Islamic Feminism & Its Discontents

by: Val Moghadam

“What one can say about this encounter is that the Latin American and Caribbean feminist movement forms part of the social and political map of the region; because of this it cannot avoid bleeding from the wound that affects the left and all the social and political movements of the continent; the traditional forms of doing politics, self-centered, non-dialogic, punitive, messianic, incapable of confronting s

trategies, of dissolving spaces of power without fracturing, perplexed before this enemy without a face that is neoliberalism and its

postmodernity.” [Carina Gobbi, on the schisms among Latin American feminists and in the left.]

Few debates among expatriate Iranian feminists and leftists have been as contentious as that centered on “Islamic feminism”. The very term itself as well as its referent are subjects of controversy and disagreement. Can there be such a thing as a feminism that is framed in Islamic terms? Is Islam compatible with feminism? Is it correct to describe as feminist or even as “Islamic feminist” those publishers, activists and scholars, including veiled women, whose work toward women’s advancement and gender equality are carried out within an Islamic discursive framework? Can the activities of reformist men and women – who situate themselves within the broad objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and seek the improvement of the status of women – be described as constituting an Islamic feminism? Is Islamic feminism part of a broad reform movement in Iran, or is it an attempt to legitimize the state’s gender policy? And are those expatriate feminist scholars who report positively on “Islamic feminism” correct to promote the phenomenon? These are among the vexed questions that have emerged in various writings, and that been met by divergent responses.

There has been a wider and longstanding debate among feminists within Middle East Women’s Studies regarding representations of Arab/Islamic women, conceptualizations of veiling and Islamic identity, and regarding orientalism, universalist values, and cultural relativism. In this article, however, I focus on the Iranian debate. Given the contentious nature of the debate and the tendency toward misrepresentation of positions, I am trying to provide balance and clarity. I am also concerned with the definition and meaning of “feminism”, its applicability to Muslim societies, and the need for a more inclusive and cross-cultural understanding of feminism and of the global women’s movement. (Note – this paper is an abbreviated version of a much longer one that also contains full citations.)

The Debate: Viewpoints of the Protagonists

Those involved in the debate on Islamic feminism form two opposing camps. On one side are those who explore the possibilities that exist within Islam (by looking at theological discussions) or within the Islamic Republic of Iran (through sociological or political analyses) concerning women’s interests. Chief among them are three feminist social scientists educated in Iran and the West, two of whom have deep roots in the Iranian left and the women’s movement. Afsaneh Najmabadi, educated in both the U.K. and the U.S., is a professor of women’s studies in New York; Nayereh Tohidi is a U.S.-trained professor of women’s studies in California; Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a Cambridge-educated social anthropologist based in London. In the 1970s and 1980s Tohidi and Najmabadi were active in the left-wing anti-Shah student movement and later in the anti-fundamentalist and feminist movements. Najmabadi is a founder of Nimeye Digar, a Persian-language feminist journal published in England. Tohidi has been to Iran several times in the 1990s, is in regular contact with women’s rights activists in Iran, and often publishes in the Iranian women’s press.

In the opposite camp are those who argue vehemently against the possibility that activists and scholars operating within an Islamic framework in Iran may be accurately described as “Islamic feminists”. Islamic feminists and their expatriate academic supporters, they argue, either consciously or unwittingly delegitimize secular trends and social forces. This camp maintains that the activities and goals of “Islamic feminism” are circumscribed and compromised; and they contend that there cannot be improvements in women’s status as long as the Islamic Republic is in place. This group similarly includes Western-educated feminist social scientists with deep roots in the left and in the women’s movement, including one man. Haideh Moghissi teaches women’s studies in Canada; Shahrzad Mojab holds a university administrative position in Canada; and Hammed Shahidian teaches sociology in the U.S. Shahidian is a prolific researcher whose writings have appeared in U.S. sociology journals; at least two have appeared in the women’s press in Iran. Interesting, despite their posturing as defenders of the secular left, Moghissi has written a book, and Shahidian an article, highly critical of the secular leftist organizations in Iran during the Revolution.

Although I have been placed (by Moghissi and Mojab) in the first camp, I (and others) situate myself somewhere in the middle of the two. In my writings I have examined the role of the Left in the revolution (critically but sympathetically), the nature and evolution of the populist revolution, the evolution of the Islamic state and its policies, and changes in the status of women since the revolution and especially during the 1990s. In particular, I have researched women’s employment patterns and measures of gender inequality before and after the revolution. I too was part of the student movement, and I remain a Marxist-feminist.

