Understanding Islamic Feminism in India

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by Dr. Tarannum Siddiqui 5 July 2019


This paper discusses Islamic feminism and the importance of Islamic feminism along its history. What is Islamic feminism and how Islamic feminism differs from other religions feminism and feminist moments? What the impact of feminism happened in India Muslim feminism and how to have political, legal, economic and social rights changes on Muslim women’s life or Feminism was already in Muslim personal law? After the Islamic feminism in India what changes and reforms in Muslim Personal law? I communicate in this paper a nascent ‘Islamic feminist’ movement in India, dedicated to the goal of achieving gender equity under Muslim Personal Law. I will argue in this paper that a clear distinction should rather be made between Islamic feminism as a discursive movement, and the distinct local, national or transnational social and political movements that are allincreasingly referring to this discourse.

In India, these movements in many cases precede the emergence of Islamic feminism in the 1990s. There is significant struggle against accepting them as partners in the debate and struggles to determine women’s rights and their future. The intellectual strand of Islamic feminism, specifically are justification of Islamic law and theology respectively. This paper has an overview with this question what impact at Muslim Personal law and Muslim women rights in India after Islamic feminism? Feminism gives a new point-of-view on society, when eliminating old theory about why things are the way they are, and looking at it from the perspective that women are not inferior and men are not the mean. Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies that share a common stated aim: to define, establish, and defend equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women. In this paper includes looking for to establish equal rights for women in society and religion.

Key Words: Gender, Feminism, Islamic Feminism, Reform.      


Feminism is basically a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, cultural, and social, legal rights for women. This includes looking for to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women. Feminism gives a new point-of-view on our society, when reducing old theory about why things are the way they are, and looking at it from the perspective that women are not inferior and men are not the mean.

Understanding Islamic Feminism

Today the new debate on Islam and modernity by refusing the above approaches and insisting on a genuine Islamic framework for social organisation. ‘Islam is the solution’ has become the rally call for Islamists and encapsulates the extent to which Islam is viewed as a comprehensive system of thought, values and guidelines to govern a contemporary state. In relation to women’s rights Muslim actors exhibit a similar diversity of opinion as above. Islamic feminists tend to draw from the intellectual foundation of Islamism and relate to a particular view of Islam as the source of knowledge on contemporary issues, including women’s issues. Needless to say not all Muslim women identify with this perspective.

According to Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi tracing her evaluation from advocating secular reconstruction of Muslim societies to a position that resembles Islamic reformism. Muslim feminist theories have come out in response to this malaise. Islamic feminist aim “to establish women’s rights within the Islamic frame work by reinterpreting Islam’s holy sources”. In contrast, secular feminist challenge the particularistic nature of the Islamic framework and advocate the application of a set of standard universal rights for Muslim and non-Muslim women.  

Islamic feminism broadly speaking is a form of feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam. It aims for the full equality of all Muslims, regardless of sex or gender, in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. One of the leading figures in Islamic feminism is Margot Badran a historian who specializes in Islamic feminism and had authored many essays and books interpreting Islam on feminist perspectives.

According to Badran, Islamic feminism is a feminist discourse and practice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an seeking right and justice within the framework of gender equality for women and men in the totality of their existence. The discourse (Islamic feminism) explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all Insan (human beings) and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh), conceptualizing a holistic Umma in which Quranic ideals are operative in all space[i]. Therefore, Islamic feminism aims to recover the notion of gender equality from the Quranic revelation introduced into 7th century (C.E) patriarchal Arabian society. The equality of the Holy Qur’an, from which gender equality cannot be separated, did not sit well with the patriarchal culture into which Islam was first introduced and spread. To a large extent patriarchal thought, institutions and behaviors largely remain resistant over time to the revolutionary Quranic notion of gender equality[ii].

