As colonial powers gradually departed from the Middle East during the latter half of the twentieth century, the soon-to-be nations of the region were tasked with building a national story. While the roles that Muslim women played in Middle Eastern society varied somewhat across the region, their female identity was one of the most crucial tools used not only to construct a national identity but also to cement a connection between religion and state. Subsequently, the relationship between Middle Eastern women and nation building has proved to be a defining and ongoing setback for Islamic feminist movements in several regards.1 Firstly, the common representation of the Muslim woman as essential to exclusively the domestic needs of her family has been used to draw ideological contrast to the widely disdained West (Charrad, 425). Thus, the association between anti- Western sentiments and Middle Eastern social values rests largely upon the role of women in society. As Tunisian sociologist Mounira M. Charrad contextualises, relegating women to domestic activities acts as a sort of unifying juxtaposition between East and West, Islam and secularism, and coloniser and colonised, which has united Middle Eastern nations while delegitimising the message and goals of Islamic feminism (Charrad 425).
Consequently, because methods of nation building in the Middle East have historically revolved around religious identity and the role of women within this identity, Islamic feminists have been confronted with attempting to spread their message against the interests of Middle Eastern governments and Islam as a combined force (Grami 109). In response to these circumstances, Islamic feminists across the region have adjusted their tactics to advocate for women’s equality within the framework of dedication to Islam and to the state, while not associating these efforts with contemporary Western conceptions of feminism (Grami 110).
1I use the terminology ‘Islamic Feminist Movements’ as to not be reductive to the fact that over the duration of Middle Eastern history there has been no singular movement that precisely connects manifestations of feminism in countries across the region. Rather, ‘Islamic Feminist Movements’ is used in this essay when overarching ideas or generalisations are and can be made. See Amal Grami, “Islamic Feminism”.
In review, examining the history of both Muslim women and Islamic feminism is essential to establishing a comprehensive understanding of the complicated process of nation building, all in the larger context of their continuous struggle for social, political, and economic equality.
One of the primary aspects of twentieth-century Middle Eastern nation building that has restricted the efforts of Islamic feminism is what Charrad describes as the metaphor of “the nation as a family and women as mothers of the nation” (Charrad 422). This metaphor effectively captures the nationalist mood of many Middle Eastern nations in the late twentieth century, as it demonstrates the way in which men and women were expected to do their part—by subscribing to strict and rigid gender roles—when creating nations that were culturally distinctive and independent from the West. Part of this cultural distinctiveness, in turn, had to do with the rejection of calls for women’s rights. In other words, the phrase ‘feminism’ came with the association of the Western infiltration of Middle Eastern society. As a result, many Middle Eastern governments adjusted their social and economic policies which siloed women into the corners of society while men took a more affirmative grip on postcolonial institutions of power throughout the region. One intriguing example is Egypt, which adapted to more capitalist economic policies as it developed into a partially independent nation as the twentieth century progressed (Golley 530).
However, through this economic development— specifically greater job market competition—women gradually became unemployed and were driven back into their homes where they were forced to carry out more domestic responsibilities (Golley 531). Not only was it physically challenging for Egyptian women to organise because of how they were often restricted to the home, but it also proved difficult to overcome the widespread confusion among male religious and political leaders between the desire for individual rights and allegiance to Western ideology and societal values.
While feminist efforts in different nations across the Middle East have taken different forms and found different results, a common theme of defining feminism within the context of Islam had emerged, hence the movement’s label of ‘Islamic feminism’ and not merely ‘feminism’. In order to disassociate from Western feminism while striving for similar goals, —access to education, reproductive healthcare, and economic rights— Islamic feminist movements have needed to overcome the perception that their desires stand in contrast to the cultural and religious fabric of their respective nations.
Demonstration for women’s rights in Tunis Via New York Times
To do this, Islamic feminists have aimed to reorganise methods of religious practice and expression to fit their advocacy in a way that prompts less of a reputation of impiety. This begins with rereading the Qur’an, which, as Charrad notes “gives women an opportunity to deploy religious texts in defense of their rights” (Charrad 428).