 In Defense of Islamic Feminism

Writings on women and gender in the Islamic Republic were almost uniformly critical during the 1980s, but a change of tone and style could be discerned after 1990. Several studies began to argue that reforms and policy shifts were occurring in the Islamic Republic, that an incipient women’s movement was underway, and that Muslim women activists were behind much of the changes. These studies have been applauded by some and criticized by others. In the early 1980s, the writings of Parvin Paidar (sometimes under the name Nahid Yeganeh) suggested some common ground between Islamic women and left-wing women. At the time, however, her writings did not engender the kind of harsh debate that has developed since the mid-1990s. The debate proper on Islamic feminism may be said to have begun in February 1994, when Afsaneh Najmabadi gave a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in which she described Islamic feminism as a reform movement that also opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists. A Persian-language article ensued, and her views are contained in at least two English-language essays.

In her SOAS talk, Najmabadi focused on the women’s magazine Zanan and the quarterly Farzaneh, both published in Tehran. Zanan, which was founded in 1992 by Shahla Sherkat, the former editor of the establishment women’s magazine Zan-e Rouz, had become by 1994 the major voice for reform in the status of women. In the magazine’s inaugural issue, Sherkat writes that “We believe that the key to the solution of women’s problems lies in four realms: religion, culture, law, and education. If the way is paved in these four principal domains then we can be hopeful of women’s development and society’s advancement.” Najmabadi described how articles in Zanan challenge orthodox Islamic teachings on the differential rights and responsibilities of women and men by claiming women’s right to equality.  She explained that part of her enthusiasm for Islamic feminism, and especially for Zanan, lay in her belief that they have entered a common ground with secular feminists in their attempts to improve women’s legal status and social positions.

Writers in Zanan, well-versed in the Quran, have raised the issue of the right to ijtehad (independent reasoning, religious interpretation), and the right of women to reinterpret Islamic law. Writes Najmabadi:  “At the center of Zanan’s  revisionist approach is a radical decentering of the clergy from the domain of interpretation, and the placing of woman as interpreter and her needs as grounds for interpretation.” This, she feels, challenges one of the foundational concepts of the Islamic Republic: deference to the rulership of the supreme jurisprudent, or the velayat-e faghih. Another reason for Najmabadi’s celebration of Islamic feminism (again, as articulated in Zanan) is her belief that it has opened up a new space for dialogue between Islamic women activists and reformers and secular feminists, thereby breaking down the old hostile divide between secular and religious thought.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini similarly offers a careful analysis of the writings of Zanan. She has focused on new discourses on gender among Islamic theologians, the challenging of Islamic family laws by ordinary women, and the emergence of reform-minded Islamic feminists. Mir-Hosseini argues that an unpredicted outcome of the Islamic revolution in Iran has been to raise the nation’s gender consciousness. “…[W]hatever concerns women – from their most private to their most public activities, from what they should wear and what they should study to whether and where they should work – are issues that have been openly debated and fought over by different factions, always in highly charged and emotional language.”

Mir-Hosseini has written most extensively about how family law, especially marriage and divorce, have constituted a contested arena. The official discourse promotes domesticity and motherhood for women as ideal roles, and the constitution promises to guard the sanctity of the family. Yet, the return to Sharia law gives men a free hand in divorce and polygamy. This “in effect subverts the very sanctity of the family as understood by women, thus going against the Constitution’s promise.” She then argues that many Muslim women who had at the beginning genuinely though naively believed that under an Islamic state women’s position would automatically improve, became increasingly disillusioned by the new discriminatory and patriarchal discourses and policies. These included intellectuals like Zahra Rahnavard and activists like Azam Taleghani, and subsequently establishment women like Monireh Gorji.  Meanwhile, under the editorship of Shahla Sherkat, Zanan became the principal forum for the discussion of the injustices of current Sharia interpretations and their application to civil codes. In Zanan and elsewhere, feminist lawyers such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi delineate the problems and legal tangles that women confront in terms of both the substance of the law and its implementation.

The contradictions in the Islamic discourse, the emerging feminist consciousness as seen in the women’s press, and challenges by feminist lawyers and other women led to amendments to the divorce law in 1992, whose spirit is to making divorce less accessible and more costly to men.  Mir-Hosseini also notes the widespread use of concepts such as mardsalari, which refers to both male dominance and to patriarchy. Mir-Hosseini has traced the evolution of feminist social analyses in Zanan from the hesitant voice at the magazine’s beginning, to the assertion of a fiqh voice — particularly with the series of articles written by the cleric Mohsen Saidzadeh in favor of equality for women and men and the reform of Sharia laws). And like Najmabadi, she sees Zanan’s willingness to publish the secular lawyer Mehrangiz Kar as politically significant.

