Islam Feminism and Women's Rights

Is misogyny part of Islam? In the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad took pains to address both male Muslims and female Muslims, because both have the same religious duties. The Five Pillars of Islam apply to both of them. The Quran states explicitly that men and women are equal before God. During the seventh century, women could own businesses and fight battles. Muslim feminists throughout the world today are advocating a return to Prophet Muhammad’s vision of an egalitarian religion for an equal society. In Medina, where Prophet Muhammad lived in the last 10 years of his life, men and women prayed together, side by side, as a single religious community. After Prophet Muhammad died, a dispute about who should succeed him as leader of Muslims led to a split around the year 661 between Sunni and Shia. Iran is the main follower of Shia Islam. However, for almost 14 centuries, Iran was not run by the clergy. The present Islamic Republic of Iran adheres to a concept of the Guardianship of the Clerical Jurist, a concept which was invented by Ayatollah Khomenei in 1970 designating a religious cleric as Supreme Leader. The tendency of splitting off occurred frequently in the long history of Islam. In the 1700s, about 1000 years after Prophet Muhammad had lived and died, Muhammad Abdul Wahab founded the Wahhabi sect, also known as the Salafi sect and Shah Walli Ullah’s teachings led to the establishment in the 19th century of a religious institute at Deoband, a town in North India, giving rise to the sect known as Deobandi. The Wahhabi or Salafi sect and the Deobandi sect are very influential in the 21st century to the extent that the general public often mistake these sectarian interpretations as "Islam." A term used by academics to refer to such sects is "Islamism," which refers to ideologies that extract and interpret verses of the Quran and the Hadith of relevance to a political objective. Whereas the Islam of Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century aspired to be egalitarian, misogyny is found in the various types of Islamism. Such misogyny derives from patriarchy justified as Islam even though such misogyny contravenes the Islam of Prophet Muhammad. Feminism asserts women’s right to be social equals in every way, contrary to the dictates of patriarchy. Is there a difference between feminism and Islamic feminism? The difference lies in the content of the arguments made. Islamic feminism draws its content from the Quran and from the history of Islam since the 7th century. In addition, Islamic feminism needs to engage with the current discussions in the world, including discourses on human rights and women’s rights. Although Prophet Muhammad lived almost 1400 years ago, it is possible that he would have approved of the women’s rights recognised in CEDAW.

Dr. Vivienne Wee obtained her PhD in Anthropology from the Australian National University, MSocSc in Sociology from the University of Singapore, and Bachelor’s degrees in Music and Anthropology from the University of Minnesota. She was Associate Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and City University of Hong Kong, after having lectured at the National University of Singapore. She played a key role in initiating the Master’s Programme in Development Studies at City University of Hong Kong and the Master’s Programme in Community Leadership and Social Development at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). She is currently teaching at SUSS in the Non-Profit Management Programme. Her decades-long field research has been conducted with Muslims in the Riau-Lingga Islands of Indonesia. In Singapore, she is a founder member of AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) and is currently Senior Adviser there. From 2013 to 2016, she led the project "Gender Equality is Our Culture!", which was supported by UN Women and implemented among Muslims in Singapore and in Indonesia. She is an active member of the Institute for Women’s Empowerment (IWE), a regional organisation for gender equality. In that capacity, from 2006 to 2019, she has been involved in several multi-country programmes with organisations in China, Indonesia, Pakistan as well as countries in the Middle East and Africa. In addition, she has had extensive discussions with leading teachers of Islam in Indonesia. 

Rozana Isa is currently the Executive Director for Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian NGO working on women’s rights within the framework of Islam. She joined the Malaysian women’s rights movement in 1999 to address violence against women. This exposed her to the challenges women face to have their rights recognized and exercised in the context of Islamisation within a democratic nation with parallel legal systems. While gender, ethnic, and religious diversities are celebrated in society yet negated at different levels of policies and laws. Before taking up SIS’s helm, Rozana worked with several national, regional, and international women’s rights organizations.

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