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Can you be a Muslim and a feminist?

It is astonishing that “Muslims”, and Muslim women, are so frequently spoken about as a monolithic block. If you actually listen to what Muslim women have to say on the subject, you find that many of them have no difficulty reconciling their faith with th

Protestors outside the French embassy in London when France banned the veil in 2011. Photo: Getty

Islam and feminism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Of course you can’t be a Muslim and a feminist. That’s like saying you can be a Ku Klux Klan member and an anti-fascist.

That’s just a small sample of the responses I got on Twitter last week when I said I was taking part in a panel discussion about Islam and feminism. It is a knee-jerk response that shows at best ignorance and at worst bigotry; at the very least, a lack of desire to look outside a pre-existing, blinkered set of assumptions. Those assumptions are perhaps unsurprising given that the media almost universally portrays Muslim women as victims. There they are in Afghanistan or Pakistan, being oppressed; there they are in France, being legislatively protected from men forcing them to wear a face veil (or, in another reading, criminalised for choosing to wear one). Amongst all this hand-wringing about the oppression of Muslim women, there are remarkably few attempts to solicit the views of Muslim women themselves. During the recent resurgence of the niqab debate in the UK, veiled – or even headscarf-wearing – women were initially absent from the discussion, until a few days into the furore when a few broadcasters and newspapers made an effort to redress the balance.

At home and abroad, the most common depiction of “the Muslim woman” is as a victim. This ranges from news coverage to characters on TV shows (who tend to be surviving arranged marriage). Perhaps this is the root of the idea that it is absurd to mention Islam and feminism in a single breath.

So, let me answer my own question: is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? Well, of course. As in any other large group of humans (there are 1 billion Muslims in the world, around half of whom are women), a huge range of views exist. Some of these half a billion women are not feminists; some are. There is a distinction to be drawn here between Islamic feminists who explicitly draw their feminism from their faith, and Muslim women who also happen to be feminists.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Fatemah Fakhraie, founder of Muslimah Media Watch, summarised the former position: “I see the justification [for feminism] in my faith. In the Qur’an it says that we’re all equal in the eyes of God. It means that the dignity of every person is important.” Some Muslim women (just like non-Muslim women) take issue with the term “feminism”. One of the participants at the panel discussion I took part in last week felt that the term carried with it a whole history – predicated on western ideals – that made it inappropriate for her own beliefs. Yet that did not stop her from expressing support for gender parity, which she expressly draws from her faith.

When it comes to Islam, the question of scripture is thorny. Much of what is followed today is the interpretation of a group of scholars dating back hundreds of years, rather than the literal teachings of God. The Qur’an is a complex and dense book, meaning that even the act of translation involves interpretation. Reinterpretation of the text is a controversial issue, but there are some interesting and brave attempts by female scholars to challenge accepted wisdoms not by deviating from the Qur’an, but by returning to it. (One example is academic Asma Barlas, who has researched patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an.)

There is a particular breed of internet troll whose favoured technique is to take selective quotes from the Qur’an or to answer any article on Islam with “The Prophet married Aisha when she was a child!!!”. Yet this cherry-picking proves nothing. The Prophet lived in the 6th Century, and the advent of Islam vastly improved the situation for women in pre-Islamic Arabia. Moreover, most religious texts contain misogynistic elements. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively originated 3,000, 2,000, and 1,450 years ago, and elements of the scripture and lore of all three reflect the times they were written in. The Torah, Bible, and Qur’an all agree that women are unclean during menstruation. The Bible says that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission”. This is not to play tit-for-tat, but to point out that it is intensely reductive to claim that any single religion is inherently woman-hating. The Bible and the Torah are comparable to the Qur’an in their statements on women; yet one does not commonly hear that “Judaism and feminism are a contradiction in terms” or that “you cannot be a Christian and a feminist”.

It is astonishing that “Muslims” are so frequently spoken about as a monolithic block. Think of the range of Christian experience – from Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the Amish, to secularised, modern-day Church of England – and you have a reasonable point of comparison. In addition to those women who draw their feminism from their faith in Islam, there are many who simply believe in both. I personally view the equality of men and women as a basic, common sense position and struggle to see why anyone – male or female – would think otherwise. I’m not particularly religious and never have been, but that perspective was given to me by my mother and grandmother, both strong Muslim women who see no contradiction between the two value systems. At the discussion I took part in last week, everyone on the panel – and many in the audience – agreed that the problem reconciling Islam and feminism rarely comes from within, but from those outside. Those views that I opened with – “isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” – are profoundly destabilising. You are not who you are. You cannot be who you are. It is impossible for you to be who you are and think what you think.

Working in Pakistan over the last year, I encountered a lot of women facing horrendous situations, and a lot of vile gender-based violence. I also encountered a lot of inspirational women who were strong, vocal, and fighting for their rights. None of them felt that their faith was at odds with their conviction that they, as women, should be equal citizens.

In writing this article, my intention is not to detract from the very real problems suffered by many Muslim women, or to argue that sexism in Islam does not exist. It does exist, as threats against women activists in Asia and the Middle East demonstrate. As is often the case, the conservative minority shouts the loudest and essentially drowns out the liberal voices. But by saying that “Islam and feminism cannot co-exist”, you are handing a victory to that conservative faction. My intention – and this may be too nuanced for the trolls who I can already hear queuing up – is to point out that Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive. To claim that they are is – far from “saving” these victims – to deny women their voices all over again.