Islamic Feminism according to Zainab Alwani ‘Islamic feminism is an idea of awareness advocating that men and women have equal rights based on re-reading the Quran, re-examining the religious texts and telling people to practice.’[iii]

According to Arshad Hiba Islamic feminism and the role of UNESCO- Islamic feminism divided three type of theory feminist movements in Islam first theory Islamic feministtheir opinions are Islam and its teachings; pursue the full equality of women and men the theory Muslim feminist’s faith in Islam and feminism use arguments outside of Islam such as an international human rights agreement to counter gender inequality. And Islamists feministare advocates of a political Islam, the notion that the Quran can mandate an Islamic government; they advocate women’s rights in the public domain but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private domain[iv]

Other Islamic Feminist writer Malk Hafni Nasif says ‘Critical tensions also emerged within feminist discourse; of the two divergent voice of feminism in Egypt and in the Arab Middle East for most the century and the second remained an alternative, marginal voice until the last decades of the century, generally not even recognized as a voice of feminism. The dominant voice of feminism, which affiliated itself. with the westernizing, secularizing voice, wary of and eventually even opposed to western ways, searched a way to articulate female subjectivity and affirmation within a native, vernacular, Islamic discourse- typically in terms of a general social, cultural, and religious renovation. The renovation was understood to be regenerative for the entire society, not just for women, hence the rights of women, hence the rights of women were not the sole nor even any longer the primary object of reform, but one among several.’[v]

Now today most dominant and popular movement is the Islamic feminist movement. Islamic feminism, one must take into account the meaning of the two words that make up this term: Islam and feminism, Muslims today number over a billion people and live in every continent in the world in conditions of enormous political, social, cultural and –though we are insufficiently attentive to it – religious, diversity. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Muslim women will have different types of concerns depending on where they live and in what conditions. At the same time, however, it is painfully clear that in spite of diversity of Muslim cultures and societies, women in many societies have to endure similar forms of sexual inequality and discrimination.[vi] The sectarian differences in the belief and practice of Islam, particularly among the Shiites and the Sunnis, introduce a level of complexity that has to be taken into account. Moreover, geographically and historically, Islam was and is practiced around the globe in diverse cultural settings[vii]. But now today in Muslim societies, like Iran, Egypt, Sudan and Morocco, women have been able to act as judges and more recently, as a result of the persistence of Muslim women’s feminist activist struggle.[viii] 

The History of Islamic Feminism

The two most famous global women’s liberation movements were that of the Prophetic women’s liberation movement in the seventh century and that of the western feminist movement of the eighteenth century. During the early days of Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women’s rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.   Before Islam, Women were not provided such legal status in Arab cultures and the west.

The western feminism movement and the Muslim women liberation movement was different between in its nature and outcomes than the western feminism movement. The causes of the feminist movement in Europe were mostly rooted in opposing the religious scripture and the unjust social practices against women.  Islamic feminism is being produced by Muslim women from both majority and minority communities in Africa or Asia as well as from immigrant and convert communities in west. The classic Islamic feminism is the classic Islamic methodologies of ijtihad and tafsir (interpretation of the Quran). Ijtihad ) is a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah.[ix]

In 19th century different feminist movements reflect the cultural contexts in which they arise, and Muslim feminists have adapted their own issues of working within an Islamic framework, allowing women to counter gender domination and expectations as a part of their faith. Like Egypt reformer “Abduh’s (1849-1908) thought later concentrated on social issues and change Islamic society. The first Arabic feminist manual on the role of women in Muslim society by the early twentieth-century Tunisian author and reformist al-Tahir al –Haddad.[x] According to Haddad’s in his book “Our women in the Sharia and Society” have explained misconceptions in such area as the veil, polygamy, marriage, divorce and inheritance. Al-Haddad rightly highlight the point that the interpretations of the classical Islamic scholars were inextricably linked with the traditions and conditions of their time, which do not correspond to those of the present.

The first female author “Zaynab Fawwaz” talk about for Gender equality in 1846-1914.  She supporter the rights of women through the written by newspaper articles and poems, with her views on collected in al-Rasa il al –Zaynabiyya (the Zaynab letters). She was first women’s right writer through the fiction[xi].

Islamic feminists have written extensively on gender-just understandings of Islam, saying equality for Muslim women using Quranic arguments. This is the main problem that the educated and non-educated both, Muslim women are not aware of all the rights that the Muslim women have in the Quran, but which the Muslim men authority have largely subverted in the name of Islam, she had a rough deal. In Egypt, which has been in the forefront of feminism in the Muslim world, the fight for women’s rights dovetailed with the rise of secular nationalism and social justice. A global movement called Musawah—meaning is “equality” —began to make the case that women can fight for justice and equality from within Islamic tradition. For many Muslim women, this came as a revelation. Musawah was spearheaded by twelve women, from countries as diverse as Egypt, Gambia, Turkey and Pakistan, who spent two years laying out the movement’s guiding principles. Musawah operates on the belief that Islam is not inherently biased toward men: patriarchy within Muslim countries is a result of the way male interpreters have read Islamic texts.[xii] Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, and then push for legal reform in their respective countries. Muslim women associated this new ideology with regimes that had oppressed their people[xiii].

