Is secular feminism feasible in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim-majority nations of the world? Isobel Coleman, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that it cannot subsist on its own and that it must be allied with a form of Islamic feminism. In her most recent book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, she argues that we are already witnessing the emergence of many progressive social movements within the Islamic world. At “On Faith,” she explained:
One question I get is why is there a need for Islamic feminism – isn’t secular feminism sufficient to push for women’s rights? Well, the most conservative countries of the Middle East do not now have, nor will they in the near future, secular systems. Moreover, secularism – meaning the separation of mosque and state – is not viewed in a positive light by millions of Muslims. If Muslim women in these countries must wait for a secular system to improve their status, they will be waiting a long time indeed. That does not mean that secular feminism and Islamic feminism cannot work together. Indeed, some of the most effective women’s rights campaigns in the Middle East in recent years have seen a blended approach between secular and Islamic feminism.
Her book highlights many of the movements active throughout the Muslim world, including the grassroots reform of the Muslim family code (Moudawana) in Morroco and various other movements in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. She also highlights the preeminent Islamic feminist thinkers involved in these movements. Her book does not overlook the plight of many women in various Muslim communities, but argues, rather, that the most effective approach to tackling these issues is through Islam itself—whether it be a practical or principled choice. The truth of the matter, she argues, is that secular feminism, in and of itself, will take many years to catch on in many of these societies, and it is thus time to begin looking to Islamic tradition to achieve the same goals.
The Economist published a succinct review (sub. req.) of her book this past May:
Cracking down on women’s rights has often been an easy way for governments, secular or not, to placate their more extreme allies or enemies. But many Middle Easterners, both men and women, chafe at attempts to introduce Western-style feminism. An activist in Afghanistan gently berates do-gooding foreigners: “When they come here and start teaching the women about their rights, the women often go home and criticise their husbands and their life just gets worse.”
Ms Coleman makes the case for Islamic feminism. Far from oppressing women, Islam endows them with plenty of rights; the problem lies in implementing those rights. Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani-American, argues that though the Koran treats women with respect, centuries of patriarchy have turned them into chattels. She and other Islamic feminists believe that by fighting for women’s rights within Islam, using the very same texts and doctrines that have proved so oppressive, women may be able to push through reform without being told that they have been indoctrinated by Western infidels.
At the same time, for many Middle Eastern women, Islamic feminism is a tactical choice, a stepping stone to something better. Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel-prize-winning campaigner for human rights, concedes that she would rather that the fight for women’s rights did not involve interpreting musty religious texts. “But is there an alternative battlefield?” she asks. “Desperate wishing aside, I cannot see one.”
Bruised by its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and concentrating on the threat of religious extremism, the West is often blind to the many forms of Islam practised in the Middle East. [This book] argue[s] that rather than trying to impose its own ideas, the West should listen more carefully to voices from the region.