Can one be both feminist and a Muslim?


In the following essay, the question “can one be both a feminist and a Muslim”? Will be discussed and answered. For simplicity’s sake, the question will be broken down and answered in a systematic way. Firstly, the term “feminist” will be defined. Secondly, a detailed explanation will be given of Islam’s stance on feminism referring to the original sacred texts. Thirdly, some contemporary feminists’ views will be analysed. Finally, a summary of the essay will be given as a conclusion.


What is a Feminist?

The oxford dictionary defines a feminist as follows: “…a person who supports feminism. The advocacy of women rights on the ground of equality of the sexes”. (Oxford dictionary)


Estelle Freedman(2003), who is a highly acknowledged historian and has been involved with feminism and women’s history since her college days in the 1970s, defines feminism as the belief that both women and men are innately of equal worth.  Due to most people favouring men as a group, it is essential to have social movements achieving equality between women and men, understanding that gender always interconnects with other social orders. However, all feminists do not think the same way, nor do they talk about the same types of problems.


Feminism is not one absolute concept. It is rather a wide-range and diverse combination of concepts. Although many have tried to answer the question ‘What is feminism?’ with a group of ideas and notions crucial to all feminist concepts, it is really challenging to answer the question due to the fact that the diverse components of feminism appear to be not only differing but occasionally opposing too. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that the term ‘feminism’ cannot be unitarily defined. Yes, shared characteristics of all the numerous diverse forms of ‘feminism’ can be taken into consideration. Consequently, a standard description of a shared foundation of all forms of feminisms would be that feminisms focal point of concern is the women’s lower status or inferior position in society and the discrimination women have to encounter due to their sex. In addition, feminists also arguably demand alterations in the educational, spiritual, social, cultural, economic, political, psychological and cultural order, to diminish this discrimination against women (Freedman 2001:1).


If it is clear from the above that in terms of a set of core concepts defining feminism is challenging or perhaps even impossible. However, with regards to feminism the question of historical origins and development arises? The term feminism is a somewhat modern one. There are differences with regards to where and when it was first used, but the term ‘feminist’ appears to have first been used in 1871 in a French medical text to explain a close in development of the sexual organs and characteristics in male patients, who were seemingly suffering from ‘feminization’ of their bodies. Then a French writer and anti-feminist called Alexandre Dumas fils, used the term in a booklet published in 1872 entitled l’homme-femme, on the topic of adultery, explaining women behaving in an apparently masculine way. Hence, as Fraisse indicates that in medical terms the use of feminism was to show a feminisation of men. And it was first used to describe a masculinisation of women in political terms. This kind of gender misunderstanding was feared in the nineteenth century, and is somewhat arguably present in an altered form in this day and age where are at times feminists seemingly challenge the natural differences between men and women. Bear in mind that way before the term was coined there was existence of what could be called feminist thought and activity in this day and age. In America, there was the development of the women’s rights movement in 1840’s coupled with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the subsequent Declaration of Sentiments, claiming the doctrines of liberty and equality for women, which was explained in the American Declaration of Independence. This was followed by the emergence of women’s suffrage movements, even in Britain. However, women had been writing about the discriminations, injustices and inequalities in women’s social condition and protested to alter it before the occurrence of organised suffrage movements. (Freedman 2001: 2)


Upon conclusion of the above mentioned detail, it is evident that feminists all apparently strive for equality and also gender justice for women. However, they do tend to differ in what entails justice and equality or the greatest ways of achieving them. (Hosseini 2006: 640)


What does Islam say about feminism?

With regards to basic human rights, Islam considers men and women equal. Furthermore, Islam also recognizes a human personality for both and considers them equal in human privileges (Rahman 1986:43). This is supported by the following verses of the Qur’ân:


‘’O mankind fear your lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women.”(4:1)


“O mankind! We have created you male and female and appointed your races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most pious of you.”(49:13)


Allah, the Almighty explains in the above verses mentioned in the Qur’ân that He created both male and female from one single source. Without there being any difference between the two in terms of credentials in humanity, each parallel to the other as two genders of the same species. The earlier unjust laws that devalued women as second-class citizens in excellence and nature were abolished by Islam.


