Understanding Islamic Feminism
Women around the world are striving for full gender equality in how they speak, work, and pray. But feminism takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of Islam.
“I think that Islamic feminism is actually going to be the entry point for this whole renewal of Islamic discourse… So it will be up to the Muslim women themselves who are not willing to let go of their religion, but at the same time, they are not willing to accept being treated as second class citizens because of a certain version of religion.” -Marwa Sharafeldin, Muslim family law reformer, Cairo, Egypt
In this hour-long program we travel the world to examine the meaning of Islamic feminism and meet with women activists who are working for change. We visit Egypt, where we learn how one of the world’s most influential centers of Islamic study is squaring its teachings with the changing status of women. In Morocco, we go to a courthouse where recent changes to Muslim family law are making it easier for women to divorce, inherit property, and gain custody of their children. In France, we look at how secularism may be protecting or persecuting Muslim populations. And in the United States, we visit the country’s first all-female mosque, and learn how one progressive Muslim feminist is expressing herself and her religion in a surprising way — with comedy.
It’s a Friday afternoon at a multicultural center in downtown Los Angeles. Today, volunteers are converting the center into a mosque for a monthly prayer service. They roll out tan prayer mats along the red carpeted floor. There’s a definite buzz in the air — photographers, cameramen, writers and even congregants are marking this moment.
“I actually took a selfie of us so I could send it to my mom," says Nelly Akbar, program manager at the Women’s Mosque of America — the first all-women’s mosque in the United States. She’s wearing black skinny jeans and has several tattoos on her wrists. She says she borrowed a friend’s winter scarf to cover her head for today’s service.
“Maybe they would have called me out in a regular mosque, or somebody would have given me a dirty look, but I feel totally comfortable here,” she says.
Like Nelly, the crowd today is mainly made up of 20- and 30-somethings. Many of them grew up with most of the freedoms of living in the US. They’re well-educated and have high-powered jobs. And they want to see themselves in their services.
This is how the Women’s Mosque of America was born, according to Hasna Maznavi, its founder and president. She’s just 28, but it’s actually been a life-long dream of hers to build a mosque.
“At the time I had no idea that it would be a women’s mosque," she says. "It was this secret plan I had as a child, between me and God."
A couple years ago, she enrolled in an online class on Islam led by a female Muslim scholar. She says she felt inspired and empowered having a female religious authority to look up to. And after, when she'd go into the mosque on Fridays, she wondered: "Wouldn't it be amazing to hear a woman speak to me from the mimbar?"
It wasn’t long after that she started planning the all-women's mosque. Men do play a role in the Women’s Mosque of America — there are two men on the Board of Directors, and many men advise the Board. But within the mosque's walls, it’s women only. The service and speeches are led by and for ladies. There’s no official dress code. And the service is non-denominational — Sunnis, Shias, and Sufis all pray together.
Fatma Kassamali, 69, came to today’s service with her daughter. She says co-ed mosques can be strict. In her native Tanzania, women aren’t even allowed to attend Friday services. When they do attend mosque, they’re encouraged to wear modest clothing. Women’s sections are often upstairs or in basements. And they’re not as nice as the men’s section.
“[In] co-ed mosque you always feel [like a] second citizen, [because] your space is too small, your space is not nicely done,” she says.
Fatma says she often felt rejected — something Maznavi says is not in the spirit of Islam.
“The Women’s Mosque of America is not a reaction to any sort of state of American Muslim mosques,” she says. “It’s really a celebration of the legacy of female Muslim scholarship and leadership.”
The mosque is changing the narrative for female Muslims in the US. Congregant Nelly Akbar says this mosque is helping her comes to terms with her own identity.
“It's not easy growing up in America as a Muslim, especially with all the politics of it going on right now," she says. But she appreciates that the Women's Mosque of America has exposed her to powerful and educated women she can look up to and aspire to be like.
After the service, Nelly heads back to her job at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. The other congregants put on their shoes and roll up the mats. All that’s left on the pulpit are two large banners that feature a teaching from the Quran. The quote on the right banner is from Allah. It says: “And when my servants ask you about me, then truly, I am near.” Maznavi says it means God is everywhere. In the heavens. On the Earth. And in a women’s mosque, in a multicultural center, in downtown LA.