Nayereh Tohidi is well known in Iranian expatriate circles for her many Persian-language writings and lectures on politics and women, from her early days as a left activist to the present. Her articles in the 1980s tended to be very critical of the Islamic Republic and of its gender policies. During the 1990s, however, her writings shifted from an emphasis on the forms of gender oppression in Iran to the empowerment of Muslim women and the possibilities for reform within the Islamic system in Iran. She argues that women are able to renegotiate gender roles and codes, and find “a path of compromise and creative synthesis”. She has explained how her visits to Iran during the 1990s, and in particular her interviews and observations, have compelled her to shift her focus from repression to resistance and empowerment. As she has recently pointed out, “secular feminists, democrats, and liberals have not been alone in contesting the state’s ideology and politics on gender issues. Many proponents of Islam are playing an important role in the reformation of women’s rights in an Islamic context.”

In a recent book she has co-edited, Tohidi writes approvingly that women in the Muslim world are fighting and strategizing against two sets of pressures, “one stemming from the internal patriarchal system and the other emitted by those forces seen as external, threatening people’s national and cultural boundaries.” She then proceeds to describe one of those strategies, “the recently growing phenomenon of ‘Islamic feminism’.” She describes this as a movement of women who “have maintained their religious beliefs while trying to promote egalitarian ethics of Islam by using the female-supportive verses of the Qur’an in their fight for women’s rights, especially for women’s access to education.” Echoing Mir-Hosseini, she notes that Islamic feminists undermine the clerical agenda both within and outside the Islamist framework in a number of ways:

by subtly circumventing the dictated rules (e.g., reappropriating the veil as a means to facilitate social presence rather than seclusion, or minimizing and diversifying the compulsory hijab and dress code into fashionable styles), engaging in a feministic ijtehad, emphasizing the egalitarian ethics of Islam, reinterpreting the Qur’an, and deconstructing Sharia-related rules in a women-friendly egalitarian fashion (e.g., in terms of birth control, personal status law, and family code to the extent of legalizing a demand for ‘wages for housework’.

Tohidi warns that “secular feminists should differentiate between those Islamic women who are genuinely promoting women’s rights and hence inclusionary in their politics from those who insist on fanatic or totalitarian Islam.” And approvingly citing the feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, she stresses that a “reformist or women-centered interpretation of religious laws should be considered not as an alternative to secular and democratic demands but as a component of more holistic social change.”

The Case against Islamic Feminism

Haideh Moghissi complains that “it has become fashionable to speak sympathetically and enthusiastically about the reformist activities of Muslim women, and to insist on their independence of thought. … The message is that a new road has been opened up for women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – to gain equal rights to men: a road based on feminist interpretations of Islamic sharia laws.” Moghissi is critical of those “apologists of the Islamic government and uninformed observers” who attribute legal changes in the Islamic Republic to “the enlightenment of conservative Islamists… .” At the same time, she does not claim that there have been no achievements by Islamic feminists in Iran. In fact, she refers to the opportunities afforded to Islamic women and to the accomplishments of the female political elite. Without properly attributing these ideas to previous authors (e.g., Tohidi and Moghadam), she writes that the Islamic Republic’s gender ideology faces the imperatives of a capitalist system, which requires sexual desegregation, and that the clerical state tries to accommodate the demands of activist women. But then she also opines that the “exaggerated reports” about recent legal gains by women, and the role of Islamic feminists in bringing them about, divert attention away from societal opposition to the economic, social, and cultural conditions brought about by nearly two decades of Islamization. It serves to strengthen the legitimacy of the Islamic system in Iran and “weakens the struggle of women inside Iran”.

Moghissi claims that the term “Islamic feminist” has been used in “inaccurate” and “irresponsible” ways. Almost all Islamic and active women are designated Islamic feminist, she asserts, “even though their activities might not even fit the broadest definition of feminism.” Although she herself does not define feminism, Moghissi complains that the term encompasses members of the female political elite who believe in the Sharia and its prescribed gender rights and roles, such as three female members of parliament who have been responsible for two reactionary bills. The very term, she argues, and the emphasis on the achievements of those believing women who reinterpret the Quran, obscure the political, ideological, and religious differences among Iranian women and mask the valiant efforts of socialists, democrats, and feminists to work toward secularism. In her Kankash article, Moghissi singles out expatriate feminist authors, finds faults with their analyses, and brands them “neoconservatives”. In her book, she brands them “postmodernists” and “cultural relativists”. She writes: “Charmed by ‘difference’ and secure from the bitter fact of the fundamentalist regime, outsiders do them [Iranian women and men] a disservice by clinging to the illusion of an Islamic path.”

Hammed Shahidian similarly argues that the politics of “Islamic feminism” is problematical, whether in Iran or elsewhere. The emphasis on the achievements of Islamic women, he writes, obscures the contributions of the Left and secularists in the face of continued Islamist repression in Iran. (Like Moghissi, however, Shahidian also has written sharp criticisms of the Left.) In one article he refers to a “deepening identity crisis” among secular Middle East feminists and approvingly quotes two Iranian left-wing feminists: “… some women have found the pull towards a full or partial reconciliation with Iranian-style fundamentalism stronger. A trend is now developing among some Iranian feminists … to stand back and consider Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to stand up and fight against it.”

