Feminism and Conversion
Comparing British, Dutch, and South African Life Stories
A signal foundational text of Islamic feminism was written by a woman convert to Islam. The text is Qur'an and Woman. It was first published in 1992 and was republished in 1999. The author is Amina Wadud, an African American and a professor of Islamic theology who calls herself a scholaractivist.1 Feminism and conversion to Islam, however, have remained virtually unlinked as subjects of analysis in both the scholarly and popular literature. Indeed, they have constituted rigidly separate categories of inquiry, almost as if they were antithetical.
The spread of conversions to Islam, especially in countries of the West, is a phenomenon of the late twentieth century continuing its rapid growth into the present century, with women constituting the largest numbers of these new Muslims. A concurrent phenomenon is the global rise of Islamic feminism, a discourse, grounded in the Qur'an, that articulates full gender equality and social justice across the public and private spheres, and activisms based upon this. Among Muslims it is the cutting-edge feminism, pushing inquiry and activism into new zones. Conversion to Islam and Islamic feminism address intersecting religious, societal, and cultural needs, and both raise hard questions. If the present numbers of women converts are large—and exceed the numbers of male converts worldwide—the numbers of Islamic feminists are small, but they are vocal and growing. The acceleration of Muslim conversions and the rise of Islamic feminism both occurred in the wake of the surfacing of political Islam and subsequent broader Islamic cultural revival. Conversions to Islam and Islamic feminism have also spread during a moment when the “new racism,” or “cultural racism,” and more specifically Islamophobia, are on the rise in the West.
The gender projects of Islamic feminism and political Islam are diametrically opposed. The implementation of the Qur'anic message of gender equality and social justice that Islamic feminism supports is challenged by political Islam, which promotes a patriarchal gender system upholding the hegemony of men over women that is anchored in male dominance in the family and