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Reformist Women Thinkers in the Islamic World

Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center; Margot Badran, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, Senior Fellow, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University; Amina Wadud, International Center for Islam and Pluralism, Jakarta; Robin Wright, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; Kecia Ali, Assistant Professor, Religion, Boston University; Lilia Labidi, Professor, Anthropology and Psychology, University of Tunis; Mahnaz Afkhami, President, Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace; Gadis Ariva, Professor, Philosophy and Gender Studies, University of Indonesia; Ousseina Alidou, Director, African Languages and Literature, Rutgers University; Ann Mayer, Associate Professor, Legal Studies and Business Ethics, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Date & Time

May. 4, 2009
8:30am – 3:30pm ET


The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a conference featuring three panels with leading specialists and scholars in the field of Women's Rights and Islamic Feminism. The first panel, chaired by Robin Wright, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, featured Margot Badran, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center and Senior Fellow Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University; and Amina Wadud, International Center for Islam and Pluralism, Jakarta. The second panel chaired by Mahnaz Afkhami, President, Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, featured Kecia Ali, Assistant Professor, Religion, Boston University; and Lilia Labidi, Professor, Anthropology and Psychology, University of Tunis. Finally, the third panel, chaired by Ann Mayer, Associate Professor, Legal Studies and Business Ethics, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; featured Gadis Arivia, Professor, Philosophy and Gender Studies, University of Indonesia; and Ousseina Alidou, Director, African Languages and Literature, Rutgers University.

Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Wilson Center, gave some introductory remarks to preface the first panel. Violations of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa are rampant, and, sadly, these violations have failed to garner the attention of policy makers. Instead, they have only been given emphasis when they happened to coincide with political interests. Esfandiari argued that this was a mistake, and that there needed to be a continuity and consistency in approach. It is women who are at the forefront of reformulating and rethinking traditional Islamic views regarding women she stated. Esfandiari continued to say that "what these women think, write, and say matters." Their ideas can reshape their status, rights, as well as how women are perceived in the Islamic world.

Panel 1- New Ideas for the 21st Century
Margot Badran opened the discussion by noting the launching, earlier this year at transnational conference in Malaysia, of the Musawah movement, a global campaign to achieve equality in the family which, along with equality in religious professions and leadership in religious ritual, constitutes the last frontier in reformist women's equality struggles in the Islamic world. Badran then proceeded to give a brief historical overview of reformist women as feminists promoting a gender egalitarian vision of religion and society. Reformist women who appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century in various countries in Africa and Asia were called secular feminists reflecting their common national identities constructed around shared membership in territorial nation-states comprising citizens of different religious affiliations. Secular feminists mobilized the combined discourses of secular nationalism, Islamic reform, and humanitarianism (later human rights). From the start, the feminist reformers included Muslim women together with those of other religious affiliations in their struggle for gender equality. In the latter decades of the 20th century, pioneering Muslim women scholars, following their fresh investigations of the Qur'an, articulated the notion of full gender equality in family and society firmly anchored in the scripture. The new discourse of gender equality and social justice primarily grounded in religious sources was referred to as Islamic feminism. The creators of Islamic feminist discourse usually called themselves simply scholar-activists. One of these scholars at the forefront in the creation of the new discourse is Amina Wadud who is present on this panel. Secular feminists and Islamic feminists have worked together in seeking gender reforms. A striking success of their joint efforts is seen in the reform of Moroccan Family Law in 2004 which cast the wife and husband as equal heads of family. Reformist women as secular and Islamic feminists in diverse parts of the Muslim world, Badran pointed out, continue to struggle on multiple fronts to achieve the unfinished business of gender equality in law and practice.

Amina Wadud, stated that reform is part of a natural process of evolution. For Wadud, reform in Islam, and reform in gender are both categories of thought that can be transformed by infiltrating feminist interpretations to these categories. Including the female experience in readings of the Qur'an can also bring about this change she argued. In many cases, Wadud stated, very little of what is self proclaimed as reformist, has anything to do with God, and as a result religion is kept at bay from more progressive reforms. Thus, reforming gender relations in their social and cultural context, as well as in fiqh, requires reforming the ways in which we think about God. Wadud observed that the basis for what is human in Islam is grounded in male experience. This then permeates into the sphere of religious practice and ritual. Change needs to occur in a way that acknowledges the female experience. By articulating a gender egalitarian understanding of Islam, reform in Islamic law is likely to follow. Reforming the way we think about Islam is crucial because it dictates the way a family should be structured. Because gender identity is first formed within the family it will not be possible to reform a patriarchal family structure without first reforming the way we think about Islam and God.

Robin Wright, discussed the different initiatives that have driven women in the Middle East to take part in the women's movement. Dahlia Ziada, a 26-year-old woman became engaged in human rights issues at the age of 8 after her experience of circumcision. She then used her experience to advocate for Human's Rights within her family and eventually launched her campaign nationally. Another example is Wahija al Huwaiter, a Saudi woman who became an activist as a result of the outspoken comments she left on news websites. Al Watan newspaper eventually invited her to write her own column. Due to her candid statements however, she was banned from writing in 2003 by the Saudi government. However, she has found other means to continue advocating for women's rights, such as by being filmed driving in the desert. Other women have not been as forward in their advocacy for women's rights but have instead chosen to become active as scholars or active in professions that have previously restricted women. Education has helped promote and encourage women's participation in the workforce and society in general. Wright concluded that this activism has at times been a double edged sword; this past February, an Iraqi woman recruited more than 80 suicide bombers to detonate themselves for the cause of extremists.