Shahidian is critical of attempts by Arab scholars such as Fatima Mernissi and Aziza Al-Hibri, and the Pakistan-born Rifat Hassan, to craft a feminist theology and reinterpretation of Islamic texts; these attempts are futile, he argues, given the strength of conservative, orthodox, traditional, and fundamentalist interpretations, laws, and institutions. He is especially critical of a growing trend in Middle East Women’s Studies wherein authors justify Muslim women’s veiling, domesticity, moral behavior, and adherence to Islamic precepts as signs of individual choice and identity. Even if we do not accept the notion of “false consciousness”, he asks, is it not incumbent upon scholars to situate and understand actors’ views and perceptions within the broader social, cultural, political, and economic context? This context is characterized by political repression, cultural conservatism, and the social control of women.   Shahidian notes that Islamic feminists in Iran have been attentive to and influenced by Western feminism. But he is critical of them for not addressing sexual rights and veiling. Shahidian argues that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

While Shahidian has been especially critical of Tohidi, Shahrzad Mojab, like Moghissi, has focused on Najmabadi’s writings on Islamic feminism. In an article published in the Persian-language magazine Arash, Shahrzad Mojab criticizes Najmabadi for suggesting that Zanan is the new “democratic forum” and that it can help to feminize democracy. She disputes Najmabadi’s hopeful prognosis about the reinterpretation of Islamic texts and stresses that the ruling religious elite can dismiss, delegitimize, or prohibit radical or feminist reinterpretations. What Iran’s Islamic feminists have achieved is, at any rate, quite limited in content and consequence. Real change – real democratization – will come about outside of the religious framework, writes Mojab.

The Iranian left in exile is exceptionally vocal in opposing support for Islamic feminism. Left-opposition newspapers and magazines have carried articles describing the phenomenon and rejecting it as illusory or as a way of legitimizing Islamic rule. Representative of this line of thought is an editorial entitled “The Limits of Islamic Feminism”, published in 1994 in Iran Bulletin.  But the criticism of Islamic feminism is not limited to certain left-wing circles. Iranians who identify themselves as liberals or monarchists are equally adamant that no change or reform is possible in the Islamic Republic of Iran (e.g., Azar Nafisi). The People’s Mojahedin Organization takes the same position.

Islamic Feminism: An Assessment and Alternative View

The Iranian debate on Islamic feminism certainly reflects — and probably reinforces — the fragmentation of the left. The quote at the beginning of this article, which comes from a Latin American feminist, may well describe the current crisis of the Iranian left and of the exile condition. But the debate is perhaps best understood as part of three broader and at times overlapping debates and political realities. The first pertains to Islamic fundamentalism (its origins, gender dynamics, contradictions), the second to the Islamic Republic of Iran (its gender regime and its political evolution), and the third to the definition of feminism (and the nature of women’s movements around the world).

Fundamentalism, the Islamic Republic, and Feminism

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of those who were grappling with the perplexing phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism were Middle Eastern academic women (like myself) who were writing in North America and Europe. Politics and disciplinary training alike informed our approaches. We faced the problem of Islamic fundamentalism from a political position (whether Marxist, socialist, feminist, or liberal), but we also sought to distance ourselves from eurocentric and orientalist approaches. Thus it became very important to refute orientalist charges that Islamic fundamentalism was the inevitable political expression of the Muslim world, and to counter cultural relativist arguments that criticism of gender practices in non-Western cultures was inappropriate and an imposition of Western values. At the same time, many of us who were social scientists used our disciplinary tools to analyze relations, institutions and processes in Muslim societies. Historical and comparative methods, for example, suggested similarities between Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East at the end of the 20th century and American Protestant fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Both movements occurred in the context of the contradictions of modernity and modernization, including growing secularization and changes to family structure. A difference between the two, however, is that Islamic fundamentalism also occurred in the regional context of Middle East politics and the international context of economic recession and growing inequalities. Scholars were also interested in the differences among Islamist movements (e.g., Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Algeria) and the evolution of political Islam. In the late 1990s, there is some consensus that the wave of movements for political Islam that swept over the Middle East and North Africa is subsiding, although the legacy of Islamic fundamentalism is not yet fully understood.

A parallel and interrelated debate has centered on the evolution of the Islamic Republic in the 1990s. Has the regime shown a capacity for reform? Is the Islamic Republic of Iran moving in a capitalistic, bourgeois direction that may augur legal reforms and changes in social relations (including gender relations and laws about women and the family)? Or is the Islamic Republic mired in a crisis that can only be resolved through complete systemic transformation? Have women’s positions improved since the highly ideological and repressive early years? Or is the fundamentalist gender regime incapable of change and reform? Again, Iranians have approached these questions both politically (“subjectively”) and academically (“objectively”). Most of the oppositional press and some books highlight the political repression, violations of women’s human rights, the archaic political system of clerical governance, and economic inefficiencies to insist on the impossibility of fundamental reform and change. Others have documented reforms in the political system, in economic policy, and in foreign policy. These changes, it is argued, began after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and have continued during the presidency of the liberal Islamic cleric Mohammad Khatami.

