Badran, Margot - Interview

Margot Badran is a historian and a specialist of gender studies focused on the Middle East and Islamic world. She did her MA from Harvard University and DPhil from Oxford University. She acquired a diploma in Arabic and Islam from Al Azhar University, Cairo.

A Senior Fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Badran is currently a visiting fellow at ISIM (Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World) in Leiden, The Netherlands. Her books include Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt, and Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. She has also penned numerous articles on feminism and Islam. Her works have been translated into Arabic, French, Italian, Dutch, German, and many other languages.

Badran has lectured on feminism and Islam in the US, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. She writes for numerous newspapers in the Middle East, for International Herald Tribune, and contributes regularly to Al Ahram Weekly. Here she speaks on issues related to Islamic feminism. Excerpts follow:

YS: How do you perceive the term ‘Islamic feminism’? How is it different from ‘Muslim feminism’?

MB: ‘Islamic feminism’ is a discourse about women and gender grounded in religious texts; the principal being the Quran and everyday behaviour and practices related to this discourse. I do not use the term ‘Muslim feminism’ nor it is in a wide circulation. A Muslim may be a feminist, who uses a feminist discourse, which includes several discursive strands, such as nationalism (Arab, Egyptian, Turkish, etc), Islam, human rights, democracy etc, in ways specifically meaningful to her. It is her own discourse, fashioned according to her own needs and cultural formation. Islamic discourse is part of this feminist discourse, which has plural strands, whereas Islamic feminism is grounded in Islamic discourse, as it is paramount or exclusive discourse.

Muslim women may use their own general (or many-stranded) feminist discourse as well as Islamic feminist discourse. Let us take a historical example. Egyptian feminists who were Muslims, alongside Christian Egyptians, used nationalist arguments to fight for expanded educational rights under British colonialism and in the early post-colonial moment. Simultaneously, Muslim Egyptian feminists also marshaled Islamic arguments to strengthen their case, demonstrating that Islam enjoined the pursuit of knowledge upon all believers. But when it came to the feminist campaign to reform the Muslim Personal Status Code, this was an exclusively Muslim campaign led by Muslim feminists who employed purely Islamic arguments to push the case for a more progressive shariah-based law.

YS: How did you get interested in writing and researching about Islamic feminism?

MB: I became interested in Islamic feminism—as a new discourse—at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. It was a time when I began to observe a major paradigm shift in feminist discourse among some Muslims. I discovered this in Egypt in the course of doing oral histories, seeking to discover how professional and activist women defined feminism. In my previous scholarly research, I had focused on feminism in Egypt from the end of the 19th Century into the middle of the 20th Century.

Later, I wanted to discover how contemporary women defined and understood feminism. So, that was when I saw the genesis of an Islamic feminism. I presented the results of this discovery at a Roundtable on Identity Politics and Women at the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki, and I subsequently published them in a paper called ‘Gender Activism: Feminists and Islamists in Egypt’. Later, while I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the Center for Near Eastern Studies, where I taught a course on ‘Feminisms and Islamisms’, I wrote Towards Islamic Feminisms, in which I observed the further rise of this new discourse and analysed its trajectory alongside the continuing spread of Islamist movements and their gender agenda.

While I was struck initially (at the turn of the ‘90s) by the “distinctiveness” of the emergent “Islamic feminist discourse”—the rigour and outspokenness, I also began to see roots of this “new” discourse in the earlier “secular feminism” (another term for a broadly inclusive feminism) discourse of Muslim women in Egypt and other parts of the Arab-East Mediterranean. But let me add, this was the historian’s eye at work, for the architects of this new discourse of Islamic feminism were not connecting to this kind of past. It was by noticing certain similarities (expressed over time) in the “secular” and “religious” or “Islamic” feminist discourses (and I kept observing Egypt closely) that I could see the fine meshing of the “religious” and the “secular”, and how these were not two distinct and sharply different categories.

YS: How have your own writings, as well as the Islamic feminist project, been received by Muslims in general, and Islamists and “traditionalist” ulema?

