Back in 2011. I was studying for my Master’s degree in Human Rights and Human Values and as part of my course I took a module called: Feminism in the Muslim World. Now, being a Muslim, a woman and a passionate feminist, taking this module was a must. I saw this as an opportunity to gain more knowledge and to (further) see how women’s rights are protected and enshrined in Islam. The module was based in another department and not traditionally part of my degree but that didn’t deter me. If I could do it, I would. What’s not to love?!
Departmental logistics aside, here comes the issue. “Feminism? Islamic feminism?!” is what you may hear many people cry in a confused stupor. Yes, many non-Muslims may believe that Islam is anything but a feminist religion which works to actively promote women’s equality. Whilst I fervently disagree, on the other side of the fence there are those Muslims (both male and female!) who actively in both their socio-cultural and political practice and also critically, theological teachings, do anything but promote women’s equality.
Now here is where us Muslim Feminists stand proudly. During my studies I was introduced to the scholar Dr Amina Wadud through her book “Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam“. Dr Wadud is an Islamic Feminist and leading scholar in this field. A Professor Emeritus based in the US, she has dedicated her life in academia to issues surrounding women’s rights and equality within Islam, promoting pluralism, human dignity and additionally LGBT rights. The media however most often refer to her as the Muslim woman who lead mixed prayer back in 2005 and the topic of female imama (women imams).
With such an inspirational approach towards Islamic and a big fan, I was delighted to speak to Dr Wadud herself. Here’s our interview on gender, sexuality, identity and human dignity.
VoS: Assalam aleykum. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. So to start with could you give a brief intro about your work, what you’re working on at the moment and what are your current projects?
AW: Wa aleykum salam. Currently I am doing a funded research project. I’m in the third of three years to examine classical Islamic sources on the topic of sexual diversity and human dignity – not only what was said in the classical period of Islamic thought but also the implications of those statements. I believe that certain things are outdated and we need to figure out how to address them succinctly and not to defer to past – even intellectual – engagements as if the matter is closed.
VoS: That’s fabulous! So when will the public be able to find out more about the project? When will everything be published?
AW: I’ve not shared much of the results of the research so far, except in a closed setting. I would like to compose an entire monograph on my findings and my thoughts but to also work on curriculum development for the teaching of sexual diversity in Islamic thought in graduate level courses.
We thought maybe we should develop a reference text to develop hopefully programmes that will encourage others who are trying to address the topic in their teaching to use the resources to again enhance the conversation with students. I’m looking forward to some of the products of the research but am still enjoying the opportunity to simply do the research part, not to do the writing and the publication yet!
VoS: It’s a long journey! That must be fascinating because there’s definitely not a lot out there.
AM: We have growing diversities in our community and part of the conservation because whenever I describe the research project I always say sexual diversity and human dignity because that will be the principle that I will use to determine how you address the specifics and some of the conversations that are there are somewhat singular in terms of their objections to sexual diversity. I want to bring the conversation to hopefully a more nuanced way and just make it possible for us to open up to have some genuine conversations.
VoS: Insha’Allah that will be a good eye-opener to really get discussions going. So for those who are perhaps not familiar will the idea of gender jihad or are perhaps confused by the term Islamic Feminism, how would you define that?
AW: Well, I don’t necessarily do a single definition. I think the distinctions [between gender jihad and Islamic feminism] are important. Gender jihad I actually lifted from my South African colleagues when they invited me in 1994. I was there for a lecture tour and a conference and was ultimately invited to give the khutbha (the sermon) in the Friday jumaa service at the Main Road Mosque and I lifted the phrase gender jihad from them because they made a concerted effort to include that in their antiapartheid struggles and because they also combined a conversation about the war against poverty – the class jihad.
I very much liked the idea that we take the metaphysical understanding of jihad as a struggle and evoke it for issues of community, like gender and sexuality and then I named my book after it. I very much feel for the term and its relevance and for the ways in which I have experienced that women in diverse communities across the globe are themselves leading that struggle by determining what issues will be most significant, how those issues need to be addressed in their particular context and that the mandate that women’s voices and lived experiences be a part of the formula for how we address those issues. There is no community where women have not risen up and begun to take greater agency in determining how Islam will be used in their lives and how they themselves identify with their Islam.