Reporter Shara Morris is an LA-based radio producer. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Latino USA, Only a Game, KCRW, KPCC, KQED, and more. She also co-hosts Homemade News, a podcast and radio show on KCHUNG 1630 AM, a pirate radio station based in Chinatown, LA.
Nadia Manzoor is on a crusade to use humor and honesty to talk about the challenges she faced as a young Muslim immigrant coming of age in the US. She's the creator of Shugs and Fats, a web comedy series about two Muslim women who’ve recently immigrated to Brooklyn, New York.
Manzoor plays Shugs, dressed in gold chains and bedazzled hijabs. Her co-star, Indian comedian Radhika Vaz, plays Fats, and is slightly more subdued. The two women explore life in their new, Western home, and most of the time they’re not doing anything that rebellious. They’re trying a juice cleanse, working out at the gym, or buying a pile of maxi pads from the Yemeni guy at the corner bodega. Occasionally it gets a little racier.
"I think that’s part of where the humor is — 'Oh my God, I can’t believe that Shugs and Fats got a vibrator and didn’t know what it was about," Manzoor says. "Why is that hilarious? Because we don’t think about women in burqas being sexually expressed or understanding sexual fulfillment, necessarily."
The intent is to show audiences the often unseen perspective of Muslim women. Even though Manzoor and Vaz don't wear hijabs in their daily lives, they both come from traditional backgrounds. And, as Manzoor explains, the hijab is the mouthpiece for traditionalism.
"I’m totally hoping it will cause a lot of dialogue," she says. "And also just make a lot of people laugh."
The show has also made some people angry. Manzoor recounts some of the comments the show has received on social media, like "Why are you doing this? Do you think it's funny to put on a hijab and put on an accent?"
She answers: "Yes, I kind of do, which is why I do it." But she also adds that there's more to it than cheap laughs. "You have to watch the show to understand. We are not making a mockery of women who choose to wear hijab. That’s not the point of this.”
Manzoor discovered the power of humor through a personal process to reconcile her past. Before creating Shugs and Fats she wrote Burq Off!, an autobiographical one-woman show with 21 different characters and an emotional journey ranging from sarcastic to somber.
For example, in one scene, Manzoor laments the plight of Muslim women — everything from being called “too Western while living in the west” to the practice of honor killings. “Because women are responsible for the reputation of their family,” she says. “We were the carriers of shame."
Manzoor says Burq Off! came from her trying to make sense of the confusion about what it meant to be an immigrant person living in the West — a Pakistani Muslim living in a secular society.
"[I was] trying to navigate so many different contradictions in terms of religion. It didn’t seem that Islam, or I should say the way that Islam was taught to me, had room for somebody like me,” she says.Manzoor says producing Burq Off! helped her reclaim her Muslim identity and repair strained relationships. Sharing that journey has been transformative for her audiences too.
"I just wanted her to stop talking because I felt like she was spilling my secrets," says Fiana Arbab, who saw the show in Dearborn, Michigan. "It’s definitely a gray area in my life because I’m American, but I’m also Muslim, but I’m also Bengali. So it’s really hard to navigate between the different spaces and the different cultures. I absolutely loved it. I definitely started crying. And I would definitely love to share it with my family."
Burq Off! has played to sold out audiences in New York, and across North America and Europe as well. Manzoor's currently organizing a tour of the show in the Middle East, which has involved making some changes.
"The edits were much more [about] looking at places where I say 'shit' and saying something else. Or when I say 'sex' saying something else. It’s literally taking particular words and getting my thesaurus out," she says.
Dubai, for example, has strict rules about provocative language and gestures. Her father warned her that taking out the curse words would take all the spice out of the show. But Manzoor says the essence of the show is still intact, which is something she’s not willing to compromise on. At least she wasn’t until recently.
“Sometimes people ask me — they’ll be like, 'are you scared that there’s gonna be a fatwā out on you? What are you going to do when you go to Pakistan? How do you get the courage to do this?'” she says.
Manzoor recently postponed an upcoming show in Pakistan. She decided to wait until things were less volatile. But it’s not fear that’s stopping her.
