Feminism is a hot topic right now with a lot of misunderstandings and sharp opinions. By definition, feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes. Equality between sexes does not mean men and women are the same, we know that is not true. It means they should be given the same opportunities and respect regardless of gender and within the context of Islamic feminism, their Islamic rights must be upheld.
Islam advocates for the good treatment of women and pushed for female rights during a time when many cultures viewed women as a lesser gender and some even questioned if women had a soul. For example, Islam gave women the right to inherit and own property, stopped the infanticide of females and gave women the right to divorce as well as deny marrying someone. Yet someone reading this right now is saying “women can’t divorce in Islam without the husband agreeing” and that person just proved a point I will unpack later because that is not true.
These examples along with others cause some to claim that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was the original feminist. Whether or not this term applies, we can all agree he was an advocate for female rights. Imagine a time when abused women had no rights, female babies were buried alive and marriage practices were often forced and oppressive. Widows became the property of the next male kin in the family along with all of the possessions the husband left behind. She was not given any inheritance rather she became part of the inheritance to another man, as if she was a piece of furniture. Undoubtedly, the Prophet (saws) was an advocate for the marginalized.
So far, this all sounds like Islam came to protect women. So why the rise in Islamic feminists? Why are so many male and female Muslims standing up to say Islam needs feminism?
Waves of Feminism
Before we dive into Islamic feminism, we need to grasp how this all began. The first wave of feminism was seen in 1848. This wave focused on the right to vote and was spearheaded by two abolitionist females that were barred from attending the anti-slavery convention in London. In 1870 African-American men earned the right to vote and this greatly motivated suffragettes as no one expected ex-slaves to be granted voting rights before women. While voting was the main focus, the first wave feminists also advocated for equal opportunity to education, employment and owning property. These were radical ideas for the time. It was not until 1920 that women were granted the right to vote.
The second wave begins in 1963. This wave focused on the cultural archetype that women belonged at home and had no place or desire to seek anything outside of child rearing and housework. A book titled The Feminine Mystique acted as social media does for us now and brought together many women. It spread rapidly and began inspiring women towards social advocacy. During this wave, the right to birth control was enacted, educational and employment acts were passed by congress along with the famous Roe VS Wade case that gave women reproductive rights. Even marital rape was finally recognized as an injustice towards women.
The third wave began around 1990 with a focus on claiming female beauty as ours, not a product for men. While the first two waves would label painful high heels and an hour of makeup as patriarchal oppression, the third wave sought to own their female beauty. Essentially saying we can wear high heels with red lipstick and that does not take away our brains nor does it mean we wear it for men. Some people refer to this wave as “girly feminism”.
Currently we are in the midst of what some label the fourth wave, some claim it is still the third while others say the fourth wave has not truly launched. Semantics aside, we are in a “call out” culture that puts emphasis on social media, sexuality, spreading awareness and a great example is the popular #metoo movement.
Islamic feminism pulls from all of these waves. Whether it be regarding legislation, education, cultural archetypes, displays of beauty or sexuality, Islamic feminism is talking about it. We can label it the modern day Islamic wave of feminism.
Islamic Sexuality Oppressed
In the earliest days of Islam, people would talk about sexuality in a mature and adult fashion. We have numerous narrations of people asking the Prophet (saws) questions regarding sexuality. Some of these topics were erectile dysfunction, foreplay and permissible sexual positions. In the book “A Taste of Honey” that sums up Islamic sexuality, he notes that the Prophet (saws) advocated for foreplay as a necessary action for women and seen it as wrong to deny them foreplay and satisfaction.
Can you even imagine Imams talking about this now? These conversations do not happen as much as they should. The Islamic community has become overly conservative when it comes to discussing these topics and as such, many Sisters feel unable to be free sexually or fully satisfied.
This has evolved into some Muslims feeling that it is immodest or shameful for a woman to have a high sex drive or be experimental with her husband. Sexuality is a gift from Allah (most honored, most revered) and that gift is for both men and women. I have read numerous articles and social media posts where Brothers try to assert that women do not have a need to climax nor do they have the same desire.
A popular online writer, Becoming the Alpha Muslim, had a FB post where many Brothers were asserting it was the woman’s fault and her own psychological limitation if she was not satisfied with her husband sexually. I have to wonder if they would say the same thing if the man was not satisfied with his wife.
