Gender, Human Rights, and Islamic Feminisms

The equality of women and men has been an important and also a contentious component of scholarly debate on Islam and human rights. As previously noted, this topic has served as a central point of departure for Islamist human rights frameworks. Although the focus of this section is primarily Muslim arguments about gender equality, several non-Muslim majority countries have expressed strong reservations about international treaties involving gender equality as well. For example, the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).26 This section will address briefly the scholarship concerning: (1) the postcolonial critique of the rights discourse on gender equality; (2) Muslim women’s engagement with feminist ideas and theories in arguments about human rights; and (3) formal international commitments to gender equality تفسير الاحلام.

A. Critiques of Gender Equality Discourse
Authors writing from a postcolonial perspective have frequently been critical of western frameworks of universal rights that ignore the substantial differences in economic, political, and social power that characterize groups of people. Postcolonial critics have observed that colonial empires were content to violate human rights when it served their economic and political interests. Not all postcolonial critics have argued against the possibility of universally recognizable human rights, but (p. 833) they have consistently expressed a deep skepticism about how groups in power seek to preserve that power at the expense of other less powerful groups. Thus, despite the language of equal rights in the UDHR, the economic and social marginalization of Muslim-majority countries by western countries, as well as the social marginalization of Muslim minorities in some western countries, has indicated a persistent failure to recognize the equal rights of Muslims.

In terms of a postcolonial feminist critique, Chandra Mohanty questioned western feminist discourse around the subject of so-called “third world” women. She charged western feminists with defining their third world sisters in ways that make them “victims” of a “backward” civilization.27 This argument built on Edward Said’s work Orientalism, which was critical of the way that western scholarship on the East and Islam has reinforced a dichotomy of western superiority and Islamic inferiority.28 Mohanty challenged western feminist claims to universality on the grounds that they often falsely assimilated the experiences of all women, in the process failing to acknowledge key differences in race, class, and religion. With regard to religion generally and Islam specifically, Mohanty asserted that feminist scholars who study other religious and cultural traditions should recognize a plurality of interpretations within a tradition.

Fatima Mernissi also examined gender, human rights, and Islamic culture through the lens of postcolonial politics. She observed that by signing the UDHR, Muslims were redefining themselves in “the eyes of their former colonizers” and in doing so, they undermined sexual hierarchy and the scale of values that constituted male identity.29 In contrast to Mohanty, however, Mernissi examined patriarchal practices within the Islamic tradition, noting that the contradictions between Arab patriarchies in particular and gender equality politics of human rights discourse generated tensions for Muslims, especially Muslim men. While the concept of western individualism was a foreign cultural construct, the idea of the individual rights of women deeply unsettled cultural norms and practices.

Leila Ahmed’s Women, Gender, and Islam addressed historically the complex treatment of women within the Islamic tradition, and how European colonialism shaped the trajectory of gender reform in Egypt. Ahmed argued that the “Muslim woman” as a social construct came to occupy an important symbol in the western colonial imagination after the eighteenth century. There is great irony in the Victorian colonizer who rejected the feminist movement in Europe, but who turned around and used “feminism” to make the case for rescuing the victimized Muslim woman from her backward culture. Ahmed explained, “Colonial feminism, or feminism as (p. 834) used against other cultures in the service of colonialism, was shaped into a variety of similar constructs, each tailored to fit the particular culture that was the immediate target of domination.”30

The idea that Islam was inherently inimical to women gained currency during the colonial period, but its effects have been far-reaching into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Feminist Islamic legal scholar Ziba Mir Hosseini maintained that this idea has influenced attitudes of westerners, and particularly Americans, in offering justification for the “war on terror” following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.31 But for Mir Hosseini and Ahmed, feminism as a set of tools for the liberation of women was not merely synonymous with the exercise of hegemonic power. In her 2006 article, Mir Hosseini traced the development of an indigenous Islamic feminism in post-revolutionary Iran, noting that the feminism embraced by a strong contingent of Iranians was not the same as the colonial feminism described above. This feminism came about as the result of women’s oppression in the area of Islamist restrictions on women’s marital rights and child custody rights, to name a few examples. Mir Hosseini was extremely critical of Islamist pretensions to an ahistorical and de-contextualized “Shari‘a law” as a viable human rights framework, and her work has promoted human rights in Islamic contexts.

The respective works of Mohanty, Mernissi, Ahmed, and Mir Hosseini suggest that the idea of a fundamental Islamic hostility to women’s rights was originally a product of colonialism. Mir Hosseini’s work also shows that Islamist political and militant activists have employed this construct to undermine the rights of Muslim women, in the name of defending an “authentic” Islam. Islamists who argue against gender equality, both in public and in the home, often rely on a premodern vision of Islam. Mir Hosseini observed that as a result, the gap between notions of gender justice and rights in the Islamic legal tradition and international declarations addressing gender justice widened in the twentieth century