Feminism and faith

Feature Margot Badran is a historian and gender studies specialist focusing on the Muslim world. Here she talks about five books that she feels most effectively tackle the topic of Islam and gender equality.

Margot Badran is a historian and gender studies specialist focusing on the Muslim world. She is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and senior fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Here she talks about five books that she feels most effectively tackle the topic of Islam and gender equality.

Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist. She produced one of the first books on feminism within an Arab Middle East and Muslim context - Beyond The Veil, which came out in 1975. This was a book in a secular voice, in parts even a secularist voice or one that takes an anti-Islamic stance. Mernissi was of the same generation as the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, and the two of them really put second-wave feminism on the map in the Middle East.

Raja Rhouni, also a Moroccan, first learnt about Fatema Mernissi around the time Islam And Democracy came out while she was a PhD student at Mohammed V University in Rabat - the same university where Fatema Mernissi did her undergraduate work. Rhouni's book comes out at the moment we are trying to make sense of "the secular" and "the religious" in their changing meanings, porosity and overlappings, and, more specifically, in the context of Islam and gender. We are trying to understand more about how secularism and Islam reinforce each other, and their tensions, complexities and apparent or real contradictions.

Rhouni advances what she calls "post-foundationalist Islamic feminism". She lays out a second stage of Islamic feminism very nicely, moving from the first stage, which she characterises as foundationalism, to what she calls post-foundational Islamic feminism. Foundationalism, she explains, is working within the classical Islamic tradition, using its tools say, for example, in approaching the hadith to demonstrate that certain misogynist hadith are spurious. Rhouni asks what if, using those traditional tools, you find out that some of the misogynist hadith are accurate? Where do you go from there? So she argues that we have to get beyond the foundational approach and develop new methodologies. We have to place the Quran and interpretations in their historical context, and as we ask our questions, make our observations and conduct our own readings of the scripture.

Amina Wadud is a theologian with a PhD from the University of Michigan and a long-time professor of Islamic studies. Inside The Gender Jihadmoves vigorously into a post-foundationalist phase. She emphasises even more the need to contextualise, the need to engage in dialogue with the text and she doesn't talk about equality as a norm in the text, but equality as a principle and justice as a principle - and how you can't have justice without equality. The Quran exists, but meaning is extracted by us. She emphasises that gender equality is an unfinished project - it needs human intervention, strenuous human intervention. We need to struggle, we need to engage, to understand what is going on and not maroon ourselves in tired old literalist understandings of the Quran.

If we need to, we just have to reject what seem to be evident or literal meanings. If something seems to be against a notion of, say, justice we have to declare it and move on. So when the Quran says that if a wife is disobedient, her husband can hit her, however lightly, her answer, is: "No, this is not acceptable according to the standards of our day and our context." Wadud has a very nice phrase, "We are the makers of textual meaning." The Quran is supposed to furnish guidance, it's supposed to elevate us wherever we are, and we are now in the 21st century and we have understandings of equality that patriarchal ideas, institutions and practices are subverting. She is very inspirational to this rising generation of younger women and also gives non-Muslims a whole different way of grasping Islam.

Siti Musdah Mulia was the chairman of the gender mainstreaming committee in the ministry of religious affairs in Indonesia, which was charged with coming up with what is called the Counter Legal Draft. Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population in the world, but it also has a significant number of minorities - it's a highly pluralistic society. So Indonesian Islam has had to develop ways of respecting those of other religions and diverse cultural groups and this really comes out, in my view, in the way they approach the Muslim personal law and jurisprudence.

Another important feature of the Indonesian document is that both women and men may marry non-Muslims. Nowhere in the world where Islamic law is codified, and certainly not in classic jurisprudence, is this allowed, though men may marry women of the book - in other words, Jews and Christians. Gender-equal inheritance is another important step forward that made it into the Counter Legal Draft. It will probably take quite some time for all these things to find their way into law. But it is a vision, it's a template for an egalitarian model of the family within an Islamic framework.

Noushin Khorasani is an Iranian activist and one of the founders of the One Million Signatures campaign to get signatures for a petition to revise all sorts of laws, particularly the family law, to make them gender-equal. Her book is a splendid set of articles, almost a case study, of how to build a social movement in the 21st century in order to effect legal change. So if the Indonesian document is the vision, this book is about how to achieve results through a broad social movement.

And it's especially compelling because the million signatures campaign is very much a grassroots movement. Volunteers fan out over the countryside, in urban areas they go across class divisions. All kinds of people come on board. As Khorasani emphasised, simply by circulating a petition, that there is a lot of spreading the word about the basic ideas and demands, and it's also about engaging with the people who are signing and finding out from them what they think, what they want.

So much criticism is levelled against all kinds of feminist and equality movements for being elitist and to some extent these criticisms are well founded, and also to some extent it's very difficult for these movements not to be elitist. But this movement in Iran is very much connected with the broader population. They were steaming ahead towards one million signatures but then they were stopped. The problem is that last spring's repression was getting beefed up even before the elections and then afterwards the campaign was muted - it was silenced by the government. It seems only to be dormant and, like so much else, the word has spread and hopes that have been raised cannot be erased just like that. Repression, as terrible as it is, is not eradication. Khorasani's book of this vast movement helps us see that.

Many initiatives have stalled, conservatism is even more rampant than before and many governments in Muslim-majority countries are clamping down, claiming security concerns. So in the short term, things are very, very difficult. But I am at heart an optimist. In spite of all the repression there are also very strong insistent movements for democracy. So I do think repressive regimes and patriarchalists, wherever they are, and whether secular or religious, feel and fear the death knell. They know their hoodwinking is laid bare and that their power and privilege is highly endangered - because no genie, especially the genie of justice, can be put back in the bottle.

This interview by Sophie Röell first appeared on www.fivebooks.com