No chapter on the reform of Islamic education in the West would be complete without a reflection on the status of women in Muslim communities and the role that has devolved to them. We have already pointed out that numerous women of the second and later generations (not to mention many converts) have become involved in Muslim organizations, in which they play an increasing part in leadership. This does not mean to say that mentalities have always changed accordingly, and many Muslim men, and women too, submit to these developments rather than accept them. In their heart of hearts they are not convinced that “all this” is really Islamic. The issue of women is a sensitive one in almost all Western Islamic communities, and it sometimes appears that the whole question of faithfulness to Islam centers on it. Moreover, the repeated allusions and questions of or fellow-citizens, intellectuals, and the media about “women in Islam” causes a sort of psychological pressure that drives Muslims to adopt a defensive and often apologetic stance, which is not always objective. To believe that nothing in the message of Islam justifies discrimination against women is one thing; to say that they do not suffer any discrimination in Western (or Eastern) Muslim communities is another. Any look at these communities that could be called objective will reveal that we are far from the ideal of equality before God, complementarity in family and social relations, and financial independence, behind which many ulama and intellectuals hide by quoting verses and Prophetic traditions. This does not reflect the reality, and to say otherwise would be a lie.
We saw in the first part that the work of categorizing methodologies in the fundamentals of law and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) taught us to differentiate between universal principles and commandments and the forms that their implementation take in a given culture. Although, as we have explained, the principle of integration allows us to consider as Islamic everything that does not oppose Islam, it is nevertheless erroneous and methodologically incorrect to confuse an Islamic principle a posteriori with the way it has been expressed in a given culture. It is always the principle, extrapolated and based on the scriptural sources, that must be our ultimate source. It is evident that there is so much confusion over the issue of women and their status that it is in this area that we have most often to recall these principles of methodology. In the minds of many Muslims, being faithful to Islamic teachings with regard to education for women, access to mosques, marriage and divorce, social and financial independence, and political participation means doing what was customary in their country of origin or what “the ulama from back there” used to say. Thus, we find parents justifying their unequal treatment of their sons and daughters (clearly discriminating against the latter) with regard to permissiveness, going out, and so on. Some in Europe and in the United States do not allow women to enter mosques, and if, by happy chance, there is a place for them, it is usually dilapidated and often even without a good sound system. Imams find “Islamic” justifications for “fast-track” marriages, without any preparatory official administrative procedures, leaving women without security or rights, abused and deceived by unscrupulous individuals. Divorce is made very difficult, even when it is clear that the woman is defending her most basic rights. Some women, with the knowledge of all around her, suffer violence and degradation while the Muslim community remains culpably silent and complicit, justifying its inaction and cowardice by reference to the Islamic injunction “not to get involved in what does not concern you.” But demanding dignified treatment for women has nothing to do with unhealthy curiosity: the first does us honor, the second—to which the Prophetic injunction refers—is unworthy of us. One also finds all sorts of restrictions to do with women, such as the “Islamic” prohibition against their working, having social involvements, speaking in public, and engaging in politics. And what have we not heard about the impossibility of “mixing”! It is true that these practices have sometimes been affirmed and advised in the countries of emigration, and one can certainly find ulama in the traditionalist and literalist schools who declare that these are Islamic teachings. But it is essential that we go back to the scriptural sources to evaluate these practices (and to draw a clear distinction between customs that are culturally based and Islamic principles). We shall discover that there is broad scope for interpretation and that some people, either knowingly or not, have reduced it.
And we must go even further. Cultural influence is not only found after the extrapolation of regulations and in their application. A careful reading of the works of specialists in the fundamentals of law and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) and in fiqh itself shows that they themselves are immersed in a cultural milieu and a society that influence the way they proceed. It is impossible for them, as for any human being, to detach themselves totally from their social and human environment. In one way or another, it shapes their mind and their way of looking at the Qur’an and the world. If our only reference is to be the scriptural sources then we necessarily must have the right to study and question the readings produced by classical scholars in order to discover whether or not there exists scope for interpretation that our new context may open up. To be in accord with or Islamic principles in these areas means to be willing to follow this thorough study of the fundamentals of law and jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) to its conclusion. One cannot make the texts say anything (and there is a great body of standard literature on that subject), but one must be able to say what the text makes it possible to say, even if that shakes our old legal and cultural habits.
This is the level at which we must work with regard to the issue of Muslim women. Their access to education and the revival of their civic involvement is in the process of enabling them to study the Islamic sources more deeply and to engage in a more profound consideration that questions the old evidences born of ancient cultural practices. But this is not a process that will set women against the oppression of men. In fact, we observe a different dynamic: scholars, intellectuals, and women together are now giving birth to a movement of women’s liberation within and through Islam itself.11 Distancing themselves from the most restrictive interpretations, it is in the name of Islam itself that they declare, together with many men, their opposition to discriminatory cultural practices, to the false Islamic identity of certain regulations, and to violence within marriage and their respect for the rights of women in matters of divorce, property, custody, and so on. The first time I used the formula “Islamic feminism” to describe this movement, many Muslim men and women criticized me, and some non-Muslim critics were not convinced:12 but a study on the ground, in North America, Europe, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, in Africa and Asia and through the Middle East and Iran, reveals that a movement is afoot that clearly expresses the renewal of the place of women in Islamic societies and an affirmation of a liberation vindicated by complete fidelity to the principles of Islam.