Islamic Rights Oppressed
Islam has put in place specific rights for males, females and family members. We can think of them as base guidelines on how to treat those around you and ensure they are taken care of. Each marriage and family has their own unique dynamics, in some cases, people may actually waive some of those rights but that can never be forced. The problems arise when Islamic rights are denied.
We see this when inheritance is taken by the older Uncle instead of the daughter and her money is spent. He excuses this by saying she is too young or he knows how to handle money better, but that inheritance is her right. Sometimes we see a husband forces his new wife to live with his Mother instead of giving her a private space of her own and furthermore expects her to serve his Mother. That is denying her the rights of a wife and I do not need to explain how many Mother-in-law issues we have currently.
A woman has the right to pray at a mosque just as a man and it is forbidden to deny her this, but we all know this is happening in our communities. Even if the man does not explicitly say, “I don’t want you here” (as many do) websites like Side Entrance illustrate how poor some of the female prayer areas are. As if they are discouraging women to attend the mosque and could care less about their spirituality.
When you shove women into a basement not even half the quality of the main prayer area, where they cannot even see and properly hear the Imam, do not tell me you care at all about their faith. This concept of separate prayer rooms did not happen during the time of the Prophet (saws) because back then male accountability was enforced, not women being accountable for men who do not lower their gaze.
Some Brothers believe their wives cannot divorce them unless they agree to it. (I said we would get back to this) Let us pause for a moment, how would that work with abused women? Do you actually believe a man who beats his wife will say, “Sure hunny, I divorce you” or will he beat her for asking? A woman can divorce a man, it is called a khula and I recall a specific situation where a young revert exercised this right to divorce her abusive husband who also happened to be an Imam. He tried to assert she could not do it so she took him to the local shura council and they reminded him of her rights, she got her divorce.
From these few examples I highlighted, we see Islamic rights which were granted to the women from Allah (swt) being denied. Often the men may actually believe this is just or somehow in line with Islam, when in actuality, this is culture and it is against Islam.
Recently I saw a situation where a husband wanted to marry someone else because his wife gave him two healthy baby girls instead of a male. The Prophet Mohamed (saws) put emphasis on the blessing of having female children yet culturally some Brothers still take the stance that a male child is superior. This is a baby, yet some will wrongfully label a male baby as superior due to their culture.
Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Whoever supports two girls till they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Day of Resurrection like this”. Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) joined his fingers illustrating this.
Some of the expectations within culture put a woman in a cage and tell her to obey. She is denied the freedom to speak her mind truthfully or disagree. Yet wives of the Prophet (saws) did not always agree with him and a woman even publically disagreed with Omar (ra) who was known for being strong-minded and he commended her for it. You can only cage people for so long before they seek to burn down the cage.
All of this illustrates that within Islamic culture, some women are not able to be sexually free with their husbands and feel like their satisfaction pales in comparison to his needs. Some Sisters struggle with their fundamental Islamic rights being denied.
Cultural beliefs are causing Sisters to feel less appreciated and their voice not recognized. We have areas with a lot of room for improvement.
My Own Take
When you come into Islam as a new Muslim woman, you expect to see such honor and high regard for women but the truth is Muslims are humans and as such are fallible. What I have seen has made me realize there is a reason why so many people stereotype Islam as oppressive. There is a reason why so many people think Muslim women are marginalized. If I may be so bold, if I had interacted with Muslim culture prior to studying Quran I would have ran away. Alhamdulillah that I focused on the religion and not the culture.
Instead of debating with feminists and arguing that Islam has no need for feminism, we should start asking why so many women feel they are oppressed. What is happening that so many men and women are speaking out for the rights of women? Something has to be causing this and those that reduce feminism to nothing more than “angry man haters who don’t respect men” are trivializing real issues and real injustice.
If you read the Quran without any cultural or media influence you get a feeling of protection for women, honoring women and equal rewards for male and female.
“…Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another…”
From my perspective as a revert, Islam in itself does not need feminism, but the Islamic culture does. Call it by any name you like, perhaps the word feminism is jarring and I personally do not identify as a feminist as I do not love labels. We can say the Islamic culture needs justice for genders, the culture needs to take a step back and the deen take a step forward.