Can Muslim Women Be Feminists?


By Shana Iqbal

Shana Iqbal is a Polish-Irish-Muslim writer, performing poet, activist, wife, and mother to two fierce and feral daughters. Her Instagram handle is @shanaiqbalwriter!


In these testing times, the Online community is a minefield of identity politics, fake news and passive aggressive memes. Social media discourse has become, on a lot of subjects, more relevant than mainstream news. It is there, that Muslim women have found spaces to speak out, a place where their opinions are seen rather than dismissed, a platform that we, otherwise, do not have. A reoccurring topic amidst Muslim women in these spaces is feminism. What is it? Is it ‘Islamic’? Do Muslim women need it? 

Unfortunately, feminism has gotten a bad reputation over the years, particularly with minority communities. ‘White feminism’ created a lot of boundaries for ‘other women’ simply because it didn’t include them or their needs as a part of its discourse. In holding up western orientalist ideals, it completely marginalized women of color, LGBT women, as well as women from minority religious backgrounds. It is no wonder then, that the word, ‘feminist,’ has become a taboo word amongst the Muslim community and has come to mean little more than just being bra-burning, immodest, or racist.

But all hope is not lost for aspiring feminists from Muslim backgrounds. The rise of ‘Intersectional Feminism,’ which acknowledges the various aspects of a woman’s identity (race, religion, class etc), and how each of those aspects may face a level of oppression, has meant that discourse around women’s rights has taken a shift in the right direction. Whether women can do enough to rebrand feminism and make it something that Muslim women are happy to identify with, is another question altogether (and another column). Will the word ‘feminist’ always be a way for Muslim men to mansplain us? In my early days of community activism, I have had a meeting with the head of a local Muslim organisation (male, obviously) to discuss how we can better provide for the Muslim women in our town. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of the girls’ fathers that they don’t want their daughters going there, because it is run by feminists,” he said. 

“What do you mean by feminists?” I asked him. 

His answer was not surprising. He explained to me that the organisation I had suggested had advised some of the girls in our community that they didn’t need to live with their in-laws and could live instead, separate from their in-laws. For those reading who are unfamiliar, a woman within the sharia is entitled to her own home, fully paid for, by her husband. That is Islam- not feminism. There are, of course, many ways to live your life as a Muslim wife and for lots of women, that happens from within an extended family system. However, there must be a choice. What this individual was really saying, was those men didn’t want their daughters to know that they had that choice and that those women who are raising awareness about Muslim women’s rights (and responsibilities) are feminists and feminist=bad. 

Many Muslim men object to feminism, not because of non-intersectional feminist ideals incompatible with our faith, but because they don’t want women to have the ability to exercise their own rights and are desperate to uphold their own patriarchy. For them, the rejection has little to do with burning bras. 

However, for Muslim women and the various intersections of our identities, I feel the question of whether we identify ourselves as feminists or not, requires much more of a personal and theoretical interrogation. Islam outlined our rights and responsibilities within society.

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