Lois Lamya' Al Faruqi - Temple University, Philadelphia
WHETHER living in the Middle East or Africa, in Central Asia,
in the Indian subcontinent, in Southeast Asia, or in Europe and
the Americas, Muslim women tend to view the feminist movement with
some apprehension. Although there are some features of' the feminist
cause with which we as Muslims would wish to join hands, other features
generate our disappointment and even opposition. There is therefore
no simple or "pat" answer to the question of the future
cooperation or competition which feminism may meet in an Islamic
There are however a number of social, psychological and economic
traditions which govern the thinking of most Muslims and which are
particularly affective of woman's status and role in Islamic society.
Understanding these can help us understand the issues which affect
male/female status and roles, and how we should react to movements
which seek to improve the situation of women in any of the countries
where Muslims live.
PART I ISLAMIC TRADITIONS
a. The Extended Family System
One of the Islamic traditions which will affect the way in which
Muslim women respond to feminist ideas is the advocacy in Islamic
culture of an extended rather than a nuclear family system. Some
Muslim families are "residentially extended"; that is,
their members live communally with three or more generations of'
relatives (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and their offspring)
in a single building or compound. Even where this residential version
of the extended family is not possible or adhered to, family connections
reaching far beyond the nuclear unit are evident in strong psychological,
social, economic and even political ties. Mutual supports and responsibilities
affecting these larger consanguine groups are not just considered
desirable, but they are made legally incumbent on members of the
society by Islamic law. The Holy Qur'an itself exhorts to extended
family solidarity; in addition it specifies the extent of such responsibilities
and contains prescriptive measures for inheritance, support and
other close interdependencies within the extended family."1"
Our Islamic traditions also prescribe a much stronger participation
of the family in the contracting and preservation of marriages.
While most Western feminists would decry family participation or
arranged marriage as a negative influence because of its apparent
restriction of individualistic freedom and responsibility, as Muslims
we would argue that such participation is advantageous for both
individuals and groups within the society. Not only does it ensure
marriages based on sounder principles than physical attraction and
sexual infatuation, but it provides other safeguards for successful
marital continuity. Members of the family provide diverse companionship
as well as ready sources of advice and sympathy for the newly married
as they adjust to each others' ways. One party of the marriage cannot
easily pursue an eccentric course at the expense of the spouse since
such behaviour would rally opposition from the larger group. Quarrels
are never so devastating to the marriage bond since other adult
family members act as mediators and provide alternative sources
of companionship and counsel following disagreements. The problems
of parenting and generational incompatability are also alleviated,
and singles clubs and dating bureaus would be unnecessary props
for social interaction. There is no need in the extended family
for children of working parents to be unguarded, unattended or inadequately
loved and socialized; for the extended family home is never empty.
There is therefore no feeling of guilt which the working parent
often feels in a nuclear of single-parent organization. Tragedy,
even divorce, is not so debilitating to either adults or children;
for the larger social unit absorbs the residual numbers with much
greater ease than a nuclear family organization can ever provide.
The move away from the cohesiveness which the family formerly enjoyed
in Western society, the rise of usually smaller alternative family
styles, and the accompanying rise in individualism which many feminists
advocate or at least practice, are at odds with these deep-rooted
Islamic customs and traditions. If feminism in the Muslim world
chooses to espouse the Western family models, it should and would
certainly be strongly challenged by Muslim women's groups and by
Islamic society as a whole.
b. Individualism vs. the Larger Organization
The traditional support of the large and intricately interrelated
family organization is correlative to another Islamic tradition
which seems to run counter to recent Western trends and to feminist
ideology. Islam and Muslim women generally advocate moulding of
individual goals and interests to accord with the welfare of the
larger group and its members.
