Recently, there was an event in which two male panelists discussed the question: Do Muslim women need feminism?
Muslim women all over social media were naturally outraged. How dare men say what women need or don’t need? Of course Muslim women need feminism! Debating this is like debating whether “fish need water!” This is just another misogynist attempt to maintain control over women.￼
I am by no means endorsing the event but I would like to play devil’s advocate for a minute. The question “does Islam need feminism” on its own reveals an important assumption about Islam. Most Muslims believe that Islam is not simply a religion, culture, or tradition. Rather, it is an all-encompassing, totalizing, meaningful way of life. It is perfect and timeless and will always satiate and fulfill human beings, regardless of context. If we say that Islam needs X (read: feminism), then we are implying that Islam is deficient, lacking, and incomplete. We are saying Islam is unable to better the lives of women on its own unless we ascribe to it a project and ideology that originated totally outside the realm of Islam.
This is understandably disconcerting and problematic for many Muslims, both men and women.
Feminism has been implicated and entangled in White colonial and imperialist history. A derivative of the enlightenment project, Western feminism has devastated and destroyed the lives of Muslim women through military might and violence. It has radically disturbed the indigenous Islamic system of checks and balances that made “the status of women in premodern Islam comprehensible and in fact impressive when compared to any contemporaneous legal and cultural system, especially the European.”
As a response to this, postcolonial and Third World Feminisms, like Islamic feminism arose to do away with the imperialism, ethnocentrism, and racism inherent to these feminist projects.
But this still does not change the fact that feminism originated in and was brought about by an environment radically different from that of Islam. European history and its historical treatment of women is not the same as Islamic history and its historical treatment of women.
Most importantly, postcolonial feminisms do not change the fact that when we say “Islamic feminism” or “feminist Islam,” we are essentially saying that Islam is deficient and imperfect unless we attach a foreign object to it.
Thus, in my opinion, a more productive approach and a necessary means to developing Muslim autonomy and power is to counter-appropriate. What I mean by this is that rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we ought to identify the positive aspects of feminism (being very careful with what values and ideals we select) and then appropriate those elements for ourselves. As S. Sayyid advocates in his thought-provoking new book, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, we should not seek to reject those elements that the “West” considers beneficial, but rather we should “radically reject the association between those elements and Western identity.” In other words, we need to dislocate those ideas and values in feminism that might be beneficial to Muslim women and then claim those things for ourselves. Just as the “West” appropriates from us, we need to counter-appropriate such that we reach a point where the term Islam, by itself, will be inextricably associated with women’s rights, education, and scholarship; such that when someone says “Islam”, one will immediately think, “oh that religion that is all about women’s empowerment.”
Like those two male speakers who – their problematic views aside – might have felt discomfort at the absurd idea of Islam being in need of feminism, I too, feel discomfort. I am uneasy with the popular idea amongst many Muslim women today that Islam cannot fulfill them without feminism.
Muslims would do well to think beyond mere platitudes and reflexive postures that propagate the colonial image of a disempowered and deficient Islam and instead, work towards a decolonial project in which Islam, and nothing else, is the blueprint for justice and equality.