Muslim feminist perspectives on International Women's Day

Farzana Hassan, The Gazette
Published: Friday, March 07

Each year, International Women's Day is marked by renewed vigour and optimism, though what is often reported is clearly unsavoury with respect to the status of women across the world. Along with such reports, ever-changing definitions of feminism continue to emerge, absorbing ideas from new participants as they bring their unique perspectives to women's rights, equality, independence, job marketability and socioeconomic conditions for women.

Featuring among these are the myriad understandings of Islamic feminism, ranging from defining women's roles as nurturers worthy of respect, to advocating equal rights for them in line with those enjoyed by Western women.

What has sparked the profusion in such feminist narrative is undoubtedly the continued sorry plight of women in third world countries, particularly those living under the grip of religious laws and patriarchal mores.

The struggle continues on several fronts. Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), for example is an international feminist organization comprised of several individuals and women's groups across the world, stating as its primary objective the fight to repeal Sharia laws in Muslim countries.

Other feminist groups lobby for women's rights through the media, articulating a vision of comprehensive civil and legal equality for Muslim women. Notable among these is the Muslim Canadian Congress. The feminist perspectives that emanate from these organizations reject the notion altogether that equality can be achieved through applications of religious laws. They hence argue for a clear separation of religion and state in matters of public policy that impact the legal rights and civil privileges of women.

In stark contrast to these are more traditional notions of equality. Gender equity, for example is a concept that offers an unequal but respectful option for Muslim women. It is predicated on the notion that men and women have unequal responsibilities in society deserving unequal rights. The concept rests on the idea that fewer responsibilities warrant fewer rights - hence no injustice. "Progress" and "feminism" according to this notion are understood only in as much as they achieve gender equity rather than equality.

Also within the conservative Muslim narrative, there is a brand of "progressivism" stressing fair and kind treatment of women as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Votaries of this view believe in gentle persuasion rather than force to mould the opinions of women to acceptable levels of compliance. Consequently, women living within the bounds of these mores continue to be restricted in their professional or academic undertakings, though they enjoy the love and respect of their male protectors.

Farhat Hashmi, Professor of Arabic from the University of Glasgow is one such "progressive". Teaching theology to ardent students enrolled in her year-long diploma program in the GTA, Hashmi preaches total subservience of women to men in the interest of maintaining domestic harmony, suggesting women are thus its ultimate beneficiaries. Clearly her views fall short of any objective standards of feminism, though Hashmi perceives her discourse as feminist. She even advocates polygamy as benefiting women. In the same spirit she urges Muslim women to willingly give consent to their husbands who wish to take second, third or fourth wives.

As one discusses cultural feminism, third-wave feminism and legal feminism constituting the North American feminist narrative, Muslim notions of feminism are also thus defined according to these subjective perceptions of gender equality.

These parallel discourses continually compete with each other for ascendancy with a view to advancing social conditions for women. Some understandings of feminism and progress dress women's rights in religious garb, placing premium on their roles as home-makers, while others free women from the shackles of religious patriarchy entirely, bringing them out of the confines of their homes and stereotypical roles.

Ultimately, the strengths and failures of these approaches lie in how well equality is understood and how universally and consistently it is delivered to the women of the world.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]