Whether living in the Middle East or Africa, in Central Asia, in
Pakistan, in Southeast Asia, or in Europe and the Americas, Muslim
women  tend to view the feminist movement with some apprehension. 
Although there are some features of the feminist cause with which we
as Muslims would wish to join hands, other features generate our
disappointment and even opposition.  There is therefore no simple or
"pat" answer to the question of the future cooperation or competition
which feminism may meet in an Islamic environment.

There are however a number of social, psychological, and economic
traditions which govern the thinking of most Muslims and which are 
particularly affective of woman's status and role in Islamic society.  
Understanding these can help us understand the issues which affect
male  and female status and roles, and how we should react to
movements which  seek to improve the situation of women in any of the
countries where  Muslims live.

THE FAMILY SYSTEM: One of the Islamic traditions which will affect the
way in which Muslim women respond to feminist ideas is the advocacy in
Islamic culture of an extended rather than a nuclear family system. 
Some Muslim families are "residentially extended" - that is, their
members live communally with three or more generations of relatives
(grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and their offspring) in a
single building or compound.  Even when this residential version of
the extended family is not possible or adhered to, family connections
reaching far beyond the nuclear unit are evident in strong
psychological, social, economic, and even political ties.  Mutual
supports and responsibilities affecting these larger consanguine groups
are not just considered desirable, but they are made legally incumbent
on members of the society by Islamic law.  The Holy Quran itself
exhorts to extended family solidarity; in addition it specifies the
extent of such responsibilities and contains prescriptive measures for
inheritance, support, and other close interdependencies within the
extended family.[1]

Our Islamic traditions also prescribe a much stronger participation of
the family in the contracting and preservation of marriages.  While
most Western feminists would decry family participation or arranged
marriage as a negative influence because of its apparent restriction
of individualistic freedom and responsibility, as Muslims we would
argue that such participation is advantageous for both individuals and
groups within the society.  Not only does it ensure marriages based on
sounder principles than physical attraction and sexual infatuation,
but it provides other safeguards for successful marital continuity. 
Members of the family provide diverse companionship as well as ready
sources of advice and sympathy for the newly married as they adjust to
each others' way.  One party of the marriage cannot easily pursue an
eccentric course at the expense of the spouse since such behavior
would rally opposition from the larger group.  Quarrels are never so
devastating to the marriage bond since other adult family members act
as mediators and provide alternative sources of companionship and
counsel following disagreements.  The problems of parenting and
generational incompatibility are also alleviated, and singles clubs
and dating bureaus would be unnecessary props for social interaction. 
There is no need in the extended family for children of working
parents to be unguarded, unattended, or inadequately loved and
socialized because the extended family home is never empty.  There is
therefore no feeling of guilt which the working parent often feels in
a nuclear or single-parent organization.  Tragedy, even divorce, is
not so debilitating to either adults or children since the larger
social unit absorbs the residual numbers with much greater ease than a
nuclear family organization can ever provide.

The move away from the cohesiveness which the family formerly enjoyed
in Western society, the rise of usually smaller alternative family
styles, and the accompanying rise in individualism which many
feminists advocate or at least practice, are at odds with these
deep-rooted Islamic customs and traditions.  If feminism in the Muslim
world chooses to espouse the Western family models, it should and
would certainly be strongly challenged by Muslim women's groups and by
Islamic society as a whole.

the large and intricately interrelated family organization is
correlative to another Islamic tradition which seems to run counter to
recent Western trends and to feminist ideology.  Islam and Muslim women
generally advocate molding of individual goals and interests to accord
with the welfare of the larger group and its members.  Instead of
holding the goals of the individual supreme, Islam instills in the
adherent a sense of his or her place within the family and of a
responsibility to that group.  This is not perceived or experienced by
Muslims as repression of the individual.  Other traditions which will
be discussed later guarantee his or her legal personality.  Feminism,
therefore, would not be espoused by Muslim women as a goal to be
pursued without regard for the relation of the female to the other
members of her family.  The Muslim woman regards her goals as
necessitating a balance with, or even subordination to, those of the
family group.  The rampant individualism often experienced in
contemporary life, that which treats the goals of the individual in
isolation from other factors, or as utterly supreme, runs against a
deep Islamic commitment to social interdependence.

