Muslim and feminist?
These women show it is possible

Muslim Women's Network UK takes part in the March 4 Women in London last Sunday. © Twitter

Amparo Sánchez Rosell is an entrepreneur. Nessrin E. Bensaid is a lawyer and journalist. Fatima Tahiri writes her thesis. Gabriele Boos-Niazy is a sociologist. Faeeza Vaid is the executive director of an NGO. They are all Muslim. None is submissive. And they all ask for equality with men … and with the other women.

When Amparo Sánchez Rosell had to give up wearing the hijab at work in order to avoid unemployment, she began to plan a solution to be able to exercise her option without having to renounce being herself. “I had to choose: either take off my hijab or work,” she tells Salam Plan. Today it is no longer necessary: ​​she is an entrepreneur and has her own restaurant in Valencia (Spain).

She is also the president of the Citizen Platform against Islamophobia in Spain (Plataforma Ciudadana Contra la Islamofobia) and this 8th of March she asks for the same rights as other women, such as the end of the wage gap. But she points out that as a Muslim she is forced to make extra claims related to the so-called “gender Islamophobia”: “If women in general suffer the inequality of opportunities with respect to men, Muslim women more, and if they wear hijab, even more.”

The president of the Alliance for Action of Muslim Women in Germany (Aktionsbündnis Muslimischer Frauen), Gabriele Boos-Niazy, regrets that for them today -the International Women’s Day- is “a day like any other”, in which they are devoted to work against discrimination of Muslim women, “especially those who wear a veil and have the same desire as most women: to be successful at work and to be judged according to their abilities and not because of their appearance.”

Faeeza Vaid is executive director of the Muslim Women’s Network UK. She already went onto the streets last Sunday in London, when the great British feminist demonstration was organized. She was one of the women who made a speech from the stage and explained that she “marching because so many experience discrimination and sexual violence because of their gender, their race, their religion, their age and their sexuality.”

The equality of women in Islam

For Dolors Bramon, a non-Muslim Islamologist, it is also clear that professing Islam is not at all at odds with claiming equality between women and men. “Obviously” feminism and Islam are compatible, she says. Moreover, “the first regulations favorable to women were born in the basic book of Islam,” says the author of Ser mujer y musulmana (Being a Woman and a Muslim), Ediciones Bellaterra. She admits that “that is the theory” and the practice depends on the interpretation of each one: “Then every Muslim, especially male Muslims, will be responsible for not wanting to see what is feminist in the Quran.”

Bramon believes that Islam establishes “absolute equality from the religious point of view: women have the right to life -before they did not have it-, women can inherit -before they were inherited-, women have the right to a dowry and without it there is no marriage, the custom of polygamy (before Islam) practically gets cancelled, because the Quran speaks of polygamy but then says that it is impossible to meet the requirements… ”

“The first regulations favorable to women were born in the basic book of Islam. Then every Muslim, especially male Muslims, will be responsible for not wanting to see what is feminist in the Quran.”

Fátima Tahiri is writing her doctoral thesis at the Autónoma university of Madrid (UAM) on “the development of religiosity and religious beliefs of young Muslims in Spain: the case of young people of Moroccan origin.” She is also Muslim and feminist and has no doubt that believing that the Muslim woman is subjected is “something very far from reality”. She explains that historically “Islam appears as a salvation to women who in pre-Islamic Arabia were considered objects and with Islam they became independent political subjects with the right to free marriage, property, inheritance, divorce and participation policy, among many others.”

One of Sánchez Rosell’s favourite quotes on equality between women and men is one that says that “the believers, both men and women, are allies of one another” (Quran 9:71). She also reminds that “there were women who held power, both during the life of the prophet Muhammad and with the first caliphs. What happens is that later the patriarchy became stronger than those teachings and ended up absorbing all of that in some countries.”

Patriarchy in Islamic conservatism

María Dolores Algora, a professor of Contemporary History at the CEU-San Pablo University in Madrid and specialist in the Arab and Islamic world, explains that in countries where the sharia (or Islamic law) rules, it is interpreted by men from a conservative perspective. “The Arab society is a society enormously subject to the model of patriarchy, a confessional system with a radical use of sharia, which treats women like underaged people,” she regrets. Before the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ broke out, she was convinced that the revolution in that region would originate from the women.

Sonia Moreno, correspondent for several media in Rabat (Morocco) for eight years, explains that for this 8th of March she has “no press release on the table”, because there are no Muslim feminist associations as such in the country. However, there are some Moroccan feminists who carry out actions such as painting fountains with red to protest against gender violence, despite the punitive laws of the Alawite kingdom. There are also Iranian women who demonstrate against the oppression of the Ayatollah regime by taking off the hijab, because they are forced to wear it restricting their freedom of choice…

In Europe some Muslim women also claim to be victims of that macho reading of the Islamic faith. And in some cases they suffer it at unsuspected levels. “Forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation happens to women in the UK. We know this because we get calls on the Muslim Women’s Network helpline,” Vaid explained in her recent speech.

