In many Muslim-majority countries, women still need to fight for basic rights – for example, female citizens of Saudi Arabia only saw their right to drive recognized in 2018. This fight for equality has given rise to Islamic feminism – a school of thought radically different from European understandings of the term. Ukrainian feminists often scold women for wearing a hijab, as ‘playing along with patriarchy’. Zaborona spoke to Victoria Nesterenko, a Ukrainian Islamic feminist, and explains the whys and hows of being an Islamic feminist and what it means overall.
Islam developed in the Arab world in the seventh century AD, and led to a significant improvement in women’s rights. Islam forbade the murder of newborn girls, and women themselves were recognized as individual people – not as simply as their husband’s property. Women could now refuse marriage, divorce if necessary, and receive inheritances – pre-Islamic Arab cultures generally recognized only male heirs.
Women’s rights activists appear in Islamic history as far as back as the Middle Ages. For example, the philosopher Ibn Arabi espoused the idea that women could achieve a high level of spirituality, on par with men. In the 18th century, Nana Asmaʼu, the daughter of Islamic revolutionary and reformer Usman dan Fodio, advocated for higher educational standards for women. At the time, girls from Muslim countries were given a very basic level of education – they weren’t allow to mix genders, so there were no co-ed facilities, and women’s schools mostly didn’t exist. Asma’u herself began to teach, and then taught other women to teach, in order to spread this culture of teaching across the Muslim world.
Iranian poet Tahirih began to speak of a ‘distorted interpretation’ of the Qur’an. She could be considered one of the first Islamic feminists. She was an activist – she protested against polygamy, veils, and other restrictions placed on women. Tahirih, through her activism and performances, encountered opposition and threats from other Muslims. “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you will never stop the emancipation of women,” she once said.
Islamic feminism differs from other feminist tendencies, as it’s heavily tied to religion. As a result, it cannot mirror European feminism, seeing as Islamic feminism cannot advocate for abortion rights or for LGBT rights – these are seen as incompatible with Islam. However, some Islamic feminists do defend the LGBT communities in their countries, so there are individual differences. Life and traditions also differ from European cultures. Most of the questions raised by Islamic feminist activists are ones that have more or less been resolved in Europe. For example, Islamic feminists agitate for equality for women with men in social and political spheres: to be able to participate in elections, to have the right to work in different professions, to be able to freely wear and remove their hijabs, and so on.
“But all feminists are united by the fight against traditional views – they all want their rights to be respected by men, by their relatives, and by the state. Many of the rights that women have in Muslim countries are violated by tradition. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women have been given the right to run for parliamentary office, but few of them do so – their relatives forbid, seeing it as shameful. Women don’t want to lose their familial ties and get into arguments. Fifty years will have to pass for these stereotypes to disappear,” Victoria Nesterenko tells Zaborona.
Nesterenko explains that most criticism of her activist work comes from Muslim men. They criticize feminism because they associate it with pro-abortion and pro-LGBT views, even though Nesterenko has never publicly stated her position. Some critics go so far as to insist that feminism propagandizes incest – though Nesterenko has no idea where that narrative came from, and what she has to do with it.
A matter of interpretation
Islam is neither the first, nor the last religion to be interpreted primarily by men. Christian, Jewish and Buddhist women have fought in various ways against overt and covert sexism in their respective sacred texts and traditions. This is tied to an unfortunately common occurrence: wherever there are people, sexism is likely to be found, and sexism in society is mirrored by that society’s institutions: laws, politics, and of course – religion.
Islam contains many differing schools of thought – differences on how to learn the Qur’an, how to learn about your rights, even what hadiths (records of the sayings of the Islamic prophet Mohammed) are considered true. From its very beginning, men were the main figure that spread and developed the religion. Women, however, also took part – after Mohammed’s death, his wives took it upon themselves to spread his sayings and to tell stories of his life. Later on, Islam began to split into many different branches – there are currently 70 different versions of Islam present in the world. They all generally share the same core, however – faith in a monotheistic god, the attributes are largely the same, and they all rely on the Qur’an. But everyday moments in people’s lives and interactions with society and the like were interpreted by people in their own way.
“These questions tend to cause a lot of arguments. That is, you can say that with the Qur’an and hadiths, everything is okay – Islamic feminists don’t talk about whether they’ve been translated correctly. We say that the way some people interpret the religion is mind-boggling. Answers found in the seventh century are no longer relevant. That’s why mindsets need to change,” says Nesterenko.