Panel 2 – Reformist Women
Kecia Ali, discussed the relationship between reform and reformist thought through a textual analysis. Ali stated that although reformist thought has been done by men and women there have been striking differences in their approach. Male reformist thinker Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd for example, has argued that the problem with Muslim Feminism is that it is too Qur'an text centric.. As a result feminists have become entrapped by their methodology. Tarek Ramadan another male reformist thinker, has argued that it is not sufficient for Muslims to adapt to their circumstances, but rather that it is necessary for them to transform the way in which Muslims engage with their world. Ali noted that women that have contributed to the reformist thought discourse but due to their very specific gender related topics, they have been cited less. Ali explained, women are more interested in getting things done, something that is necessary for them, if they want to live lives with dignity, equality and justice. Additionally, to understand feminist reformist thought it is necessary to develop methodologies that are grounded in women's experience – this entails rewriting and reconstructing history by thoroughly including the woman's experience.

Lilia Labidi looked at how two reformist women in Tunisia have contributed to the Tunisian feminist movement. According to Labidi from the 1930s to the 1970s a Tunisian female elite emerged, with two specific ideological tendencies, each represented by two Tunisian reformist feminists. Jalila Baka, the first, used a historical and political approach to express the struggle of women born in the 1950s around the time of national independence. Much of her work pertained to theater where she portrayed women as historical and political actors. Her work conveyed a woman's struggle through the discourse of memory and history. Al fayus,[Mona please get her full name.] another reformist woman of Tunisia, used her position as a university professor to present the struggle of women in religion through the use of psychoanalysis. She represented an apolitical and implicitly pro-establishment movement typical of women born in the middle of the 1970s and later. Both women brought about new perspectives on woman in Tunisia through their discourses and prolific writings.

Mahnaz Afkhami discussed the active role the Women's Learning Partnership, which she founded and heads, has played in promoting reform the family laws in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Afkhami noted that before mobilization can occur, women must share a common plight or experience. This requires studying the situation as is and bringing a shared vision that can mobilize masses of women. Afkhami continued to say that societies have changed considerably over the years to become more interconnected, making the women's movement itself, more interconnected. In many places in the Middle East women outnumber men in universities, and are working in well respected technical fields that were formally dominated by men. Parallel to this many nations are aspiring to improve their human rights standards and are striving to become more democratic. In light of this, new trends can be seen in the feminist movement; it has become more holistic. Religion and culture have become increasingly integrated while men and children are also at the center of this process. Agency and human rights discourse have become largely conflated. While many Islamic nations still retain traditional barriers to reform in their societies, modern influences have enabled women to become ever more active in promoting change.

Panel 3 – Individual Initiatives
During the third session of the conference two panelists discussed the individual initiatives of reformist women thinkers in countries such as Indonesia and the Niger. Gadis Arivia arecounted the heroic efforts of an Indonesian woman, Musda Mulia, a reformist Muslim and champion of Human Rights, was one of the first women to receive a research professorship from Indonesia's Institute of Sciences and the first to do her dissertation on Islamic political thought. Arivia stated that Musda had consistently pushed against the gender biases still present in Indonesia. Musda Mulia has fought hard to combat violence against women by stressing the need to change language that is discriminatory to women. Ousseina Alidou, presented the case of Mallama Aishatu, a Sufi woman from the Niger who took advantage of the democratic openings in the post colonial era using the radio as a platform to question the place of women in Islam. As an example, Mallama Aishatu in her radio broadcasts encouraged Muslims to send their children to school with the underlying message that education could bring about gender equality in the future.

Ann Mayer, closed the last panel by stating that many reformist women have used the influences of the modern world in their favor to advocate for women's rights. Women are actively demanding that these discriminatory laws, problematically enacted in the name of Islam, to be thrown out. Equality and justice are fundamental principles of Islam which Islamic laws need to convey. CEDAW (The UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination against Women) has played an important role in protecting women's rights. Many Islamic countries have signed CEDAW inserting reservations on the grounds that they are not in keeping with Islam which thus enables them to bypass certain articles. As a result, the Equality without Reservation Campaign was started to push for the elimination of reservations that continue to protect discriminatory laws and practices that claim to be Islamic. The recent case of a Saudi Arabian 8-year-old girl married off to a 60-year-old man indicates that protecting children and especially girls is a priority. Girls need to be a priority because they are the lowest of the low in the world hierarchy, stated Mayer. This is particularly important because the rights of the child are not properly developed in Islamic law. As a result strengthening the Convention of the Rights of the Child and other international treatises protecting Human Rights and Women's Rights within an Islamic framework is vital.

-Drafted by Nassima Barrows on behalf of the Middle East Program.


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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