Challenges to Feminist Reform in the Islamic World

Secularization, Laicization, and Challenges to Feminist Reform in the Islamic World

by Jamal J. Elias

Pakistani Truck Art (c) Jamal Elias

I would like to explore some of the dilemmas that are faced not just by women’s movements in the Islamic world, but also by social involvement groups in general, in their attempts to assert themselves as legitimate voices within modern sovereign society. I’ll begin by talking in general terms, and then supply a couple of specific examples. A substantial amount of scholarship is available, not just in the Islamic world in fact, not primarily in the Islamic world about the global assault on secularism and the resurgence of the religious right. There’s also quite a bit on the nature of religion and its relationship with the modern, with modern states and societies.

When people talk about Islam, they frequently make two kinds of arguments, at two extremes. One is to argue for Islamic exceptionalism; the other is to talk in terms of Islam being just another religion, like Judaism or Christianity or Hinduism, in its relationships with the state and with society in general. The usual Islamic-exceptionalism argument is that Islam is a religion like no other, in that Islam does not allow for any separation between the sacred and the social rule, or in Christian terms, between the secular and the sacred. Muslims frequently say things like, “Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life.” The non-exceptionalist camp would argue that Muslims have always been capable of separating the secular from the sacred, certainly as capable as Christians have been. They’ll give you examples, beginning with pietistic movements in the 6th and 7th centuries, in which entire religious movements started because people were upset that religious legitimacy was being usurped by princes. The same argument is made by people who look at the Ottoman Legal Code, from the 16th century, which is very clear. It talks about criminal law, and religious law, and commercial law, and this law and that law. The Ottoman state, which was the official central state in the Islamic world at that time, routinely created laws which had absolutely no basis in Islamic precedent the entire Janissary system, for example, in which (primarily) Christian children were taken as levies in the Balkans, converted to Islam, and trained in palace schools to form the administrative and military elite of the Ottoman state. The enslavement of Christians is not allowed by Islamic religious law, and this sort of social mechanism is not an Islamic one, and not even a religious one per se.

Obviously, as in most other cases, the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes, between Islam being an exceptional case and Islam being just like every other religion. On the one hand, Muslims are not incapable of separating the sacred from the secular; but on the other, when you look at internal debates and arguments within Islamic society through much of the 20th century, religion occupies a place in those debates quite unlike what it does in any other transnational community or region in the world, and certainly very different from what it has occupied in the Christian world.

I am intentionally avoiding the word “secularism,” or “secularization,” because it’s a term that doesn’t work effectively in an Islamic context. Secularism or secularization would be a movement toward the removal of all religious elements and symbols from society and the simultaneous disempowerment of religious institutions within that society. Many Muslims (though not all) argue that it is impossible for a Muslim to be secular, and are not ready to accept this term for any Muslim majority society. In contrast to that, “laicization” is a better term, and it’s one used by Muslims laicization being the systematic separation of religious institutions from those of the state. That’s where a lot of the debate in Islamic societies tends to lie, today and in the last century. There is, in fact, no substantial secularizing in the history of modern Islamic societies. The only exceptions are the Islamic states that have emerged from the communist umbrella or that are still under residual communist control, such as Kazakhstan and perhaps Albania. Other than those, I would argue that there are no major secular movements. There are obviously secular spaces and secular individuals in Islamic societies, but they don’t really interact with anyone else. For example, social elites are secular in many Islamic societies, but these same social elites cease to be secular if they want to communicate effectively with anyone outside their own social group, because mass governance doesn’t operate in secular terms. So laicization works better as a term than secularization does because the whole debate ends up being about the role of religion in society and whether or not you can effectively and legitimately separate religious institutions, policies, and values from machines of the state.

