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Muslim feminists have their work cut out for them



Nobody likes Muslim feminism. I know this because I used to have a t-shirt that read 'this is what a radical Muslim feminist looks like' and I got my fair share of raised eyebrows and challenging questions.

t-shirt This is what a Muslim feminist looks likeThe most obvious group that thinks Muslim feminism is oxymoronic are those who we've started to call the 'alt-right'. They subscribe to Huntington's 'clash of civilisations' and hate Islam with the proverbial fervour of Shakespeare's thousand suns.

This group salivates over images of burqa-clad Muslim women scuttling in fear from their bearded oppressors. It is not that they want to free Muslim women so much as it is they don't want the Brown Man ruling. This is why the Imperialist Lord Cromer spoke of liberating Egyptian women from Islam, while opposing British women's suffrage back home.

Scratch an alt-right Islamophobe and often a misogynist emerges. They hate feminism almost as much as they hate Islam. This is because theirs is a fear-based worldview in which the White Man's dominance is under constant threat. Feminism (along with Black Lives Matter, multiculturalism, LGBT-rights activism and a host of other lefty concerns) tells them they have had it too good for too long and it's time to spread the power and resources around a bit.

Of course, many alt-right subscribers have very little real power and authority, the poor schlubs are cannon-fodder to sustain the lifestyles of the 1 per cent, surviving off the pipe-dream that they could possibly, one day, join their ranks.

Then, there are the secular lefties, many of whom wrinkle their noses in distaste at the idea of Muslim-flavoured feminism. To be fair, they don't seem to like Christian or other religious feminists much either. In their eyes, all religions are inherently patriarchal, oppressive to women, and should be jettisoned in order to pursue emancipation and equality. There is little recognition that it is possible for believers to pursue a feminist agenda through respectful engagement with religious resources.

They infantilise Muslim women by denying their religious beliefs could be helpful, and accuse them of being brainwashed by the patriarchy. Prominent secularist and ex-Muslim, Maryam Namazie, for example, has called for forced un-veiling of Muslim women, arguing: 'It is about protecting human beings sometimes even from themselves.'

Of course, there are plenty of Muslims opposed to Muslim feminism too. Sometimes they misunderstand the concept, believing it is a Western plot to destroy Islam through corruption of family life; a criticism not entirely without merit if you look at how feminism has been 'sold' to them.


"The great social project of both Islam and feminism has been putting an end to injustice. Feminism tackles a very specific form of injustice based on sex, whereas Islam has a broader mission to tackle all forms of injustice."


When George W. Bush wanted an excuse to invade Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist bombings, he (or more likely his strategists) had Mrs Bush guest deliver the presidential radio address in which she characterised the War on Terror as necessary to save women.

But sometimes it's the terminology and the caricatures that get in the way. If you think being a Muslim requires advocating domestic violence, hindering girls' education, and turning a blind-eye to honour killings, and if you think being a feminist requires burning bras, hating men, and banning religions, then yes I can see how you might find it difficult to conceive of a Muslim feminist. But a great many women, and men, have deeper and more nuanced definitions of both Islam and feminism.

For me, the great social project of both Islam and feminism has been putting an end to injustice. Feminism tackles a very specific form of injustice based on sex, whereas Islam has a broader mission to tackle all forms of injustice: gender, racial, religious, class and more.

But Satan's best trick is to hide among the outwardly religious. He finds partisans to inflict great evil by using religious oppression against the vulnerable. When the fair-minded then turn away from religion, in a sense who can blame them? What does that mean for us religious feminists and social activists? Simply that we have our work cut out for us.


Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, Islam, feminism



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Existing comments

I think outsiders have a problem understanding what you mean by 'Muslim feminism'. Would Irshad Manji, author of 'The Trouble with Islam Today', who is a professing Muslim, a lesbian and a very forthright critic of the oppression of women in traditional Muslim societies - where the oppressors are male, but brown or black in the main - be included? Or would it be someone like Yasmin Abdul Magied, who I believe once sought advice on Islam from a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir? Or would you include the two ladies from that organisation who made that bizarre clip about wife beating? I have known quite a few Muslim women from places like Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. They are, in the main, incredibly feisty, tertiary educated and no man's doormat. Some wear a headscarf, some don't. The latter maintain all Islam requires is modesty. Some have been criticised for this by men, mostly non-white men. For saying this, am I a 'racist', 'misogynist' or 'Islamophobe' - and thus dismissed from commenting further? I think commentators such as you, in attempting to defend Islam, often shoot themselves, and the religion, in the foot by neither realising, nor admitting that the greatest problem with contemporary Islam arises from the malign influence of the Saudi form of Wahhabi-Salafi Islam which is actually everything you accuse white, male non-Muslims of being.

Edward Fido | 29 May 2017  

Feminism? There is a more universally applicable word. I like it because itt includes everybody : human'hju?m?n/ adjective 1.relating to or characteristic of humankind."the human body" synonyms: anthropoid "the survival of the human race" of or characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses. "they are only human and therefore mistakes do occur" synonyms: mortal, flesh and blood; More showing the better qualities of humankind, such as kindness. "the human side of politics is getting stronger" synonyms: compassionate, humane, kind, kindly, kind-hearted, considerate, understanding, sympathetic, tolerant; More

AO | 29 May 2017  

noun 1.a human being. synonyms: person, human being, personage, mortal, member of the human race; More

AO | 29 May 2017  

“Satan’s best trick is to hide among the outwardly religious“.?? I suggest that Satan’s has two best tricks. One is to delude ‘the outwardly religious’ into thinking that the interpretation of religion made by ancient relatively ignorant, relatively under-developed minds, and handed on as ’tradition’, represents a true picture of what religion is meant to be. The second is to delude those same ‘outwardly religious’ that what they bonded to in their infancy and never really critically examined, in the one and only pathway up God’s Mountain. A consequence of being blinded by these delusions is that instead of seeing it as a limited man-made interpretation, it is allowed to become a false god, deifying one‘s religion, and according it the respect and devotion that is due to God alone, and denigrating all other interpretations

Robert Liddy | 29 May 2017  

Thanks, AO, for using " ? " to represent the schwa in /`hjum?n/ = 'human'. I like it. Kevin G. Smith.

Kevin G. Smith | 29 May 2017  

Thank you for such a forthright article. Go for it!!

Beth | 29 May 2017  

Rachel, you have written with a comprehensive understanding of Islam and its critics. I must say I was enjoying it until the last paragraph when you mentioned satan. You lost me then. If you believe in satan, which you claim to be a 'he' then I cannot agree with you. Surely we have sent satan, whether he or she, to the trash bin long ago. I would have thought the war between god and satan was a way of thinking we had moved on from and in a sense this belief system only encourages other wars. Thank you

Tom K | 29 May 2017  

There is this theory, at least among some Anglicans, that Satan can be either a person or a metaphor for a depth of Evil in the world which cannot be explained away. In either interpretation I think Rachel's last paragraph makes eminent sense.

Edward Fido | 31 May 2017  

You might find Irshad Manji a good read. She advocates ijtihad.

Wayne McLaughlin | 21 June 2017  

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