What we see in actuality in the West by way of reform (and there will necessarily be examples of it in the Muslim world) revolves around three essential axes. The first concerns the conception of woman herself: if, until now, most of the classical texts concentrated on the role of woman as “child,” “wife,” or “mother,” woman is now spoken of as “woman.” This change of angle is not a mere detail: a real transformation in the conception of woman is at work in the revision of our way of speaking about her. We are now interested in her psychology and her spirituality, and we read the Qur’an with new eyes. We are still a long way from the end of our work in this area, but many men and women are working in this direction in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, to name but a few countries. It is also worth noting the influential role of many women converts who are often thoroughly versed in the legal instruments and who carefully question the Muslim legal heritage, into which numerous Arab and Asian features have been surreptitiously introduced.13 As this work goes on, discussion moves to women’s rights, decision making within couples (other than in terms of the confrontation between the rights and the responsibilities of the spouses), social involvement, and female participation in academic and political debate.
The second axis of reform that is in process is the direct consequence of what we have just described. It is the emergence of a new discourse, firmly anchored in the Islamic sources but open to original female perspectives. What is particularly new is that this discourse is increasingly conducted by women themselves, because they study, express themselves and, more and more frequently, teach. They label themselves as Muslims, criticize erroneous interpretations, and use the scope for interpretation provided by the texts and the various opinions of the ulama of the reformist tradition to construct a discourse on Muslim women that calls them to an active, intelligent, and fair faithfulness—an Islamic faithfulness that sets them free before God and does not subject them to the masochistic imagery of either East or West.
The last axis is the consequence of the first two, because it is the recognition of the necessary visibility of women. Their presence in mosques, at conferences and seminars, in Islamic organizations, in the public space, and in universities and places of work has become more and more substantial, and this visibility is a clear vindication as much of their right to be, and to be there, as of their right to express themselves. Many women in the West now indicate their right to be respected in their faith by wearing the headscarf and by giving visible signs of the modesty in which they wish to be approached: but their faithfulness to Islamic rules does not prevent them from having completely Western tastes when it comes to the style or color of their clothing. They are engaged in a liberation movement within and through Islam, and they promote an “Islamic feminism” that does not mean the uncritical acceptance of the fashions and behavior of their Western fellow-citizens. They are fighting for recognition of their status, for equality, for the right to work and to equal pay, but that does not mean that they want to neglect or forget the demands of their faith.14 They are Western Muslims—they respect the principles of their religion and dress them according to the style and taste of their culture. It is interesting to note that many Muslim women, both veiled and unveiled, work together in several organizations respectful of each other’s personal choices: this development is important because it is a step toward acceptance of the opinions of the other and the promotion of a much needed internal dialogue.
This feminism is on the march, even if it is difficult in the West to accept that a Muslim woman can be liberated from within the very confines of the Islamic terms of reference or that a woman who wears a headscarf may in some way be really free and liberated. The visibility of women, and their voices, which are increasingly heard, should eventually change these images and, one hopes, propose another model of a modern, autonomous, Western, and profoundly Muslim woman. This would not be the same as the classical model of the “liberated Western woman,” but we have said earlier that what creates freedom is not a particular form of expression in a given civilizational period, or for a particular population, but the true existence of the principles on which it is based: an autonomous conscience that makes its choices on the basis of its convictions. People in the West would do well to respect this other way of freedom.
For Muslim women and men, it remains to negotiate some shared challenges that are of prime importance in Western societies and that must not be relativized or minimized in the name of the promotion of feminism. Men, as well as women, must remember that Islamic commandments emphasize the centrality of the family, the role of mothers as well as fathers, the education and support of children, the passing on of knowledge, and all the things discussed in the previous sections. The desire for liberty and rights, for men as well as for women, cannot mean forgetting one’s individual, familial, and social responsibilities. Everything leads us to believe that without more vigilance, Western Muslims will increasingly experience the same difficulties as some of their fellow-citizens’ families: divorce, violence, desertion of children, generation gaps, abandonment of elderly relatives, and so on. We are not yet there, but all the statistical indicators show that Muslim families tend to settle toward the worse. This state of affairs should make them wake up to the need for a thoughtful and effective social engagement.
Let us say again, at the end of this section, that we must hear and understand the reservations expressed by some Muslim women and men about the term “Islamic feminism” for both historical reasons (the memory of colonialism) and ideological reasons (fear that the phrase will be Westernized). In fact, the intellectual and social movement aimed at promoting a new reading of the scriptural sources and establishing an autonomous status for women is actually of a “feminist” nature (in the sense of vindication of rights) within and through Islam. It will be only a moment, a stage, in the affirmation of women and their rejection of discrimination in Muslim communities in both East and West. Beyond this struggle, we must speak of and promote “Islamic femininity” and encompass all aspects of the matter: the dignity and autonomy of the feminine being, equality before the law, and natural complementarity. This “Islamic femininity” should define a certain way of being and of feeling oneself—and wanting to remain—a woman before God and among other human beings, spiritually, socially, politically, and culturally—free, autonomous, and engaged, as the Texts require and as societies should guarantee.