A prime example of this, obviously, is Turkey, the biggest laicizing experiment in the modern Islamic world. In fact, Turkey has had a long history of laicization, starting in the early part of the 19th century; but the consciousness of what secularism versus laicization actually means emerges in Turkey in this century. After the Turkish Republic was created at the end of the First World War, there was a period of about two decades when a conscious attempt was made to secularize at the national level, or certainly at the state level. So the creation of a secular republic was followed by 25 years of complete religious persecution, and then a lifting of that persecution and the establishment of some religious institutions under the control of the state. In the 1980s, under the religious right party called Anavatan, or Motherland, the distinction between religious institutions and state institutions was being blurred; it was blurred even more under Refah, the Salvation Front, which was in power in Turkey for the first half of the 90s, primarily at the municipal level. In that period, there was a very conscious public debate on laicization; in fact, when Refah came to power the major Turkish journal of the study of religion devoted an entire special issue to the laicization question. That might not sound remarkable, but in Turkey it was very remarkable, because journals are historically instruments of the state, and the way laicization has been defined in Turkey, the separation of the state and religion means precisely the non-discussion of real religious issues in state-controlled or public spaces.

It’s precisely this conflict over the relationship of religious and state institutions in Islamic society which has set the tone for debates on women’s issues in the contemporary Islamic world “contemporary” meaning from the 1980s, perhaps even back into the ’70s. These debates can range from (in the context of Turkey) whether it is allowable to discriminate against head-scarf-wearing women in the workplace or in education, to (in parts of Africa and Asia) the issue of why the state has failed to take any definitive stand on the question of female genital mutilation, to (in the case of Pakistan), the issue of the rollback of women’s rights that was part of the Hudood ordinances. These were promulgated in the late ’70s and concerned certain notions of what constituted Islamic criminal law, including the issue of who could bear witness, and the status of male versus female right to education, jobs etc. Another obvious example is the controversy over the novel “The Satanic Verses,” whose author, Salman Rushdie, was perceived by certain people as committing insults against the Qur’an, and what the legitimate response to such an insult should be. All these questions are examples of contestation of who has the right to determine the place of religion and religiously determined behavior in society.

Islamic feminists and women’s groups have frequently attempted to function in a way that engages Islamic values and teachings rather than rejecting them. Part of the reason for this is that many groups that have attempted to ignore religion and pursued a North-based notion of feminism have been resoundingly unsuccessful in having any impact on the very people they are supposed to be helping. There are two obvious reasons for this. One is that, as I’ve just said, there is no really significant secular space in Islamic society, so any movement that attempts to speak in terms that entirely ignore religion and the question of laicization tends to be ineffectual. Indeed, the notion of secular space in Islamic society is an oxymoron, because simply by referring to it as “Islamic society,” we’re talking about a society that is defined in religious terms. But even that is a problem. Here is an entire region of the world that’s called “Islamic society,” which is extremely varied, but unlike the West, it is defined by its religion, which is rather problematic when you talk about non-religious things within that context. In the Islamic world, unlike many other parts of the world perhaps unlike any other part of the world the nation-state is challenged by a very strongly articulated identity that transcends the nation. In the modern world, therefore, being Muslim is a particular kind of globalism, which crosses 50 or so countries whose societies do in some ways act as part of, and in relation to, a particular identity, which is their own place in and conception of Islam.

The other obvious reason why more Islamic feminist writers tend to engage religion in their discussions is that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women can only be communicated with in ways that engage their religious identity; it’s a major part of who they are. In the past 20 years or so, the majority of Islamic feminists have taken what might be called an apologetic stand toward religion, and they’ve done this for non-cynical reasons. Leila Ahmed, a friend and colleague of several people in this room, addresses this point quite eloquently in her book Women and Gender in Islam when she says (I’m paraphrasing) that a lot of Islamic feminists have seen or felt within the Islamic texts an egalitarian message which is not apparent to non-Muslim readers of the text, nor is it even apparent to a lot of the anti-feminists among the Muslims themselves.(1)

Within this context, I want to give you some examples of how certain Islamic feminists in the modern period try to engage these texts, and I’ll try to demonstrate how there’s a certain dilemma when one starts engaging religious texts to argue for an egalitarian or feminist position. The two people I’d like to talk about briefly are Riffat Hassan and Fatima Mernissi. Riffat Hassan, who teaches at a university in the U.S., is the self-styled sole woman theologian in the Islamic world. Fatima Mernissi is Moroccan, an anthropologist by training; she has written a great deal on Islamic women, a lot of it more recently on trying to reclaim (or claim) a place for women in Islamic society that seems to have been lost over the course of history. What these women have in common, and why I picked them as examples, is that both have revisionist interpretations of Islamic law. They challenge the processes by which Islamic society and Islamic law became what they are today, and in so doing they attack the foundations of Islamic legal scholarship, which were first laid out in the 9th and 10th centuries. Hassan has done this in a couple of articles that argue fairly sweepingly against the legitimacy of all sorts of classical Islamic scholarship, arguing that all scholarship in the fourteen centuries since the Qu’ran was revealed is illegitimate not because it has followed the wrong policies, gone down the wrong track, but because Islamic theology has been an instrument of patriarchal society (which is obviously true to a very great extent).