Instead of holding the goals of the individual supreme, Islam instills
in the adherent a sense of his/her place within the family and of
a responsibility to that group. This is not perceived or experienced
by Muslims as repression of' the individual. Other traditions which
will be discussed later guarantee his/her legal personality, and
the family member is constantly experiencing reciprocal benefits
from those ties which bind to the group. Feminism, therefore, would
not be espoused by Muslim women as a goal to be pursued without
regard for the relation of the female to the other members of her
family. The Muslim woman regards her goals as necessitating a balance
with, or even subordination to, those of the family group. The rampant
individualism often experienced in contemporary life, that which
treats the goals of the individual in isolation from other factors,
or as utterly supreme, runs against a deep Islamic commitment to
c. Differentiation of Sex Roles
A third Islamic tradition which affects the future of any feminist
movement in an Islamic environment is that specifying a differentiation
of male and female roles and responsibilities in society. Feminism,
as represented in Western society, has generally denied any such
differentiation and has demanded a move toward a unisex society
in order to achieve equal rights for women. By "unisex society",
I mean one in which a single set of sex roles and concerns are given
preference and esteem by both sexes, and are pursued by all members
of the society regardless of sex and age differentials. In the case
of Western feminism, the preferred goals have been those traditionally
fulfilled by the male members of society. The roles of providing
financial support, of success in career, and of decision making
have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing
with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological
refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and even
despised. Both men and women have been forced into a single mould
which is perhaps more restrictive, rigid and coercive than that
which formerly assigned men to one type of role and women to another.
This is a new brand of male chauvinism with which Islamic traditions
cannot conform. Islam instead maintains that both types of roles
are equally deserving of pursuit and respect, and has judged that,
when accompanied by the equity demanded by the religion, a division
of labour along sex lines is generally beneficial to all members
of the society.
This might be regarded by the feminist as opening the door to discrimination,
but as Muslims we regard Islamic traditions as standing clearly
and unequivocally for the support of male-female equity. In the
Qur'an, no difference whatever is made between the sexes in relation
to God. "For men who submit (to God) and for women who submit
(to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men
and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast
men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable
men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for
men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember
God much and for women who remember - for them God has prepared
forgiveness and a mighty reward" (Qur'an 33:35). "Whosoever
performs good deeds, whether male or female, and is a believer,
We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly
reward them for the best of' what they did" (Qur'an 16:97)."2"
It is only in relation to each other and society that a difference
is made - a difference of role or function. The rights and responsibilities
of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not necessarily
identical with them. Equality and identity are two different things,
Islamic traditions maintain - the former desirable, the latter not.
Men and women should therefore be complementary to each other in
a mufti-function organization rather than competitive with each
other in a uni-function society.
The equality demanded by Islamic traditions must, however, be seen
in its larger context if it is to be understood properly. Since
Muslims regard a differentiation of' sexual roles to be natural
and desirable in the majority of cases, the economic responsibilities
of male and female members differ to provide a balance for the physical
differences between men and women and for the greater responsibility
which women carry in the reproductive and rearing activities so
necessary to the well-being of the society. To maintain, therefore,
that the men of the family are responsible for providing economically
for the women or that women are not equally responsible, is not
a dislocation or denial of sexual equity. It is instead a duty to
be fulfilled by, men as compensation for another responsibility
which involves the special ability of' women. Likewise the different
inheritance rate for males and females,"3"
which is so often cited as an example of discrimination against
women, must not be seen as an isolated prescription. It is but one
part of a comprehensive system in which women carry no legal responsibility
to support other members of the family, but in which men are bound
by law as well as custom to provide for all their female relatives.
