Read Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam Online

Authors: Amina Wadud

Tags: #Religion, #Islam, #General, #Social Science, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Women's Studies, #Sexuality & Gender Studies, #Islamic Studies

Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam (4 page)

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
4.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

2 inside the gender jihad

Muslim world seem to be continually spiraling away from the ideals that have inspired me and I must look thoroughly at the work needed toward arriving at renewed hope. This book negotiates between the center and the margins shared with Muslim women working, hoping, and attempting to have meaningful lives despite experiences of utter dismay and humiliation in the name of Islam. I have experienced first hand the despair and anguish, joy and exhilarations of being a Muslim woman. This work has been achieved in my own U.S. context, in the Middle East, both Northern and Southern Africa, East and Western Europe, but especially in Southeast Asia. This is a look at issues of gender justice in Islam as written from an insider perspective.

I entered Islam with a heart and mind trusting that divine justice could be achieved on the planet and throughout the universe. Not two years after I entered Islam I moved to Libya, a North African Arab country, for two years. There I found myself in the middle of a struggle for more gender- egalitarian concepts of Islamic identity and practice. I began to seek out recent ideas and behaviors that address women’s marginalization in the historical development of the Islamic intellectual legacy and to Islamically empower women’s consciousness about the reality of our full human dignity as a divine right. My initial theoretical focus was soon entwined with Muslim women’s networks in the context of existing Muslim organi- zations, whether male and female, or whether exclusively female. Later I worked with government and non-government organizations, in academic circles, with non-Muslim national and international human rights and interfaith institutions, as well as with other women’s groups. Coincidentally,

I entered Islam during the important second-wave feminist movement in the West.
Muslim women’s engagement with issues of concern to women’s well-being in Muslim societies continues to increase. Now there is a greater

percentage of participants than at any other time in human history, even though still a minority against the male hegemony and privilege in Islamic reform discourse, a new critique that runs throughout this book as well as being addressed directly in chapter 7. The increased participation of women in these activities indicates a movement toward a critical mass building a variegated movement of gender empowerment, mainstreaming, and reform, including consciousness-raising, increased levels of education, promotion and protection of the rights of girls and women, movements to protect and eradicate violence against women, affirmations of women’s bodily integrity, policy reforms, political empowerment and representation, religious authority, and personal spiritual wholeness.


I present some ideas about Islam and about social justice in Islamic thought and praxis with a few references to Muslim women’s experiences, including my own. Primarily I reference subtle and not-so-subtle constructs of gender across a broad spectrum of epistemological possibilities and through formulations of fundamental ideas about the ontology of being in Islam. I look at recent historical perspectives and strategies in the struggle for gender equality, particularly during the latter part of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century.

Some stories have a single moment of origin. Subsequent moments build upon that origin or offer supplementary stories that continue to shape the original and to help formulate ways perhaps even more significant than that original moment. For me, the origin of three decades of work on Islam, justice, and gender was the awesome light of belief that I inherited from my father, a man of faith and a Methodist minister who was born and died poor, black, and oppressed in the context of racist America. Growing under the umbrella of his love, guidance, and faith, I was never taught and there- fore did not recognize any contradiction between the realities of subjective historical experience and transcendence of faith. The inner and the outer coexist and mutually affect each other. I was raised not only to link concep- tions of the divine with justice, but also to link notions of justice with the divine. The development of my moral awareness started during the height of the American civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, being the daughter of a minister who followed closely and participated personally in that struggle for justice with its strong articulation through a religious leader left its influence on me. Now, as a Muslim, wherever injustice, discrimination, and oppression occur, I am immediately conscious of explicit and repeated articulations in the Qur’an

that “Allah does not oppress (
do zulm
is real in historically

subjective terms, but its practices cannot claim divine inspiration or values. This reasoning causes me to consider myself a believing Muslim who works for justice
on the basis of my faith
. I consider myself a pro-faith, pro- feminist Muslim woman.

Standing up for justice inspired by belief in the Ultimate, or in the divine,
in Arabic, may seem unnecessarily overstated. Yet this is an impera- tive at the outset to emphasize my disagreement with those who resist my positions on Islam and gender justice by hurling charges of blasphemy or heresy. Sometimes such charges push people out of the pro-faith perspective and oblige them to take up secular Western articulations of human rights or social justice. As a Muslim woman struggling for gender justice in Islam, I

4 inside the gender jihad

have not only been accused of working from outside Islam doing whatever I want, but also rejected as anti-Islamic. I will show later that efforts to push progressive Muslim women and men outside of predetermined parameters of Islam actually result from matters of definition or particular interpre- tation. The implication is that for any who wish to be accepted as truly Muslim, their struggles cannot go beyond established patriarchy or male authorities, otherwise they face the potential consequence of being labeled outsiders to Islam. Many sincere women and men accept the choice to stay in Islam as authoritatively defined by Muslim neo-conservative specialists

or laypersons, sometimes erroneously called

“fundamentalist,” so they

simply choose silence. This is precisely why female voices and female- inclusive definitions of key terminology are central to the development of this work. This book offers a look at some of that terminology and at the implications behind the pragmatic inclusion of alternative definitions in the developments of all aspects of Islamic reform.

Islam is not a monolith. It has a plethora of meanings and experiences. For that reason I begin with constructions of the term Islam, not only as I have experienced them as a woman and a Muslim, but also because those who struggle for gender justice are continually confronted with contested meanings. Indeed, just as Americans were presented with a horrible affront to their sense of integrity and security by the events of September 11, 2001, when a dozen or so Muslim men laid claim to “Islam” as justification for their vehemence and violence, so too are babies born and women and men surrender in peace and harmony to a claim of “Islam.” Which is the true picture, the face of evil and destruction or the face of love and life? How does any one author, believer, or audience negotiate between complex and contradictory meanings of Islam?

