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An historical Overview of Conferences on Islamic Feminism : Circulations and New Challenges

Margot Badran

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  • 1 On global feminist networking in general see Valentine Moghadam, Globalizing Women: Transnational F (...)

1Conferences bringing people together in face-to-face encounters form an integral part of the history of Islamic feminism and are intimately involved in the shaping and transmitting of Islamic feminist discourse and activist work. At the same time, conferences help consolidate transnational Islamic feminist networks and cement relationships. They also provide valuable records of the work and serve as markers of the trajectory of Islamic feminism1

2The conference on “Islamic feminisms: boundaries and politics” that Stephanie Latte Abdullah organized at the Institute de Recherches et d’Études sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman in Aix-en-Provence in December 2009 occurred at a time when Islamic feminism is moving with increased acceleration from a primary focus on theorization to the stage of social movement organizing. It is also a moment: (1) when expanding numbers of women affiliated with Islamist political parties and movements are gravitating toward the egalitarian model of religion that Islamic feminism explicates, and (2) when moves toward egalitarian Islam are discernable inside highly conservative Muslim majority societies such as Saudi Arabia. These trends may be seen as the new sociological layer in the quest for the implementation of an egalitarian model of Islam as we get insights into from papers presented in the conference.

  • 2 I expressed this view, which I continue to maintain, in 2007. See Margot Badran, “Islamischer Femin (...)

3The terms in the conference title—Islamic feminisms, boundaries, politics--capture key concerns of this moment in the history of Islamic feminism. The pluralizing of Islamic feminism can be read either as announcing or suggesting the need to consider the notion of multiple Islamic feminisms. I continue to prefer to retain the singular to keep the focus on Islamic feminism’s core message, and sine qua non, of full human equality inclusive of gender equality and social justice. As I see it, if this basic meaning is not taken as a given then we are not speaking of Islamic feminism but of something else2. Now that there is an accelerated move in the trajectory of Islamic feminism from theory building to social movement building clearly there will be, and are, different local movements, responding to the diversity of local imperatives, but the driving core principles and core ideas remain the same. I think retaining the singular reminds us of this and helps preserve the integrity of Islamic feminism. I think we have to be wary of the possibility of fragmentation and circulation of multiple meanings that can cunningly undercut or dilute the basic tenets of Islamic feminism which pluralizing the term might unwittingly promote. I do agree however that we need to guard against the possibility of suggesting Islamic feminism is static and monolithic. I also understand that we need a vocabulary to talk about the multiplicity within Islamic feminism short of simply adding an “s”. (I do pluralize Muslim women’s secular feminisms which emerged from the start as diverse, nationally-grounded social movements.)

4The question of boundaries is vexing. There exist both conceptual and social boundaries. I have just made the case for respecting Islamic feminism’s conceptual boundaries, which should not be seen as tantamount to shutting out theoretical refinements and dynamic thought, and indeed I understand boundaries to be porous. Concerning social boundaries and Islamic feminism, as just observed, we are at a moment when more women, from Islamist groupings and in arch conservative societies, are coming into Islamic feminist space, in terms of being inspired by the ideals of an egalitarian Islam. Yet, while there is not a necessary connection between Islamic feminism and religious identity, there is now a noticeable slide toward associating Islamic feminism with being Muslim and a recent tendency among progressive Muslim women for gate-keeping in some movement-building circles. The less bounded Islamic feminism is in terms of who is in and who is out as pivoted around identity the more vitality it will have and the greater chance for its vision to be translated into practice at local levels and to become a broad social reality.

5Now is the time for serious political work. In this social movement stage what is needed is not more theology but more politics. Patriarchal states - whether secular or Islamic - as well as patriarchal Islamist movements are not moved by the vigor of religious argumentation alone but by their own political interests. It is not that what Islamic feminism stands for has not worked for many women in their everyday lives, for it has. The great success that Islamic and secular feminists scored with the revision of the Moroccan Mudawwana or family law came about through astute politics involving women, civil society at large, and the state. The theology was in place.