"I’m planning on working and doing this work for a long time so I don’t want to be reckless,” she says. “At the same time, if I was afraid I wouldn’t be doing this show. So there is definitely some larger confidence that I’m connected to that’s making me continue."
Manzoor is working on a sequel to Burq Off! — focusing on the men in her life. A second season of Shugs and Fats was recently released online, and a third season is in production.
Reporter Tennessee Watson is an award-winning artist and educator who independently and collaboratively produces documentary radio and film, oral history projects, and interactive trans-media projects. She has an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College. She lives between Vermont and NYC.
The courthouse in Azrou in Morocco's Atlas Mountains is where locals come to present their issues to a judge. These include family issues — like divorce, inheritance and child custody cases. The courthouse is as grand and plain as any government building in the world. Outside, men and women patiently wait their turn to see a judge.
But one woman is not so patient. She stands by the courthouse, upset. "I don’t have any rights, and I need the law to be on my side so that he can’t hit me anymore," she says. She’s at the courthouse today seeking a divorce. A decade ago, her husband would have had to give his permission. But today, under the Moudawana family code, she can ask the judge for a divorce herself.
According to Nadia Sonneveld, a legal anthropologist studying Morocco's implementation of Moudawana in rural populations, the new family code is quite revolutionary compared to the old one.
"Morocco has one of the most progressive family law codes, except for Tunisia,” she says. In Egypt, for example, the wife has a legal obligation to be obedient to her husband.
“And that means she must ask for his permission to leave the house. For work or to buy groceries, she should, legally speaking, ask for his permission," Sonneveld says.
Women in many Muslim-majority countries, including Morocco, run the home and drive many of the family decisions. So it's only natural they should have some say in their and their family's legal status. That’s the goal of many Islamic feminists — to find a way to improve women’s rights within existing Islamic law.
Judge Mohammed Zerda is president of the family court division in Tangier. There are ten judges in his court — three male, and seven female. When asked if that makes a difference, he says, "This is simple, there’s absolutely no difference between female judges and male judges. We all went through the same schooling and same education and every judge must be neutral."
There are a few sources a judge in Morocco can reference when making a decision: First is the Moudawana. Then there’s the Maliki school of jurisprudence, which relies on the Quran and the hadiths, or the reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran is seen as the direct word from God — it's divine and cannot be changed or questioned. The hadiths, on the other hand, were collected by men, so they're open to debate. Judge Zerda looks at both sources when deciding a case. But he sometimes has to go to the last source — that gray area between what’s written and local customs.
He remembers one divorce ruling in which he awarded the woman a portion of the family property.
"I gave her a quarter of the property,” he says. “Mind you in the Islamic Sharia the law gives her one-eighth."
In another example, legal anthropologist Nadia Sonneveld tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who asked a judge for permission to marry. The female judge refused, based on her age. A year later, the girl came back pregnant and again asked for permission. Because in Moroccan culture it's very important that a child carry the family name of the father, the judge had to reconsider.
"This judge told me, 'What should I do? If I refuse her request she will give birth to a bastard and the child will have no future in Moroccan society. And if I allow it, I’m actually encouraging this phenomenon.'"
In the end, the judge decided to legalize the marriage.
Critics of the 2004 family code say it doesn't do enough to protect the rights of women and girls when it comes to minimum age of marriage, polygamy, and distribution of property. But more important, says Judge Zerda, is educating the population — especially in rural areas — about the rights they do have under Moudawana.
"For us in the city of Tangier, we know that not all the people that come to the courts do know about their rights and the laws," he says.
Ten years since its implementation, the family law code in Morocco is firmly established in the courts. But it's still working its way down to the people.
Reporter Jake Warga is an award-winning independent journalist currently based in Ifrane, Morocco.
When Omaima Abu-Bakr was a teenager in Egypt, she wore miniskirts and high heels — in line with the fashion of the time. But she says the freedom in fashion didn’t translate to equity in education or work or family life.
Now a professor at Cairo University and co-founder of The Women and Memory Forum, a women's rights NGO, she dresses much more modestly, including wearing a headscarf. But she says women in Egypt actually have more rights now than they did when she was young. And she believes that with a bit of re-interpretation of classic texts, Islam and feminism can work hand-in-hand.