Feminism as a new awareness of gender and women’s subordination first developed among the upper and middle classes in the crannies of unevenly gendered modernity at different moment in various countries in Middle East.[xiv]

Islamic Feminism in India

Islamic feminist movement in India, keen to the goal of achieving gender equity under Muslim Personal Laws. The Quran—which, they claim, grant of political, economic and social rights is a Sign that theoretically, Islamic feminism is an approach to empower Muslim women.

In the context of the controversies surrounding legal reform, an important development over the past few years has been the emergence of Muslim women’s activism seeking to promote women’s rights rather than focusing all energies on changing personal laws to enhance rights. Muslim women in India face considerable challenges as citizens and as members of the largest minority. Their poor socio-economic status reflects a lack of social opportunity which, though not a feature exclusive to Muslim women, is exacerbated by their marginal status within an overall context of social disadvantage for most Indian women. Muslim women suffer from many disadvantages in areas such as education, employment, and access to welfare programmes. The status of Muslim women broadly indicates the shortage of three essentials: knowledge (measured by literacy and average years of schooling), economic power (work and income), and autonomy (measured by decision-making and physical mobility) as the defining feature of women’s low status[xv] .

Muslim women’s rights activists assert their right to read the Quran for themselves and interpret it in a woman-friendly way. The Quran clearly says that there is no clergy. So the ‘ulama’ have no right to tell me anything. Their job is to tell women to read the Quran, not to tell women what the Quran says.

Muslim women movement in India openly supports the obligation for reform of Muslim Personal Law in India. Confirmed to a rise in awareness-raising campaigns, which shall help to inform Muslim women about the rights that are guaranteed to them in the Quran and there by encourage new itches for debate on reform of Muslim Personal Law. The large women’s movement Muslim women from Gujarat, Mumbai, Rajasthan, UP, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had earlier takes lead by many   organization.  Like Hukook-e-Niswan, Minority women in Madhya Pardesh, Tehreek, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan etc.[xvi]

All over the world today, Muslim women are claiming their rights from within the framework of Islam. From Pakistan to Nigeria, women are speaking up about the need for the reinterpretation or ijtihad of Islam law or shariah to lessen the gap between the rights of a man and the rights of a woman in Islamic society.  Many would argue that the first feminist of Islam was the Prophet Muhammad himself.[xvii]  During his prophet hood, many radical reforms were instituted that concerned the treatment and place of women.

Shah Bano Case

In 1985 the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case finally resulted in the enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986.[xviii]

In the Shah Bano Case after forty-three years of marriage, Shah Bano husband Mohammed Ahmed Khan, a rich and well-known lawyer forced his wife, Shah Bano, out of her matrimonial home. Then, in her sixties, Shah Bano was thrown out along with her five children. Shah Bano filed for maintenance under Section 125 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code(Cr.PC).

In Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that if “any person, having insufficient means, neglects or refuses to maintain…his wife…a Magistrate of the first class…may order such a person to make a monthly allowance for the maintenance of his wife as the Magistrate sees fit.”[xix]

This judgment by the Supreme Court incited a range of responses. Many conservative Muslim leaders opposed the judgment, arguing that the decision encroached upon the Muslim community’s rights. They perceived the judgment as an attack on the Muslim Personal Law. The decision, they argued, interfered in their religious matters.

Shah Bano brought to the court under the Code of Criminal Procedure, which is uniformly applied, instead of placing it under uncodified personal laws that are often interpreted in a gender discriminatory manner. However, following the judgment, prompted by the opposition from Muslim leadership, the INC led government passed the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 (henceforth referred to as Muslim Women’s Act). This Act nullified the judiciary’s act of placing secular law over personal law by enacting a new law[xx].

Shah Bano was not only a Muslim, she was a Muslim woman. The Muslim religious leaders responded the way they did because the judgment had the potential of changing the Muslim woman: the embodiment of Islamic values and culture, which for those who sought to conserve the religion as it was, was not to be meddled with. When the judiciary undermined the scope of the Muslim Personal Laws, the Muslim leadership interpreted it as a betrayal of the ideal of secularism because secularism as they saw it was the State being accepting of different religious practices. While the Muslim leadership saw Shah Bano as an example of a Muslim woman, the Supreme Court saw her as an Indian citizen whose situation was to be judged on the basis that she was an equal citizen of the nation and deserving of the same rights irrespective of her religious identity.

