INTERNATIONAL. Can you be liberal, feminist and Muslim at the same time? Malaysian activist Marina Mahathir says “Yes”. She spoke to INSEAD Knowledge recently when she was in Singapore to deliver the Shirin Fozdar lecture at the Singapore Management University.
‘Islamic feminism’? The phrase sounds contradictory at first: Islam is often viewed as intrinsically patriarchal and opposed to ‘feminism’.
Marina Mahathir – Malaysian activist and writer - understands why Islam is perceived this way but claims that while individual Muslim believers may have a patriarchal outlook, this does not mean that Islam itself is patriarchal. “Like other religions, most interpreters of Islam are men and therefore they will bring their patriarchal interpretations into society.
And because they hold power, few would challenge it,” she says.
But Marina is involved with Sisters in Islam (SIS) and its Musawah (Equality) movement which believe that many passages of the Qur'an promote equality between men and women: “Our belief is that the main message of the Qur'an is justice and equality for humankind, therefore it cannot possibly support any sort of discrimination.”
She asserts, “Women are now better educated and are participating in society, so surely Islam must make itself relevant to today, rather than just the time of the Prophet.” Islamic feminists believe that they can find support for feminist values and principles from the Qur'an.
Marina is one of “Women Deliver 100”, a list of the 100 most inspiring people who have improved the lives of girls and women worldwide by Women Deliver, a New York-based advocacy group in celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day in 2011.
Muslim women doing ‘feminist’ things
In some Muslim communities, working outside the home and driving a car are, relatively speaking, very ‘feminist’ things to do. Marina says these are aberrations rather than the norm and that there are growing protests from these women against not being allowed to drive. As far as working outside the home is concerned, she says that people are often confused about women’s work.
“Women work all the time - at home, in the fields, and in workplaces outside the home such as in factories, hospitals and offices. But people only seem to get upset about the latter workplaces perhaps because it is paid for and also it is where women are likely to meet people other than their own families and communities,” she opines. “Having her own income can liberate women and this is what conservatives find ‘dangerous’ and therefore there are constant reminders that ‘good’ mothers are those who stay at home.”
Polygamy and the veil
In the media, Islam has frequently been associated with practices that are oppressive towards women, such as polygamy and wearing the veil. How do Islamic feminists make sense of these teachings? Marina points out that it is important to remember the context in which this verse was revealed. In the case of polygamy, she argues that the practice existed to protect orphans and widows, who had no source of financial support. At a time when very few women could support themselves, the injunction for men to take on several wives was seen as a charitable gesture.
As for the veil, Marina says that it is important to remember that “Islam came to a desert country where both men and women cover themselves from head to toe”. The Qur'an presupposes that women (and men) were already wearing a veil when it encourages them to display modesty.
While Mahathir herself does not wear a veil, she does not discourage other women from wearing one, claiming in the current social climate, wearing the veil has become a political statement of identity. She says, “Our stand is that Muslim women should have the choice of wearing it or not and that neither should be taken as a sign of her inner piety or lack thereof.”
Notes: 'INSEAD Celebrates Women' is an annual INSEAD initiative to join the global celebration of women’s achievements during International Women’s Day.
This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge
Copyright INSEAD 2012