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Workshop 02: The Many Faces of Islamic Feminism

Twelfth Mediterranean Research Meeting 2011

The Many Faces of Islamic Feminism

directed by:

Mervat H atem

Howard University, USA

[email protected] 

Omaima Abou-Bakr

Cairo University, Giza, Egypt

[email protected]



The spread of political Islam in the Middle East and European/US responses to it have triggered new articulations of the presumed disconnect and/or the connections between Islam and feminism. One of the primary goals of this workshop is to contextualize and to critically examine the large literature produced in the last two decades on what has become identified as “Islamic Feminism”. In this discussion, the many facets/faces of this discursive phenomenon will be examined and the implications that it has for Muslim women and our understanding of them in the Middle East and Europe as different yet connected parts of the Mediterranean region. 

The secular and the Islamist critiques of each other’s social and political agendas have emerged as the most familiar face of Islamic feminism. Next, there are the diverse critical views/works by Middle Eastern intellectuals, like Moroccan Farida Banani and the Egyptians Zaynab Radwan and Omaima Abou Bakr among others, and those offered by expatriate writers, like Amina Wadud and Ziba Mir Hosseini among others, that develop women friendly interpretations of the Islamic religious traditions redefining women’s relationship to them. Expatriate men, like Tariq Ramadan, Nasr Hamid Abou Zayd and Khaled Abou al-Fadl provided yet another face of this critical enterprise.  

Finally, there is the potentially exclusionary face that Islamic feminism presents to Christian minority women in majority Muslim societies and how it compares with the inclusive face seen by Turkish and Tunisian Islamist women who see it as vital for the reclamation of citizenship rights that have been denied to them by staunchly secular states and the possibility that exists for the formation of coalitions between Christian and Muslim women to challenge national patriarachies.


Workshop Description

In this proposal, we outline the many panels we hope will be organized as part of the exploration of this important topic. The workshop will begin with three papers that attempt to discuss the history of the literature that deals with “Islamic Feminism” by placing it in the context of economic and political globalization of the Mediterranean region. The homogenizing and particularizing impulses associated with globalization, the spread of political Islam as popular social and political movements in Middle Eastern societies and European societies and reactions to them in both regions explain the backdrop to this phenomenon. The first paper will discuss the characteristics of economic and political globalization of both sides of the Mediterranean world with special attention to the general impact on the population of Muslim women in the Middle East and Europe. The second paper will deal with the impact that some European/US globalizing forces allied with some national Middle Eastern actors and states produced specifically developmental and gender policies and discourses that stressed privatization/market economies and democratization provoking deep crises facing these societies and their women. The slow progress of both of these global-national projects set the stage for an Islamist particularizing response. The third paper will focus on the specific regional Islamist social and political projects’ that have used identity politics to argue in favor of the preservation of important identifying characteristics of Middle Eastern societies especially those that relate to gender roles in addressing these challenges.

The resulting discourses produced by Middle Eastern states and those of their European/US allies on the backwardness of the agendas of political Islam contributed an unexpected convergence whose history and arguments were not the same and should be explored. Two papers will discuss the different reasons that led some Middle Eastern and European states to take their anti-Islamist positions using the roles of women as part of their attempts to legitimate their policies and positions. A third will examine the way Islamist responses in some Middle Eastern states have offered similar uses of gender to counter the Middle Eastern and European/US views and discourses. This will provide a significantly complicated context for the discussion of the debate on “Islamic feminism”. Hopefully, it will challenge the problematic duality that pits a homogenized Orient against an equally homogenized Occident, as in the clash of civilizations thesis, which most contemporary discussions of gender on the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean rely on through the unhelpful duality of Islamist vs. secular approaches to Muslim women.

 Next, the discussion will turn to the exploration of one of the most familiar faces of Islamic feminism: the secular vs. the Islamist polemic regarding the backwardness of religion and/or Islamic identity in the increasingly global world and the need for continued modernization of Middle East societies as the only solution. The Islamist response stresses how modernization has failed to address the many needs of Muslim women leading them to explore the Islamist solution. Muslim women could be found on the two sides of this debate as supporters of these opposing social and political forces and their projects. A set of 2- 4 papers can provide some specific examples of these secular vs. Islamist discourses in different Middle Eastern and European states.

In this very polarized context, some Middle Eastern/Muslim women surprised most commentators by outlining a third route through the development of the concept of Islamic feminism providing a different discourse on the relationship between Islam and feminism, which focused on the distinction between the religion and male interpretations of it developing women friendly frameworks and interpretation. Two to four papers can examine the works done by Middle Eastern and expatriate women to explore the new perspectives on Islamic feminism.

Among the other faces of this critical enterprise that needs to be explored is the contribution of Middle Eastern and expatriate men to this discussion. Two papers will attempt to answer the following important question: what kind of different perspectives do these men offer and whether or not they engage the important works done by women in this new field? The works of Tariq Al-Bishri and Fahmy Howeidi, Tariq Ramadadn, Nasr Hamed Abou Zayd and Khalid Abou al-Fadl can explore this angle.

Finally, the discussion of Islamic feminism needs to explore the potential pitfalls and the promise that this project has for groups of women in the Middle East that are not prominently featured in this discussion e.g. Christian women in majority Muslim societies and Islamist women in staunchly secular societies. Two to three papers can explore how Islamic feminism could potentially have an exclusionary effect for Christian women. It may also have the potential of creating new coalitions between Muslim and Christian women in the face of national patriarchies. Conversely, two papers will discuss Islamist women in staunchly secular societies, like Turkey and Tunisia and how Islamic feminism can provide a useful framework for the reclamation of citizenship rights that have been denied to them as part of the Islamist threat with which these states have identified them.


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