Specifically, this strategy includes the belief that Islam is not an inherently oppressive religion towards women. Rather, this approach recognises the reality that the Qur’an is a tolerant and egalitarian text, which has been continually appropriated by religious leaders throughout the course of modern Middle Eastern history, especially during the period of decolonisation and nation building in the mid-to-late twentieth century (Charrad 428). The most common manifestation of this reinterpretation of the Qur’an revolves around the debate concerning the veil, and whether or not veiling should be considered a form of oppression. As Islamic feminist movements across the region have demonstrated, the veil can act as a source of empowerment.
Furthermore, along with the aforementioned feminist reinterpretation of the Qur’an comes crucial historical context. For example, veiling is a concept that is not historically exclusive to Islam; prior to Islam becoming the main religion of the region, the veil was a symbol of high class and power. In fact, veiling in some regions globally was not even exclusive to women; Charrad notes records of male veiling in Bolivia (Charrad 429). Thus, the Islamic feminist recalculation of veiling is a powerful and telling example of how the construction of modern Middle Eastern nation-states function under merely an interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an, as opposed to the allegedly textually accurate version of the faith.
Although much of the historical opposition to Islamic feminism has come from Middle Eastern governments, Islamic feminist movements have faced other stymieing barriers, including other women. That is, those who do not associate themselves with the struggle for equality or the discontent that Islamic feminists have expressed about the oppression they experience. As professor and historian Amal Grami of the University of Manouba in Tunisia discusses, some Middle Eastern women oppose Islamic feminist efforts because it poses a threat to the protection that men provide for them (Grami 108). The lack of trans- regional cohesion between Islamic feminist movements in the Middle East, subsequently, is a significant factor in the general lack of progress that they have made. Language is the first and most fundamental element of this issue—while I use the terminology ‘Islamic feminism’ in this essay, there is not an agreed-upon name for these movements among historians or even those who lead the movements themselves. As Grami notes, some see terms such as ‘Islamic feminism’, ‘Muslim feminism’, and ‘religious feminism’ as identical, “while others see them as a sign of the confusion between terms such as feminist and feminine, Islamic and Islamist (Grami 109). The absence of cohesive branding and messaging has prevented the creation of a common feminist movement and narrative in the Middle East. In turn, this has allowed for Islamic feminist movements in the Middle East to be cast aside and associated with Westerness by those in power without question or widespread criticism.
Thus, the suppression and silencing of Islamic feminist movements are a crisis of perceived legitimacy before anything else.
Above all else, it is critical to understand that Islamic feminism is unique in that its proponents have had to carefully navigate societies where their subjugation has often been seen as part of a larger national story. Not only does this make the history of Islamic feminism unique from any other global women’s rights movement, but it illustrates how the concept of feminism adapts to religion and culture. As Islamic feminists have expressed, it is not Islam that oppresses them. Instead, it is the history of nation building that forced them into a structure that limited their rights and individual potential at the cost of national pride and independence. While Islamic feminist movements have not seen nearly as much progress as those in other regions, one must keep in mind that their task is taller.
Middle Eastern governments that have (an interpretation of) Islam enshrined in their governmental institutions have made it difficult for feminists to truly penetrate the sources of inequality in the Middle East without being labelled as traitors. In review, the history of feminism in the Middle East is essential because it serves as a reminder that building a nation can come at a cost for women, something that is too often overlooked when examining how the borders of the Middle East developed into how they exist today.
Whether some Middle Eastern governments seek to address it or not, it is clear that women will not remain silent about their oppression. Now, as the brave women of Iran continue to teach us day after day, the women of the Middle East will not blindly accept their oppression, and they won’t tire easily.
Via Arab Center Washington DC
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Contentious Theoretical Issues: Third World Feminisms and Identity Politics.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3/4, 1998, pp. 25–29.
Charrad, Mounira M. “Gender in the Middle East: Islam, State, Agency.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 37, no. 1, 2011, pp. 417–37. Annual Reviews, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102554.
Golley, Nawar Al-Hassan. “Is Feminism Relevant to Arab Women?” Third World Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3, 2004, pp. 521–36. JSTOR. Grami, Amal. “Islamic Feminism.” Contemporary Arab Affairs, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013, pp. 102–13. JSTOR.
Schulz, Dorothea E. “Scholarship on Gender Politics in the Muslim World: Some Critical Reflections.” Islamic Studies in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Léon Buskens and Annemarie Van Sandwijk, Amsterdam University Press, 2016, pp. 109–34. DOI.org (Crossref),