6I would now like to place the Aix-en-Provence conference in the context of an abbreviated history of conferences illuminating Islamic feminism, focusing on a few ground-breaking meetings in which I have participated over the past two decades that mark some of the milestones in the trajectory of Islamic feminism.

7It was at the 1990 Roundtable on Identity Politics and Women that Iranian-American sociologist Valentine Moghadam organized at the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics (WIDER) in Helsinki that there were the first inklings that the phenomenon that would be soon identified as Islamic feminism was in the making, that is to say, that moves to articulate principles of gender equality and social justice in Qur’anic language were underway. We as a group of secular feminist scholars and human rights activists of different religions and national backgrounds had assembled to discuss the still relatively new and disturbing appearance of religious fundamentalisms and their dire effects on women. Nayereh Tohidi, an Iranian scholar, and I coming directly from Egypt where I was doing research, shared the news that from inside the Islamic Republic of Iran and from within the context of the Islamic political and cultural resurgence in Egypt, efforts were underway to develop an Islamic liberation theology counteracting the repressive treatment of women. This conference occurred one year before African-American Amina Wadud published her ground-breaking book Qur’an and Woman and two years before Shahla Sherkat founded what immediately became the highly influential journal Zanan in Iran. These publishing events are considered foundational moments in Islamic feminism. We left Helsinki pondering new, brighter directions women might be heading toward in the maelstrom of religious fundamentalisms’ dark shadows.

8To combat the ill effects of spreading Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism, Women Living under Muslim Laws (WMUML) was created by secular feminists from diverse locations in the early 1980s who answered back to the introduction of a regressive family law in Algeria. WLUML, which included Muslim women and those of other religious affiliations, maintained a central concern with reforming family laws and other laws inimical to women, and became the first significant transnational network of its kind. WMUML held a conference in Bangladesh in 1992 where we strategized the project of collecting family laws based in fiqh, along with civil and customary laws, in some twenty Muslim majority countries. We wished to demonstrate the diversity of family laws in Muslim societies and thus the multiple readings of Islamic jurisprudence and to underline that so-called “shar ‘iah laws” as fiqh-backed law are man-made and not divine and thus immutable as commonly claimed. I remember well the energy and insights that streamed into our collective work over the years transcending national and religious boundaries. The results of a decade of painstaking collection resulted in the manual Knowing our Rights: Women, Family, Laws, and Customs in the Muslim World published in 2003 and republished in 2006. As widely known, WLUML became the largest network of Muslim women, together with non-Muslims and is still going strong today.

  • 3 An edited volume by Mahnaz Afkhami came out of this conference, Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Ri (...)
  • 4 See Abdullahi An-Na‘im, “The Dichotomy between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies (...)

9The Conference on Religion, Culture, and Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World that met in Washington in 1994 organized by Iranian activist Mahnaz Afkhami, director of Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) constituted another milestone3. It was convened to discuss women’s issues framed by the slogan “human rights are women’s rights” in preparation for the UN World Conference on Women to be held the following year in Beijing. This conference, unlike the previous two mentioned, was open to the wider public which gathered in huge numbers. For the first time in my esperience secular Muslim women and religiously identified Muslim women (I prefer this to the term “religious women” as it presumes that secular women are not religious which many secular women resent) as well as non-Muslim women assembled in the same public venue. My reaction to this was that simply coming together in the same room and having formal and informal contact was an effective way to build understanding and to resist attempts by conservatives to split the world of women, the old “divide and rule” technique. The conference was also an answer to those who wished to perpetuate the notion of an East/West split and use the western label to discredit progressive moves. Sudanese professor of law and human rights expert Abdullahi An-Naim’s powerful presentation on human rights as Islamic was most timely4. The phenomenon that would be called “Islamic feminism” was then still quietly in the making.