A third debate and political development relevant to the debate on Islamic feminism pertains to the definition of feminism and the nature of women’s movements worldwide. As feminist scholars Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor note:

“Feminism” is a contested term even in the present, and historical literature is full of kinds of feminists who would surely have had a hard time finding common ground: Nazi feminists and Jewish feminists, Catholic feminists and Islamic feminists, socialist feminists and utopian feminists, social feminists and equity feminists, imperial feminists and national feminists.

The debate on Islamic feminism is linked to the above three debates. We have seen how some feminist scholars have shifted their focus from the unrelenting oppression of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran to an appreciation of resistance, empowerment, and change. It is in this context that they now analyze the activities of Iran’s Islamic feminists, who have been responsible for some legal reforms beneficial to women in the Islamic Republic. As noted by Najmabadi, Mir-Hosseini, and Tohidi, Islamic feminists are particularly keen on removing the most patriarchal aspects of Iran’s family law, which is highly disadvantageous to women in the areas of inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.

In the opposite camp, the detractors of Islamic feminism reject the possibilities for any improvements in women’s conditions or any reform of the Islamist system in Iran. As we have seen with Moghissi, however, they can argue, rather inconsistently, that the clerical state has undertaken legal reforms as concessions to women activists, but that the proponents of Islamic feminism “exaggerate” the potential of Islamic feminism. In general, the detractors of Islamic feminism refuse to concede the few successes that Islamic feminists have made in overturning some discriminatory policies, mainly in the areas of employment and education, that were adopted in the early years of Islamization. As such, they essentially deny women’s agency in the Islamic Republic. They also dismiss the reform movement in Iran, with which many of the “Islamic feminists” are associated, as unimportant or futile. Finally, they define “feminism” essentially as Anglo-American radical- and liberal-feminism. Nowhere does the idea of a global feminism figure into their critiques

Islamic Feminism: Strengths and Weaknesses

In my view, there can be no doubt of the importance of the activities of “Islamic feminists” such as Shahla Sherkat, Zahra Rahnavard, Faezeh Hashemi, Jamileh Kadivar, and others. Their close association with more secular feminists, such as Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangis Kar, Shahla Lahiji, and several academics (e.g., Nahid Motiee) is an illustration of their capacity for dialogue and coalition-building in the interests of the expansion of women’s rights. By maintaining a lively and widely-read women’s press (e.g., Zanan, Zan-e Rouz, Farzaneh, Zan, as well as newer ones such asHoghough-e Zanan and Jens-e Dovvom), women’s rights activists, including Islamic feminists, have succeeded in making highly visible the “question of women”. For example, in 1997 roundtable discussions entitled “What are the Most Important Problems of Women in Iran?” were organized and reported on in Zanan. The roundtable discussion that featured Farideh Farahi, Mehrangiz Kar, and Abbas Abdi discussion touched on such issues as the reform movement in Iran, the limited nature of women’s rights, and the need for the press to enjoy more freedoms. The women’s press, and those Islamic and secular feminists associated with it, are playing an important role in broadening the discursive universe of the Islamic Republic, and in expanding legal literacy and gender consciousness among their readership.

The re-reading of the Islamic texts is a central project of Islamic feminists. Out of their own religious conviction, Shahla Sherkat, Maryam Behrouzi, Monireh Gorji and the former cleric (now defrocked) Mohsen Saidzadeh engage in new interpretations of Islamic texts in order to challenge laws and policies that are based on orthodox, literalist, or misogynist interpretations. Other Islamic feminists such as Faezeh Hashemi boldly insist on the need for women judges, on more equitable inheritance law, on voluntary veiling, and on the right to engage in sports. Hashemi, Ebadi, Kar, and others have objected to the penal code for its discrimination against women, whereby the “blood money” of a woman is half that of a man. As such, Islamic feminists are addressing some of the fundamentals of Islamic doctrine and of the gender system in Iran.

