Islamic Feminism. An overview of Islamic feminism activities with a focus on the Islamic feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

33 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content


Islamic Feminism – A General Overview
What’s in a name?
Islamic Feminism
Three ideal types
Emerge of Islamic feminism
Islamic Feminist discourse and activism
Religious professions
The mosque
Feminist Hermeneutics
Hijab and Modernity

Islamic Feminism – An Iranian Case Study
Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran
Necropolitics and the Islamist Call to Activism
Shia Scholars and Intellectuals on Islamic Feminism
On Women’s Employment
Latest Events
Journalism in post-revolutionary Iran
Women’s Magazines – An Overview
Situation of Female Journalists
Socio-political Questions in Iranian Women’s Magazines (not all)

Feminism after the Arab Spring: The uprising of women in the Arab World. Feminist activities in Social Media




Is Islamic feminism in total contrary to Western feminism? What are Islamic feminists fighting for and can one use the term “feminism” relating to Islam? How do Iranian women act with their rights in a country which is a role model for women’s oppression in the Western world? In my work I want to answer these and other questions.

In the first part of the following work I give a general overview of Islamic feminism. I will define the term and distinct it from what is known as “Western feminism”. I introduce “three ideal types” of Islamic feminists and describe the Islamic feminist discourse and activism according to the Islamic jurisprudence and tradition.

After that I focus on the women and their feminism in Iran. Feminism has a long history in Iran and is in total contrary to Western feminism. But the aims of the Islamic feminists changed from during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Journalism and women’s magazines are a very important organ of the feminists in Iran. Both the “religious” and “secular” spheres use it to discuss women’s issues and criticise actual political decisions and social grievance. I will picture the most important magazines and the most discussed topics.

In the last part I introduce one of the latest campaigns of feminists in the Arab world. “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World” is a movement which uses Social Media such as Facebook and Twitter to inform people and criticise the on-going oppression of women after the Arab Spring and the increasing sexual harassment in Arab countries.

Islamic Feminism – A General Overview

In the first part of my work I want to introduce the concept of Islamic feminism and its different facets. I will also present a concept of classifying feminists and the Islamic feminist discourse and activism.

What’s in a name?

First of all we have to start with a definition of “Islamic Feminism”. One can find a couple of definitions often separated into three categories. I will present the definition of Margot Badran who differs between “Feminism” and “Islamic Feminism” and Irene Schneider who speaks about “three ideal types”.

Before Badran presents her definitions of “Feminism” and “Islamic Feminism”, she offers a concise definition at first: “it is a feminist discourse and practise articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism is both highly contested and firmly embraced. There has been much misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and mischief concerning Islamic feminism. This new feminism has given rise simultaneously to hopes and to fears.”[1]


Now we come to Badrans definition of the term “feminism”. She begins with the historical background of this term. It was first used in France in the late 1880s by Hubertine Auclert, who introduced it in her journal, La Citoyenne, to criticize male predominance and domination. She also wanted to make claims for women’s rights and emancipation promised by the French Revolution. Badran mentions Karen Offen, a historian of feminism, who has demonstrated that since its initial appearance, the term has been given many meanings and definitions. It has also been put to diverse uses and inspired many movements.

The term had his first appearance in Britain in the beginning of the twentieth century, followed by the United States in the 1910s. By the early 1920s it was in use in Egypt, where it circulated both in French, and Arabic as nisaʾiyya.[2] “Yes, the term originated in the West, specifically France. No, feminism is not Western. American feminism is not French, as Americans and French alike would loudly proclaim. Egyptian feminism is not French and it is not Western. It is Egyptian, as its founders have attested and history makes clear. Feminisms are produced in particular places and are articulated in local terms.”[3] Badran mentions the Sri Lankan scholar Kumari Jayawardena who published her path-breaking book Feminisms and Nationalism in the Third World in 1986, which documented feminist movements that had emerged in diverse Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The book shows how the feminist movements where located within the contexts of local national liberations and religious reform movements, including movements of Islamic reform. Badran says that Egypt was a pioneer in articulating feminist thinking and organizing collective feminist activist campaigns.