10By the second half of the 1990s word was getting out about the new Islamic feminism through the publications of scholars, writers, and journalists which quickly circulated through the Internet. In 2005 the first International Conference on Islamic Feminism convened in Barcelona by the Junta Islamica of Catalonia, with Abdennur Prado the lead organizer, put Islamic feminism on the wider map. Not only was this the first international conference focusing on Islamic feminism but it was organized by religiously identified feminist Muslims, mainly Spanish converts, who brought together Muslim secular and Islamic feminists and women of other religions, along with some men, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Prado explained that the organizers wanted Islamic feminism “to be visualized as a whole.” The Barcelona conference was a powerful demonstration of the collapse of the East/West dichotomy that the 1994 Washington conference had shown to be dissolving. Islamic feminism as a theory including the imperative of implementation was illustrated by the combination of scholars and activists on the panels and in the audience. The lively engagement of the audience signaled the wider outreach that conferences can achieve.

  • 5 My paper for the second Barcelona conference was titled “Islamic Feminism: the Latest Chapter.” Sel (...)
  • 6 My presentation to the third Barcelona conference was on the “Future of Islamic Feminism.”
  • 7 For an assessment of the first two Barcelona conferences and the conference organized by Islam et L (...)
  • 8 Papers from this conference were published by Islam et Laïcite, Existe-t-il un feminism musulman? ( (...)

11Although I followed events closely I did not attend the first Barcelona conference but participated in the next two in 2006 and 2008. (A fourth conference is scheduled for October 2010 in Madrid.) The focus of the second conference was on the shar‘iah and the reform of family laws steeped in patriarchal readings of Islam5. The third conference focused on Muslim women and globalization. It examined “the double oppression” of women ensuing from economic neglect or exploitation and from religious fundamentalism. The conference also examined relationships between Islamic feminism and other feminisms, affirming that broader feminist alliances are necessary to reach goals. It also affirmed the importance of maintaining specificity within diversity6. The openness set by the Barcelona conferences should not be underestimated especially in light of the more current trends toward exclusivity being manifested from within the circles of Islamic feminism7. In 2006, the same year the first Barcelona conference convened, the French association, Islam et Laicite with UNESCO sponsored an international colloquium asking, What is Islamic Feminism8? Many remarked that this conference was significant for providing a public space, seldom available in France for Muslims to speak out for themselves on questions relating to women, gender, and Islam. One of the intended goals was to enlighten the wider public fed on negative stories of Islam and Muslims, especially relating to women.

  • 9 Musawa distributed a book of position papers by experts edited by Zainah Anwar, Wanted: Equality an (...)

12In 2009 the Malaysian Sisters in Islam in Kuala Lumpur hosted the Global Conference for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family gathering a massive number of scholars and activists from around the world9. The purpose of this conference was to launch the Musawah (equality) movement which focuses on the reform of fiqh-backed family laws. It pointed to the progress made in Morocco with the 2005 revision of the Mudawwana or Family Law declaring husband and wife equal heads of family which resulted from the confluence of secular and Islamic feminism. Musawah aims to consolidate a global movement to reform family laws based upon Islamic principles along with principles of equality and justice enshrined in national constitutions and in international instruments. Despite this holistic approach, and although the movement includes secular feminists, who have always worked with feminists of other religions (and indeed, there are also non-Muslims among the ranks of the Islamic feminists) the emergent Musawah movement shows signs of exclusivity. Moreover, the Musawah leadership, as manifest in their 2009 statements, shrink from confronting the question of “the family” as distinct from “the Muslim family” when talking about legal reform. Yet in Muslim majority societies there are many religiously mixed families, that is families in which only one spouse is Muslim. New laws need to take this into account. There are a number of crucial issues including headship of family or the equality of spouses irrespective of religion, custody, and inheritance, to name a few. Non-Muslims need to be integral parts of theorizing, strategizing the equality movement, and involvement in application. Exclusivity can derail equality work.

  • 10 See “Reformist Women Thinkers in the Islamic World,” Occasional Paper Series, Middle East Program ( (...)
  • 11 This will be held on June 15. The proceedings will also be published in the Occasional Paper Series(...)

13In May 2009 I helped organize the Conference on Reformist Women Thinkers in the Islamic World held under the direction of Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The conference brought together female scholars of different religious affiliations as public intellectuals, and activists, including secular and Islamic feminists, and those who prefer to eschew labels to scrutinize directions in gender reform as part of broader reforms. The point was stressed that as the Islamic world is home to both Muslims and non-Muslims legal and social changes must consider the rights and needs of all members of society. The note of inclusivity was important to deliberations of a just future for all in the real world/s in which we live10. A sequel to this conference is another scheduled for June 2010 which I also helped organize on the theme of Islamic Feminism and Beyond—The New Frontier: Inclusivity and Equality in Family and Society. It will assess the recent past and consider the needs of our shared future and how to achieve the practice of ideals11.