Although I am sympathetic to the discursive strategy of Islamic feminists, I am concerned about the focus on the “correct” reading of the Islamic texts. I fear that so long as they remain focused on theological arguments rather than socio-economic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Quran rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best.  At worst, their strategy can reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamic system, help to reproduce it, and undermine secular alternatives. But this worst-case scenario will probably not be realized, because most Islamic feminists combine their religious reinterpretations with a recognition of universal standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The limitations of Islamic feminism in its present phase are suggested by an interesting article by Anne Sofie Roald. She notes that Christian feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, Phyllis Bird and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza “are part of an established scientific tradition within Christian theology.” This is a historical-critical method which allows them to “perceive the Bible as written by human beings and in particular by men, … .”  This is “an assumption which is not possible in an Islamic exegesis.” Islamic feminist theologians seek to evaluate Islamic sources, criticize the interpretation of Islamic sources, and stress the equality of men and women in the Quran. Their method “concentrates mainly on textual analysis and thus works methodologically in search of evidences to establish laws and regulations suitable for modern society.” Roald concludes that “The interpretation of the Islamic sources by women is a new project and the next decades will show us whether this project has any future.”

It is, at any rate, very difficult to win theological arguments. There will always be various interpretations of the religious texts, and what determines the dominance of each interpretation is the power of the social forces behind it. In this respect, I agree with Shahrzad Mojab on the limits of religious reinterpretation. Thus, although religious reform is salutary and necessary, it is imperative to develop secular institutions, including a state that defends the rights of all its citizens irrespective of religious affiliation, and a civil society with strong organizations that can constitute a check on the state. I will return to this issue at the conclusion of this paper.

Shahidian criticizes Islamic feminists for working within the Islamic system and thus helping to legitimize and reproduce it. And yet, many feminists around the world work within their system, and help to reproduce it. In the U.S., liberal feminists work within the existing political system and seek to improve women’s positions though the discursive framework of liberal capitalism. Of course, the substance of their respective gender critiques is different, and they work within two entirely different political and legal environments. Shahidian has criticized Iran’s Islamic feminists for their failure to take up such liberal-feminist issues as sexual rights and personal autonomy. Apart from the fact that there are some other issues that may have more priority for most Iranian women, one has to point out that U.S. liberal feminists have not called for economic and political transformation. American feminist demands for sexual rights and equal opportunities in education and employment are entirely compatible with the capitalist system. What liberal feminists have not called for is a change in the system of taxation and in development policy that would alter U.S. foreign policy and the distribution of wealth within the United States. Such profound changes would transform and improve the lives of American women and of women around the world.

One of the gaps I see in the discourse of the “Islamic feminists” – whether they be genuinely religious or more secular – is the lack of attention to political and economic issues. Where are the analyses of poverty, of economic policy, of governance? Where are the alternative positions on democracy (even an Islamic democracy), civil society, and citizen rights? Their position on political and economic issues remains unclear and undeveloped. Faezeh Hashemi and other Islamic feminists sometimes refer to the goals of democracy, civil society, and equality for women and religious minorities. However, to the extent that they raise these issues, their discussion of them tends to be very general and non-threatening. (I have found this level of generality and lack of specificity to be the case with male reformists as well.) In fact, Iran’s constitution – as well as family law and the penal code — will have to be revised, if those objectives are to be achieved. Moreover, the building of civil society calls for a specific kind of state. Civil society presupposes a state that enforces universal legal norms and guarantees protection of civil and human rights regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, and class.

Conclusion: On Civil Society and Global Feminism

Does Islamic feminism challenge or reinforce the fusion of religion and politics/law? Najmabadi celebrates Zanan for its receptivity to non-Islamic writers, which she sees as blurring the divide between religious and secular thought. And yet there is a need for separation of the state and mosque/church/synagogue, and for a secular political system, even though there are different paths to and models of secularism and Iran must find its own.

I cannot elaborate on these different historical paths and contemporary models in the confines of the present paper. Here I can simply point out that Mexico, Turkey, India, France, Finland, the United States, and the former Soviet Union have had very different forms of secularism. In Mexico, government officials do not invoke the name of God (partly a result of Mexico’s anti-clerical revolution earlier this century), but the masses of Mexicans are very religious. The vast majority of Turks are Muslims, and yet the political-juridical system is secular. Finnish citizens pay a portion of their taxes to the Lutheran Church, although politics and citizenry alike are secular. The former Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe had an official policy of atheism – which, however, engendered religious dissidence. The United States has a constitutional principle of separation of church and state – but that same constitution, as well as the American currency, refers to God.  India has sought to maintain equality of its many ethnic and religious communities through the establishment of a secular political system – although its Civil Code still defers to various communities in the areas of personal and family status.

The efforts of believing women of the monotheistic faiths to subject their religious texts to a feminist re-reading, or to locate and emphasize the women-friendly and egalitarian precepts within their religious texts, are to be supported. This is a legitimate – and a historically necessary – strategy to improve the status of women and to modernize religious thought. In this respect, my position is different from that of Moghissi and Shahidian, who dismiss feminist theology and deny its wider implications. And yet, one cannot insist that the Islamic arguments are the only ones that matter, and that change will occur only as a result of the reform movement in Islam. Islam in Iran may be experiencing a kind of Reformation, but what will be equally if not more important for long-term social change in Iran is an Enlightenment. As such, the contributions of non-religious thinkers and activists, whether inside or outside Iran, will continue the process of democratization and civil society-building that was initiated by the Constitutional Revolution earlier in this century. This process, and the resolution of the political, economic, and cultural crises that we witness in Iran today, will only be overcome by major changes in the system of governance.