I distinguish that from Islamic feminism because Islamic feminism is a specific methodology and not everyone who is addressing the issue of the gender jihad is addressing it from the perspective of any kind of feminism. There are also diverse kinds of feminism so it’s a very specific use and I don’t advocate it. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not a person identifies as feminist because I also myself did not accept the description of feminist for the majority of the years in which I’ve been doing work on Islam because the majority interpretations of feminism are part of the problem of the relationship between Islamic nation states and their colonial masters from another era who still call the right to determine what is the best way for previously colonised people to progress in development. They hold the monopoly over that. The way in which they address the issues pretends the best solution for everyone: to leave Islam and all of its manifestations because they have marked Islam as the problem.
Now, there are people for whom their own identities as Muslims also problematises how we address Islam in terms of the solutions of certain civic problems like gender discrimination. I call those people now secular feminists because they are bedded to a very conservative definition of Islam as the eternal definition and they are not able to grapple with what I consider to be one of the major contributions to Islamic feminism and that is: the right to be able to determine for yourself what is the definition of Islam and even what is the appropriate, educated, relevant interpretation of Islamic sources in the context of the nation state.
Islamic feminism has a very specific methodology and that methodology involves taking full agency with regard to how key terms will be applied in our circumstances and how they will be adjudicated in our laws. But, there are, feminists who for example who are more liberal feminists – Muslim liberal feminists – who don’t have a specific methodology. Using liberal mechanisms wasn’t the strategy that led me to the use of Islam as a means for eradicating inequality experienced by women. That’s something that only came about with the solidification of this idea of Islamic feminism.
I do want to emphasise that in no way is feminism a title for people engaged in gender jihad, in no way is feminism an objective. It’s simply a method developed with an understanding of how Islam is understood today, politicised today and is still an important factor in the self-identity in particular of so many Muslim women today.
VoS: Thank you, that’s a really important distinction. So something I found particularly interesting in your book Inside the Gender Jihad was how you talked about various social issues within the community as well as theological teachings, such as single parent families and the way Muslim women are stigmatised in regards to HIV/AIDS. In terms of mobilising the Muslim community and tackling misogyny, what’s one of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced so far?
AW: The biggest challenge I face personally in doing this work is the lack of critical engagement with some of the vast diversity of interpretations which have always been a part of our tradition. They get swept under the rug today because everything gets summarised into a simple formula of anti-imperialism under the name of Islam.
I call it the takfiri factor. They will call someone “not a Muslim” if their interpretation of what is Islam is different from the interpretation that has the dominate control in terms of [being] conservative and patriarchal but if anybody examines the aspects of Islamic intellectual history – which is ongoing – then they will see that there has never been a consensus over any of the multiple factors that impinge upon the way in which we actually get to live our Islam.
Believing communities are notoriously emotionally attached to what they consider to be their religion and are not always thinking critically. I find there was a singular expectation that somehow all critical thinking belongs to men and politics – that women are not capable of doing it, let alone engaging in it! I really do feel like that’s the biggest problem – how to get people to actually engage in the work with a certain level of intellectual rigor.
VoS: In talking about takfiri behaviour, do you think that perhaps people are scared to engage and that they’ve been convinced that it’s a, b, c, d, it’s black and white, or do you think people are just not interested or not familiar with the great intellectual history and the diversity within Islamic theology?
AM: I actually think all three of those and I do see them as three. First let me just say something about people being afraid to engage. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We have a very heavy self-censor going on.
I feel that Muslim women who are working are afraid of being accused of going against Islam and they struggle to gain mastery over just the rubrics of the debates. Often I find people saying things like: “I’m not a scholar” and just the very idea that you have to be a scholar in order to make a comment over things that literally impact on your life and wellbeing is something that we’re trying to dismantle. But, I think a lot of women fear being pushed up against the wall and then have somebody throwing, hurling random versus at them as if this, hurling of verses is the same as saying “You’re wrong!” and “You’re outside of Islam”. That’s why women are so intimidated by it – or anyone struggling for human rights and dignity in our time – because we now have a different amalgam of information and the idea that all information that’s good can only come from Islamic sources is a little bit naive but that’s how people will approach it.
I also do think that there is a certain level of ignorance because Muslim laity want to feel that Islam is the natural course because that’s the course that they’ve been on. And so: What is this Islam? is my main question. The idea that one could even question What is Islam? to such an extent is something that most people just don’t think about.