Islamic Feminism

Badran points out that the term Islamic Feminsim began to be visible in the 1990s in various global locations.[4] “Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini explained the rise and use of the term Islamic feminism in Iran by some women, as well as men, writing in the Teheran women’s journal Zanan, which Shahla Sherkat founded in 1992. Saudi Arabian scholar Mai Yamani used the term in her 1996 book Feminism and Islam. Turkish scholars Yeşim Arar and Feride Acar in their articles, and Nilüfer Göle in her book The Forbidden Modern (published in Turkish in 1991 and in English in 1996) used the term Islamic Feminism in the 1990s to describe a new feminist paradigm the detected in Turkey. South African activist Shamima Shaikh used the term Islamic feminism in the 1990s, as did her co-activists, both male and female. By the mid-1990s, there was growing evidence of Islamic feminism as a term created and circulated by Muslims in far-flung corners of the global umma.”[5]

Badran says that the Muslim women of her foregoing remarks describe Islamic feminism as the articulation and advocacy of a Qurʾān-mandated gender equality and social justice. Others don’t call this Islamic feminism, but describe it as a women-centred rereading of the Qurʾān and other religious texts. Badran adds that the producers and users of Islamic feminist discourse include those who may or may not accept the Islamic feminist label or identity.[6] “They also include religious Muslims (by which is typically meant the religiously observant), secular Muslims (whose ways of being Muslim may be less publicly evident), and non-Muslims. I would like to add that while many Muslims use the adjectives religious and secular to label themselves or others, there are other Muslims who feel uneasy about these terms. It is important to historicize or contextualize the use of the terms secular and religious, as they mean different things in different times and places. Finally, it is helpful to remember that the terms religious and secular are porous and rather than rigid categories.”[7]

Badran mentions some activists who asserted an Islamic feminist identity from the start. These include contributors to the Iranian journal Zanan, South African exegetes and activists, and women belonging to the group Sisters in Islam in Malaysia. Many of the key producers of Islamic feminist discourse or new gender-sensitive Qurʾānic interpretation have been reluctant to identify themselves as Islamic feminist or simply feminists as Badran points out. She mentions Fatima Mernissi, the author of Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, who produced what was to become one of the core texts of Islamic feminism, would not call herself an Islamic feminist. She is a secular feminist.

Authors like the African-American Muslim theologian and author of the book Qurʾan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1991), Amina Wadud, changed their positions in more recent years. Wadud adamantly objected of being labelled as an Islamic feminist. Now she shows less concern if others identify her as such.[8] “What is important to her is that people understand her work. However, Wadud does bristle when she is slammed as a ‘Western feminist,’ decrying the pejorative use of both ‘Western’ and ‘feminist’ in the preface to the 1999 Oxford University Press edition of Qurʾan and Woman. This devout Muslim woman asks ‘what’s wrong with being Western?’ (Let us not forget that there are large and growing numbers of Western Muslims, or Muslims in the West, of whom Wadud is one.)”[9]

Related to Badrans comment above, she observes that Islamic feminism is a global phenomenon and that it is not a product of East or West. She admits that Islamic feminism is being produced by Muslim women from both majority and minority communities in Africa or Asia as well as from immigrant and convert communities in the West. Additionally Islamic feminism is circulating with increasing frequency in cyberspace; a topic that I will present and discuss shortly in the last chapter.[10]

In the end of this passage I want to quote Mrs. Badran again to show her personal opinion about the relevance of Islamic feminism: “Islamic feminism transcends and eradicates old binaries. These include polarities between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ and between ‘East’ and ‘West’. I stress this because not infrequently there are those who see Islamic feminism as setting up or reconfirming dichotomies. In my own public lectures and writings I have argued that Islamic feminist discourse does precisely the opposite: that it closes gaps and reveals common concerns and goals, starting with the basic affirmation of gender equality and social justice. Suggestions or allegations of a supposed ‘clash’ between ‘secular feminism’ and ‘religious feminism’ may result from ignorance – or, more likely, from a politically motivated attempt to impede solidarities among women.”[11]

