‘The activities of feminists took place in different parts of the Islamic world’
An expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies — about the history of feminism among Muslims
Contrary to popular belief, Islamic countries have not been aloof from the feminist movement. “In fact, the activities of feminists were actively taking place in different parts of the Islamic world. First of all, these are the centres of the Islamic world — Turkey, Egypt; but also Tatarstan, which at the beginning of the 20th century was surprisingly actively included in the life of the world Islamic Ummah due to the development of its Islamic institutions, respect of the Tatars for Islamic education and traditional institutions (almost lost today), as well as proximity to the European knowledge," said Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya. The expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies discusses this in more detail in another article for our publication.
What is Islamic dissent?
In the previous article, we talked about the links between Islam and feminism. In this article we will reveal the topic of Islamic feminism as an attempt to synthesise Islamic religion and feminist ideology. The bearers of the ideology of Islamic feminism treat both feminist ideology and Islamic culture with reverence. However, the possibilities of combining these two systems of thought are not obvious.
Islamic ethics is based on the foundations of the Koran and the Sunnah (sometimes the deeds of the companions). On the basis of these pillars, using various tools (logic, analogies, rules of language and rhetoric, consensus of authorities, practice of the first generations of Muslims), Muslim theologians — Ulama — constructed the Islamic tradition. Large Islamic tradition can be divided into many small ones — first of all, these are independent religious groups (Sunnis, Shiites, Wahhabis, Ismailis, and so on).
Most Muslims adhere to Sunnism, which, in turn, is divided into schools. Unlike independent religious groups, schools tend to recognise each other's competence to some extent and in the presence of a legitimate continuity of knowledge. The schools are divided by sciences, in jurisprudence — Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali; in speculative theology — Maturidite, Asharite, Asarite; in spiritual practices, Sufism — many different “tariqas”, including Yasawi, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Rifai.
All these schools were formed precisely because of different approaches to sacred texts, including the use of different tools and the preference of some texts to others based on some common method. All of them were formed on the basis of traditional approach to knowledge common to all traditional civilisations.
At the same time, during the Renaissance and Modern times, non-classical approaches to education appeared in Europe. First of all, this was facilitated by the development of secular science, which began to claim to explain the social life of people. They increasingly began to say that religion should move to secondary roles in people's lives. At the same time, the secularists themselves borrowed many religious concepts, creating a civil cult and a civil system of values. The most obvious of them inspired the French Revolution — freedom, equality, fraternity. The revolution shook the traditional society with traditional institutions, and the new revolutionary class — bourgeoisie — began to look for a new bourgeois morality. Hence the departure from traditional hierarchies, including traditional hierarchies in theology and the family.
Islamic feminism of the “first wave”
Islamophobes often believe that the Islamic world was outside of this process. In fact, the activities of feminists were actively taking place in different parts of the Islamic world. First of all, these are the centres of the Islamic world — Turkey, Egypt; but also Tatarstan, which at the beginning of the 20th century was surprisingly actively included in the life of the world Islamic Ummah due to the development of its Islamic institutions, respect of the Tatars for Islamic education and traditional institutions (almost lost today), as well as proximity to the European knowledge.
Qasim Amin and his work “Tahrir al mara'a” (“The Liberation of Women”) can be called one of the most famous writers of this period. Qasim Amin can be called the father of Arab feminism, and his work is a kind of manifesto of the “liberation of women” of that wave. It is important to understand that Amin's thought was directly related to the general state of science at that time and the ideological trends popular in the circles of the intelligentsia. He was greatly influenced by classical liberalism in the spirit of John Steward Mill, as well as the teachings of Darwin. Amin followed the fashionable belief that human societies evolve equally to animal individuals, and Muslims should allow women access to public education as an act of social evolution. Amin's call to “free Muslim women” was followed by many Arab intellectual writers, including Zaynab Fawwaz, Aisha Taimur and others.
It is worth saying that under the influence of the ideas of the Renovationists (Tajdid), of which the idea of “Tahrir al mara'a” was a part, Islamic countries became highly secularised. Secular regimes that professed a mixture of socialism and nationalism were established throughout the Islamic world. All this has also affected women in Islamic society. Until the 80s, it was difficult to meet a city woman wearing a paranja in Cairo, especially among middle and upper class intellectuals. Women's education became very popular. Many open atheists and freethinkers appeared, including in the highest circles. Academically, it was very difficult for traditionalists to resist the supporters of the Tajdida movement, including due to the support of this movement in the highest circles.
The Islamic world is amazing because a conservative revolution took place in it, which there is no example in other societies. Iran and the political Shiism there played a big role here. Many Muslims, thanks to the success of the Islamic Revolution, have discovered the civilizational and anti-colonial potential of the Islamic religion. Thus, from the beginning of the 80s, religiosity began to increase throughout the Muslim world, including Egypt. The intelligentsia increasingly began to turn to classical Islamic texts from the ancient heritage. From these books, Muslims began to draw the ethics of the relationship to a woman, the rules of behaviour of a woman in society and with her husband, the correct boundaries of the hijab and niqab. This has not happened in any other society: a small number of Catholics, for example, treat with reverence the medieval norms of social relations in Catholic jurisprudence and among the Fathers of the Church.
At the same time, changes took place in feminism itself. By the 70s and 80s, under the influence of critical theory and the discovery that power relations are not limited to the man/woman dichotomy, Western theorists began to talk about colonial relations between European metropolises and the non-Western world; racial inequality between Caucasians and whites, about the rights of all kinds of minorities.
For this wave, the old feminism of Qasim Amin would look like a colonial syndrome. The evolutionist approach to social relations led to the most terrible catastrophes of the 20th century, and positive science created nuclear and biological weapons.
Islamic feminists of our time speak of a Muslim woman as a subject facing different lines of oppression: not only gender, but also racial, religious, and cultural.
However, secular feminists often reproach Islamic feminists for blurring the distinction between the secular and religious spheres. At the same time, traditional Muslims, in my opinion, rightly ask about how, in general, the feminist morality and the structure of knowledge of the European Academy, including critical theory, is compatible with Islamic reason and the religion of revelation? At some point, assertions of the bias of the Islamic tradition and the patriarchal conspiracy of Ulama lead to the denial of the divine origin of the Koran and the applicability of the Prophet's Sunnah.
On the one hand, both the new wave of Islamic criticism, which has been gaining momentum since the 80s of the last century, and the decolonial feminists agree in criticising colonialism, racism and the intervention of Western countries and Western ideology in Muslim countries. On the other hand, the roots of this criticism are different: on the one hand, they are rooted in the system of knowledge of Islamic civilisation, and on the other — in the internal criticism of Western civilisation. Which in critical theory is a product of post-Christian thinking and an involuntary bearer of the corresponding morality, implying the identification and attack on any form of power.
The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.