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An Islamic Way out of Patriarchy

A meeting of Musawah [Musawah - Flickr].

Some women have become promoters of female emancipation starting from the re-reading of the sacred texts of Islam: a third way between human rights and traditional norms

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-01-13 10:55:20

In many Muslim countries, modernization of legal systems did not affect the gender inequalities embedded in classical jurisprudence. This generated two conflicting dynamics: on the one hand, an effort at overcoming sex inequality; on the other, an emphasis on traditional normativity as a bulwark against Western cultural imperialism. A group of women has searched for an alternative approach, empowering women through a fresh understanding of Islam’s sacred texts.


Articulation of the ethical values and norms to be found in Islam’s textual sources (the Qur’an and hadith) has been the responsibility of Muslim scholars (‘ulamā’). Classical jurists (fuqahā’) endeavoured to translate these values and norms into legal rulings (ahkām). These rulings still constitute established interpretations of the sharia, which reflect pre-modern conceptions of justice, entitling individuals to different rights on the basis of faith, status and gender. In the course of the twentieth century Muslims were confronted by the ideals of universal human rights, equality and personal freedom; this was nowhere more evident than in the area of gender rights.  


This article has two aims. First, I outline how the confrontation with “modern” ideals gave rise to a new discourse within the Islamic tradition which challenges the basis of traditional discourses and argues for gender equality. Secondly, I focus on the work of Muslim feminist scholar-activists in pursuing this argument. I write as a founding member of Musawah,[i] a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Musawah was launched in February 2009 at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur hosted by the pioneering Malaysian pressure group, Sisters in Islam.[ii] It links scholarship with activism to bring fresh perspectives on Islamic teachings, with the objective of contributing constructively to the reform of family laws and practices.


A word on my own position and approach is in order. I am a Muslim woman, and a committed participant in the debates over—and the struggle for—gender equality in law. My approach and analysis are those of a trained legal anthropologist; but I do not claim to be a detached observer. Since the early 1980s my research has centred on the laws regulating gender relations in the Islamic legal tradition. I examine these laws from a critical feminist perspective, and attempt a kind of “ethnography” of the juristic constructs on which the whole edifice of gender inequality in Islamic legal tradition is built. In 2000, I crossed the line between academic research and activism and began working with women’s groups like Sisters in Islam.


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