And other case the Latifi verdict was thus a step forward on the road to sex equality in as much as it provides a predominantly social, rather than religious grounding for maintenance provisions. Notwithstanding this liberal interpretation, the issue of discrimination on the basis of religion has not gone away: it remains significant. Only Muslim women are denied maintenance in the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Today Shah Bano case was raised 30 years ago, today again another case, the Shayra bano case, is being raised.  In this case issues of divorce, halala and polygamy are raised. In this case elevated a question of this kind of divorce is illegal and unconstitutional? And also its violation against the constitution articles 14, 15, 21 and after 70 Years India gained independence but Muslims are faced with such problems, be it the Shah bano case or the Shayra bano matter. The very important question is how do legal and religious matters become political? Some people stand in favour of it while others stand against it.  Have any of us ordinary people wondered about why such problems are being advertised? The Muslim Ulama completely forget the matter at hand and argue, some support the Congress, some the BJP and some the Samajwadi party, all without solving the problem in front of them. Why don’t the ulama give answers in the light of the Quran and tell people on a large level?

In India Shariat law pronounced as Muslim Personal Law, governs the above and like matter relating to Muslim Community in India. Muslim Personal Law in India is governed by the provisions of the Muslim Personal law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937.

Talaq three times or triple talaq is a problem that stands as Jinn upon the Muslim community. There have been many controversies on this problem.  Different things are said frequently and in the recent days they have been happening too

Model Nikahnama

A Mumbai group that includes several lawyers, academics and NGO leaders has been trying since the early 1990s to draft and 2005 publish a Model Nikahnama that clearly presents these options. Muslim Intellectuals, Lawyers, activists, and Ulema participated in the debate to discuss the launch of the model nikahnama and banning of Triple talaq.[xxi]

One of the Main sticking points has been whether to include a mention of talaq- tafwiz[xxii]. The four-page nikahnama, available in both Hindi and Urdu versions in a single booklet, lists 17 points that the couple should keep in mind. It not only prohibits dowry and domestic violence, but also lays down the terms on which religion prescribes the bridegroom to treat his wife. The nikahnama release of the approved document till 2005. Its approved nikahnama deleted the mandatory clauses regarding triple talaq; replaced them with a simple caution against it and retained clauses regarding mehr in kind, prohibition on dowry and against violence[xxiii]. But it introduced something new: a conservative code of conduct for women such as they should not step out without the permission of the husband etc.


The grave problem of Muslims in India earlier was that they learnt the Quran in Arabic language whereas their native language was Hindi, Urdu or other regional languages. Such a situation creates the problems of understanding and interpretation. Though translations are available now however still a few well read Muslims or upper class rich (Shurfa) read and the number of women is too small.

However post 1950s, this has been a considerable change in the situation as a chunk of women and men have started reading Quran in their own language and therefore understand Quranic texts with meaning.

Having said this, it can be safely argued that now the Indian Muslim women are aware about their rights which are enshrined the Quran for them. Such awareness got reflected in the 1996s given the Shah Bano case and 2005 Model Nikahnama. The need of the hour is that the Indian Muslim reformist and other Muslim organizations have the responsibility of reforming the Shriat Act 1937 and to put it within the reach of the ordinary Muslims. Today at least 22 Islamic countries have abolished instant triple talaq. In Muslim countries like Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, reforms have been made to the shariat law. Even our neighbors, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have abolished such a talaq either clearly or implicitly. In India the case for instant triple talaq is highly politicized, much debated, made into a media and propaganda monster and at the end less understood and misinterpreted.

Islamic feminism tries to challenge the traditional understanding of Quranic verses in the light of gender justice. They have contributed to the debate on need for reforms. Though much has not changed on the ground as the community lacks opportunities for education and thus remains backward. Since To reach out to the large numbers of members of the community is an uphill task and slow painful process, but with education, it will correct the patriarchal perspective in which men have understood Quran.

Islamic feminism in India is not talking about reforming the law in the light of Quran. Islamic feminism in the Muslim countries….and we have never tried to interpret the Islamic verses in the gender perspective. There, whatever interpretations have been done…Islamic feminism says that we have to go back to Quran to make it more gender just. This is not happening in India and therefore we will not call it Islamic feminism. There is one group who are trying to imitate Islamic feminism but the intention of reinterpretation and re-reading of Quran is not here.

