Can Islamic Feminism Succeed?

Muslim. American. Iranian.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting identities. As I grew older, I realized that the hardest identity to reconcile was the one I had actually overlooked.

Woman. islamicfem

I have been reading a lot about Islamic feminism lately, mostly as research for my graduate capstone project, but also because I am fascinated by Muslim women’s efforts to have it both ways. Women like Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nayereh Tohidi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini have written extensively about the use of Islam – the essence of which is submission to God – as a tool for emancipation. They search for the theological basis for gender equality and freedom for women. They assert their right to engage in a major feature of Shia Islam known as ijtihad, which allows for the individual interpretation of Islamic law and the adaptation of faith to modern times. They negotiate and renegotiate what it means to be a Muslim woman in largely patriarchal societies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim woman living in Iran or the United States. Chances are, your life is dictated by rules set forth by men. Islamic feminists turn the tables, using the same tools that long justified their oppression to justify their liberation.

It’s an undertaking that, I suppose, many Muslim women (including myself) unconsciously perform on a daily basis. But to what end? I want to believe in the ability of Islamic feminism to transform the state of women throughout the Middle East. But as long as Islamic feminists pursue their goals within the confines of religion, specifically religious government, I’m afraid they are doomed to fail. For instance, Iran’s male-dominated clerical regime is not likely to accept the theological interpretations of women as the basis of law. The government prevents women from pursuing positions of authority. The Supreme Leader will always be male. No matter what, the efforts of Islamic feminists will only reproduce the same anti-democratic hierarchies.

The theories of Islamic feminists are just that – theories. This is not to say they lack significance. On the contrary, their endeavors to reinterpret Islam bring new, progressive and challenging ideas to the forefront. In so doing, they undoubtedly help countless Muslim women discover their personal sense of agency, which can be an important force for change. But, in Iran, the foundations are broken. Patriarchy inevitably wins. And women’s attempts at religious interpretation are destined to fall through the cracks.