VOS: Well it’s seen as sort of sacrilege!
AM: For people who are outside of Islam. They simply come up with a conclusion: This is Islam. There’s nothing you can do about it…. and it’s like where did that this is Islam come from? That’s a lot of work. People don’t want to do that. You’re either “enemies” or “believers”.
The other thing is I think quite frankly that the idea of an easy answer to “what is Islam?” has failed us and yet we have not changed our overall curriculum approaches in the context of a Muslim majority context. They still teach Islam the same way they’ve been teaching it for hundreds of years and it doesn’t serve us. It doesn’t build equal confidence and competence in embracing the nuanced diversity of what is or what has been Islam over little less than two millennia and in so many different ways.
So it’s a combination of all those things and although I’ve been at it long enough to accept that this combination is going to have certain consequences still for some time more, I’m actually hoping to be a part of the conversation of lifting the tendency towards taboo in Islam and Islamic thought because I think that there is so much richness in this tradition and in the cultural historical experiences of Muslims that simply doesn’t come to the front when we are always feeling like we’re under siege. Islamophobia is very real and it is a threat but that is not the not the only thing that’s going on and how to move beyond it, critique it, engage with and challenge it without making ourselves subject only to how easily we might be able to justify, explain or apologise for Islam in the context where it is not the same as another worldview or system of practice.
It’s a difficult time but I really hope that we can move into a place with a greater tolerance and acceptance – accepting diversity within the community as well as accepting that not all conversations are going to be closed and fixed and that we can have more than one conversation about any matter that is on the table today. Islam is not going to be destroyed because we have different opinions!
VoS: I agree with you completely. Some of it is just accepting different opinions and even having those discussions – not that we all have to agree on the same thing.
You were saying that about taboo. What do you think about the role of culture? There are some very strong taboos in terms of even discussing women’s issues and issues surrounding the LGBT community. How much do you think of that is a specific to conservative views of religion or culture or do you sort of see the two as intertwined?
AW: Well for some reason, some people will say things like: “Oh, that’s just cultural Islam.” Well actually there’s no living Islam that’s not cultural. So that’s not even a factor. Understanding and embracing the complexities of the different cultures I think goes along with developing more tolerance and more critical engagement and to understand that of course cultures are both impacted by and have an impact on what comes to constitute Islam and Muslim and have always done so. And that’s OK. And it’s even OK to make distinctions between your culture and other cultures when it comes to an understanding about any particular location on any particular issue. Coincidentally, this is something that’s been very important to the Muslim convert communities to which I belong because I’m Muslim by choice.
I learned this best living in south-east Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia where they have a very proud understanding of their own identity and a pride and love for Islam. They articulate clear tensions between “We’re Indonesian, this is our culture” and at the same time, ownership of Islam to combat the idea that certain manifestations of practice and ideology have a relationship to say our culture but it’s not universal and it’s not the only Islamic response. It was an interesting place for me because Islam has been there forover a thousand years in south-east Asia. So we’re not talking about new communities as in say the United States, which comprises not only immigrant populations from Muslim majority countries that go back several centuries but also new converts.
It’s nice to think about the fact that every culture has been shaped by and is shaping what is Islam and that is also something that’s true for new communities that are forming in the last 100 to 200 years.
VoS: What’s your message to those people who would promulgate takfiri ideologies? Do you tend to engage much with them or do you focus more on educating people as we were saying who perhaps don’t have the exposure to different intellectual teachings?
AW: That’s a very interesting question. I want to say in all honesty that I do not prioritise engaging with Islamophobia and Islamophobes. Nor do I prioritise engaging with the takfiri brigade – although I do have a YouTube video says “Do not fear takfir!”which I addressed because of, as I said, the fear component. People are doing their work and then they are afraid of it but I do not prioritise those who have the greatest disagreement with me in the work that I do.