For Hassan and Mernissi and most other Islamic feminist scholars, there is a big stumbling block. There’s one verse in the Qur’an, chapter 4, verse 34, which is the big bugaboo of equal rights in the Islamic context. This is the verse that says that men are superior to women and that men have the right to hit women.. Here is a translation:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and [guard in their husbands’] absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and misconduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and then strike them; but if they return to obedience, then do not seek revenge against them, for Allah is Most High, Great.”

Rifat Hassan has actually devoted the major part of an article to an analysis of this verse from her Islamic feminist perspective.(2) Basically, she challenges the interpretation of the grammar in the medieval scholarship on this passage. Where the Qur’an says that “men are protectors and maintainers of women,” Hassan says that what this means is that men are supposed to take care of women when women are preoccupied with other things, such as child rearing and childbirth, which makes them incapable of taking care of themselves in those capacities, and those capacities only. “Allah has given the one more than the other” means that one man might have more than another, so men are supposed to maintain women according to their own personal capacities, relative to other men. The part about women who are disobedient she interprets as referring to large numbers of women being collectively disobedient for instance, if women refused to participate in the procreative enterprise of the entire human race in sufficient numbers that it caused a crisis to the community. In those circumstances, as a final resort, men are allowed to strike women, because otherwise humankind as a whole is at risk. This is actually presented as a serious argument; I think she is not being cynical at all in this interpretation, but gives it as an example of how these problematic passages in the Qur’an should be reinterpreted in light of a more gender-based, egalitarian view of the world.

Fatima Mernissi, on the other hand, makes a different kind of argument. She has written a very famous and important book on gender issues in the study of Islam. In English translation it’s called The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam.(3) One of her major strategies is to look at the literature of prophetic traditions. A lot of Islamic law and values are based on what is called hadith, which are traditions or accounts about Muhammad, and their authority rests on their chain of transmission. So it’s the people who are mentioned, it’s who is footnoted, that gives these writings their authority. Mernissi takes issue with some of the primary relayers of the traditions dealing with women’s issues. She makes the very interesting and, to me, very compelling case that a lot of the traditions that we would judge as misogynistic in a contemporary context come down to us on the authority of particular characters who, in fact, had reputations in their own time as misogynists, and that their misuse of interpretation was propagated in the canonization of this literature, while another set of traditions that did not have that kind of attitude was suppressed.

However, both of these cases end up being very problematic in arguing for a comprehensive reform in attitudes toward gender within an Islamic intellectual, legal, and theological context. The reason is twofold. The first is the problem of theological argument itself. By using that form, one is immediately granting legitimacy to the enterprise of theology and the enterprise of religious law; and in granting that legitimacy, one is at some level granting legitimacy to its institutions and to its educational process, an important part of its institutions. Hassan’s argument is quixotic at times. She is doing a theological interpretation of the Qur’an, and in any context, regardless of gender, one prerequisite for scriptural theological interpretation is the ability to read the language. In her case, it’s phenomenally funny, because it’s all done entirely from translation, with no reference to any grammar of the Arabic language. She has no knowledge of basic Arabic idiom, which just blows her interpretation wide open. The point, of course, is not just that she’s immediately open to personal criticism, but because her scholarship is so weak, all modern feminist theologians who want to reinterpret these texts are then dismissed as a class. A similar argument is made against Fatima Mernissi, although her argument is not that weak, it’s actually quite sophisticated. But she is vulnerable for the same reason, that she is not qualified to talk theology because she has not been educated in any theological institution and therefore is in no position to make theological arguments.