What are some elements of a system of governance and legal system that could ensure social, gender, religious, and ethnic equality? Religious doctrine should not be the basis of laws, policies, or institutions. Constitutions should not state that “Islam [or Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism] is the official [or state or national] religion.” Family law should not derive from religious texts, whether in Iran or in Israel. Blasphemy laws should be removed, and religion should be the subject of historical and critical inquiry. All citizens should be equal before the law, with equal rights and obligations. Civil, political, and social rights of citizens should be clearly defined, and protected by the state and by the institutions of civil society. (This includes worker participation in decision-making and an active role for independent unions, professional associations, citizen groups, and so on.) It should be noted that Islam, like the other monotheistic religions, has humane, compassionate, egalitarian, and social-justice aspects. These may inspire civil codes, political processes, social policies, and economic institutions. For example, the humanism of religious thought is an important counter-weight to the harsh discipline of the capitalist market. The ban on usury in Islam and Catholicism is in conflict with capitalism’s creation of wealth through financial transactions and speculation, and this, to my mind, is progressive and should be emphasized. Religious belief should be respected, and religious institutions should have a place in civil society, but religion should not dominate the state and the law.

I end by asking whether Islamic feminism is indeed feminism. Is Islamic feminism an indigenous alternative to secular or Western-inspired feminism? Is it an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Or is it part of the already diversified spectrum of the international women’s movement, and a contributor to a “global feminism”? There is no question that Islamic feminists have been inspired by Western feminism and are attentive to feminist writings from the developing world. Any reading of the women’s press in Iran reveals that Iranian women activists and scholars, including those who define themselves as Muslim or Islamic, are aware of or familiar with international writings on feminism.

In a thought-provoking book, Patricia Misciagno argues for a “bottom-up”, or a materialist, approach to feminist identity that hinges on women’s praxis, rather than their ideology. She defines “de facto feminist praxis” as “activity that runs counter to the ideology of patriarchy, even while not directly addressing the issue of patriarchy as an ideology.” Similarly, historian Leila Rupp and sociologist Verta Taylor note that “a concentration solely on ideas ignores the fact that feminists are social movement actors situated in an organizational and movement context.” Their historical study shows that “the meaning of feminism has changed over time and from place to place and is often disputed”. They emphasize the need to understand “what women (or men) in a specific historical location believed” but also “how they constructed, sometimes through conflict with one another, a sense of togetherness.” Feminist disputes, they argue, “take place within a social movement community that, as it evolves, encompasses those who see gender as a major category of analysis, who critique female disadvantage, and who work to improve women’s situations.” They conclude by asserting that “In every group, in every place, at every time, the meaning of ‘feminism’ is worked out in the course of being and doing.”

The above analysis may point the way toward a resolution of the debate on Islamic feminism. For if feminism has always been contested, if feminists should be defined by their praxis rather than by a strict ideology, and if a feminist politics is shaped by its specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, then it should be possible to identify Islamic feminism as one feminism among many.  Indeed, in my view, it is not particularly useful to create absolute boundaries between Islamic feminism, Western feminism, Latin American feminism, African feminism, Jewish feminism, and so on. In the same way that liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical, cultural, and postmodern feminisms are part of the feminist tradition, so are the various regional manifestations part of the evolving political philosophy of feminism and social movement of women. At the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, what is emerging is a global women’s movement and a philosophy that draws on the feminist “classics” but that also reflects the social realities and concerns of women in various parts of the world.  To a very great extent, the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, is a manifesto of this global women’s movement. It describes the problems facing the women of the world and prescribes a set of actions to solve the problems that would involve government, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the women’s movement. That the Platform for Action was finally agreed upon by governments and women’s organizations after considerable disagreements confirms the multi-faceted nature of global feminism and of the capacity of women worldwide to overcome ideology and conflict and agree on the measures necessary for women’s equality and empowerment.

Feminism is a theoretical perspective and a practice that criticizes social and gender inequalities, seeks to transform knowledge, and aims at women’s empowerment. Women, and not religion, should be at the center of that theory and practice.  It is hard to defend as feminist the view that women can attain equal status only in the context of Islam. This is a fundamentalist view, not one compatible with feminism. And yet, around the world women will pursue different strategies toward empowerment and transformation. We are still grappling with understanding and theorizing those diverse strategies. In this context, it serves no purpose to insist on a narrow definition of feminism, as Moghissi and Shahidian appear to do. Moreover, through their harsh attacks on those with whom they disagree, they impede rather than contribute to dialogue, knowledge, coalition-building, and collective action.

