Muslims: Feminists of Faith

The CAIR for New York Blog
By Maryam Ramadan  |  March 1, 2013

In February, the United Nations hosted an event in New York City titled “The Role of Interfaith Dialogue in Women Empowerment.” While there, I saw Lakshmi Puri, the Deputy Executive director of UN Women (the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), speak about the role women in authority at faith-based organizations could play in changing our communities. I saw representatives from Nigeria, Egypt, Kazakhstan, and other member-nations of the UN discuss the big gap between accepted ideas of women empowerment versus the realities of gender inequality on the ground.

I saw representatives from various faith backgrounds emphasize the need for religious leaders to push for change, and guide the estimated 70% of the world's population who associate themselves with a religion to apply religious principles--as opposed to secular--to improve the status of women. I saw these speakers from around the world converge to highlight the importance of religion in creating equity & equality for women in our communities.

While I saw all of these things at this one event, I cannot say that I have seen any of these ideas practiced regularly in our community. I have not seen a Muslim woman regularly featured as a speaker at an Islamic Center or Muslim gathering in my community. I also have not seen leaders in our community tackle this issue outside of the context of domestic violence and marriage. 

I wish I could recall one discussion at an Islamic center I attended that engaged in issues related to my gender outside of the context of being a mother, daughter, or wife.  

This is unfortunate, and we need to work on the fact that women need much more space, recognition, and time to speak in order to be more vocal on issues related to women empowerment.

Let me be clear: I am not asking for women to be on the mimbar giving a Friday sermon. I don't think there is a need to advocate for a change in 'gender roles.'

However, a growing number of people who identify with Islamic Feminism are advocating for a movement of women whose engagements and struggles are within the Islamic framework. A movement of women and men working together to defend women’s rights, to recognize the importance of discussing issues linked to women empowerment, and promoting the fact that in front of God men and women are spiritually and mentally on equal footing.

An initial hurdle we can overcome, is our fear of the term feminism. Islamic feminism does not promote the eradication of men. Nor does it attribute all the world's problems to men. As Muslims, it is important that we decolonize the term from its negative connotations, and push the debate further to understand the role Islamic feminism can play in empowering women, and enhancing the understanding of Islam. 

We first need to understand that Islamic Feminism is not an oxymoron. The battle Muslim women have decided to engage in when defining themselves as Islamic feminists is a struggle within the Islamic framework and one that promotes the teachings of Islam--free from cultural and biased interpretations that are very often unfavorable to women.

Islamic feminism is as obvious as it sounds--an intersection challenging areas of Islamic jurisprudence and challenging areas of mainstream feminism. With regards to Islamic jurisprudence, we are challenging a history and narrative that has been developed through a male lens by seeking more emphasis on the importance of women, our role in Muslim history, and our place as vocal participants in our society. Islamic feminists seek to emphasize the fact that Islam, when it was revealed, liberated and empowered women. This is not a call to redefine Islam, but rather a call to invite more people within a modern context to examine Islam, and its role in our society. 

With regards to mainstream feminism, we are challenging the overall negative views on religion and attempting to diversify the ideas of 'liberation' and 'empowerment.' Unfortunately some of the most racist, and Islamophobic stereotypes are infused within feminism, and that is exactly why creating a space within this field for Muslims and by Muslims is important. 

We can therefore see that Islamic feminism can lead to more than empowering women, but in fact empower all Muslims by challenging some of the misconceptions traditional feminism has promoted with regards to status of women in Islam. 

This event hosted by UN Women was important, but I was already familiar with the conclusion: Religion must play a role in empowering women. But American Muslims don't need to go to an event to learn this; they simply need to learn about Islam. 


Maryam is the Outreach and Event Specialist at CAIR-New York. She received a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and she recently developed a presentation titled "Why all Muslims Should be Feminists."