Islam initiated with an encouraging and positive message for women. In fact, it can be said that the faith came to birth in the arms of a loving woman. The first revelations of the Qur’ân, had such a shattering impact on Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that he would tremble and go to his wife Khadija (Allah be pleased with her). She would cradle him in her lap up until his tremor would abate. Women were from amongst the first converts to Islam and the Qur’ân gave women rights; such as rights of inheritance that Western women would not receive until the nineteenth century. (Haddad, Esposito 2001)


From amongst other things, Islam advocates equality for both sexes in humanity, education, preservation of honour, nobility, religious obligations, rewards, punishments, financial dealings and property ownership. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) emphasised on the honourable status of a women by mentioning that “the best of you is the best to his womenfolk” (Tirmidhî : 1162).


As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, equality does exist between males and females in Islam. However, it should be borne in mind that Islam is a religion of justice. And it is no hidden fact that both male and females are not equal in all aspects. This is because of their natural differences such as; physical, emotional, mental and psychological. These differences are accepted by everyone around the globe, be it subconsciously. For example, if one looks at sports, whether it is football, Rugby, boxing or any other sport, why is it that males and females do not play together? Why are males and females not on the same teams? Why do males and female not play against each other? It’s because the natural differences in males and females are accepted around the globe. Due to these natural differences, they have different roles and responsibilities. Islam being a religion of justice, it gives each of them their due roles and responsibilities.


People object that in Islam men have been given a lot of rights and choices and the freedom from women has been snatched away. They claim that men have been made to be rulers and women the ruled. Men can rule over women as they wish. When women are in marriage, they can’t raise an eye brow at the husband. These claims are far from reality and are certainly not part of Islamic teachings.


Male authority in the Qur’ân

One of the verses in the Qur’ân considered as a point of contention amongst many is:


“Men stand caretakers of women since Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they have spent of their wealth” (4:34)


Commonly translated as ‘men are in charge of women’ or ‘men have a degree over them’, whilst discussing the social and domestic responsibilities due on male and female, this verse is often quoted. A verse often used to establish male authority and unfortunately misrepresented to dishearten women.


The actual Arabic word used in this verse is “Qawwâmôn” which in Arabic denotes one who holds the responsibility or has the duty to manage a job or taking care of what has to be done regarding something. The word “Qawwâm” has been translated in numerous ways, the most common being the one that governs, or decides. Guardians, overseers and protectors are other translations used too. When taken in the sense of a carer and not ruler or dictator, then this understanding is from common experience. For any organized system or group to be smoothly running, it is logical that the group or system need a head or authority so that he can mediate and make decisions if a difference were to occur. This is a need that is universally accepted, practiced and acknowledged in the context of running countries, governments and states. A family organization is a small model of the larger organizations, hence it would also need someone to maintain and run the family smoothly. Allah in His infinite wisdom, designated men for this responsibility because their natural abilities are more noticeable in this regard. This is something obvious that one cannot deny; and denying it does not change reality. In short, the rights of both are similar to each other, with the exception that men have a specific precedence in functional authority. This authority men have is not that of a tyrant. Rather, with this authority comes the supreme law of Islam, the Shariah, which man is bound to. He must also exercise consultation and also follow good counsel. Men are also ordered to treat women well in another verse in the Qur’ân.  Allah, the Almighty did not confine the text on proclaiming the authority of man, but rather explained two reasons for this authority. One reason relates to the wisdom of creation, which means that Allah, the Almighty has made some surpass others (in some qualities) under His exclusive wisdom and deliberation; an exclusive privilege of the Creator. The second reason relates to what is achieved with effort, which means that men spend their money, pay dowry and take the duty of meeting the needs of women, declaring that all financial responsibilities rest with men. Thus, the precedency. However, as individuals, it is possible that a woman may outclass a man in her practical accomplishments and qualities to such an extent that woman may be superior to specific men, even in the qualities of a caretaker. In essence, woman in terms of her creation and nature, should not be subjected to go out, work and earn her own livelihood. Though, if she does, it will not be a sin. This, is to keep women safe from going through rough times like men and therefore Allah has placed her total financial responsibility on men. Before a woman is married, her father has the financial responsibility to take care of her and after marriage, the husband is responsible for her. Rather than women being made to work in the name of income, career or even freedom, they have been made the means of human procreation. Furthermore, the duty of being mothers of children and that of managing the house and the family has also been placed on the women. By making women financially dependent on men does not decrease their status. It’s rather a distribution of duties. (Usmani 2001:417-421)


