Levelling the field: Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam
“I feel like someone opened a window into my mind and let in the fresh air. It feels so good!” Ziba Mir-Hosseini recalls a young woman exclaiming this at the launch of Musawah in 2009 – and it’s precisely the feeling I had throughout reading her latest book, Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam.
Mir-Hosseini is an Iranian anthropologist with a special focus on Islamic legal theory, family law and gender. She is a professorial research associate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS, University of London, and co-founder of Musawah: the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family.
Her past publications include Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran and Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition.
"Besides being an obvious choice for a textbook in Islam and Gender courses, Mir-Hosseini’s latest work will resonate with any readers seeking to reconcile notions like gender equality and women’s rights with outdated, patriarchal interpretations of Islam"
Having been in the works since 2009, Mir-Hosseini’s latest book features transcriptions of her conversations with six prolific Muslim thinkers, who each discuss their views about gender equality and Islam.
A treasure trove of theories and calls to action from intellectuals whose work is often restricted to the world of academia, the book presents a raw and candid dialogue between some of the world’s leading Islamic law reformists.
“My aim was to talk through the conversation because I find the conversation format helpful for dealing with very complex issues,” Mir-Hosseini tells me. “Academics have their own framework and start from that, and I wanted to take them out of that framework.”
Recognising that every reader who picks up Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam may not be well-versed in matters of Islamic legal theory, Mir-Hosseini starts the book by demystifying terms like sharia and fiqh, offering a sort of “Islamic law 101”.
She then commences her interview with Sudanese Islamic scholar and professor Abdullahi An-Na’im, who draws his beliefs from the teachings of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, known for differentiating between the universally binding nature of Quranic verses revealed in Mecca and Medina. Taha was ultimately executed for apostasy, but An-Na’im has continued his work, translating his book, The Second Message of Islam, into English.
Mir-Hosseini’s next chapter dictates her conversations with African-American theologian Amina Wadud, whose books, Qur’an and Women and Inside the Gender Jihad have been instrumental to the Muslim feminist movement.
They discuss Wadud’s evolving stance on identifying as “feminist” as well as her controversial leading of a mixed-gender prayer in New York in 2005. Mir-Hosseini then dives into her discourse with Moroccan doctor and author Asma Lamrabet of Women and Men in the Qur’an, and the two candidly discuss topics like the hijab and moving from secular to Islamic feminism.
Afterwards, she converses with Kuwait-born, Egyptian scholar and Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who has authored books including The Search for Beauty in Islam and Speaking in God’s Name and founded Usuli Institute – a non-profit initiative combining research and education to promote humanistic interpretations of the Islam.
He tells Mir-Hosseini that he believes the Quran is not an instruction book and cannot be frozen in time – rather it needs to be constantly engaged with.
Her final two conversations are with Iranian Islamic scholars and professors Mohsen Kadivar, who discusses principles of Islamic jurisprudence and implementing them to achieve gender reform, and Sedigeh Vasmaghi, who separates traditional, culturally-influenced interpretations of “sharia” from the faith’s egalitarian ethics.
A warm cup of tea, plus a notebook and pen make essential companions for Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam. The book reads like an intimate tell-all with profoundly intellectual Muslim reformists, giving readers invaluable access to the experiences and beliefs that shaped their thinking, and imbuing them with colour and personality beyond the academic scope of their work.
"While many of the conversations centre theology and the 'religious' power structures that impede wide-scale reform on issue such as women’s equal rights to divorce and inheritance, Mir-Hosseini emphasises the impact these scholars are already having on today’s Muslims"
“As I went along, I realised that in fact what I am trying to do is try and understand how they came to know what they know about Islam, and through what ways,” Mir-Hosseini explains. She traces their evolving stances on certain subjects, such as Wadud’s initial hesitancy in identifying with “feminism” and Lamrabet’s shifting views on the hijab. “It happens with all of us, we change and evolve, and sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge it,” she says.
Mir-Hosseini makes it clear that she doesn’t always agree with all her peers’ views, and that activism and reform don’t take a singular shape or form. “I wanted to show that there are differences, and we can live with our differences because we share the same goals – justice, equality, fairness and also humanity,” she explains.
Notably, each scholar she speaks to works from within the Islamic tradition to endorse gender reform – a method that may be more likely to win over orthodoxically-inclined Muslims when compared to secular approaches.
Mir-Hosseini’s initial aim was to make these intellectuals’ writings and beliefs more accessible to a wider audience – especially to women’s rights activists, as she sees her role as something of a bridge between scholarship and activism.
And while many conversations centre on theology and the “religious” power structures that impede wide-scale reform on issues such as women’s equal rights to divorce and inheritance, Mir-Hosseini emphasises the impact these scholars are already having on today’s Muslims.
“Yes, sometimes, I am dismayed and angry but at the same time I see also a lot of progress happening,” she tells me. “There is deep change happening in women’s consciousness, their awareness of who they are, and I see them at the frontline of the battle. They might not win the battle, but they are taking the patriarchal legitimacy from the religious knowledge – they are challenging it.”
The whole concept of Islamic feminism for instance, which pronounces women’s rights to be inextricably bound to the principles of the faith, was not possible to discuss in the 90s.
“You could not talk about Islamic feminism in academic surroundings or feminist surroundings, because it was a betrayal – of either feminism or Islam. But now it is there, and I see this as a great change and achievement,” she says. “It’s a process, and you might not get what you want but you take one step and open the ways for others, the way that previous generations opened the way for us.”
Launching on April 7, Oneworld Publications releases Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam at a pressing point of time, when on one hand, extremists like the Taliban are blocking Afghan women’s rights to education or to travel alone, and on the other, the ever-ambiguous “sharia” is seen in the West as oppressive and innately incompatible with women’s rights.
Besides being an obvious choice for a textbook in Islam and Gender courses, Mir-Hosseini’s latest work will resonate with any readers seeking to reconcile notions like gender equality and women’s rights with outdated, patriarchal interpretations of Islam.
More than anything, she hopes it will help open conversations about how we consider religion. As she states towards the end of her book, “For reform to flourish, we need to have these conversations, to build an overlapping consensus about what aspects of our tradition require rethinking and, perhaps, what must be left behind.”
Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi