Muslim women’s role in feminism

Muslim feminists have particular strengths that can help the wider gender equality movement, writes Shelina Janmohamed

A vendor prepares hijabs for sale during Ramadan in Surabaya, Indonesia. The particular type of feminism followed by Muslim women can make immense contributions to gender equality, says Shelina Janmohamed (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
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The headscarf on my head doesn’t stop my brain from working. Being female and Muslim doesn’t make me oppressed or brainwashed. My gender doesn’t prevent me from pointing out to my co-religionists that things need to be better for Muslim women.

There’s no single form of feminism and to those feminists who think Muslim women are oppressed and need saving: we’ve got a thing or two that you can learn from us.

Muslim women are fully aware that we have challenges just like other women, but our faith and our experiences give us motivation, inspiration and new ways of thinking that can push forward more equal, fairer societies in general. After all, that is why we are Muslims, our self-professed goal is to make our world more just.

The sexualisation that saturates our public space is toxic. The idea of modest dress or behaviour is worth considering. So many women – Muslim and not – who adopt modest dress say that it empowers them, they feel relief and freedom from sexualised imagery. There’s food for thought here, even if you don’t agree.

The “male gaze” that pervades our print, film and public discourse is challenged by feminists. But because of the female-only spaces created by Muslim women we can take advantage of the opportunity to see how our notions of beauty and behaviour can change and flourish under a female gaze.

Ideas that Muslim women uphold around the division of public and private space can offer fresh thinking to the challenges of invasion of space and ownership of female bodies.

Personal space, a zone that is completely forbidden for someone to enter without permission, is highly important, with strict rules governing it. It is focused around the person and who they interact with rather than a physical space, which currently governs how we define space.

The rights, respect and support for mothers is one of the most challenging arenas. It’s all well and good to talk of the end of sexism, but without an elevation and respect for motherhood and the practical support it requires, alongside respect and support for fatherhood, disparities kick in immediately. The huge importance that Islam places on being a mother and the centrality of the family can be an inspiration.

But for me, one of the most important and unspoken issues is to pull both women and men out from being sucked into the vortex of economic production to the detriment of self-development.

Muslim women face many challenges, many severe. We don’t have it perfect, we haven’t resolved all our issues. But then neither has the wider feminist movement. That’s why we are all in it together. But we’ve got ideas. We’ve got experiences. We’ve got inspiration, stories and perspectives.

Our faith returns us to early feminist aims that by removing the structures of oppression we can make life better for women and men, the privileged as well as those at the bottom of the pile. That we happen to identify as Muslims is our entry point into rights, equality and justice. It’s a flag we will fly as we march side by side.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at