El-Banna represents a school of thought that argues for women’s right from within Islam itself. This growing type of discourse, labeled Islamic feminism, revolves around the need to address women’s issues through rereading of the Muslim holy texts. Contrary to what some secular Arab feminists assert in terms of the responsibility of religion—even beyond Islam itself19—in producing the problems targeting women, this approach argues that Islam has been misused and misinterpreted. While this might be understood as an apologetic response to criticisms involving Islam,20 the proponents emphasize that this approach is not only valid in theory, but is also effective in practical terms. Islamic feminism becomes a movement where intellectual and academic efforts meet activist initiatives seeking to empower women, taking Islam as a reference point. This type of feminism uses concepts, methodologies, and approaches that include both those that have traditionally been advanced by Islamic understandings, and those that exist outside of Islam.21 What this means is that an Islamic feminist would use, for example, the tools of exegesis usually used by Muslim jurists, but would not mind the use of the philosophical underpinnings of mainstream feminism.
Islamic feminists acknowledge the existence of deep problems impacting women in Arab and Islamic societies. Women have long been excluded from participation in the public sphere in Muslim societies, and much of the rationale that has misguidedly been used relates to arguments that such exclusion is sanctioned by Islam itself. Part of the problem lies in the fact that some people who consider themselves “guardians of the truth,” almost exclusively male, have often monopolized a monolithic understanding about the recommended position of women in the public sphere including how they should behave in the presence of males. Islamic feminists do not take everything interpreted on behalf of Muslim women at face value, as “Muslim women are demanding equal access to scriptural truth.”22 Women have been mostly deprived, as many Islamic feminists argue, from such access, and this has had devastating effects on their well-being including their ability to be present in the public space that is mostly occupied by males. Male interpretations have led in many cases to practices that had left women behind.
Many Islamic feminists acknowledge that the situation of Arab and Muslim women is a multi-faceted problem, but part of the puzzle can be explained by how the holy texts have been understood. Interestingly, more women are getting involved in the reinterpretation of the Qur’an including cases in Saudi Arabia itself.23 Such attempts would move the interpretation into becoming a more gender-balanced one or a “gender-sensitive reading of Qur’anic Exegesis.”24
In tackling the issue of monopolizing interpretations, Nazira Zainuldin (1908-1976), a Lebanese author and activist, emerges as a key figure who challenged monolithic interpretations of the religious texts. She criticizes the historical framing done by men: “women are more worthy of interpreting verses that have to do with women’s duties and rights than men, for they are the ones that are directly addressed.”25 Other Islamic feminists refer to readings ofthe Qur’an that engender female repression,26 ones that have been erroneously used to propagate perspectives not cognizant ofthe plights and rights ofwomen. In sum, Islamic feminists assert that there is a need “to offer a reading that confirms that Muslim women can struggle for equality from within the framework of the Qur’an’s teachings... To identify Islam inseparably with oppression is to ignore the reality of misreadings of the sacred text. ”27
From the above discussions, one finds a lively and dynamic analysis that argues for women’s rights, but does so from within the holy text itself. The over-riding common factor among most such discourses is that the text is believed to offer no implications that should lead to discrimination against women.