes cannot mix, women own banks and run hospitals — all for women.

The agenda of feminists throughout the Middle East is to increase such opportunities for women. But often there are more immediate issues of safety and dignity.

Some governments using fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran have created laws that appear to justify violence against women, sexual repression, forced seclusion, polygamy and illiteracy, said author Afkhami, president of the Women’s Learning Partnership in Maryland, which aids women around the world.

But she and others say it is wrong to think that Islam promotes cruelty. More than half of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims live outside of nations where such conditions exist.

“Women are being oppressed in spite of Islam — not because of it,” said Audrey Shabbas, executive director of Arab World and Islamic Resources in Berkeley.

Recognizing this is key to understanding the feminists’ strategies.


Just as Christian fundamentalism suggests certain biblical interpretations, Islamic fundamentalists interpret the Koran in unique ways, said Hina Azam, who lectures on Islamic law at Stanford University and St. Mary’s College in Moraga.

Islamic feminists seek to change traditional interpretations of the Koran, which is often at the heart of a nation’s laws, said Azam.

Nowhere in the Arab world is the Koran interpreted more severely than in Afghanistan, where beatings, even murders, are common for such offenses as showing an ankle, say women who have fled the country. Windows at home must be blackened lest a passer-by see a female inside.

Even children’s drawings depict women as merely rectangular shapes. That is because all women must appear in public only in the burka, a full-body enclosure with netting over the eyes that the Taliban force them to wear.

The children also portray Afghan men with their own ubiquitous accoutrement: a beating stick.

“Crimes perpetrated against Afghan women by fundamentalists (have) no precedence in modern history,” says a statement of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), founded in 1977, well before the Taliban took power in 1996.


The group, described by admirers as “some of the most impressive and daring feminists in the world,” say the Northern Alliance is little better than the Taliban for its record of “heinous crimes and atrocities.”

“(The fundamentalists’) ultimate objective is to keep women under their absolute power, in the status of chattel,” the statement concludes.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, feminists rely on negotiations with government and religious leaders, educating other women, court systems and the Internet.

One London group, Women Living Under Muslim Law, was founded in 1984 after women became outraged at the cruelty of the Algerian regime. One case cited was the incarceration of three Algerian feminists jailed without trial and kept incommunicado for seven months for discussing laws unfavorable to women.

Another involved an Abu Dhabi woman charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.

To understand Islamic feminism, it helps to recognize the origin of certain ideas, said Azam, the legal expert.

Islam arose in seventh century Arabia, when it was customary for men to take many wives.

Mohammed ibn Abdallah, a trader born in A.D. 570, is regarded as the messenger of God. His wives were seen as extraordinary women who should not have to leave home to mix with the masses. Instead, others came to them.


“The wives of Mohammed came to be seen as the model for all Muslim women,” Azam said. “Seclusion and veiling were marks of distinction. To be as pious as you could, you tried to live your life as they did, conducting activities within the protected home, not out and about. And that became incorporated into Muslim culture.”

But this was a choice, Azam said, not a requirement.

“One of the slippages was when these things went from being a choice to being something that must be imposed by the state,” Azam said.

“So what women are trying to do now is reassert an interpretation that the total veiling and seclusion model was meant specifically for the wives of Mohammed and not for all Muslim women.”

Muslim women also want a new interpretation of the Koranic passage letting men take up to four wives “if he can treat them equally,” said Afkhami of the Women’s Learning Partnership.


The precedent is that nations already interpret that differently, she said. Some require a first wife’s permission for more wives. Others allow “temporary wives” beyond the four. And some follow secular laws forbidding polygamy altogether.

Feminists say it is impossible to treat four people equally and so monogamy is therefore consistent with the Koran.

“The Koran says Muslims must adapt to the social conditions in which they live,” Afkhami said. “That is what allows you to be both a Muslim and a feminist.”

Yet “Islamic feminist” is just one way of putting it, Azam said. “You could simply call it being a just human being.”

— The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Slogan: “If you are freedom-loving and anti-fundamentalist, you are with RAWA.” Web: www.rawa.org.
— Women Living Under Muslim Law: www.wluml.org.
— Women’s Learning Partnership. Slogan: “For rights, development and peace. ” Web: www.learningpartnership.org.
— The Afghan Women’s Mission: www.afghanwomensmission.org.
— United Nations Development Fund for Women. Slogan: “Working for women’s empowerment and gender equality.” Web: www.unifem.undp.org.
— Global Fund for Women: www.globalfundforwomen.org.


About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Muslim Women

"The most taxing contradiction [Muslim women] face casts the demands of living in the contemporary world against the requirements of tradition as determined and advanced by the modern Islamist world view. At the center of this conflict is the dilemna of Muslim women’s human rights – whether Muslim women have rights because they are human beings, or whether they have rights because they are Muslim" - Faith and Freedom: Introduction

"To the extent that Islam, defined and interpreted by traditionalist "Muslim" men, is allowed to determine the context and contour of the debate on women's rights, women will be on the losing side of the debate because the conclusion is already contained in the premise and reflected in the process. This is the heart of the moral tragedy of Muslim societies in our time." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

“Islam is not the problem. Rather it is the misuse of Islam by interpreting it to fit the needs of the partriarchal order - the powers that be - and the privileges that one gender has held over the other.” - How are women working to eliminate violence against women in Muslim-majority societies?