BOOK REVIEW:  Feminism beyond East and West – New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam (Ba

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Nov 4, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Feminism beyond East and West

New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam

In her new book, Margot Badran takes a look at how Muslim women scholar-activists in various countries today envision Islam as a mandate for gender justice. Review by Yoginder Sikand

Confounding the claims of both hardened Islamophobes as well as arch-patriarchal conservative Muslims: Margot Badran’s new book on Muslim feminism - The ‘status of women in Islam’ is a much-debated topic, one on which much has been written, both by critics as well as defenders of Islam. What is missing in most of these writings is the voice of believing Muslim women themselves who are committed to gender justice because they believe that Islam mandates this.

It is this much-neglected but vital issue that Margot Badran focuses on in this book. Margot Badran is a historian of the Middle East and Islamic societies; she is also a specialist in gender studies. Badran has a diploma in Arabic and Islamic religious studies at Al Azhar University in Cairo and a PhD in Middle East history from Oxford University. She calls both the United States and Egypt home.

Sensitivity to the Islamic tradition

Margot Badran brings with her both a marked sensitivity to the Islamic tradition, lacking in the accounts of many fellow non-Muslims writing on the subject of Muslim women, as well as a passion to articulate the demand for gender justice as a universal principle, although capable of being expressed in different forms in different cultural settings.

Badran’s book draws on several years of the author’s travels and experiences among various Muslim communities.

The author takes us to India, Nigeria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Egypt, Morocco and the Sudan, as well as to several countries in the West, recounting her experiences with Muslim women activists in these countries, not all of who identify themselves as feminists but who are seeking to argue for gender justice using an Islamic, as opposed to a secular or Western, framework.

This framework, she suggests, is culturally more attuned to the situations in which many Muslim women find themselves.

Fundamental equality in God’s eyes

Badran provides us interesting instances of how these women are using Islamic arguments to advance their cause. She looks at new women’s exegesis (tafasir) of the Qur’an and the corpus of Hadith to show how these women scholar-activists seek to critique patriarchy by evoking the Qur’anic insistence on the fundamental equality in God’s eyes of all human beings, men and women.

To place the male as a virtual intermediary between women and God, a position that some patriarchal understandings of Islam indeed veer to, is, female Quran scholars argue, tantamount to what in Islam is the unforgivable sin of shirk, or associating partners with God.

The scholars re-examine received interpretations of certain verses in the Quran or certain Hadith traditions, which defenders of patriarchy have taken to justify male supremacy, and provide alternate, gender-friendly interpretations through alternate linguistic analysis or contextualising these verses and traditions.

The spirit of the law

Some of them engage in their own form of ijtihad, or independent reasoning, making a distinction between the letter and what they see as the spirit or actual intention of the law, reviving, in this way, the tradition of the maqasid-e shariah or ‘aims of the shariah’, which, although now little stressed in the madrasas where the ulema are produced, is essential to understand and contextualise juridical rules, including those related to women.

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Margot Badran’s writings on secular and Islamic feminisms have been translated into Arabic and several other languages
| Some others resort to revisiting certain Hadith traditions that appear to militate against women, using the accepted method of carefully examining the authenticity of these traditions.

Badran thus indicates the emergence of a growing breed of believing Muslim women scholar-activists in various countries today who envision Islam as a mandate for gender justice. She talks of how conferences, women’s magazines and, especially the Internet, are helping to fashion this ‘gender-talk’ within the Islamic paradigm as a new global discourse, connecting such women in different parts of the world.

Women as leading religious authorities

In a sense, Badran suggests, this is a revival of early Muslim precedent of the time of the Prophet Muhammad and immediately after him, when numerous women, including some of the Prophet’s wives, were considered to be leading religious authorities.

Obviously, Badran writes, the emergence of this generation of Muslim women scholar-activists will impact both on general Muslim and non-Muslims discourses about Muslim women as well as on the structure of religious authority in Muslim societies, undermining what is today almost wholly a male monopoly, and allowing for the female voice to be heard, which is what these women believe Islam precisely mandates.

Badran also looks at the actual impact that these gender-friendly understandings of Islam have had in terms of reforms in personal laws in several Muslim countries, thus suggesting that this ‘gender-talk’ is no mere rhetoric.

The multiplicity of identities of Muslim women

However, Badran fails to engage fully with the critical question of how these positions on women in Islam have been received by the traditionalist ulema. She also remains silent on how those who articulate these voices deal with the vexed issue of the traditionalist notion of ijtihad being impossible on matters on which there already exists a broad consensus (ijma) among the ulema.

Badran also ignores the fact that the multiplicity of identities of Muslim women – class, sect, race and so on, in addition to gender – make the struggle that she rightly endorses not just one of rights as women per se, but, going beyond this to include a whole gamut of other rights, economic, social and political.

Surely, the struggle for gender justice cannot be divorced from the broader struggle for justice within the community, the nation-state and at the international level.

That said, this book is a very welcome contribution to the debate on Muslim women, confounding the claims of both hardened Islamophobes as well as arch-patriarchal conservative Muslims, both of who uncannily share the same broad position on the subject of Muslim women.


© 2007

Margot Badran: Feminism beyond East and West – New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam. Global Media Publications, New Delhi 2007, 180 pp., 495 Indian Rupees, US $25 (Elsewhere).