Recently, I have acknowledged intellectually that full honesty in strug- gling with the girth of possible meanings and uses of the term Islam is crucial to the development of my personal identity as a Muslim. For while I do not identify with suicide bombers or acts of violence, I cannot ignore that they occur within the ranks of that vast community of Islam. Despite their presence amongst us, I still care deeply to be Muslim. Multiple, contested, and coexisting meanings of Islam are integral to the struggles for justice in Islamic reform today, which is one of the main points that this book will demonstrate.

Early after my transition into Islam, I held an ideal of perfect Islam as both a utopian aspiration and a potential reality. This aspiration shielded me from the discordance between the utopian ideal and the realities of


experience across the Muslim world and sometimes developed historically within the Islamic intellectual legacy. I reduced these to errors of interpre- tation or incompetent practices influenced by the diversity of cultures that make up the Muslim world. It is just as easy for liberal Muslims to dismiss Muslim terrorists by saying they are not “true” to Islam. When I engaged in such oversimplification and reductionist claims, I inadvertently implied I actually had the power to express and possess the “true” Islam. The arrogance of this claim allowed me to remove myself from the responsibility of standing against certain evils performed in the name of Islam. A painful

experience at the Second International Muslim Leaders
Consultation on

resulted in an important transformation in this reductionist tendency. Some Muslims in the audience vehemently disagreed with the ideas and beliefs I presented in an effort to help fulfill the quest for justice for those most vulnerable to the spread of the pandemic: women and children. Those who opposed my analysis boisterously hurled their opposition directly in my face, claimed certain of my comments were blasphemous, according to their interpretations of Islam, and eventually

named me a “devil in
” (head covering).
At the time I was utterly

stunned in the presence of such insolence from other Muslims. Since that experience, however, I have moved toward a new, albeit uncomfortable, reflection: neither their “Islam” nor my “Islam” has ultimate privilege. We are all part of a complex whole, in constant motion and manifestation throughout the history of multifaceted but totally human constructions of “Islam.” I will discuss at length some of these constructions in the next chapter and give justification within an Islamic framework for

Muslims to struggle toward an egalitarian for the future.

humanistic, pluralistic Islam

Curiously enough, relinquishing the idea that there exists a perfect thing called Islam devoid of the consequences of human interactions allowed me to relinquish my own self-agonizing expectation that I could one day become a perfect Muslim. This book is also born out of recent transforma- tions in my life as a Muslim, thinker, activist, and woman, allowing me to accept my flaws without sacrificing my dreams and aspirations. Indeed upon the pages that follow is a lifelong battle with my own identity as a Muslim seeking to reflect the beauty of Allah’s vast dominion in all its wonder and glory while admitting to the many ways that I and other Muslims have failed to establish a believing community that mirrors that beauty without constant trials of insufficiency and trails of frailty. Thus, Islam is no longer the goal, but a process. One must continuously engage in

6 inside the gender jihad

this process, as I have done for more than three decades, including wrestling with the relationship between meanings and experiences.

The essays that follow will be expressed in the variety of ways to reflect my engagement in that process. Some essays are more idealistic than others; some are more complex, abstract, and analytical than others; and some essays easily express their commonality with the stories and struggles of

other writers, thinkers, and




in Islam,

whether living or dead. Others essays stand starkly in the margins of thought and form, as a consequence of recent discourse, developments, discoveries, and disappointments. By negotiating between these structural inconsistencies as elements of my whole experience within the struggle for gender justice, I hope to show my engagement in the process to find a full voice and to contribute to the meanings of being Muslim and woman. That whole experience and full voice both grow from my meager transforma- tions and include understanding multiple meanings of the term “Islam.” The first chapter explicitly examines these multiple meanings, and provides female-inclusive meanings of foundational and key terms that are used throughout this book.

In particular my contribution remains faithful to the imperative that Muslim women appropriate Islamic primary sources, especially the Qur’an. It is indispensable to women’s empowerment that they apply their experi- ences to interpretations of the sources when they participate in the

development and reform of Muslim politics – especially in the context of ongoing deliberations of
(Islamic law).
More female-inclusive interpretations raise the legitimacy of women’s claims to authority within

the intellectual tradition and bear upon the practical implementation of that tradition. Although my research focus has been particularly on Qur’anic reinterpretation, simple analogies can and on occasion will be made between this reinterpretive methodology and similar applications, especially to
References must be made to the scarcity of existing research reinterpreting
(plural of
, oral report), from the Prophet, or about s
which I encourage others to direct more attention to, to form gender-inclusive perspectives

I used to feel that my goal in this struggle was to experience well-being in both the public and private domains of human existence; through inter- action with Islamic historical developments, intellectual and practical, and in the context of change and challenge. I have come to ascertain that well-being is a spiritual consequence of the process and participation. It is

not the goal. Indeed, when it becomes the goal, it is often lost.
The Qur’an


does not promise us a life of ease, while it does give indications of how to live a life of struggle and surrender in order to achieve peace and beauty here on earth as a movement toward the Ultimate.

BOOK: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam
4.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell
Loopy by Dan Binchy
THE CLEARING by Boland, Shalini
The Lonely Ones by Kelsey Sutton
Below Suspicion by John Dickson Carr
Must Love Dukes by Elizabeth Michels