- Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences
Margot Badran skillfully weaves together historical data collected from more than four decades of analysis of feminisms in the Middle East. In what amounts to a corpus of her work, this volume attests to Badran's contributions to the field of gender studies in the region and specifically to the forms feminisms take in Muslim majority societies.
Badran is a notable historian of the Middle East and Islamic societies and a specialist in gender studies. Her gender politics underscores the authenticity of indigenous forms of women's activism. For Badran, Middle Eastern feminisms originate in the region and are not imported [End Page 114] from the West. These forms of local feminisms demonstrate that Western forms of feminism are not the "…patrimonial home of feminism, from which all feminisms derive and against which they must be measured" (307). Badran insists on this point because she finds it necessary to address Islamist critiques wielded against feminisms in the region with the aim of undermining their authenticity by casting them as Western arms of domination.
Badran takes up several main themes in her book—themes that also define her life's work. Foremost among these is the aforementioned emphasis on the indigenous roots of Middle Eastern feminism. From nineteenth-century Egyptian history to the present, she notes the various impetuses for women to organize and actively pursue a woman-centered agenda. For example, in late nineteenth-century Egypt, the introduction of the printing press and educational opportunities for women provided women of privilege with a means of expressing their burgeoning feminism. In much the same way, the author explains how informational technology afforded means of communication for contemporary feminists of the region to network and forge transnational alliances. Through these nuanced historical transformations, Badran shows how Middle Eastern feminisms developed independently of Western feminisms.
The second theme that runs through Badran's work and this book focuses on the relationship between what she calls "Islamic" feminism and "secular" feminism. Islamic feminism, Badran explains, articulates a discourse that relies on, "a single, or paramount, religiously-grounded discourse taking the Qur'an as its central text" (300). Secular feminism however, "draws upon and is constituted by multiple discourses, including secular nationalist, Islamic modernist, humanitarian/human rights and democratic" ideas (300). To her, these constitute two parallel but intersecting modes of feminism, despite a general belief that the two are antithetical. Employing a contextual reading of secular and Islamic feminisms, the author reminds us that although distinct, these two modes of women-centered activism in the Middle East are nevertheless interconnected. This, she maintains, is due to the historical contexts that shaped both movements and transformed individuals' identities and subjectivities. Transformative forces such as religious, ethnic, and class structures, as well as nationalist visions, have produced complex waves of feminist manifestations. To this end, Badran goes so far as to state [End Page 115] that, "I argue that secular feminism is Islamic and Islamic feminism is secular" (206).
While her argument concerning these forms of feminism may be a running theme through the thirteen chapters of her book, Badran also investigates the compatibility of Islam with feminism. To do so, she relays the vast history of Muslim scholars who engaged with modernity and modernization. Beginning with Mohamed 'Abduh, a proponent of Muslim modernity, she moves on to discuss Turkey's secular modernity and then deals with the hijab as a metaphor for feminists' modernization of the Islamic head cover. Badran asserts that women have been engaging with modernity even while men aspired to masculinize its processes. Despite modernity's gendered sensibilities, she points out, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women grappled with modernity to construct a new feminism that sprung out of Islamic modernism and secular nationalism.
What remains somewhat obscured in these arguments, however, is what Badran means by modernity or, rather, by the modernities that emerge from the intersection of nationalisms, Islamisms, and feminisms that take shape in her historical investigation. We do not get a sense of how...