An ongoing issue in Western countries is the hijab. The usual complaints of Muslim women come from those who have been discriminated against for wearing it, but it also happens the other way round. “I have felt more discriminated against by Muslim men (than by non-Muslims),” admits the Madrid lawyer, expert in hate crimes, Nessrin E. Bensaid, although she emphasizes that this just happens from time to time. “I am a Muslim woman, but I do not wear hijab. Religion seems to me a matter of the private sphere and it is shocking to people that I’m a practicing Muslim but do not wear a hijab. That has led me to have anecdotal conflicts with Muslim men.”

She recognizes that the most conservative Muslims “get scared” when they meet her with what she calls “the full pack”: woman, Muslim, feminist and lawyer. “Their world falls apart: they are even more scared,” she says sarcastically. However, she quickly underlines that “we must differentiate those who believe themselves to be culturally Muslim, those are the ones from whom I’ve experienced rejection. With the real Muslim men and the true Muslim women I have always had an extraordinary relationship.”

“The men who oppress do that because of a cultural context issue. In the Quran, women are asked to be modest the same way men are,” Bensaid assures. Tahiri agrees: “I do not feel relegated by Islam. I feel relegated by a patriarchal and misogynistic interpretation, that has been made sometimes of the sacred texts by some wise men, and by some political regimes.”

Does Islam encourage beating women?

Bensaid laughs when she gets asked about a controversial verse in the Quran in which -depending on which translation is read- God would have said that the men have “authority” over the women and would have even encouraged to mistreat her physically. She considers that it is a misinterpretation.

“Men have authority over/shall take care of/ give advice to (qawwamuna ala) women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them/put them up for sth (daraba)!”, Quran 4:34.

First, it should be noted that Muslims always prefer the Arabic version of the Qur’an, since it is the original version and they understand that they are words that come directly from God which do not always find an appropriate translation. This is how Sánchez Rosell and Bensaid feel about this paragraph. In fact, this quote of the Quran has several versions in English, as shown and even more. The lawyer explains that “daraba” has different meanings in Arabic and between them, in addition to hitting, is also having sex, for example.

As for Bramon’s point of view, she broadly explains in her book that what some translate as “authority”, others would understand as “responsibility”, “accompany” or “give advice”. As for the translation of “beating”, however, the Islamologist considers that there is no way round, since it is the most widespread meaning for the Arabic word “daraba”. Even so, she points out that there are many hadiths (in the Sunna, the other sacred text of Islam, which tells the life of the prophet Muhammad) that “criticize the mistreatment of women” and argue that the prophet of Islam said that the best Muslim is the one who treats the women well.

“The Quran was written in medieval Arabic. This, added to all the patriarchal contamination, means that it is being interpreted under very wrong perspectives”, argues Sánchez Rosell. “One of the demands we have -Muslim men and women- is that we have to review all that. What you cannot do is to be functioning with an explanation of the Quran that goes back more than thousand years ago. ”

Feminism can also wear a hijab

“I’m here because my religion motivates me to fight (…) for equality for justice and for peace,” Vaiz told the London protesters. She called “to build a movement that is inclusive of black feminists, of working-class feminists and of faith-inspired feminists. I’m simply saying either we fight for all, or we all fall”.

A claim with which all Muslim women consulted agree. Tahiri believes that Muslim women also suffer from sexism by other women, “as was the case with the prohibition of hijab in France, which was supported by French feminists.” The researcher believes that this way, some women consider other women “culturally inferior”.

“Western feminism looks with its purple feminist glasses to Muslim feminists and feminists from other countries as if they were trying to save them. But you do not have to save them from anything”

Both Tahiri – who wears the Islamic veil – and Bensaid – who does not wear it – think that considering the hijab as an oppression is contradictory in a society where “mini shorts are worn where the pockets of the pants are longer than the pants themselves”. Bensaid recalls that FEMEN activists “can claim freedom with their bodies and we cannot claim them wearing hijab, for example.”

The president of the Alliance for Action of Muslim Women in Germany, Boos-Niazy, says that “in the association’s office it has been shown that non-Muslim men have fewer problems with hijab than non-Muslim women of a determined age and background, who quickly see the achievements of their long feminist struggle threatened as soon as they have to recognize the rights of a veiled woman”. She reproaches the attitude of some non-Muslim women for being “based on the vision of the human being as ‘I know better what is convenient for you than yourself'”.

The expert lawyer in hate crimes, Bensaid, sums up this appeal to other feminists: “Europe and western feminism look with their purple feminist glasses to Muslim feminists and feminists from other countries as if they were trying to save them. But you do not have to save them from anything.”