“We’re correcting [and] we’re reforming past, patriarchal interpretations of the religion,” she says.
Most of the conflicts between Islam and modern women's rights she attributes to culture, rather than the actual religion. She sees Islam as a dynamic religion, adaptable to the times.
In her research, she digs into the Quran and other sources of Sharia law, analyzing from what she calls a perspective of “equality and justice.”
“I still am, day in and day out, trying to deal with these conflicting orders or diversions to discourses. Trying to deal with them on a personal level because I have a personal stake,” she says. “This is part of my self-perception. I’m a practicing Muslim person and a feminist too,” she says.
Abu-Bakr represents one of several perspectives on how observant Muslim women can merge their religious beliefs with their feminist values.
Amna Nosseir is also exploring this path. She teaches Islamic philosophy and comparative religion in the women’s section at Al-Azhar University. She also served as the dean of the section for a decade before she "quasi-retired” to focus on teaching and advocating for a stronger role for women at the government-affiliated religious institution and in society in general.
She often comments on women's issues on television, and says she gets a lot of questions from young women studying at the conservative Al-Azhar about what Islam says about their rights as women.
"I welcome the feminism movement. I accept any new ideas, whether feminism, women's rights or their future, provided they don't wander away from the fixed teachings of our Islamic law," she says.
She argues if you go far enough back, to the origins of Islam, the original writings and meanings grant women the legal and social rights they need.
The important rights of women, whether in inheritance, education or participating in society, are all taught at Al-Azhar.
But other scholars think trying to apply the social rules from a 1,400-year-old religion to the modern world is a bit unrealistic.
Marwa Sharafeldin is among them. She helped found several women's rights NGOs in Egypt and works with the international organization Musawah, which advocates for family law reform in several countries.
"When we say 'Islamic feminism,' for me it’s a kind of feminism that draws inspiration from an Islam that calls for equality and justice, but it's also a notion that does not exclude the lived realities of women and men today," she says.
Sharafeldin considers herself secular, but believes feminists need to accept that religion has a role to play in the women's rights movement.
Islamic feminists differ over whether laws need to be reformed to better reflect the original Islamic jurisprudence or whether the religiously-based laws should be tossed out all together.
For instance, Sharafeldin gives the example of preferential treatment for men in family inheritance laws, which are based on Islamic law. She argues that maybe that made sense back when men were the sole source of income for extended families, but not anymore.
"Today in Egypt, one-third of Egyptian households are headed by women,” she says. “They are the main breadwinners. How are you going to talk about men being the protectors and providers of women according to Islamic law when you have this kind of reality here?"
Sharafeldin is among many women's rights activists watching carefully to see whether calls by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for a "religious revolution" will extend to revolutionizing the way Islamic laws are applied to women.
"I think that Islamic feminism is actually going to be the entry point for this whole renewal of Islamic discourse,” she says. “So it will be up to the Muslim women themselves who are not willing to let go of their religion, but at the same time, are not willing to accept being treated as second class citizens because of a certain version of religion.”
This is why scholars like Cairo University’s Omaima Abu-Bakr are encouraged by channels of communication that have opened with Al-Azhar and the government regarding these issues. She says that type of political engagement is a holdover from the Arab Spring, when average Egyptians began calling their government to account.
She hopes the debate not only inspires her students, but also those outside the Muslim world who think the ideas of Islam and feminism cannot coexist.
"People need to rethink this idea of Islamic feminism as an oxymoron,” she says. “Put it in the context of Christian feminism. ... There’s Jewish feminism. There’s Buddhist feminism. So it is not a freak phenomenon. It’s not even something that came out of the blue. It’s not one paradigm. It’s not one shape."
Reporter Kimberly Adams is an award-winning American journalist based in Cairo, Egypt, and her work is regularly featured on American, Canadian, and European radio networks. From the halls of Capitol Hill to the ancient streets of Cairo, Kimberly has covered politics, culture, and business for radio, television, and the web at the local, national and international level.