Three ideal types

Irene Schneider presents in her book Der Islam und die Frauen on the basis of the work of Azza Karam and her book Women, islamisms and the state (1998) three ideal types of Islamic feminists. But first Schneider presents Karams extended definition of feminism which includes the activists of the Middle Eastern context who are not pleading for an absolute equality but rather for a greater equality.[12] “Demnach ist Feminismus die individuelle oder kollektive Wahrnehmung, dass Frauen in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart auf die unterschiedlichsten Arten und aus den unterschiedlichsten Gründen unterdrückt wurden und sich davon zu befreien versuchen mit dem Bestreben, eine Gesellschaft auf der Basis einer größeren Gleichheit zwischen Männern und Frauen aufzubauen und die Beziehungen zwischen Männern und Frauen zu verbessern.“[13] On the basis of this definition Karam designed three ideal types of feminists for Egypt which could be the origin for the classification of activists in Islamic countries as Schneider says.

Islamist Feminists

First of all we have to define what Islamism means. Schneider says that Islamism, which is often named fundamentalism, is called a retrogressive Utopia. Islamism is a modern ideological movement of the 20th century and its symbol of identification is the politicization of the Islamic religion. The radicalism of Islamism is that he criticizes the established traditions and teachings, for example, the law schools and their different interpretations, and uses the image of the "unity" of Islam. The community of Muḥammad in 7th century conduces as a guideline.

Islamist feminists see the roles of men and women in a traditional way. They see the natural rights of a woman in her role as a mother and wife because the biological differences between sexes generate different duties and responsibilities for each sex. Gender equality is not an aim of Islamist feminists. This is unnaturally and derogatory for the dignity and integrity of women. When men and women are regarded as different, the demand for equal rights is irrelevant. Not women's right of individual self-determination is important, but their duties to the society which they perceive first by her role as wife and mother. Islamist Muslim women refuse to look at the concept of 'feminist' as inaccurate and given to strong westerly connotation. Nevertheless, they are committed to more female rights and are aware of at least partial suppression of women which they want to eliminate by recourse to Islamic principles.

Unlike the scholar women of the 11th and 13th century, these women see their role not just in the passing of texts, but claim to have the same right of “independent textual interpretation" as men. On this basis, they come in many points to results that differ from those of traditional, male-dominated establishments of scholars in the major universities.

Muslim Feminists

Muslim feminists see themselves as religious women in the traditional view of Islam but in contrary to Islamist feminists they are convinced that men and women are equal in the Islamic society and religion. They agree to international agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of all Form of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW (1981) and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, CRC (1990) and fight for the signing of these in their individual countries. They think an Islamic justification of the Human Rights is possible.

These women also support a new interpretation of the Qurʾān and Sunna and fight additionally against patriarchal structures in the religious establishments. Like the Islamist feminists they fight against these based of their own academic Islamic qualification. Their method for a reformation is Ijtihad and their own interpretation of the sources. Unlike the Islamist feminist they deduce equality between men and women from these sources. Based on this, they argue that men and women have the same right to a leadership position in politics and society.

Secular Feminists

These feminists are similar to the Western imagination of a feminist with their principles and conventions. They refer to the Human Rights and different Human Right Agreements like CEDAW and CRC. They plead for a bigger or total separation between the state and religion and the creations of a democratic state. This is, as they say, an indispensable requirement for equality between men and women. They don’t try to harmonize religious discourses with the concepts of Human Rights. Furthermore, they don’t try to interpret religious sources or refer to religious laws. Religion is a private matter and secular feminists see no possibility to base the emancipation of women on it.

Thereby they avoid the problem of the position of the woman in Islam. They also don’t have to fight against the religious establishment that forbids the interpretation of the sources through women. Simultaneously they disagree vehement with the Islamist concept of the inequality of the sexes. They agree with Muslim feminists who also fight for reforms in family legislation and other spheres like legislation, politics or the social area.

