Western secularism and Islamic feminism

This article, by Ndeye Andújar of the Junta Islámica Catalana [Catalan Islamic Commission] and WebIslam, analyses the impact of both stereotyped and fundamentalist views of women in Islam, and their contribution to Islamic extremism.

It is of interest to the religious and to secularists alike: for the latter, to identify those elements of religious theory and practice that are beneficial is important in the pursuit of an integrated society that respects all its citizens. ‘Fundamentalist’ secularism also has to do this, to show that the source of these qualities is human and not sacred.

Islamic feminism: challenges and realities for European Muslim women

In the European context, Islamic feminism is an alternative to dominant patriarchal interpretations. In the face of both religious fundamentalism and aggressive secularism, it demands freedom from all forms of discrimination.

The situation of Muslim women is currently the source of a passionate and polarised debate that presents a stereotyped, simplistic and even dualist vision. Although it is particularly difficult to identify all of the issues that revolve around the question, two primary narratives can be identified: one that demonises Islam and another that idealises it, in terms of the treatment of women in Islam.

As regards the former, an objective view of the realities enables us to affirm that Muslim women are indeed subjected to discrimination. Analysis based on this narrative is, however, mistaken because the origin of that discrimination is fixed within Islam, as inherent to it. The Koran – a spiritual message addressed to all men and all women – is confused with human laws formulated from the 10th century onwards.

The closed circle of the two narratives

A prevailing mistake in the West is to constantly show the negative face of Islam and to ignore those fighting against this injustice. From this perspective, only abandoning the religion will allow Muslim women to become free [a perspective notably expounded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali] . Yet this narrative is perceived by those it targets as a form of cultural imperialism. That is why many Muslims imagine the terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘feminism’ to be inseparable.

Confronted with this ‘colonial feminism’, fundamentalist movements appeal to Islam as a mark of identity for Muslim societies (or as a mark of identity for Muslim communities in Europe), a form of ideological resistance in the face of Western imperialism.

As for the latter kind of narrative, it claims that Muslim women already enjoy all their rights, but only in a complementary relationship with men. Women are placed on a pedestal, spoken of as a “fragile and beautiful pearl” to be protected. This vision infantilises women, prevents them from accessing the public sphere and conceals the obvious discrimination that exists.

We end up with a closed circle: fundamentalism makes separation of the sexes and distinct roles for men and women a battle flag against Western interference, which leads to various kinds of discrimination that are in turn presented by their opponents as conclusive proof that ‘Islam oppresses women’. Fundamentalism as the legitimate ‘representative’ of Islam is thus validated, and all those who fight against extremist elements are marginalised from the debate.

A movement of freedom and spiritual regeneration

In the face of this false dualism, there is a movement of men and women reclaiming freedom from all forms of discrimination within the framework of Islam. This movement believes that a degradation of Islamic tradition has taken place, with a false interpretation of the message of the Koran. Islam contains a significant element of liberation, whose reclamation as a framework for social emancipation is proposed by Islamic feminism. It is a movement of protest, but equally of spiritual regeneration.

These are men and women who challenge patriarchal interpretations and suggest an alternative reading of sacred texts, so as to achieve equality of rights and, at the same time, to refute Western stereotypes. Western culture’s claim to ’superiority’, on the one hand, and aggressive secularism pitched against the fact of religion on the other, do not make for an effective opponent to fundamentalism. Quite the opposite: this attack on religion strengthens it and leads us into a cul-de-sac.

It is, therefore, essential that governments and civic society support this movement, to liberate the community of European Muslim women from foreign models and break from the monolithic view of Islam that exists in the collective imagination.

Finally, we need to find mechanisms to apply Islamic feminism to the European context, as an instrument to both normalise the presence of Muslims in Europe, and to reconcile their religious beliefs with their European identity.

Translation: Belfast to Brussels

Una respuesta a “Western secularism and Islamic feminism

  1. Arnold Yasin Mol 26, abril, 2010 / 10:42 am

    A very good analysis. At the one side we see the West skeptical of an Islamic reform from within, believing that Humanism is a western value that is directly related to the Christian reforms of the Renaissance, while forgetting that the Enlightenment is a mostly Deistic and philosophical product that had to turn against the established religious institutions that protected oppressive ruling systems.

    Islamic apologists and ‘islamists’ try to create an image that nothing is wrong with Islam and the rights of females were far better under Islam than under other religious institutions. Although this historical comparison is correct, it is apologetic and deceiving as it tries to protect the religious institutions that were created under Islam starting from the Ummayyad regime.

    Islamic reform, where Islamic Feminism is part off, is comparable to the Enlightenment in its rejection of religious institutions to control and determine the rights of the individual. It is about reclaiming the individual right to understand its relation to existence and personal beliefs, and to rethink the meaning and intention of the Qur’an and the traditions that formed around it.

    The religious institutions in Islam were one part serving the oppressive regimes of the Ummayyads, Abbassids, Fatimids, Sassanids and Ottomans, and on the other part trying to control them to protect the people against injustice. The result of this process is the Shari’a and political theories of Islam that we know today. That these results are not a real vision of the Islamic potential can already be determined by the removal of public consultation (shura) 30 years after the Prophet’s death.

    For an objective view on Islam, we need to understand this historical process to know what to reject and what to reform of the conclusions and interpretations created by the religious institutions that were formed under the Muslim regimes over the last 1300 years. The process of Islamic reform is thus through an internal rethinking focused on the freedom and rights of the individual (male and female) based on public consulation and the pursuit of justice.

    Till now, most of the ‘reforms’ of Islam still use the ideas, techniques and opinions formed by the religious institutions that were created under regimes that lacked the important process of public consultation (shura).

    Muslims thus need to rethink the purpose and role of Islam in society through individual and public processes that are not ‘imprisoned’ by historical religious institutions. This is thus not a ‘western’ process nor an apologetic one, but an honest and fruitfull renewal of the Islamic potential wherein every individual, male and female, can discuss and determine their rights within society. This is why Islamic Feminism is one voice, and an important one, in this process of Islamic reform for the renewal of the Islamic potential within the world society. The demand for reform and rethought of Islam doesn’t come from a western point of view, but from the recognition that Islamic religious institutions and politics of the last 1300 years developed without true public consulation (shura) and thus cannot claim to be the true vision of Islam.


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