14After this brief excursion I now return to the conference at the Institute de Recherches et d’Etudes sur le Monde Arabe et Musulmane and its theme Islamic Feminisms: Boundaries and Politics. Is Islamic feminism fragmenting, or more seriously, is it fracturing? Are boundaries getting in the way and who is constructing and maintaining them? What about the politics?

15The good news is that Islamic feminist discourse - Islamic liberation theology - is sound, gaining wide traction, and indeed, even political conservatives must take it into account and are even mobilizing an egalitarian version of Islam, if only instrumentally. Some boundaries are being breached among women while other boundaries are being erected. Tensions are surfacing in some quarters between secular and Islamic feminist positions, although more broadly secular and Islamic feminists are working in tandem. It can be seen that some Muslim women from among the ranks of the progressives have begun to act as gate-keepers in this new expanding social movement phase. This does not bode well as Islamic feminism moves forward as a social movement. Is it a manifestation that the communalism which is rampant around the globe has now penetrated progressive circles? Or is it a reflection of a new intra-women politics in a high stakes competition for resources, power, and acclaim? These may seem hard questions but they need to be asked. Conferences are windows which bring them to the fore. Perhaps they can be venues for a hard look.

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Notes

1 On global feminist networking in general see Valentine Moghadam, Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

2 I expressed this view, which I continue to maintain, in 2007. See Margot Badran, “Islamischer Feminismus - Drei öffentliche Foren in Europa,” [English original, Islamic Feminism: Three Forums in Europe] www.StimmenMuslimische.de July 13, 2007 (date of initial posting on this web journal).

3 An edited volume by Mahnaz Afkhami came out of this conference, Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995).

4 See Abdullahi An-Na‘im, “The Dichotomy between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” in Faith and Freedom, pp. 51-60 and also Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990).

5 My paper for the second Barcelona conference was titled “Islamic Feminism: the Latest Chapter.” Selected papers from the first and second Barcelona conferences along with some others were published in the volume, Abdennur Prado, ed., La emergencia del feminismo islámico (Barcelona: 2008), p. 105-34. My paper in this volume, "El feminismo islámico en el nuevo Mediterráneo" was originally published as "Il femminismo islamico e la nuova cultura mediterranea,” Danilo Zolo, ed. L'alternativa mediterranea. Un dialogo fra le due sponde (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2007).

6 My presentation to the third Barcelona conference was on the “Future of Islamic Feminism.”

7 For an assessment of the first two Barcelona conferences and the conference organized by Islam et Laïcite and UNESCO see Badran, “Islamischer Feminismus - Drei öffentliche Foren in Europa.”

8 Papers from this conference were published by Islam et Laïcite, Existe-t-il un feminism musulman? (Paris l’Harmattan, 2007); my article is titled “Le Féminism islamique en movement,” p. 49-70.” See also Badran, “Islamischer Feminismus - Drei öffentliche Foren in Europa.”

9 Musawa distributed a book of position papers by experts edited by Zainah Anwar, Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family (Kuala Lumpur: Sisters in Islam, 2009). For my reflections on this conference and the Musawa project see “A Global Movement in Pursuit of Equality,” ResetDOC (also in Arabic and Italian) April 2009.

10 See “Reformist Women Thinkers in the Islamic World,” Occasional Paper Series, Middle East Program (Washington: The Woodrow Wilson Center, 2009). My own paper is titled: “Reformist Women as Feminists in Pursuit of Equality in the Islamic World,” p.5-7.

11 This will be held on June 15. The proceedings will also be published in the Occasional Paper Series of the Middle East Program.

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Margot Badran, « An historical Overview of Conferences on Islamic Feminism : Circulations and New Challenges  », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 128 | décembre 2010, mis en ligne le 05 janvier 2012, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://remmm.revues.org/6824

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