Now, we’re all aware that this dilemma is not unique to the Islamic world. There are certain educational institutions, religious ones in general, that grant and retain certain forms of authority which are extremely gendered and controlled by men, and this is a body of knowledge which has its beginnings with and is controlled by men. It’s a constant dilemma faced by modern Islamic feminist thinkers, the problem being that if you tackle theology on its own terms, you lose, because the deck is immediately stacked against you. But then the question is, What else can they do? How else can you interpret the religious text or source, other than by engaging in these traditional interpretive terms? One way that feminist theologians in the modern period have done it, though less so now than in the pre-1980 period, is by rejecting the entire scholastic enterprise of religious interpretation that has occurred in the Islamic world in the past 1400 years, basically from Muhammad’s death to the present. Again, this simply goes back to the ur-text, or the Qur’an, meaning that one can derive inspiration straight from the Qur’an without any reference to the scholarly tradition of Islamic society.

There’s a huge problem with this, because once you reject tradition God, I sound so reactionary! once you reject tradition, you don’t just open up interpretive space for feminist reform. You open up interpretive space for everybody! The rejection of tradition is precisely what the religious right does in the Islamic world and we’re talking about the extreme religious right, including the extremely violent and dangerous religious right. They are completely non-traditional in their bases, since their entire point is that Islamic society has been completely wrong in all those processes that led it up to the 12th century, when certain ideas got canonized, the 13th century, when the Turks took over, the 17th century, when the colonial administration arrived, and completely wrong since then. So the only way is to return to the very beginning, selectively rejecting everything that has come after that time. It is on precisely that point that you see debates with the religious right, not just from feminist interpreters, but also from other kinds of modern reformist interpreters. Both sides talk in these terms, in which generally there’s absolutely no reference to tradition.
There is one more problem with engaging in this kind of revisionist interpretation. By legitimizing contemporary contestation of gender roles and women’s rights in these historical terms basically saying that the people who do not support our position represent 1400 years of patriarchal tradition, so we will go back to the beginning feminist writers automatically concede whatever positive weight they actually have, simply because they’re not engaging the material and then contesting the other side’s legitimacy to claim it. They grant the weight of 1400 years of scholarship to their opponents who just like them, are rejecting 1400 years of scholarship. For example, Riffat Hassan’s big bogeyman is a fundamentalist theologian named Mawdudi, a very important South Asian fundamentalist, who was the founder of a major religious party in South Asia which has connections throughout the Islamic world and who was extremely influential in other parts of the Islamic world, too. Mawdudi wrote a book translated into English as Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam,(4) in which he formulated several of his unorthodox ideas on women’s issues. One of his great lines of argument was, “You women meaning Muslim women insist on imitating Western women. Well, there are two kinds of women in the West. There are virtuous women, and there are sluts. Why do you imitate the sluts? Why don’t you imitate the virtuous women?” The virtuous women, for him, were Catholic nuns.

My point is that, while Riffat Hassan and others are trying to reclaim the “true” Islamic tradition of the Prophet and the “true” intent of Islamic theological inquiry, someone like Mawdudi does not at all base himself in traditional theological categories. And this sort of debate continues to the present day. Essentially what happens and I think this is part of the solution as well as part of the problem is that reform-minded groups in the Islamic world have completely ceded religious legitimacy and religious education, and any contestation on religious grounds of anything within their society, to someone else. And since laicization is very much in decline in most Islamic societies, they find themselves in a situation where no secular argument can be made either. They have essentially silenced themselves.

So what’s the solution? I really don’t know, but I can honestly say that the only thing to do is to slog on. One of the things I think has to happen is that a lot of people in Islamic societies have to engage their religious heritage, and be able, ultimately, to talk in religious terms. Again, I say slog on, although in the short run it has absolutely no return and might actually be counterproductive. But in the long term, I think there is no other option, in terms of claiming the legitimate voice other than actually participating in the heritage of the culture.

Jamal J. Elias is Professor of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Throne Carrier of God : The Life and Thought of `Ala’ ad-Dawla as-Simnani (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), Islam (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1999) and other books. He can be reached at


1. Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 65-66.

2. Riffat Hassan, “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam,” in After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions,” edited by Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 39-64.

3. F. Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1991).

4. Abu’l A’la Mawdudi, Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam, edited and translated by Al-Ash’ari (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1972, 4th ed., 1979).

© Jamal J. Elias
You can purchase Dr. Elias’ book On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan at Oneworld Publications.

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