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Do Muslim Women Need a Feminist Revolution?

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By Kouser Fathima

Richard Dawkins’ tweet about Islam needing a feminist revolution was slammed by both Muslims and non-Muslims. He shows his supremacist attitude and arrogance by repeatedly defaming Islam using fake pictures and by proclaiming that all Muslim women are oppressed. He refuses to modify his statements after being made aware of the shallowness of his statements. This makes it difficult to believe that his concerns for Muslim women are genuine.

However, the bigger questions are: do we, Muslim women, need a feminist revolution? Is there anything called Muslim feminism?

Many argue that Islam itself is nothing less than a feminist movement. Islam not only gave women a special place in society but addressed specifically issues concerning women, which were never addressed before. These issues range  from discouraging female infanticide to ensuring  legal rights  to the property of both father and husband, freedom of property ownership and inheritance, requiring the consent of females  before marriage, concept of  mehr, and widow remarriage. Many of these rights were unheard of at the Prophet’s time. Even with polygamy, the aim was to benefit women more than the men. As we see during the battle of Uhud, men died leaving women as widows, who were unprotected and left with orphans. The Prophet decreed polygamy to provide financial, moral, and legal protection to women. The aim was to give these women shelter and respect in society.

Historically, the first one to accept Islam was a woman (Bibi Khadijah) and one of the most respected and oft-quoted Islamic scholars is also a woman (Bibi Ayesha). Many instances in Prophet’s life show that women were not only religious but one day every week they discussed various other issues concerning them with the Prophet himself in the presence of Ayesha. He exhorted his followers, “do not prevent your women from coming to the mosque.” The Muslim women didn’t blindly follow their men but discussed issues and acted independently.

Even after the demise of the Prophet, many women went on to become renowned Islamic scholars. For example, Sayyida Nafisa, a great-great granddaughter of the Prophet was a respected teacher, who imparted instructions to Imam Al-Shafi’i; Fatima al-Fihri built the Al-Qarawiyyin University in 859 AD; Anas Khatun, wife of 15th century scholar, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, was a scholar, who gave regular public lectures. All this reiterates the fact that Muslim women had a special position and role in society, which at that time was uncommon for women.

We can say with some certainty that Islam was fair to women, giving her enough rights to lead a dignified life. But is the situation same today?  From being women-centric, now Islam is often portrayed as being biased against its female followers. Keeping aside allegations of western media’s role in maligning Islam, we need to think what has really changed over the years.

One could explain this in simple terms by saying that some of the Islamic rulings regarding women have changed. The female consent before marriage has been reduced to a simple formality and so is the concept of mehr among Indian Muslims. Many Muslims don’t give any mehr or the amount is negligible, which fails to serve the purpose. How many Muslims genuinely ask consent of the girl before marriage, making the process a mere formality? How many families give shares in property to their daughters?  Has the mehr, which was intended to provide financial security to the woman, been reduced just to an act? Are Muslims opposing female infanticide and not differentiating between a son and a daughter? We seem to have failed in following the radical spirit of Islam concerning women and, hence, failed ourselves.

All the rights meant to benefit the women have been manipulated and misused against them. Who is to be blamed for this mess? Each and every Muslim, who participated in this and also those who remained silent spectators to this misuse, are to be blamed.

Now women’s rights in Islam are reduced to mere words. As a consequence, people like Richard Dawkins and others advice Muslim women freely without being asked. Muslim women are seen as oppressed, who need to be rescued by others; and the world is too eager to play the role of a savior.

It’s time Muslim women reclaimed their lost space. There are plenty of examples of activists and organizations that are working for Muslim women’s rights. For instance, there are activists such as Amina Wadud, who focus on a progressive exegesis of Islamic scriptures, and organizations such as Musawah, a global movement, which promote equality in Muslim families. Further, in the Indian sub-continent, we have people such as Asma Jahangir, who have been fighting relentlessly for Muslim women’s rights. Then there is Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which recently fought a legal battle with the management of Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai for prohibiting women from entering the inner sanctum. Muslim women need to further reclaim their rights as prescribed by Islam.

Islamic feminism need not be a poor imitation of western notions of women’s rights. Rather, it should be able to specifically address Muslim women’s issues. To give one example, the western feminists would like us to believe that hijab is regressive and oppresses Muslim women. While there are instances of Muslim families forcing their women to cover, but there are many Muslim women, who cover voluntarily. Feminists should not force Muslim women to blindly follow their ideas but respect the will of Muslim women. Knowing all the advantages and disadvantages of wearing a hijab, if a Muslim woman decides to follow it voluntarily, her decision should be respected, instead of labeling her regressive. Forcing the ideals of western feminism on the body of Muslim women would be detrimental. Feminists should remember that the women they are trying to rescue are not ready to give up on their religious belief. Any positive change would be possible by internal reforms and a proper education of its youth. It can’t be forced upon a diverse Muslim society from outside.

Finally, I would like to propose what Muslim women need is a feminist revivalism and not a feminist revolution. This revivalism denotes reclaiming the rights that are already given to women in their religion. What we require is a complete implementation of those rights. For example, Muslim women must seek a ban on early marriages, fight for their rights to drive, which is banned in some countries, and avoid wearing niqab which is not required by Islam. Muslim feminist revivalism would imply that women must press against regressive patriarchal practices and reclaim their rights within the progressive framework of their religion.


Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on Muslim Women on Hijab/Veil, edited by Varsha Basheer, University of Kerala & IRDP, UC Berkeley.

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