Last update: 2021-03-29 11:08:00
The last decade have seen the appearance of a significant number of women led mosques such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative in the United Kingdom, the Open Mosque in Switzerland, the Mariam Mosque in Denmark, the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Germany, and the Fatima Mosque in France just to name a few. However, re-interpretation of gender in Islam also takes place beyond these institutions.
In a debate on 23 March 2019, after a screening of The Reformist—a documentary on the opening of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen—an actress and student, Asil al-Asadi, shared her worries about falling in love with a non-Muslim: “Now I have reached the age of 22 and I am very afraid of falling in love with a non-Muslim, because that determines whether I will have to take up a fight or not. I have had to do research before this may happen to figure out where I stand if I end up falling in love with a non-Muslim.” [i]
Muslims make up little more than 5% of the Danish population so there is a high probability that al-Asadi, as many other European Muslim women, could fall in love with a non-Muslim and that is why she did her research. She revisited the rules on Islamic marriages and concluded that the basis for the prohibition on marrying non-Muslim men is no longer valid in contemporary society due to circumstances having changed since the time of Mohammad. These kinds of interpretations are readily available online and in the growing amount of Islamic feminist literature focused on re-reading the Qur’an and narratives on Mohammad (hadith) from a woman’s perspective.
Al-Asadi is not alone with her views on interfaith marriage. In a poll among Danish Muslims from 2015, 43,7% of respondents answered yes to the question: “If you had/have a daughter would you accept that she marries a non-Muslim”.[ii] Neither is the discussion exclusively European; in 2008, the famous Egyptian actors Adel Emam and Omar Sharif starred in the movie Hassan and Marcus in which their children, a Muslim woman and a Christian man, fall in love. The movie caused heated debate on interfaith marriage and peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
The examples with al-Asadi and the Egyptian movie demonstrate a fundamental dynamic of all religion: beliefs are always interpreted at a specific time in history and into a local context. This holds true even for conservative religious positions, which put emphasis on the preservation of certain values that are believed to be threatened by, for example, modernity and/or globalization.
Islamic feminism is a global phenomenon, but it is not oriented towards one common goal or ideal for all Muslim women worldwide. It is produced locally and address issues pertinent to women and men engaged in the struggle. The struggle to change the perception of interfaith marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is for example much more urgent in Denmark than in Egypt due to the demographic composition of the respective populations. However, even in the European context Islamic feminism takes many forms.
A heterogenous phenomenon
In Europe it is fairly easy to found Islamic feminist institutions. To take the case of Denmark, the imam title is not protected, therefore anyone can claim it, apply for a marriage licence, and start performing marriages with full legal validity under Danish law.[iii] Furthermore, there is no church in Islam, which means that imams are not ordained and marriage is not considered a sacrament; it is a civil contract that can be concluded without the presence of an imam. A marriage is thereby not invalidated by it being performed by a woman, because the performance of the imam does not play a role in the Islamic legal tradition’s conception of marriage.
By far the biggest challenge for Islamic feminists in a European context is the lack of economic resources. Of the five mosques mentioned in the beginning of the article only The Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque occupies a permanent space while the rest constitute pop-up mosques. The latter—and many similar mosques and Islamic feminist institutions—occupy rented or lent spaces for the hours they need it. That is, many women’s mosques do not constitute buildings; they are networks of Muslims who engage in mosque activities such as Friday prayer in the spaces they have access to. In practice this means that they temporarily convert other purposed spaces into pop-up mosques by for example moving the furniture of a room to the walls, setting up calligraphy as decoration, and spreading prayer carpets on the floor for Friday prayer. After prayer the mosque is “disassembled” by rolling up the carpets, removing the calligraphy and moving back the furniture, and thereby the space goes back to its day-to-day function.[iv]
Interestingly, pop-up mosques are generally perceived as mosques and by logical extension their prayer leaders are considered imams who may hold religious authority. This means that Muslims who need religious services such as counselling, spiritual care, Islamic divorce, or marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man turn to the leaders of pop-up mosques. In the case of the Danish female imam, Sherin Khankan, the mere announcement of her intentions to open a women’s mosque in Copenhagen was enough for her to receive these kinds of requests. She performed five Islamic marriages as a female imam even before the first Friday prayer in the Mariam Mosque, the first one predating the opening by a year. Something similar happened with Islamic divorces, the second of which was issued on the day of the first Friday prayer on 26 August 2016.