Val Moghaddam is director of women’s studies and Associate Professor of Sociology in Illinois State University, USA.

References and Suggested Bibliography

Afary, Janet. 1996. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911: Grassroots Democracy and the Origins of Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Afshar, Haleh. 1996. “Islam and Feminism: An Analysis of Political Strategies”, in Mai Yamani (ed.), Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. New York Univ. Press.

Esfandiari, Haleh. 1994. “The Majles and Women’s Issues in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, pp. 61-79 in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Syracuse Univ. Press.

Farzaneh Various issues.

Jens-e Dovvom. Various issues.

Kia, M. 1994. “The Limits of Islamic Feminism”, Iran Bulletin, no. 8 (Jan-March): 20-21.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. 1996. “Women and Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran: Divorce, Veiling, and Emerging Feminist Voices”. Pp. 142-169 in Haleh Afshar, ed., Women and Politics in the Third World.London and New York: Routledge.

—–.  1996. “Stretching the Limits: A Feminist Reading of the Sharia in Post-Khomeini Iran”. Pp. 285-319 in Mai Yamani, ed., Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. NY: NYU Press.

—–. 1998. “Rethinking Gender: Discussions with Ulama in Iran”, Critique (Fall): 46-59.

—–. 1999. Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. Princeton Univ. Press.

Misciagno, Patricia S. 1997.  Rethinking Feminist Identification: The Case for De Facto Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Moghadam, Val. 1987. “Socialism or Anti-Imperialism? The Left and Revolution in Iran.” New Left Review 166 (Nov./Dec.):5-28.

—–. 1993. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East.  Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

—– (ed.) 1993.  Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview.

—–. 2000. “Transnational Feminist Networks: Collective Action in an Era of Globalization”, International Sociology, vol. 15, no. 1 (March): 57-84.

Moghissi, Haideh. 1994. Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement. London: Macmillan Press.

—–. 1995. “Public Life and Women’s Resistance”. Pp. 251-267 in Sohrab Behdad and Saeed Rahnema, eds., Iran after the Revolution: Crisis of an Islamic State. London and New York: I.B. Taurus.

—–. 1997. “Populist Feminism and Islamic Feminism: A Critique of Neo-conservative Tendencies among Iranian Academic Feminists”, Kankash, no. 13: 57-95 (in Persian).

—–. 1998. “Women, Modernity, and Political Islam.” Iran Bulletin, no. 19-20, (autumn/winter): 42-44.

—–. 1999. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed Books.

Mojab, Shahrzad. 1999. “Women Undertaking Ijtehad: Hoping for a Feminizing Democracy”. Arash, no. 70 [Khordad 1378/June 1999]: 48-52. (in Persian).

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 1995. “Years of Hardship, Years of Growth”, Kankash, no. 12 (in Persian)

—–. 1997. “Feminisms in an Islamic Republic.” Pp. 390-399 in Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates, eds., Transitions, Environments, Translations: Feminisms in International Politics. London and New York: Routledge.

—–. 1998. “Feminism in an Islamic Republic: ‘Years of Hardship, Years of Growth’.” Pp. 59-84 in Yvonne Y. Haddad and John Esposito, eds., Women, Gender, and Social Change in the Muslim World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Roald, Anne Sofie. 1998. “Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources: Muslim Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian Tradition of Feminist Thought”. Pp. 17-44 in Karin Ask and Marit Tjomsland, eds., Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on Gender Relations. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Rupp, Leila J. and Verta Taylor. 1999. “Forging Feminist Identity in an International Movement: A collective Identity Approach to Twentieth Century Feminism”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 24, no. 21: 363-386.

Tohidi, Nayereh. 1997. Feminism, Democracy, and Islamism in Iran (Los Angeles) (in Persian).

—–. “ ‘Islamic Feminism’: A Democratic Challenge or a Theocratic Reaction?” Kankash, no. 13, (in Persian)

—–. 1998. “The Issues at Hand”, in Herbert Bodman and Nayereh Tohidi, eds., Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity Within Unity. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Shahidian, Hammed. 1994. “The Iranian Left and ‘The Woman Question’ in the Revolution of 1978-79.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 26: 223-247

—–. 1998. “Feminism in Iran: In Search of What?”, Zanan, no. 40: 32-38.

—–. 1998. “Islamic Feminism Encounters Western Feminism: An Indigenous Alternative?” Talk delivered at the Women’s Studies 1998-99 Seminar on Globalization, Gender, and Pedagogy, Illinois State University (12 February).

—–.  1999. “Saving the Savior”, Sociological Inquiry, vol. 69, no. 2 (Spring): 303-327.

Zanan. Various issues.


One comment on “Islamic Feminism & Its Discontents”
  1. Zahra says:

    Reblogged this on Emboldened Hearts.


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