Islamist and Muslim feminist base their pursuit of participation in the public sphere on the duties of a woman for her society. Secular feminist deduce their claims for participation on the individual personal rights.[14]

Emerge of Islamic feminism

I have now identified the differences between feminism and Islamic feminism and introduced the three ideal types of feminists by Azza Karam. The problem one has to face now is that there is no consistent separation of these three types. Badran for example, differences between just two types (in the context of Islamic feminism): religiously oriented women and feminist women. Both groups can be placed between the three ideal types. That means, religiously oriented women in the definition of Badran can be located in the entire range of the description of Islamist feminist and Muslim feminist.

Badran says in one of her texts that both religiously oriented women and feminist women who are rereading the Qurʾān and other religious texts are bringing to bear their own experiences and new critical methodologies to enact readings that are more meaningful to modern women.[15] “[Badran] suggest[s] that the new radical feminism in Muslim societies – and [she] include[s] diaspora societies – as we begin the twenty-first-century will be ‘Islamic feminism’. [Her] arguments for this are the following:

1. Islam is becoming a paramount cultural and political paradigm
2. Muslim women, who are more highly educated in greater number than ever before, have begun gender-progressive readings of Islamic sacred scripture that will achieve – and indeed have already achieved – significant ‘feminist’ breakthroughs
3. Only the language of an ‘Islamic feminism’ can potentially reach women of all classes and across urban-rural divides – or, to put it slightly differently, the majority of Muslims can associate only with a ‘feminism’ that is explicitly ‘Islamic.’
4. Because of the increasing globalization and growing Muslim diaspora communities, Muslim women who practise Islam and want to embrace feminism need an Islamic feminism
5. The globalized media and technology revolution produces a decentered and denationalized feminism, and connects Muslim women both inside and outside predominantly Muslim nations or communities with each other.

[…] [Badran] believe[s] that the new radical feminism in Muslim societies – that is, ‘Islamic feminism’ – will play a salient role in (1) the re-visioning of Islam; (2) the constitution of a new modernity in the twenty-first century; and (3) the transformation of feminism itself. Feminism may even get a new name.”[16]

Islamic Feminist discourse and activism

“Islamic feminism first appeared in places in the East where movements of political Islam had been around longest and had tried with different degrees of success to roll back earlier feminist gains which often took the form of attempts either to evacuate women from the public sphere (as in Egypt, although this was soon abandoned for strategic reasons) or to control women’s appearance and movements in public (such as in Iran, where women were needed in the workforce, especially with the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war). Islamic feminism not only arose among Muslim women from outside movements of political Islam but also among disaffected women inside Islamist groups and parties, as happened in Turkey.”[17]

In the West Islamic feminism appeared in the context of rapidly growing permanent Muslim populations comprising immigrants, new and second-generation citizens, and growing numbers of converts, from whom the majority are Muslims. Many of these Muslim women converts were uneasy with what they saw as conservative cultural norm imposed in the name of Islam. That’s why they were impelled to examine the religion for themselves.


[1] (Badran 2009, 242)

[2] Ef. (Badran 2009, 242)

[3] (Badran 2009, 242-243)

[4] Ef. (Badran 2009, 243)

[5] (Badran 2009, 243-244)

[6] Ef. (Badran 2009, 244)

[7] (Badran 2009, 244)

[8] Ef. (Badran 2009, 244-245)

[9] (Badran 2009, 245)

[10] Ef. (Badran 2009, 245)

[11] (Badran 2009, 245-246)

[12] Ef. (Schneider 2011, 171)

[13] (Schneider 2011, 171)

[14] Ef. (Schneider 2011, 171-176)

[15] Ef. (Badran 2009, 219)

[16] (Badran 2009, 219-220)

[17] (Badran 2009, 330)

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Islamic Feminism. An overview of Islamic feminism activities with a focus on the Islamic feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran
University of Tubingen  (Asien-Orient-Institut)
Sexualität und Zeitehe
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1004 KB
Feminismus, Islam, Iran, Frauen, Gender, Journalismus, Arabischer Frühling, Feminism, Islamic Feminsim
Quote paper
Ann Cathrin Riedel (Author), 2013, Islamic Feminism. An overview of Islamic feminism activities with a focus on the Islamic feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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