MB: I presented a copy of my book Feminists, Islam and Nation to Shaikh al Azhar Muhammad al Tantawi. In my presence he ordered an aalim, who was an official translator, to examine the book and give him a report on how it dealt with Islam (basically, whether it was “within keeping of Islam”). I was soon directly informed of the positive reactions on my book. Perhaps, I should note that I received part of my educational formation at Al Azhar and I was very well received when I returned from there. I continued to discuss questions with my teacher Dr Shaikh Yahia Hashim, a prolific writer on ilm alkalam and usul aldin, who served for many years as director of Islamic Religious Studies at Al Ain University in the UAE.

A few years after I had given my book to Shaikh al Azhar, the Supreme Council of Culture nominated it as one of the few books to be translated into Arabic as part of the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the publication of Tahrir al Mar’a (The Liberation of the Woman, 1988)—the landmark controversial book of Qasim Amin, a respected judge in Egypt. When the book was translated into Arabic (by Ali Badran, a specialist in public administration and a gifted translator), it gained wider circulation. The reviews that came to my attention and news that reached my ears were positive. The book in Arabic has also begun to circulate in other parts of the Islamic world and among Muslim religious scholars, as it is accessible to them in Arabic now. Although it does not exist in the vernaculars of their countries, and therefore is more restricted to those with a religious educational formation.

Often something appears threatening, frightening, or perhaps downright heretical if it is only the object of popular talk, but when it is observed more closely it looks altogether different. So one finds my book on feminism and Islam quite benign.

You asked me how Islamists have received my work. I really don’t know. If the reaction were intense or violent, I would certainly know, but I imagine they probably have not read my book. I am not sure how much time and interest they have in books—unless a book appears to be extremely outrageous. In that case, even if they have not read the book, they try to exploit the moment for their political gains. I guess my book was just too boring for them.

YS: How do Islamic feminists deal with aspects of the fiqh tradition that seem to be maligned against women’s rights?

MB: Women scholars (whether they embrace Islamic feminism or prefer ijtihad—independent readings of the sacred text and other religious sources) recognise the overwhelmingly misogynist nature of traditional fiqh. A fresh interpretation of the Quran is a foundational step in the reconsideration of fiqh, of building a new jurisprudence.

Some scholars like Aziza al Hibri engage more directly with jurisprudence. As for hadith , people are widely familiar with the works of Fatima Mernissi who has used the tools of classical Islamic methodology to examine hadith relating to issues of women and gender, demonstrating how many widely circulating hadith are weak or spurious and how some, which are of more solid provenance, have been read out of context. There are a growing number of other women who are bringing to scrutiny the persistent circulation of hadith that contradict the basic principles of the Quran.

YS: Why do women assume such central importance in Muslim/Islamist discourse generally?

MB: A good way to get a grip on this is to place it in the context of patriarchy—patriarchal modes of thinking, behaviour and control of Muslim men, which has made patriarchy Islamic itself. Virtually, all old Muslim societies, women and their sexual purity (variously defined) have been linked with the honour of men and families, and this discourse has been associated with Islam (or “legitimised” through connecting it with Islam). We see that this linkage of honour and women’s sexual purity holds for those of other religions in the same societies, showing that this nexus transcends the terrain of any one religion. It has a grip on Muslims as on other religious groups. Because of this link of honour with women’s sexual purity, women need to be controlled and those who do the controlling are men and their surrogates, in combinations of age, stage, position, class, etc (within and beyond the family).

The patriarchal system does not call for men to be controlled. If some women are not sexually pure that means that some men are also not sexually pure. Thus, cultural ideas are harnessed and often exaggerated in the service of political ideologies and practices. Women, and the children they raise, are controlled through a strict ideology of body, sex, and honour. Women and their bodies, meanwhile, serve as emblems of purity—and the politics—of the group (nation or religious group); the hijab becomes a kind of national flag and political symbol.

If we draw upon our Islamic learning, we know that mode of dress or modest dress is likewise enjoined upon men and that sexual behaviour or sexual purity is equally ordained for men. Men and women alike are enjoined to obey Islamic precepts and are exhorted to engage in taqwa or righteous behavior. When you think about it, obsession with women’s bodies is itself a kind of sexual obsession—as women’s obsession with men’s bodies and how they were clothed would be (if it existed). But the obsession with women’s bodies is a politicising mechanism, so in short, the answer to your question lies in politics and projects of control.

