Islamic Feminism and Muslim Women's Rights Activism in India: From Transnational Discourse to Local Movement-Or Vice Versa?

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Abstract

The very recent phenomenon called Islamic feminism receives quite a lot of attention from academia and media alike. Although it is basically a discourse whose strategy and praxis is primarily script related, there seems to be an overt tendency to equate Islamic feminism with an ideology for a transnational social or political movement. As a perceived singular movement, Islamic feminism is often distinguished from two other supposedly singular movements, namely "Muslim feminism" and "Islamist feminism". With regard to India, however, these ideal types don't seem to be very helpful as analytical categories, as the growing influence and reference to Islamic feminism there simply cannot be associated with one distinct group of proponents or one movement exclusively. Therefore, I will argue here that a clear distinction should rather be made between Islamic feminism as a discursive movement, and the distinct local, national or transnational social and political movements that are all increasingly referring to this discourse. In India, these movements in many cases precede the emergence of Islamic feminism in the 1990s. So by making this distinction, the focus of analysis can be shifted from the repeated finding of ideological divisions and frictions within a supposedly singular Islamic feminist movement to the focus on the enormous potential that this discourse obviously has for Muslim women's agency in general as well as for the emergence of new female subjectivities in India (and elsewhere) which in turn seem to challenge and change secular-national gender discourses.

Keywords: Muslim women's rights, Muslim Personal Law, India

Introduction: Indian Muslim citizens and the quest for modernity

For quite some time, the renewed orientation of many Muslims worldwide towards the normative sources of their religion has been equated with a perceived quest for the legitimacy of an "anti-Western," "dogmatic" or "rigid" Islam. That this is not necessarily the agenda behind it becomes very clear when one looks at recent developments in India. Faced with enormous political, social and economic challenges, more and more active "lay" Muslims in India are engaging in fresh interpretations of the Islamic tradition, which for them as citizens of a modern nation-state could help to build bridges towards the majority community or society in general and not detach them from it any further. This effort is not restricted to a tiny minority of Muslim intellectuals, as it is supported, for example, by sections of the newly emerging Muslim middle class in India and many grass-roots movements all over the country. One could even argue that the discussion of burning questions, such as education, reform, the political representation of Indian Muslims, and above all the legal and social status of Muslim women, has led to the emergence of a new public sphere in India in recent years which, in turn, is linked to many other transnational and/or local Muslim publics (see Eickelman and Anderson 1999 and Salvatore/Eickelman 2004). As Sikand points out, the language of this new Muslim public sphere is English, not Urdu, which may be one of the reasons why it has gone largely unnoticed by the academic community so far, since Urdu is still regarded by many as the preferred language of Indian Muslim discourse (Sikand 2006). (2)

These new Muslim actors in local, national, and transnational spaces argue that believing Muslims do not depend on religious authorities in order to understand the Koran, but that they can rather and should indeed read and interpret the Koran for themselves. Thus, like other contemporary reform movements within Islam, their efforts can be seen as an answer to the perceived crisis of religious authority as well as the crisis of (political) representation, on the local, national and global level (see for instance Gole 2002 and 2004, Sharify-Funk 2004, Mahmood 2005 and 2006, and Kramer/Schmitdke 2006). …