One of the main critiques Islamic feminism has is that Islam allows men to have multiple wives, but women lack this ability. Firstly, Nesterenko explains, most Muslim men have only one wife. But Islam does in fact allow polygamy for men. Secondly, there are a lot of exceptions to this: for example, marriage with each of a man’s wives must be done openly – he can’t marry in secret, and he can’t have any extramarital affairs.
Muslim women also have the right to be satisfied with their husbands. They’re not required to provide for themselves and their children, but they can work. It isn’t forbidden for the money that a woman earns through her own work to be spent only on herself, and she can, if she wants, spend it on her family.
Islamic teachings say that there are many women who cannot support themselves – they’re dependents. At the same time, if a man does practice polygamy, then he’s required to love and support all of his wives equally. Polygamy is justified, in Islam, by the fact that if a man wants to have many children, he, again, has to support them adequately.
“A woman can’t have multiple husbands because it’ll seemingly be difficult to tell who got her pregnant. However, I think that today paternity can be proven in many ways, and this question can be re-examined and changed. But women aren’t responsible for men, but men are responsible for women and their children. If a woman could have multiple husbands, this idea would change,” Nesterenko believes.
Ukraine does have polygamy, but only on the religious level. A man can go to a mosque and ask the imam there to marry him to multiple women. However, while polygamy may be legally recognized in several Muslim-majority countries, in others – including Ukraine – it is not, and men often make use of this. For example no one will give non-monogamous wives an official marriage license. At the same time, many marriages like this are often held in secret, because society doesn’t accept women who become second or third or fourth wives. Men in these situations often don’t fulfill their obligations under Islam. Islamic feminists in many non-Muslim majority countries, as a result, support banning polygamy on every level.
Another Islamic feminist critique touches on the fact that the Qur’an allows men to beat their wives if they’re disobedient. Nesterenko says that the Qur’an does indeed have a verse where a man is allowed to punish a rebellious wife. But she says that this phrase is often taken out of context.
“Here you need to look at how the Prophet Mohammed himself lived: he never raised a hand against his wives. When a family conflict arises, the man should go to a mosque and ask the imam how he needs to act in that situation. Islam definitely does not allow domestic violence. Additionally, in many Islamic countries, a woman can file a suit in court and divorce if her husband is beating her,” Victoria says.
Religiously-decreed clothes for women are one of the most argued about aspects of Islam, from a European feminist point of view. Islamic feminists have different opinions on the garb themselves. For example, in Iran in 2018, mass protests were held against hijab requirements. Iranian women took to the streets with bared heads, holding a headscarf tied on sticks, like a flag. According to Iranian law, women are not allowed to walk bareheaded, which is why many of the protestors were arrested.
In Ukraine, things are reversed – here, Muslim women may find themselves needing to fight for the right to wear a hijab instead of it being forced on them. For people used to living in a liberal world, freedom means the right to do whatever they wish. However, freedom for a religious person is to be free from temptation – to be free from a surrounding world full of men, alcohol, cigarettes, and so on, explains Nesterenko.
“Everyone depends on how you see this freedom. Some feminists believe that religious attire is forced on Muslim women by the patriarchy, and men in Islam do everything to keep women down and make them submissive. However, Muslim women themselves see things differently: for us, it’s a religious duty, not because a man said – because God did. For us, covered clothing is a way to avoid objectification, imposed on us by advertising. You cannot see a woman’s sexuality through these clothes, because in Islam, women have to be considered as people, not as bodies,” notes Nesterenko.
Ukrainian feminists often scold Nesterenko for wearing a hijab, saying ‘if you’re a real feminist, then take it off.’ However, Nesterenko explains that her hijab is simply a religious accoutrement: if it’s normal for women in Christian-majority countries to wear a cross around their neck, then it’s normal for a Muslim woman to wear a hijab.
Recently, an argument arose in a Ukrainian feminist group on Facebook: one of the group members posted a photo from Kyiv’s trendy Podol neighborhood of women in burqas riding around on electric scooters. The group’s members were not satisfied with that – if, seemingly, men forbid women from removing their covered clothing, then who gave them permission to ride scooters? The post itself, and the comments underneath, were filled with Islamophobic prejudice concerning what Muslim women can and cannot do.
“Of course, Islam says nothing about electric scooters or other forms of transport – the matter is, again, in tradition and the laws of some Islamic governments. In 2018, Saudi women were allowed to Drive. This is nonsense, but for a long time women could own cars, but not drive them: at some point, someone decided that driving a car has negative effects on a woman’s reproductive system. And in some Islamic countries, this statement was adhered to for a long time,” Nesterenko comments.
As a whole, Islam does not forbid women from driving cars, riding bicycles or electric scooters, going to restaurants, or having some hobbies or working. Muslim women are much women as non-Muslim ones.