Global Islamic Feminisms

Article excerpt

Jamillah Karim, AMERICAN MUSLIM WOMEN: NEGOTIATING RACE, CLASS AND GENDER WITHIN THE UMMAH. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 303p. notes, bibl. gloss, index, pap., $23.00, ISBN 978-0814748107.

Faegheh Shirazi, VELVET JIHAD: MUSLIM WOMEN'S QUIET RESISTANCE TO ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009 (pap., 2011). 288p. notes, bibl. index. $65.00, ISBN 978-0813033549; pap., $29.95, ISBN 978-0813037301.

Margot Badran, FEMINISM IN ISLAM: SECULAR AND RELIGIOUS CONVERGENCES. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2009. 358p. $29.95, ISBN 978-1851685561.

Some secular feminists may argue that religion serves as an impediment to real social change. Sociologists of religion have observed, however, that many religious activists use their faith to promote gender equality and justice. In fact, believers can use religion in seemingly contradictory ways to foster an inclusive community. On the one hand, they can use its spiritual dimensions to help gain critical distance from the status quo and imagine alternatives to it. (1) Some scholars posit that those religious movements that seek to expand the purview of individual religious autonomy have the greatest potential for increasing religions social significance in society as a whole. (2) In societies like the U.S., on the other hand, where social bonds between individuals are on the wane, religion can be used to form social networks and ties between individuals that may or may not have otherwise formed. (3)

Within Muslim communities, feminists are building an intellectual solidarity that embraces and accepts the legitimacy of a multiplicity of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors--none more religiously authoritative than the next. Despite their divergences, these endeavors share common goals: to undermine the hegemonic culture of silence and deference to patriarchal traditions, interpretations, and authorities; and, by doing so, to gain equal access for women to the same symbolic roles, spaces, and opportunities as for men.

Some research on Muslim feminism in the West is already under way in the fields of religious studies and gender studies. It has been noted that Islamic feminism encompasses a broad range of issues and endeavors, including poetry, domestic violence, political participation, female circumcision, literacy, social class, the veil, appropriation of the written word, and legal equality. (4) It has been further pointed out that the "gender jihad" undercuts the male dominance of Islamic leadership, as women have created a female presence in the public space of the Muslim community as well as in the divine space of orthodox Islamic theology and exegesis. (5)

In the wider context of revivalism, Muslim women have also reconstructed their own grand narrative of Islam and the rights it has accorded to its women. They have used the theological basis of Islam to carve their own path toward freedom. Their arguments have been anchored in the teachings of Islam--the Quranic laws and the traditions and practices of Muhammad. Muslim women have long argued that the secular pursuit of gender equality denies women their right to femininity, devalues their role as domestic providers, and makes motherhood into an unpaid burden rather than a rewarding pursuit. (6) The feminism they seek demands respect for women and offers them the opportunity of education, the option for independent and gainful employment in the workplace, and an honored Islamic space in the home for those who choose to become wives, mothers, and homemakers. (7) Feminist discourse among Muslim women also often occurs within the context of international organizations and transnational feminist networks. (8) Below, I will examine the coverage of Islamic feminisms and discourse within the three texts listed at the top of this essay.

Faegheh Shirazi organizes Velvet Jihad: Muslim Women's Quiet Resistance to Islamic Fundamentalism according to key gender-based social phenomena that Muslim women and girls face, especially in predominantly Muslim societies and to a lesser extent in non-Muslim societies: honor and virginity, fertility (and infertility), dress codes, gender role transgression, gender preference, and the body as subject. …