Gender equality in Islam – notes

Topic: Keynote speech, British Islam Conference 2018

Speaker: Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Gender equality is alien to Islamic legal tradition; fiqh. It has never existing in fiqh and we must acknowledge this crisis.

Neither has gender equality existed in the legal traditions of other societies until the 19th century. So this is not something unique to Islam.

Women became cultural symbols within the Muslim world when it encountered and felt humiliated by Western colonialism during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the early 20th century Islam retreated from politics as the Muslim world moved towards secularisation. Family law, stemming from a patriarchal culture, however remained in-place.

Calls for a return to fiqh became common in the 60’s/70’s leading to the emergence of political Islam in the 80’s with its promises of social justice.

This led to a clash between this political Islam and the advocacy of human rights/feminism. Political Islam brought back fiqh ending the move towards secularisation that started at the beginning of the 20th century. It placed a lot of focus on women but ultimately failed to deliver on the promise of justice.

An unintended consequence of political Islam was the rise of Islamic feminism with a focus on the construction of knowledge from sacred text. Islamic feminism broke the link between patriarchy and Islam creating a new consciousness.

9/11 has been a turning point with Muslims viewing the reaction from the West as a new form of colonialism. Feminism also lost its moral ground failing to deliver on its promise of justice. This has led to a new realism.

Today we have two opposing views:

1) Those advocating a legalistic, absolutist and patriarchal understanding of Islam. Premised on the notion of unity.

2) Those advocating a pluralistic, tolerant and feminist understanding of Islam. Premised on the notion of equal rights.

Women are key participants of the debate to understand the sacred texts as they were in the early days of Islam. When fiqh emerged their voices were silenced.

Can feminist discourse which is based on Islamic sacred texts within the closed legal system of fiqh and little support from the Ulema power base bring about a transformation within Islam of gender equality?

Yes it can for the following reasons.

1) The concept of justice is intrinsic to Islam. Feminism is affirming the full humanity of a woman which is a call to justice and confirmed in the Quran

2) Fiqh is a reaction to the cultural, political and social context. The time is right for a new formation of fiqh

3) There are emerging feminist voices challenging our current way of thinking to include women’s voices in the production of religious knowledge

The relationship between patriarchy and despotism needs unmasking. The ethical egalitarian focus of sacred text is being reclaimed.

The production of religious knowledge is being democratised and this will change the deeply embedded assumptions that exist today.

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