Views of some contemporary feminists

Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist in her book “The Veil and the Male Elite”, argues that the narrations in Qur’ân and Hadîth are at odds with feminism emerged at a critical point in the history of Islam, when Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was threatened by internal and external forces. She argues that these forces brought the reduction of original Islamic principles and produced a gap between the true Islamic attitudes to women and those derived from pre-Islamic tribal traditions. Mernissi states that as the West looks to the present and to the future, Muslims are obsessed with the past, resorting to tradition and sacred texts for strength in a changing world. She claims that the elite continued to use false Hadîth to serve their political and economic ends and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never intended to use such Hadîth, if it was not for the pressure of forces. Mernisi uses a range of traditional sources and interprets the Qur’ân and hadîth using traditional Islamic science coupled with modern sociological methods to reach her conclusions.


Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad a Syrian feminist has argued that there has been a lack of women’s active participation in interpreting the Qur’ân and formulating Islamic law. Rather, it has largely been a male prerogative. Islamic law has been and continues to be patriarchal and the modern period has seen a patriarchal dominance. Scholars have relied on Fiqh literature in all its forms as their only source for studying the history of women. Interpretation can neither be binding on all Muslims in all places or even in the same time due it being the product of one mind under certain conditions of time and place. (Haddad, Esposito 2001:144,145)


Both Mernissi and Haddad have the same types of viewpoints in their support for feminism. However, Haddad’s approach is more pacific, whereas Mernissi’s approach is more strident.



Upon conclusion, it is clear that there are Muslims who claim to be feminists. Such emerging feminist voices in Islam are both part of a larger intellectual and ideological struggle among Muslims over two contrasting understandings of their religion and two ways of relating to its sacred texts. One is legalistic, as understood and constructed in traditional Fiqh. The other is a pluralistic that is trying making room for these values. (Hosseini 2006:643)


One can be both feminist and Muslim as long as one does not deny any fundamental of Islam. However, is Islam compatible with feminism? And does Islam advocate feminism? The answer to this is no, because in essence we are social creatures. Individualism, the foundational concept of feminism which suggests that Humans are independent is clearly delusional and erroneous. Furthermore, it gives no purpose to humans, leaving women unclear about what to do, except follow whatever society tells them, allowing them to be manipulated by others who define their purpose for them. As previously mentioned, equality does exist between males and females in Islam. However, both male and females are not equal in all aspects because of their natural differences such as; physical, emotional, mental and psychological Islam is a religion of justice. These differences are accepted by everyone around the globe, be it subconsciously. For example, if one looks at sports, whether it is football, Rugby, boxing or any other sport, why is it that males and females do not play together? Why are males and females not on the same teams? Why do males and female not play against each other? Due to these natural differences, they have different roles and responsibilities. Islam being a religion of justice, gives each of them their due roles and responsibilities.


By Mufti Sufyan Ibn Yakub



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Internet sources accessed on 06/06/2015  accessed on 7/05/2015

Quranic sources retrieved from: accessed on 03/12/2015

Esa, M.T.,Tirmidhi, chapter on marriage, Hadith 1162. Retrieved from: accessed on 27/05/2015

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