Blazing Trails

Twin visions of Islamic Feminism Split Muslim Community

As in the West, “Feminism” in Islam has sparked controversy. But its proponents are finding each other and pushing back online.

09.21.14 9:45 AM ET

When Washington D.C.-based writer and feminist activist Jennifer Zobair decided to marry a Muslim man and convert to Islam 15 years ago, she was flooded with gifts of Islamic books that glorified traditional gender roles. A graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts – an independent women’s liberal arts college known for its feminist leanings – Zobair easily dismissed the antiquated teachings and sought her own answers regarding the role of women in Islam.

It wasn’t always easy. Many male Muslim imams and female believers resorted to culturally misogynistic interpretations of Islam when explaining the role of women. Statements such as women are children in some societies did not jibe well with Zobair, who identified herself as a feminist long before becoming a Muslim. While she quickly found comfort in the works of groundbreaking Muslim feminist scholars such as Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi, who eloquently demonstrated that Islam and women’s rights are not mutually exclusive, Zobair still struggled to find other Muslim women who openly identified with feminism as she did.  

“I had full access to the feminist interpretation of Islam but had a harder time finding a Muslim feminist community to discuss it with,” she recalled. 

Fast-forward to present day and the explosive popularity of social media, which has finally given Muslim women, and Muslim feminists in particular, a resounding voice in cyberspace. “Social media has been great for Muslim feminism,” Zobair said. “It provides a space for Muslim women to speak, which is often denied particularly in sacred spheres such as (mosques) where the boards are all men and women are kept out of the decision making. Sites like Twitter allow women to speak out.”

And speak out they have. Twitter hashtags such as #EmpoweredMuslimWomen and #ifKhadijacandoit, referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, a respected businesswoman and trusted advisor to the prophet in Islam’s early days, have gone viral as Muslim women have taken to social media to help shape their own discourse. Tumblr sites, such as Side Entrance, which highlights the inconsistent standards of women’s prayer spaces at mosques around the world and websites, such as Muslimah Montage, which offers a space for Muslim women to share their own personal narratives, have provided a window into how Muslim women truly feel about their place in society.

Call it Islamic feminism 2.0 – a global cyber movement where Muslim women and their male and non-Muslim feminist allies seek to drown out the critical rhetoric of both fundamentalist mouthpieces that seek to silence their Muslim sisters as well as Islamophobes that seek to reduce Muslim women to caricatures of oppression. But Islamic feminism, like its Western counterpart, is not without controversy.

Feminism as a label is often divisive, even within Western constructs. Recent social media campaigns, such as the Facebook and Tumblr movement “Women Against Feminism,” demonstrate the visceral reaction many women have towards the label of feminism, which they fear portrays women as victims and demonizes men. For Muslim women, the label can be even more problematic.

“I think a lot of Muslim women as well as men have a problem with the term feminism because of what it means in the Western world,” said Hind Makki, an activist blogger and mosque consultant, who created the Tumblr site Side Entrances. “In Western feminist thought, religion is generally a tool of patriarchy. But for many Muslim women, religion is seen as a source of liberation rather than a source of oppression. This (difference in thought) can create a lot of tension for Muslim women.”

For men, as well. The hashtag #ifKhadijacandoit was inundated by comments such as “Don't push your invalid beliefs and promote your own filth under the name (of) one of the most honourable woman in Islam” and “Good Muslim women don’t complain on Twitter. She complain (sic) to Allah.” While such posts were quickly derided by other hashtivists, there was also support from both men and women, demonstrating how polarizing the concept of Islamic feminism is within the Muslim community. 

That’s because Islamic feminism is far from monolithic. For some Muslim women, an Instagram feed depicting smiling fashionistas in floor-length skirts and carefully styled headscarves, highlights their feminist liberation from conformity to Western ideals of beauty. For others, a nude picture on a Facebook page showing an Egyptian woman menstruating on top of the black flag adopted by the Islamic jihadist group ISIS clearly demonstrates their deep-seated anger against oppression prevalent within many Islamic communities today. Both strive to be seen as the face of modern-day Islamic feminism, often creating a backlash amongst Muslims on both sides of the coin, who seek to distance themselves from such a polarizing label.

“I don’t consider myself to be a feminist. I am simply a Muslim woman that believes in and works for women’s liberation,” said Aisha al-Adawiya, founder and chair of Women in Islam Inc. She added that her organization seeks to promote female Muslim leadership and human rights reform in line with scholarly Islam – activism that could be considered in line with the feminist ideology. But she prefers to steer clear of labels, which can create chasms between people that otherwise share the same goals and beliefs.

Makki, however, proudly embraces the term. “I don’t shy away from using the term feminism because as a woman of color and a woman of faith, I want the agency to define what that means for myself,” she said. “Through social media, there has been a democratization of voices, with Muslim women now being able to speak for themselves. You don’t have to be uniform in beliefs to be unified. Islamic feminism is what makes sense for the individual.”

But individuality doesn’t always come easy, particularly within the community. With global events thrusting Muslims into the spotlight, Islamic feminists often feel the brunt of criticism from those that fear their advocacy paints Islam in a negative light. Makki’s Side Entrance project, which shows the disparity between women’s spaces and men’s spaces in some mosques, has been criticized for airing the community’s “dirty laundry,” she said. Egyptian feminist activist Alia Al Mahdy, who posed for the nude picture on top of the ISIS flag and identifies as an atheist rather than Muslim, has received death threats online from Muslims for her aggressive activism. She fled to Europe after being assaulted in Egypt but continues to blog and tweet her views, which often criticize Islam and Arab misogyny and call for change within the community.

Asra Nomani, former WSJ journalist and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, understands the backlash. Nomani drew the ire of many Muslims when she began a highly publicized campaign to integrate women into the male-only hall of her mosque in West Virginia. That campaign took on a larger life when she helped organize a woman-led prayer in New York in 2005, with respected scholar Amina Wadud leading the prayer. It created a media frenzy and led to vilification from many Muslims who saw her aggressive tactics as a publicity stunt, rather than a sincere effort to bring about change. Her later articles calling for Muslim women to have the right to freely marry non-Muslim men without backlash earned her even more anger by critics, who saw her take on the issue as a blanket indictment of Muslim men. Nomani said her activism, which took root before the emergence of social media, has often been lonely and isolating. 

“From early on, my mom was a clear voice for me telling me that anybody that tries to bring about reform, won’t win any popularity contests,” she said. “Only now, after all these years as I put on my suit of armor for gender jihad, I’m realizing my own humanity and am seeking kinship.”

The growth of Islamic feminism in cyberspace has helped. While Nomani said she is still relatively new to the use of social media in spreading her Islamic feminist message, she is encouraged by both the growing number of Muslim women who share their personal narratives online as well as the men and women who defend their rights to speak freely and advocate for their beliefs. 

“I feel sorry for those that are still threatened by these voices… but it means a lot when someone else steps forward and has my back. People like me are no longer alone because there is this e-Ummah that has been created,” she said. “Social media has really empowered Muslim women and given us a chance to create our own shura council online. To me, that is really exciting.”