Trends of women’s Islamic activism

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

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When one talks about contemporary Islam, perhaps few issues are as controversial as the condition of women. Indeed, it is in the female figure that many of the tensions permeating Muslim societies are concentrated: the dialectic between tradition and renewal, relations between the State and religion and the relationship between divine law and human rights.


Despite its importance, it was with some hesitation that we decided to tackle this subject. The debate has been particularly contaminated by trivializations, stereotypes and ideologies and participating in it means running the risk of turning Muslim women into a battleground. Instead of discussing women in Islam, therefore, we have preferred to focus on women’s Islam, thereby allowing Muslim women to speak for themselves. This we have done by giving space directly to leading female Islamic activists or by analysing their reality in different contexts.


One of these activists is Ziba Mir-Hosseini whose opening article criticizes the persistence of pre-modern conceptions of the relations between men and women in Muslim countries’ legislation and, at the same time, describes her experience with Musawah (“Equality”), a movement that promotes “equality and justice in the Muslim family” through a re-reading of Islam’s founding texts.


The idea of discrimination or even the seclusion of women in traditional Muslim societies is only one of the narratives available, however. Indeed, Britta Frede takes the case of Africa to emphasize the contribution female Muslim scholars have made both to the Islamic intellectual tradition and to the Sufi reform movements emerging between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the continent. Her analysis seeks to relativize the commonplace of female subordination—the freedoms attained by women in modern times might “not be so new”, she writes in her article—and she highlights how the category of “gender” is not enough to explain the degree of women’s inclusion in or exclusion from social and cultural life. Another emblematic representative of female Islamic knowledge is ‘Ā’isha al-Bā‘ūniyya, a fifteenth-century Damascene mystic and author of a most inspired text on divine love, which we present in the “Classics” section with a foreword by Martino Diez.


These two narratives follow one other in the two interviews we have included in the “Focus” section. Amina Wadud, one of Islamic feminism’s pioneers, offers her reflections on the need to integrate the gender perspectives when interpreting Islam. Safia Shahid, on the other hand, tells of her struggle to re-launch the tradition of female Islamic knowledge and warns against claims that are opposed to established readings of Islam.


Jesper Petersen’s contribution on Islamic feminisms in Europe reveals, in its turn, a complex panorama in which the very notion of feminism can refer to different phenomena and claims in different contexts: in London, for example, “one can attend woman-led mixed gender Friday prayer,” whereas only 300 km further north, in the city of Bradford, the Council of Muslim Women has given birth to a mosque with a wholly female administrative council, which has, however, chosen to respect the conventional gender boundaries by entrusting the leading of prayer to a male imam.


Two important twentieth-century Muslim women, namely, the scholar of Qur’anic exegesis ‘Ā’isha ‘Abd al- Rahmān, and the Pakistani Benazir Bhutto, the first Muslim woman to hold a top political post in contemporary era, also present rather different profiles. The former, as Margherita Picchi explains, was a complex figure who remained tied to a traditional vision of gender relations and yet she was able to stand up to sheikhs and presidents. The latter (whose life is presented by Clinton Bennett) combined her political career with reformist reflection on equality between men and women.


The relationship between public presence and emancipation is therefore anything but linear. This fact is further confirmed by the case of the Saudi female preachers considered by Chiara Pellegrino. Trained in the wake of the female education process begun in the 1970s, these religious scholars have gained a notable visibility thanks to the new technologies. Their role remains ambiguous, however, because whilst they constitute an unprecedented form of female religious authority, they are also helping to perpetuate that Wahhabism that has made women’s subordination a pillar of social life. One can observe a similar dynamic in Morocco with the figure of the murshidāt. Indeed, these female preachers mitigate the male monopoly over the religious sphere but, at the same time, they allow a more effective control of the latter by the state. As Sara Borrillo’s article reveals, female activism in the Maghrebi kingdom is decidedly more rooted and incisive than in Saudi Arabia where, let us not forget, the fact that women can drive a car has been described as an “historic achievement.” In Rabat, too, however, the full affirmation of women’s rights is limited by the monarchy’s need to mediate between different interest groups.


Lastly, Sara Manisera’s Reportage sketches the profiles of five Italian Muslim women engaged in a struggle for recognition that, for some of them, involves three dimensions: femininity, the Islamic faith and their foreign origin.


This overview reveals a decidedly diversified picture within which two big trends can nevertheless be discerned. On the one hand, the position of all those who maintain that the protection of women is sufficiently guaranteed by Islam’s founding texts and the Islamic tradition and who thus risk endorsing patriarchal visions and practices that really do exist in certain societies. On the other, those female activists who, in the name of a radical concept of equality or following the logic of a mutual recognition of rights, extend their commitment to the point of taking on the totality of the claims linked to gender theory.


The alternative is not simply to adopt an intermediate position but, rather, to take sexual difference seriously; without making it the basis for a relationship founded on domination but also without renouncing recognising in it a constituent element of human being.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Recognising Equality, Respecting Difference”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 7-11.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Recognising Equality, Respecting Difference”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/recognising-equality-respecting-difference