Everyone loves Malala Yousufzai, right? Fearless, inspiring and courageous, she is the kind of female icon that asserts the need for women to have justice and rights - arguably a 'feminist' viewpoint - and which has won the admiration of western feminists.
Whatever your opinions of Yousufzai, one part of her core identity rarely discussed in feminist circles is that: she’s a proud Muslim and sees her faith as a driver for the change she preaches. Yet the feminist movement as we know it today, born in the West, asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door. Want to join the feminist club? Then you’re asked to leave the world view that inspires you, makes you want to be a better person, and abandon the very principles that drive you to fight for justice and rights for women.
I understand why many feminists in the West might have this knee-jerk reaction: religion has often been co-opted by the powerful to hang on to their privilege and oppress women, and the European religious context where feminism was born was part of the movement’s formation.
This rejection of women of faith is a symptom of a core problem the feminist movement faces today: that it has come to embody only the concerns of white, middle-class women from the West. Everyone loved Sheryl Sandberg when she told us to ‘Lean In’, but some say her self-help guide was aimed at a handful of already highly-privileged women. Working class feminists rarely get a look-in.
And the same applies to women of faith and colour. And for those at the intersection of multiple oppressions being a feminist means a struggle to fight all forms of oppression.The idea of Muslim feminism or Islamic feminism isn’t just contentious for secular feminists and the historic feminist movement. It’s equally contentious among Muslims, some of whom argue that it focuses on individuality, diminishes men and the family and works to eliminate God-consciousness from society.
Stuck in the middle of this furore are Muslim women themselves – who may or may not label themselves as Muslim feminists – but who nonetheless are working tirelessly to improve the conditions for (Muslim) women.
To this backdrop, a new project has been announced by Maslaha, a UK based social enterprise that is part of the Young Foundation that aims to improve social conditions within Muslim and minority communities. The Islamandfeminism.org project sets out to introduce ideas of feminism to Muslim women. It is being described as ‘new’ and ‘pioneering’.
Simply put, this is to deny the long and ongoing history of activism to improve the social conditions and justice afforded to Muslim women. My great grandfather would never have called himself a feminist, but he was in some ways. In a society where male babies were consistently privileged over female babies, who some considered a disappointment of birth, he only ever gave celebratory gifts when girls were born. My grandfather sent his daughters to school on bicycles to ensure they were safe, but for a girl to be on a bike was considered shameful. He rejected that.
Some Muslim women make it into our headlines like Yousufzai, or Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman who also clearly stated Islam as a core driver of her work, and who proudly wears her headscarf. The vast majority remain unheard of, working on the ground, inspired by their faith.
I’m pleased that there is an additional resource to talk about Muslim women’s work in the global justice movement. But its impact is less about engaging Muslim women in an internal community discourse that can fuel the discussion around the realities of Muslim women’s lives, in a way that is meaningfully rooted in the faith that they wish to uphold. It is more an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and in-built biases.
Muslim women don’t need to or even want to be accepted on sufferance, a kind of ‘we’ll let you into the club even though you’re wrong’. Rather, women’s rights movements need to accept input as a two-way street.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women and is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She can be found blogging at spirit21.co.uk and tweeting @loveinheadscarf