Does this mean that Islamic traditions necessarily prescribe maintaining
the status quo in the Islamic societies that exist today? The answer
is a definite "No." Many thinking Muslims - both men and
women - would agree that their societies do not fulfill the Islamic
ideals and traditions laid down in the Qur'an and reinforced by
the example and directives of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon
Him). It is reported in the Qur'an and from history that women not
only expressed their opinions freely in the Prophet's presence,
but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the
Prophet himself and with other Muslim leaders of the time (Qur'an
58:1); Muslim women are known to have even stood in opposition to
certain caliphs, who later accepted the sound arguments of those
women. A specific example took place during the caliphate of `Umar
ibn al Khattab."4" The Qur'an reproached
those who believed woman to be inferior to men (16:57-59) and repeatedly
gives expression to the need for treating men and women with equity
(2:228, 231; 4:19, etc.). Therefore, if Muslim women experience
discrimination in any place or time, they do not and should not
lay the blame on Islam, but on the un-Islamic nature of their societies
and the failure of Muslims to fulfill its directives.
d. Separate Legal Status for Women
A fourth Islamic tradition affecting the future of feminism in Muslim
societies is the separate legal status for women which is demanded
by the Qur'an and the shari ah. Every Muslim individual, whether
male or female, retains a separate identity from cradle to grave.
This separate legal personality prescribes for every woman the right
to contract, to conduct business, to earn and possess property independently.
Marriage has no effect on her legal status, her property, her earnings
- or even on her name. If she commits any civil offense, her penalty
is no less or no more than a man's in a similar case ((Qur'an 5:38;
24:2). If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to compensation
just like a man (4:92-93; see also Mustafa al Siba'i 1976:38; Darwazah
n.d.:78). The feminist demand for separate legal status for women
is therefore one that is equally espoused by Islamic traditions.
Although the taking of plural wives by a man is commonly called
polygamy, the more correct sociological designation is polygyny.
This institution is probably the Islamic tradition most misunderstood
and vehemently condemned by non-Muslims. It is one which the Hollywood
stereotypes "play upon" in their ridicule of Islamic society.
The first image conjured up in the mind of the Westerner when the
subject of Islam and marriage is approached is that of a religion
which advocates the sexual indulgence of the male members of the
society and the subjugation of its females through this institution.
Islamic tradition does indeed allow a man to marry more than one
woman at a time. This leniency is even established by the Qur'an
(4:3)."5" But the use and perception
of that institution is far from the Hollywood stereotype. Polygyny
is certainly not imposed by Islam; nor is it a universal practice.
It is instead regarded as the exception to the norm of monogamy,
and its exercise is strongly controlled by social pressures."6"
If utilized by Muslim men to facilitate or condone sexual promiscuity,
it is no less Islamically condemnable than serial polygyny and adultery,
and no less detrimental to the society. Muslims view polygyny as
an institution which is to be called into use only under extraordinary
circumstances. As such, it has not been generally regarded by Muslim
women as a threat. Attempts by the feminist movement to focus on
eradication of this institution in order to improve the status of
women would therefore meet with little sympathy or support.
II DIRECTIVES FOR THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT IN AN
What can be learned about the future compatibility
or incongruity of feminism in a Muslim environment from these facts
about Islamic traditions? Are there any general principles to be
gained, any directives to be taken, by those who work for women's
rights and human rights in the world?
a. Interculturul Incontpatihility of Western
The first and foremost principle would seem to be that many of the
goals of feminism as conceived in Western society are not necessarily
relevant or cxportable across cultural boundaries. Feminism as a
Western movement originated in England during the 18th century and
had as one of its main goals the eradication of legal disabilities
imposed upon women by English common law. These laws were especially
discriminatory of married women. 'they derived in part from Biblical
sources (e.g., the idea of man and woman becoming "one flesh",
and the attribution of an inferior and even evil nature to Eve and
all her female descendants) and in part from feudal customs (e.g.,
the importance of carrying and supplying arms for battle and the
concommitant devaluation of the female contributions to society).