I prioritise the target community. I write what I would like to read and that is: I am an African-American Muslim hijabi woman by choice – all of it, except for being African American. That is just my legacy. I have chosen to be Muslim. I have chosen to wear hijab most of the time and when I don’t, I also choose when I don’t wear it. I meet Muslim women of colour globally -African, Asian, Latinex African-American, Black – who are Muslim and the overwhelming majority of Muslim women – which is not to say that I have any lack of interest in white Muslim women, it’s just that their numbers are very small. I engage with that intersection of race and class, gender, sexuality, ableism and also intellectual and spiritual stations or locations. That’s my primary target and because that’s my primary target group, I am trying to focus on what are the lived realities for Muslim women, how we grapple with them in order to achieve well-being, human dignity, spiritual acumen and wholeness.
So I either talk theology or I taught policy but I’m only talking policy in a very pragmatic hands-on way. I engage with issues relative to the places where they come up because that is a mandate within those communities. Female imama is not yet a universal issue of concern but people think that I prioritise what the media tends to focus on and once again it means that they lose. They’re focused on the issues that make greater headlines and takfir makes a lot of headlines. I am literally blacklisted from communities. I don’t get an invitation in the confessional and communities in my own African American community. It’s a tender spot for me because again, working at intersections, I’m very conscientious about my intersecting identities and I would love to feel that my most natural home is among other African-American Muslims.
The reality is however that my most natural form is among Muslim women of colour globally. I travel a lot and every time I am reconfirmed in what I consider to be the freedom of being a Muslim among many Muslims – not necessarily exactly like anyone else – but at the same time sharing something, whatever that something might be called with all Muslims, especially Muslim women. And so I that’s my focus.
I believe that the negation of a negative does not equal a positive. If you switch to address your attention to the negative, you will be negating the opposition eternally and you will never go forward.
VoS: Well some people are never going to be willing to engage. I suppose you carry on and do what you do and maybe some people who have maybe changed their minds. In the meantime, you work with the women that you can do valuable things with.
AW: My feeling is whatever it is that people use to allow them to not critically engage is a major problem for our community which we need to try and work out because ours is one of the most intense intellectual traditions ever. And yet we come to our current community and the laziness with which we actually engage is just such a disappointment. I’m still studying! I don’t understand how we have such a rigorously intellectual tradition and such lazy reactionary kinds of responses!
VoS: Well in the UK, Islamic education is encouraged but there wouldn’t be an engagement or challenging or discussion around different issues. It would be include a pre-set kind of curriculum. You generally wouldn’t be able to step outside certain boundaries or think or question.
AW: Well that’s true in lots of places and that’s why I say that, hopefully we will make a change. Indonesia has engaged in a project to update the primary teaching manuals that are used to tackle their expressions of gender inequality. The project should be able to reform the main manuals. This is a huge project because there are so many schools and they literally don’t have the money to be able to create new manuals just off the bat. So what they did is they created a companion text in order to challenge certain habits of gender inequality. So the educational process has to be looked at comprehensively from what we teach our children to what we develop our degree programs to look like. It’s a big thing – not impossible but it’s big!
VoS: Amazing! So last question: what inspires you each and every day in your work?
AW: It’s a pretty corny answer but I was born and raised a believer. My father was a Methodist minister so what he was doing in terms of his own personal devotions and his personality had a very strong impact on me taught me integrity and honesty but also taught me the theology of liberation.
So I’m actually inspired by the desire to live my life in a way where the presence of the divine, of the sacred – of Allah – is manifest in everything that I do. I’m motivated by lots of things, not all of them necessarily “high” or loftier or even good, but to live a life with the consciousness of this sacred goal: our returning to Allah, our origin point, and with the intimacy of the divine presence.
The gift of life is presented to each of us so we can be the best of who we are and the best of who I am is the me that manifests the embrace of the love of God so that I myself become an instrument of God and God’s will. It is a little bit corny!
VoS: Well it was a corny question – sorry! But it was a good answer!
AW: I’m very much very much a believer and it very heavily motivates me.
VoS: Well, I suppose that ultimately is what it should all be about – not about habits and behaviours but the consciousness of God and that motivating the everyday. So that’s a really good point to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time out for this interview!
Acknowledgements and further information:
First of all I’d like to say a massive thank you to Dr Wadud for taking the time out for this interview and I wish her all the best in her current research and future work.
For readers, please note: this is an edited version of what was a much longer transcript!
For further information on Dr Wadud, visit her social media pages:
For more information on the issues discussed surrounding gender, human rights and Islam, you can also check out the organisation Musawah via their website and follow them on Twitter.