- Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences, and: Velvet Resistance: Muslim Women’s Quiet Resistance to Islamic Fundamentalism
These two books explore the issue of contemporary women’s activism in Muslim societies with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. The activists are (self-) identified as either “feminists” or “gender activists.” Despite their ideological divergences, they challenge and aim to eradicate the patriarchal forms of oppression, suppression and discrimination that women experience because of their sex. Both Badran and Shirazi discuss in numerous cases how such Muslim women’s activism, whether it is secular or not, emerges in close conversation with Islamic modernism or Islamist fundamentalism that characterizes contemporaneous cultural, political and theological landscape of their society.
Badran’s book is a collection of 13 previously published articles and one new piece. The first part of the book focuses on secular and Islamic women’s movements in the specific case of Egypt from the late 19th century to the 1990s. The second half of the book focuses more specifically on the definition, strategies, and sources of Islamic feminism by drawing comparisons between the Egyptian case and other Middle Eastern and African societies—specifically, Nigeria, Yemen, and Turkey. Badran’s analysis is grounded in rich archival data gathered and interpreted through various decades. Each chapter reflects the meticulous work and documentation of a historian who masterfully captures the historical continuities and discontinuities from late 19th to the 21st century. In this respect, the book presents a rich narrative of transformation as well as simultaneous articulation of secular, nationalist, and Islamic women’s movements in the Middle East and Africa.
Badran advances three major arguments: First, feminism in the region does not emerge as a consequence of the contact with the West. Instead, it has an indigenous historical trajectory dating back to the late 19th century modernist movements. Second, Middle Eastern and African feminisms did not start with nationalist male elites’ attempt to construct a new emancipated, nationalist woman. Even though these elites were instrumental in early women’s movements, women themselves had the leading role in crafting feminist discourses and strategies. Third, secular and Islamic feminisms share more in common than it is usually presumed. If one studies them side by side and not as inherently oppositional forces, one should be able to “bring to light the confluences between these two feminist paradigms … [as well as] how secular … and Islamic feminists have worked together, and do so increasingly, to achieve shared goals” (p. 5).
Badran argues that both brands of women’s activism are deeply entangled in their society’s experience of Islam as a cultural system and Islamic modernism as a political reform movement. Hence, she chooses to entitle her book “Feminism in Islam” rather than “Islamic feminism.” She identifies Islamic feminism as a descriptive, analytical category that demarcates the demands and activism of Muslim women who are veiled and/or situated in a variety of Islamist or Islamic movements. She argues that Islamic feminists’ struggles would be the most radical source of change for feminism in the new century, given the ways in which they challenge and subvert the predominant patriarchal authority within their own community and also stereotypical assumptions among secular circles about the “women question” in Islam.
In contrast, Shirazi takes a global approach to Muslim women’s resistance only to Islamic fundamentalism. She focuses on six particular women’s issues—specifically, honor and virginity, fertility and childbirth, women’s attire and ethics, arts and athletics, sexuality, and spatial segregation. She illustrates how contextual interpretations of [End Page 323] Islamic scripture and hadith on these issues discriminate against women. She goes on to explain how Muslim women challenge and subvert such interpretations through their participation in intellectual debates, religious rituals and online activism.
The majority of Shirazi...