- Letter to the Editors
December 1, 2016
Asma Barlas, in her roundtable essay, “Secular and Feminist Critiques of the Qur’an: Anti-Hermeneutics as Liberation?” published in the fall 2016 issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (JFSR) makes erroneous and misleading comments concerning my work as a historian of Islamic feminism.1 Moreover, she recycles a narrative whereby I have concocted the term Islamic feminism and trapped her in its web.
In the 1990s—a good decade before Barlas appeared on the scene—some Muslim women in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa—including, for example, Iranian legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who went on to become a leading scholar of Islamic feminism—observed an emergent phenomenon they simultaneously and spontaneously called “Islamic feminism.” I was eager to know more. As a historian, I had previously researched early twentieth-century feminism in Egypt that Muslim and Christian women had jointly created. It was often referred to in Egypt as “secular feminism,” indicating its nationalist frame. This feminism was informed by religious ideals, especially as enunciated by Islamic modernism, and affirmed the equality of all citizens (whatever their religious identity). The Muslim women in the late twentieth century who first drew attention to emergent Islamic feminism were liberals, progressives, and feminists; they were known as “secular” because they did not employ religious language in their public discourse. The label “secular” did not imply being anti-Islam or deficiently Muslim.
Islamic feminism articulated a gender-egalitarian Islam based on rereadings of the Qur’an and other religious sources. It sparked considerable attention from day one and was both enthusiastically welcomed and defiantly contested. As a label of identity, “Islamic feminist” was especially contentious, and for many years, women who produced what was seen as Islamic feminist discourse [End Page 5] firmly rejected the label. In time, however, many came to accept it, such as African American theologian and author of the groundbreaking Qur’an and Woman, amina wadud.2
Thus, only after I had found the term Islamic feminism in circulation by Muslim women did I start to use it myself. Moreover, I have written and spoken repeatedly on the controversy surrounding the use of the term Islamic feminism and especially Islamic feminist as an identity label. I have been scrupulous, as those attentive to my work know, about not calling anyone an Islamic feminist who rejects the label.3
In 2002, when her book first appeared, Barlas (we did not know each other at the time) emailed me to share the news. Why me? In 2003, when the Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto invited me to form a panel of two on Islamic feminism, I asked Barlas to join me and she readily accepted. I spoke about Islamic feminism and Barlas spoke about her book. In 2006, she invited me to Ithaca College to present my work on Islamic feminism, as one of a small series of guests to speak on various subjects. In 2007, when I was invited as one of two senior scholars to give a keynote at a conference on Islamic feminism at Tampere, I suggested that Barlas be the other keynote speaker. She used the occasion at Tampere to repudiate the label “Islamic feminism” and to accuse me of wantonly imposing this label on her and thereby hijacking her agency.4 [End Page 6]
Barlas casts “feminism” as a “master narrative” born and bred in the West. She ignores that “feminism” was born in “the West” and “the East” simultaneously in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that anticolonial nationalist discourses were integral to the feminisms in the East, which Muslims, together with other compatriots, constructed.5 Nonetheless, having made her disaffection with the idea of Islamic feminism emphatically known, Barlas could have simply turned her back on the idea of Islamic feminism, avoided future association with it, and looked for more agreeable contexts in which to present her work. She did not do this, but rather used (and continues to use) the platform “Islamic feminism” provided.
In her JFSR roundtable essay, Barlas repeats the claim that I imposed the label “Islamic feminism” on...