The Industrial Revolution and its need for women's contribution
to the work force brought strength to the feminist movement and
helped its advocates gradually break down most of those discriminatory
Since the history and heritage of the Muslim peoples has been radically
different from that of Western Europe and America, the feminism
which would appeal to Muslim women and to the society generally
must be correspondingly different. Those legal rights which Western
women sought in reform of English common law were already granted
to Muslim women in the 7th century. Such a struggle therefore holds
little interest for the Muslim woman. In addition, it would be useless
to try to interest us in ideas or reforms that run in diametrical
opposition to those traditions which form an impmrtant part of our
cultural and religious heritage. There has been a good deal of opposition
to any changes in Muslim personal status laws since these embody
and reinforce the very traditions which we have been discussing.
In other words, if feminism is to succeed in an Islamic environment,
it must be an indigenous form of feminism, rather than one conceived
and nurtured in an alien environment with different problems and
different solutions and goals.
b. The Form of an Islamic Feminism
If the goals of Western feminism are not viable for Muslim women,
what form should a feminist movement take to ensure success?
Above all, the movement must recognize that, whereas in the West,
the mainstream of the women's movement has viewed religion as one
of' the chief enemies of its progress and well-being, Muslim women
view the teachings of Islam as their best friend and supporter.
The prescriptions that are found in the Qur'an and the example of
the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) are regarded as the ideal to which contemporary
women wish to return. As far as Muslim women are concerned, the
source of any difficulties experienced today is not Islam and its
traditions, but certain alien ideological intrusions on our societies,
ignorance and distortion of the true Islam, or exploitation by individuals
within the society. It is a lack of' an appreciation for this fact
that caused such misunderstanding and mutual distress when women's
movement representatives from the West visited Iran both before
and after the Islamic Revolution.
Secondly, any feminism which is to succeed in an Islamic environment
must be one which does not work chauvinistically for women's interests
alone. Islamic traditions would dictate that women's progress be
achieved in tandem with the wider struggle to benefit all members
of the society. The good of the group or totality is always more
crucial than the good of any one sector of the society. In fact,
the society is seen as an organic whole in which the welfare of
each member or organ is necessary for the health and well being
of every other part. Disadvantageous circumstances of' women therefore
should always be countered in conjunction with attempts to alleviate
those factors which adversely affect men and other segments of the
Thirdly, Islam is an ideology which influences much more than the
ritual life of a people. It is equally affective of their social,
political, economic, psychological and aesthetic life. "Din,"
which is usually regarded as an equivalent for the English term
"religion," is a concept which includes, in addition to
those ideas and practices customarily associated in our minds with
religion, a wide spectrum of practices and ideas which affect almost
every aspect of the daily life of the Muslim individual. Islam and
Islamic traditions therefore are seen today by many Muslims as the
main source of cohesiveness for nurturing an identity and stability
to confront intruding alien influences and the cooperation needed
to solve their numerous contemporary problems. To fail to note this
fact, or to fail to be fully appreciative of its importance for
the average Muslim - whether male or female - would be to commit
any movement advocating improvement of women's position in Islamic
lands to certain failure. It is only through establishing that identity
and stability that self-respect can be achieved and a more healthy
climate for both Muslim men and Muslim women will emerge.
1. For example, see Qur'an 2:177; 4:7-12,
176; 8:41; 16:90; 17:26; 24:22.
2. See also Qur'an 2:195; 4:124, 32; 9:71-71.
3. "God (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance):
to the male, a proportion equal to that of two females. . ."
4. Kamal 'Awn 1955:129.
5. . . . Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; But
if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them),
then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess. That
will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice."
6. It should be remembered that any woman who wants her marriage
to remain monogamous can provide for this condition under Islamic
'Awn, Kainal Ahmad
1955 .Al Mar'ah fi al Islam. Tanta: Sha'rawi Press.
Darwazah, Muhammad `Izzat
n.d. .9l Dustur al Qur'ani ji S'hu'un al Hayal. Cairo: `Isa al Babi
al Siba'i Mustafa
1976 Al Mar'ah baynal Fiqh wal Qanun. Aleppo: Al Maktabah al 'Arabiyyah,
first pub. 1962.