YS: How can Islamic feminist insights be introduced into the centres of Islamic ‘orthodoxy’, most notably the madressahs? Is this happening? Do you know of any women’s madressahs where some sort of Islamic feminist texts are taught?

MB: Let me first make a comment or two on centers of Islamic learning or madressahs. The term, and the institution of the madressah varies widely over time and place. Madressah may signify some sort of generic Islamic schooling, or a more specific institutional structure. In many places madressahs or schools, run by religious teachers, no longer exist as part of the state or quasi-state system. But becoming more widespread in recent times in the Middle East, for example, are private religious schools, which are usually not called madressahs and must conform to state educational requirements if their degrees are to be recognised.

Let me answer your question with respect to Al Azhar University as the highest center of learning in Egypt, with its various faculties and branches throughout the country. Here, yes the ideas of Islamic feminism are taught and spread—not as “Islamic feminism” per se but as part of Islamic learning embedded in various subjects. Let me give an example from Islamic jurisprudence. The Dean of the Women’s College at Al Azhar, Dr Suad Salih, is also a Professor of Comparative Fiqh. She teaches in Women’s College and also controls the boards that examine candidates for PhD. She evaluates men’s and women’s intellectual grasp of the religious sciences, especially fiqh. This highly qualified and respected scholar knows her fiqh and knows that there is no gender impediment, keeping women from becoming muftis or dispensers of religious rulings in answer to requests. She submitted a request to be appointed as mufti, knowing well that there is no religious impediment in the way of women becoming muftis.

In fact, women have historically functioned as muftis. The most illustrious example is that of Sayyidna Aisha, wife of the Prophet (PBUH). Dr Suad was thrust into the role of campaigning for women to be able to be officially appointed muftis. So, yes, “Islamic feminist” ideas percolate in these high halls of religious learning.

Now let me give you an example of a madressah for women and men in Indonesia, where ideas of “Islamic feminism”—again not by that name but simply under the name of religion—form part of the curriculum. Haji Husein Muhammad is a kyai (or sheikh). He teaches at Dar Al Tawhid, a pesantren (the Indonesian word for madressah) in West Java. When we discussed Islamic feminism and the curricula in pesandrens, he gave the example of a 19th Century liberal treatise on the rights of the two spouses Uqud Al Lujain fi Banan and Huqug Al Zawjaini, written by the Indonesian scholar Muhammad Ibn Umar Nawawi, who had studied in Mecca and at Al Azhar. That was republished with a contemporary woman-sensitive commentary, and is now taught in many pesantren, including his own Dar Al Tawhid, where there are some 600 students. Islamic feminist reading of religion is, of course, simply a celebration of the full amplitude of Islam.

YS: How does one counter the oft-heard argument that Islamic feminism is a Western import and represents a misreading and distortion of faith as salafe saleh, the early Muslims, had understood it?

MB: Islamic feminism, as a discourse grounded in the Quran and other religious texts, is not “Western”, nor it is “Eastern”. It is a universal discourse. There are many ayats in the Quran, firmly indicating that Islam is a universal religion, knowing no geographical or cultural boundaries. This is exquisitely imparted in Surat Al Nur.

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there was a niche and within it a lamp…lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor the West.” (24:35)

The specific forms that Islamic feminist activism takes are locally grounded. They come from within. For example, we have run the long campaign for many years, led by some women in Egypt, using the discourse of Islamic feminism to argue that there was nothing in the religion of Islam barring women from becoming judges. This finally ended in victory this January when three women were finally appointed as judges.

In South Africa, Muslim women have been campaigning for greater access to participate in congregational prayer alongside men (that is to occupy adjacent rather than behind or an altogether separate space) and to give talks at Friday prayer prior to the khutba, and have met with successes. I can give you the example of the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, where women’s discourse at Friday congregational prayer is now a commonplace.


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