Islamic Feminism demands equal rights of women. It strives of equality of all Muslims. The basic tenets on which Islam stands is equality and then how women can be different? This is the issue raised by the Islamic feminists. They have devised a separate Nikahnama and now challenge Muslim Personal Law Board.

Islamic feminism is basically a term which was applied in different countries after Islamic revolution. The Islamic feminist are not against Islamic shariat, they are not against Islamic text that means Quran. They are in favor of Quran but they are against the writings and they are against the teachings and they are against the commentary that was provided by male members. So basically the question of Islamic feminism says that women should be considered equal to men and   Islam has given this equality. That means they are in favor of Islamic teaching. They are in favor of Islamic shariat. They say that Islam hasn’t considered women different, it hasn’t made them secondary or sub ordinate. They say that its law made by men and this education (Taalimat) is given by men which have somehow made women dependent on men. Islam tells more than this that she has her own identity and woman should get equal position in society. This is basic agenda of Islamic feminism. The feminist are trying to get same rights which have been mentioned in Quran and hadith. The Islamic feminists were trying to revive that. And this is their fight; this is their voice that we want to have those rights which were given at prophet’s time. So basically as Islamic feminist they are not against Islam and they want to revive the Islamic teachings which were already given by Allah and Quran. If we see what was impact of Muslim personal law then obviously we have seen good impacts also.

 Feminism means to better the position of women, to better the condition of women. So we are given those by Islam but in India their implementation is improper.


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[i] Badran Margot, (2011), Feminism in Islam, On World Oxford, Pp333. 334

[ii] Badran, M. (2006) Islamic feminism Revisited in http://www.countercurrents.org/gen-badran 100206. htm. retrieved 03-03-2012.

[iii] Alwani Zainab, (2012), Muslim Women and Global Challenges, Institute of objective studies.

[iv] Arshad Hiba, (2008), Islamic Feminism and the role of UNESCO. (Washington: George Washington University).

[v] Alwani Zainab, (2012), Muslim Women and Global Challenges, Publ. Genuine Publication & Media Pvt. Ltd. P.102. 

[vi] Barlas Asma, (2011), Quran & Women’s Liberation, Critical Quest New Delhi, P.1.  

[vii] Ahmad Ambar, (2015), May, Islamic Feminism – A contradiction in terms? , FES India Papers, New Delhi, p. 2-3.

[viii] Badran Margot, (2011), Feminism in Islam, On World Oxford, P.292.

[ix]  Arshad Hiba, ,(2008), Islamic Feminism and the role of UNESCO George, Washington University, EDUC 228.

[x]  Husni Ronak and Newmanl.Daniel, (2007), “Muslim Women in Law and Society”, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York Page.7.

[xi] Husni Ronak and Newmanl Daniel, (2007), “Muslim Women in Law and Society”,  Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York Page.7.

[xii] http://www.musawah.org/rise-islamic-feminists, Muslim women are fighting for their rights from within Islamic tradition, rather than against it, by Elizabeth Segran, 01/16/2014

[xiii] http://www.musawah.org/rise-islamic-feminists, Muslim women are fighting for their rights from within Islamic tradition, rather than against it, by Elizabeth Segran, 01/16/2014

[xiv] Badran Margot, (2011), Feminism in Islam, On World Oxford, P. 215.

[xv] Hasan, Zoya and Ritu Menon (2004): Unequal Citizens: Socio-economic Status of Muslim Women in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi

[xvi] Shaban Abdul,(2012), Lives of Muslim In India, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London , New Delhi,Pp. 259-262.

[xvii] Michael Wolfe, , (2002)Muhammad – Legacy of a Prophet ,PBS

[xviii] Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs.  Shah Bano Begam AIR 1985, SC 945.

[xix]  Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 125.

[xx] Varghese Arpita Elizabeth, April  (2015), Personal Laws in India: The Activisms of Muslim Women’s Organizations,

 Duke University Durham, North Carolina.

[xxi] S. Abdul,(2012), Lives of Muslim In India, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London , New Delhi,P.260.

[xxii] K.Singh, S. Musharraf, M. Molllah ,(2005), “Inching Towards Equality” A Comparative Analysis of CEDW and Muslim Personal law of India, Report of The Indian School, P.45.

[xxiii] S. Abdul,(2012), Lives of Muslim In India, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London , New Delhi, P.260.

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