As mentioned above, Islamic feminism is produced locally and address issues pertinent to the people engaged in the feminist struggle. This becomes obvious by comparing the Mariam Mosque to the Muslim Women’s Council based in Bradford. The latter originally constituted a movement of Muslim women who was tired of being represented solely by men, but it was institutionalized in 2009 as a charity that fundraises for a religious centre that among other facilities comprise a mosque. The founder of the council, Bana Gora, originally intended to open a mosque where women led other women in prayer, but she soon gave way to popular demand for a women administered mosque that employs a male imam.
Bradford has a very different demography than Copenhagen, with approximately 15% of the total population identifying as Pakistani and a high level of social segregation.[v] Bradford is remarkably homogenous religiously, and the vast majority of mosques are organized in the city’s Council of Mosques. It is unusual for mosques in Bradford to have women’s sections and thereby the Muslim Women’s Council broke with the norm when it introduced a mosque for both genders with a large women’s section and an all-female board.
However, because the Muslim Women’s Council did not plan on transgressing well established gender boundaries it has been able to gain endorsements from two of the most influential Islamic educational institutions in Europa and America. Imam Zaid Shakir, the co-founder of Zaytuna College, in California, put his personal weight behind the project and stressed that “It is so important to get behind the women-administrated masjid [mosque]… The masjid will be well run; they’re not talking about female imams, and women-led Jummah khutbahs [Friday sermons]. They’re talking about bringing their talents, abilities, skills to the masjid to help to run it the way it should be run… I’m totally behind it and I’m sure it’s going to be an outstanding success.”[vi] Likewise, the dean of Cambridge Islamic College, Mohammad Akram Nadwi, called it a religious duty to meet the women’s needs and encouraged Muslims to contribute to the project: “The need for women to go to the mosques for the daily prayers, to take part in study circles, to encourage and be encouraged by other Muslims to live their religion seriously—is neither more nor less than the same need in men. This need must be met; it is a religious duty… It is an initiative that deserves to be supported financially and morally by both men and women.”[vii]
Interestingly, it was the Muslim women in Bradford who demanded the mosque to be traditional with a male imam. Their struggle was about gaining access to a mosque in a city where such a space is almost non-existing. However, they did not want this space to be controversial or part of a struggle for a different interpretation of Islam. This underlines that Muslim women’s demands vary depending of the local context. In a city like London, approximately 300 kilometers South of Bradford, one can attend woman-led mixed gender Friday prayer in the Inclusive Mosque Initiative or join an LGBTQ-inclusive Islamic meditation session (dhikr) with London Queer Muslims.
It is important to underline that one cannot make conclusions on whether Muslim women understand themselves to be emancipated based on their affiliation to a certain interpretation of Islam. This has been demonstrated in numerous ethnographic studies, of which Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety —The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, published in 2005, is probably still the most famous one. Mahmood demonstrates how a segment of Cairene women actively engage in a tradition of piety which includes cultivation of shyness and patience as characteristics of a good Muslim woman, and to some extent obedience to male authority.
In a similar study, The Making of a Salafi Woman—Paths to Conversion, Anabel Inge has demonstrated how a segment of Muslim women in London are drawn towards Salafi-Islam and make many sacrifices on their path: “Embracing Salafism placed many women at odds with most of their close friends and relatives at the time. Five [of twenty three informants] said that becoming Salafi caused them to lose friends—usually, there was a mutual drifting apart—and another seven took the difficult and, for some, extremely painful decision to sever ties with friends and even relatives because their divergent beliefs and practices would ‘hold them back’.”[viii] Inge’s informants understand their path to conversion and struggle to live in accordance with Salafi prescriptions as a form of struggle for emancipation. However, this understanding is at odds with other women who struggle for emancipation within Islam, such as the female imam Seyran Ates who argues that gender constructions within Salafi Islam are suppressive to women. She banned the niqab (face veil) at the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque on 16 June 2017, which led the famous Islamic feminist scholar Amina Wadud—who is also part of the Islamic LGBTQ-movement—to cancel her visit to the mosque while the leader of Muslims for Progressive Values, Ani Zonneveld, endorsed the policy.
The diversity described above underlines the difficulty of pinning down a specific definition of Islamic feminism, because Muslim women hold a variety of very different views on what constitutes emancipation. This is complicated even further by some of the most liberal Muslim women rejecting the feminist label.
The Framing of Islamic Feminism in European Media
Female imams are attractive protagonists in documentaries, books, and news stories, because they take unique positions in one of the hottest debates in contemporary Europe. This has led to some female imams being portrayed in very different ways depending on region. The abovementioned female imam, Sherin Khankan, for example appeared in Breitbart News on 13 February during the US primaries in a story titled Denmark Will Build Secret Women’s Only Mosques to Protect Worshippers from Radical Islamists, explaining that: “The first female only mosque has already been built in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, and even the Imam is a woman. This factor has led to the mosque being run in secret, since radical Islamists who have little respect for the opinions or rights of women threaten the existence of the project.”[ix] While there are merely two pieces of correct information in the quote—Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and Khankan is a woman—the article demonstrates how the story of the Mariam Mosque can be utilized to frame other Muslims as radicals.
