Discrepancy between the ideal vision of an Islamic state as one that adheres fully to the employment of the shari’ah as perfect law embodying the integrity of Islam and the reality of the actual implementation amounting unimpressively to policing women’s bodies and exercising a pre-Islamic model of social gender relations is often attributed to Muslim “traditionalists” or “fundamentalists” who violently oppose any variations to what they believe are the perpetually lawful ways sanctioned by an austere unchanging shari’ah. Islamic fundamentalists can differ vastly in their interpretations of the shari’ah and may even seek to transform current practices by attempting to arrive to what they believe is an original unadulterated shari’ah (though self-acclaimed “traditionalists” are rarely traditional in that they neglect to account for traditional practices that restored rights to women.) But there is another opponent to feminist exegeses of the Qur’an, and these are secular fundamentalists. Secular fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that any religious commandment or practice can bring justice or equality, and they can be just as rigid, inflexible, and damaging as religious fundamentalists, invoking the relentless ideologies of advancement and science to accentuate the misogyny (real or imaginary) in Islam and illustrating the same hostile superiority in a colonialist fashion by essentializing differences and seizing the narrative of the religion.
Donning different agendas, together secular fundamentalists and Muslim traditionalists join in taking Quranic verses and ahadith out of context to misrepresent the meanings and demonstrate their point, confiscating the power of interpreting and implementing these verses from Muslim women and silencing us through an exploitation of authority over the text for their own controlling purposes.
Authority and the struggle for it over holy texts is the same tension between theocratic and authoritarian principles that has been integral in the liberation—and in the enslavement—of women in nearly all religious structures. And Muslim women are no different. Muslim women, from the very inception of Islam in fact, have always been aware of gender disparity and have always resisted. It was only recently that the appearance of a persistent, internal feminism was deferred because of the multifaceted interconnectivity between women’s struggle for equality and colonialism—and the consequential anticolonial sentiment. Colonialism worked more than to frustrate the development of Islamic feminism, it captured the movement and employed it for its own purposes as an excuse to conquer, championing the superiority of other cultures and religious doctrines to validate attacks on Muslim societies. Thus women who attempt to raise Islam’s Qur’an and ahadith to restore their rights were forced to also become representations of Islamic legitimacy—which means any dissent could be understood as treachery. Secular fundamentalists, harnessing the appropriation of colonialism to claim feminist values as their own rather than universal, remove access to these ideologies from Muslim women. But Islam, of course, has no logical link between its dictations and patriarchy, and there is no contradiction between Islam and feminism.
Secular fundamentalists must recognize that gender inequality prevailing in their own religious societies were once—and still are not—dissimilar from the inequality prevailing in Islamic communities. Nearly every historically renowned feminist belonging to a religion accepted as Western restored the rights of women by employing religious principles, thus challenging the misconception that women are religiously inferior to men by reclaiming the religious texts themselves rather than rejecting them. Through an application of the greater ideals and philosophies in the Bible, Mary Wollstonecraft cited passages of it when eloquently arguing for the acknowledgement of women’s rights that were essential in her religious text to refute prevailing opinions that women are expansively different from men. And of course The Women’s Bible authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of the most notable examples of repossessing authority from within a religious framework. It is from these religious works, the foundation of new discourses and the groundwork for equality, that women’s liberation was forged, recovered from the patriarchs who monopolized interpretation.
Muslim religious leaders have similarly converted the ideals of Islam’s equality, liberation, and justice to appeal to their own biased assumptions that women must be inherently inferior to men. And exposing the history that male jurists have ignored and reexamining and interpreting religious texts are likewise the strategic work of Islamic feminists in attesting that the discriminations inserted in fiqh are neither God’s will nor foundations of an inherently regressive configuration, but the fallible construction of jealous fearful patriarchs who have opposed the very core of divine justice revealed in the Qur’an and weaponized the holy dictations of Islam, contaminating them with political ideologies rather than upholding the true egalitarian message. Through this repossession we can independently restore what is rightfully ours.
As for the religious and secular fundamentalists? Despite what they’ll have us believe, they don’t have what it takes to set us free.