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Feminism through the eyes of Islam*

World Guide
The entry of some Muslim women into the workforce, which has enabled them to earn an income and a degree of independence, has made obsolete the prescriptive nature of the Islamic testament

Some Western feminists are increasingly looking at issues that do not directly involve them, such as the place and role of
women in Islam. For some time now the applicability of some aspects of Western feminism has been in question.
The modern feminist movement had its roots in England in the second half of the 19th century. It was promoted by women who sought property rights denied them under British law. Even after the British Parliament approved the first Married Women's Property Act in 1882, women continued to be denied property in their own right, independent of their husband's -a right that was granted Muslim women in the 7th century, in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Western feminism was conceived from the outset by middle-class white
women who have tended to judge other cultures in a critical way. Today it is recognized within the feminist academy that, in many cases, their efforts to liberate their peers in the Third World have been marked by classist and ethnocentric prejudices. They also recognize that their standards for judging the rest of the world have ignored their own status and position of privilege as citizens of countries that were colonizing states (or which today are neo-colonialist).

As a counterweight, there are many female academics of the South, including Muslim women, who emphasize that the Northern feminists' critical perspective of patriarchy in the non-industrialized world often lacks contextualization. In the specific case of
Islam, Muslim women academics say that the lens through which Westerners see them is colored by androcentric, ethnocentric and colonialist preconceptions, and also by the West's exoticization of Islam in general. In his book Orientalism, Palestinian academic Edward Said explains that this perspective denies Islam its historic reality, that it is perceived in the light of a past of splendor and a present that is invariably disappointing with respect to that history.

The battle over interpretation

In addition, Western feminists sometimes do not appear to perceive the existence of discourses within each culture that fall into socially constructed categories of man and woman and the status of women. These discourses are usually controlled by men or favor men. In the particular case of the ideological and activist struggle of women within the Muslim world, one discourse includes the interpretations of the Qur'an. A large part of the oppression of Muslim women is not the fault of the writings of the Qur'an, but of its interpretation. Because this sacred text also serves as a normative guide in the social and political spheres, it
has been the ulemas
(scholars of the Qur'an), over the centuries, who have jealously guarded its interpretation.

They have imposed social norms that are not necessarily in keeping with what the Prophet said. Taking Muhammad's words that the pursuit of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim, male or female, Muslim women activists have made the sacred book a battlefield, claiming an interpretation of the text that favors the liberation of women. They
have recalled the heroines named in the Qur'an, beginning with the wives and daughter of Muhammad, some of whom
participated in battles and even led armies. They also point out that Qur'anic prescriptions are not limited to men; already in Muhammed's era women participated in the spheres of knowledge and

Many female Muslim academics have reacted to certain interpretations that they believe are too orthodox as examples of how the discourse is manipulated by men. These women cite the standard claims that the Prophet, by recognizing women's rights previously denied them
(such as the right to property and the power to dissolve the marriage through Khula' - that is, by giving up some of her property to her husband) had completed the women's revolution in the 7th century. As a result some Muslim leaders believe that there is no need today to advocate new rights for women. Although many women agree that the Qur'an brought with it certain reforms, like the prohibition of infanticide, the payment of a dowry to the bride, female inheritance and women's property rights, nonetheless they point out that the Qur'an upholds divorce as an exclusively male prerogative. One reason for this is that the institution of Khula' -besides forcing women to give up property- specifies that a wife must dislike her husband enough to deny him conjugal rights which is virtually impossible for her to do.

Writer Leila Ahmed, for example, has said that the message of
Islam, as instituted by the teachings and practices of
Muhammaed, contained two strands that were at odds with each other. On the one hand, it preached patriarchal matrimony and the dominance of the man, while, on the other hand, it preached equality. This ambiguity casts doubt on what is Islamic and what is not. There are even some clothing-related institutions, such as the wearing of the
veil, which should not be considered necessarily Muslim because it is not clear that this was obligatory in the Prophet´s day.

Muslim women argue that times have changed. They say that scrutinizing the Qur'anic verses to evaluate their true or original meaning is no longer useful. The entry of some Muslim women into the workforce, which has enabled them to earn an income and a degree of independence, has made obsolete the prescriptive nature of the Islamic testament. In the face of such change, the repeated question about a woman's place in Islam would lose its relevance.
New economic and social conditions, the dismantling of the traditional roles of men and women, would force a rethinking of the situation.

For them, this is a
global problem. They insist that the horror expressed by Muslims, men and women alike, about the
breakdown of the family caused by the impacts of industrialization is not exclusive to Islam. In their view, the entry of women into the labor market has begun to dismantle not the family, but the patriarchal system
(and not just the Islamic one). This concern about the breakdown of patriarchy is also evident in the West, where some Christian groups continue to press for women to stay at home and forget about work. To sum up, for these activists the situation of Muslim women should be studied in two ways: on the one hand taking into account the specific Islamic context; and on the other, within the context of industrialization, where women's entry into the labor market has helped break up patriarchy.

*Published in The World Guide





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