Image Credits (from top): Cairo University, where Omaima Abu-Bakr is a professor, via Wikimedia Commons/Samir I. Sharbaty. Al Azhar University, where Amna Nosseir teaches Islamic philosophy and comparative religion, via Flickr user Jorge Lascar.
Rayhana, who just goes by her first name, is an actress, playwright and a filmmaker, in Paris.
She points to a group of her characters, sketched out in pencil, taped to the wall. The movie she’s working on is an adaptation of the play that brought her fame in France. It takes place in a bathhouse in Algeria. Most of the characters are dressed in robes and towels; one is dressed in a burqa.
She says this character is "super Islamist," and not very nice. Her characterization isn’t accidental. As a feminist in France, Rayhana has strong feelings about the burqa.
"You cannot be part of French society if you are wearing the burqa,” she says. “The burqa is hiding the body and even the face."
Rayhana made international headlines in 2010 when she was attacked by two men on her way to the theater. They threw petrol on her and then tossed a cigarette at her face, which luckily didn’t set her ablaze.
"It was something I didn’t expect at all and it was really one of the most terrible days of my life," she says. "I still have nightmares about it."
She knew they were angry about her play, which was critical of Islam. Although she grew up Muslim, Rayhana, 51, is now an outspoken atheist. Although she thinks wearing the burqa is a choice, she says it is no less than a sign of women’s inferiority. When the French Parliament banned it, she was all for it.
"For me the burqa is a sign of submission and what is submission? It means it negates liberty; it means that we’re a slave. So I was really for this prohibition on the burqa," she says.
Philosopher Henri Pena-Ruiz also supports the burqa ban.
"We cannot accept that someone is completely covered in France,” he says. “It’s a matter of which liberty we are choosing. Are we choosing the right of a woman to show her face or are we choosing the right of a religious chief to impose the burqa?"
Henri was a member of the Stasi Commission, a group of 20 experts, lawyers, academics and former ministers who met in 2003 to review the place of laïcité — the French version of separation of church and state — in modern day France. The Stasi Commission met years before the so-called "burqa ban," at a time when France was preoccupied with religion’s place in public grade schools.
"We didn’t want to restrain personal expression. We wanted to say, 'You can express your religious views but not everywhere, and there are places where wearing these symbols can pose a problem,'" he says.
The commission ultimately recommended a ban on students and teachers wearing any kind of religious symbols in grade schools. This includes all Muslim headscarves, but also yarmulkes and crosses. According to Pena-Ruiz, their intent was to shield students from conflict.
"Though it may appear that we are limiting liberty, we are actually protecting the liberty of these young people,” he says. “A school is a place of study and the school must focus on what is common to the students, not on their differences.”
As another scholar put it, laïcité ensures that everybody in France is equal whether they like it or not. Supporters of laïcité say differences, like religion, only detract from shared values. But opponents say it unfairly targets France’s Muslim population.
That means people like Hanane Karimi, who I meet in central Paris. She's wearing jeans, a red sweater, and a near-matching red hijab knotted tightly behind her head. As we walk on the street, she drops her head. She looks up and focuses her gaze only when talking to me or when reading the metro map. She’s received some unwanted attention in the past.
"The first time I was with my little brother and an old woman with her grandchild says to me, ‘What you are wearing is provocation.’ I was really shocked,” she says. “I could never imagine that someone could feel my veil is a provocation."
Karimi says that rather than promoting harmony, the burqa ban and the ban of religious symbols in grade schools specifically stigmatizes Muslim women and forces them to choose between their religion and their national identity.
She adds that one of the most damaging things about laïcité in France is that it conceals the real issues facing Muslim women. How do you fight chauvinism or racism — or any topic, really — if there isn’t freedom of expression?
"I’m convinced if we don’t put it in the public space, we don’t have power to change,” she says. “It is our right to speak about it. That is the challenge, to speak about what is taboo."
The French government shows no movement toward revisiting the ban on burqas. And right now, France is debating whether to extend the headscarf ban from grade schools to universities as well. Support is wide-reaching and includes former President Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and the current minister for women’s rights on the left.
Reporter Cheryl Brumley is an independent radio reporter and producer based in London. Her work has appeared on PRI's The World, Life of the Law, and Deutsche Welle English.