For many feminists, the headscarf is a glaring symbol of male oppression and the patriarchal power of religion. However, there is now a small, but growing number of Muslim women looking to take their places in Britain’s rapidly expanding women’s movement.
A new project to connect Islam to feminism has been launched to tackle long-standing concerns that religious women are excluded from the women’s rights debate.
In what is a deeply controversial area for many in Islamic communities and for many mainstream feminists, the linkup between a Muslim charity and the UK Feminista group is seen as a pioneering step in bringing women from different cultural backgrounds together in the battle for sexual equality.
The social enterprise Maslaha, established by the Young Foundation to work on improving social conditions in Muslim and minority communities, said the program had attracted a huge response in the past few days.
“An awful lot of Muslim women have felt excluded from the debate about women’s rights and this project really focuses on bringing ordinary women into a debate about Islamic feminism that has so far only really been heard in academic circles,” Latifah Akay of Maslaha said.
She said the online resource islamandfeminism.org was bringing out some extraordinary responses from British Muslims who reported feeling previously isolated.
“This is really taking off,” she said. “Islamic feminism is not a new thing, which will probably surprise most people, but Muslim women have the same core concerns as white, secular, British women: the workplace, discrimination, childcare. And also they have different layers of struggles and different layers of oppression, just as a black lesbian will have different struggles to white disabled women, and none of them should be excluded just because they are diverse. There has been a dire lack of spaces for women within Islam to have these kinds of conversations and they have felt very much that their religious beliefs exclude them.”
Islamic feminism has been on the rise over the past few years in various countries around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, but it remains a taboo in many more traditional communities who fear that it will lead women away from religion.
“The Internet will help Muslim women find each other, just as it has for young secular women in Britain, and start a real conversation,” Akay said.
While a number of new books on Islam and feminism have been appearing around the world in recent years, the UK has been slow to catch up.
Last year, when a University of Derby lecturer, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, published Muslim Women in Britain: De-mystifying the Muslimah, she said she believed that many of the misconceptions around Islam were directly linked to how people believed the faith treated its women.
“The media portray Muslim women as oppressed and subjugated and Islam is often presented as misogynist and patriarchal,” she said, and her book was intended as an antidote to that.
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