It is unimaginable that the Danish state would pay for the construction of a mosque and somewhat ironically three Danish MP’s actually tried to cut the funding for Khankan’s NGO Exitcirklen, which helps women out of abusive relationships, based on the claim that Khankan endorses flogging and sharia law.[x] While some segments both of the far right and the left in Denmark had made repeated claims about Khankan being a radical Islamist it was not until the three MP’s attempt at making a direct intervention into the distribution of state resources for Khankan’s NGO that this story picked up and made repeated headlines in Denmark throughout the fall of 2017. Khankan ended up suing the three MP’s for libel.
During the media storm and accusations of being a radical Islamist in Denmark, Khankan published her biography La femme est l’avenir de l’islam—Le combat d’une imame in France and took part in the debate. French journalists had since the announcement of the Mariam Mosque in 2015 taken a great interest in Khankan and portrayed her as an inspirational and progressive Muslim leader. This led to an invitation to have tea with president Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée Palace, which stands in stark contrast to the accusations Khankan faced from Danish MP’s.
Only a single Danish reporter showed up to interview Khankan outside the palace and Khankan’s answer to her first question: “What are your thoughts on being invited as a Danish imam to speak with a president?” demonstrates the discrepancy between narratives: “It is quite paradoxical, as I am just now suing three major Danish politicians for libel because they have accused me of being a radical Islamist…. It is paradoxical that I am looked upon as a representative of progressive Islam in France, whereas in Denmark I have to fight for not being looked upon as the opposite.”
There are many more images of Khankan in the media, but the point is that it can be difficult for Muslim women to speak on their own terms in European media if they do not comply with existing preconceptions about Muslims, and for this reason many feminist activists do not involve themselves in the public debate.[xi] Many Islamic feminists do not want to go in on the terms of being combatants in a battle that follows a logic of bad Muslims versus good Muslims.
Between Salafism and Feminism
Islamic feminists often struggle for their own emancipation and have no intention or reason to target for example Salafi-women as their enemies—indeed some Islamic feminist are former Salafists, Islamists, or have followed very conservative interpretations of Islam. Some Muslim women transition between these positions while maintain their agency and independence. This is among others demonstrated by Maryam Trine Skogen who converted to Islam and became a very conservative Muslim and ended up as a female imam with a pro-LGBTQ agenda a decade later.
Skogen converted to Islam in 2006 and married an imam within the first year after her conversion. She studied hard and developed Salafi tendencies such rigorous application of the strictest interpretation of Islamic rules: no laughing in the public, no Facebook, only greet men wearing gloves, no celebration of non-Muslim holidays. She drifted apart from friends and followed her spiritual path which ultimately led to an existential crisis and divorce. She later married an agnostic man, resumed contact with her family and friends, and she initially stopped wearing the hijab, but she donned it again to protest islamophobia in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attack. In 2017 Skogen took part in the gay pride parade and led a Friday prayer in a pop-up mosque that was openly inclusive to LGBTQ-Muslims.[xii]
Skogen’s trajectory is by no means unique. As demonstrated by Inge, Salafi women often demonstrate a high level of agency and make great sacrifices in their spiritual endeavours, and the change of interpretation from Salafi to feminist or a similar seemingly antagonistic position over a period of a decade is not uncommon. This is demonstrated by several ethnographic studies, the most recent being Samuli Schielke’s Egypt in the Future Tense, where three of his informants get involved with Salafism. The first jumps from Sufism to Salafism and ends up as a Shia Muslim, the second goes in and out of Salafism four times and ends up as a left-wing activist fighting against Salafism, while the third keeps finding ideological inspiration in Salafism but quits the practice of it at the same time.[xiii] In other words, while Salafism and feminism may be antagonistic if one focus on dogma they may be similar in other respects such as their emancipatory appeal and their counter-position to mainstream interpretations of Islam. As Inge explains it can be quite a liberating feeling to become educated in Salafi Islam rather than relying on male authority. Skogen’s re-donning the hijab, furthermore, underlines an important point: that Muslims women’s emancipation is both a struggle against patriarchal understandings of Islam and islamophobia.
To cite this article
Jasper Petersen, “The Different Faces of Islamic Feminism in Europe”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 52-60.
Jasper Petersen, “The Different Faces of Islamic Feminism in Europe, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/different-faces-islamic-feminism-in-europe