DIFFERENTIATION OF SEX ROLES: A third Islamic tradition which affects
the future of any feminist movement in an Islamic environment is that
it specifies a differentiation of male and female roles and
responsibilities in society.  Feminism, as represented in Western
society, has generally denied any such differentiation and has
demanded a move toward a unisex society in order to achieve equal
rights for women.  By "unisex society," I mean one in which a single
set of roles and concerns are given preference and esteem by both
sexes and are pursued by all members of the society regardless of sex
and age differentials.  In the case of Western feminism, the preferred
goals have been those traditionally fulfilled by the male members of
society.  The roles of providing financial support, of success in
career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect
and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child
care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social
interrelationships, were devalued and even despised.  Both men and
women have been forced into a single mold which is perhaps more
restrictive, rigid and coercive than that which formerly assigned men
to one type of role and women to another.

This is a new brand of male chauvenism with which Islamic traditions
cannot conform.  Islam instead maintains that both types of roles are
equally deserving of pursuit and respect and that when accompanied by
the equity demanded by the religion, a division of labor along sex
lines is generally beneficial to all members of the society.

This might be regarded by the feminist as opening the door to
discrimination, but as Muslims we regard Islamic traditions as standing
clearly and unequivocally for the support of male-female equity.  In
the Quran, no difference whatever is made between the sexes in
relation to God. "For men who submit [to God] and for women who submit
[to God], for believing men and believing women, for devout men and
devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men
and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable
men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men
who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God
much and for women who remember - for them God has prepared
forgiveness and a mighty reward" (33:35).  "Whoever performs good
deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make
him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of
what they did" (16:97).[2]

It is only in relation to each other and society that a difference is
made - a difference of role or function.  The rights and
responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are
not necessarily identical with them.  Equality and identity are two
different things, Islamic traditions maintain - the former desirable,
the latter not.  Men and women should therefore be complementary to
each other in a multi-function organization rather than competitive
with each other in a uni-function society.

The equality demanded by Islamic traditions must, however, be seen in
its larger context if it is to be understood properly.  Since Muslims
regard a differentiation of sexual roles to be natural and desirable
in the majority of cases, the economic responsibilities of male and
female members differ to provide a balance for the physical
differences between men and women and for the greater responsibility
which women carry in the reproductive and rearing activities so
necessary to the well-being of the society.  To maintain, therefore,
that the men of the family are responsible for providing economically
for the women or that women are not equally responsible, is not a
dislocation or denial of sexual equity.  It is instead a duty to be
fulfilled by men as compensation for another responsibility which
involves the special ability of women.  Likewise the different
inheritance rates for males and females, which is so often sited as an
example of discrimination against women, must not be seen as an
isolated prescription.[3] It is but one part of a comprehensive system
in which women carry no legal responsibility to support other members
of the family, but in which men are bound by law as well as custom to
provide for all their female relatives.

Does this mean that Islamic traditions necessarily prescribe
maintaining the status quo in the Islamic societies that exist today? 
The answer is a definite "No." Many thinking Muslims - both men and
women - would agree that their societies do not fulfill the Islamic
ideals and traditions laid down in the Quran and reinforced by the
example and directives of the Prophet Muhammad, salallahu alehi
wasallam.  It is reported in the Quran and from history that women not
only expressed their opinions freely in the Prophet's presence but
also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet
himself and with other Muslim leaders of the time (58:1). Muslim women
are known to have even stood in opposition to certain caliphs, who
later accepted the sound arguments of those women.  A specific example
took place during the caliphate of 'Umar ibn al Khattab.[4] The Quran
reproached those who believed woman to be inferior to men (16:57-59)
and repeatedly gives expression to the need for treating men and women
with equity (2:228, 231; 4:19, and so on).  Therefore, if Muslim women
experience discrimination in any place or time, they do not and should
not lay the blame on Islam, but on the un-Islamic nature of their
societies and the failure of Muslims to fulfill its directives.

SEPARATE LEGAL STATUS FOR WOMEN:  A fourth Islamic tradition affecting
the future of feminism in Muslim societies is the separate legal status
for women which is demanded by the Quran and the Shari'ah.  Every
Muslim individual, whether male of female, retains a separate identity
from cradle to grave.  This separate legal personality prescribes for
every woman the right to contract, to conduct business, to earn and
possess property independently.  Marriage has no effect on her legal
status, her property, her earnings - or even on her name.  If she
commits any civil offense, her penalty is no less or no more than a
man's in a similar case (5:83; 24:2).  If she is wronged or harmed,
she is entitled to compensation just like a man (4:92-93; see also
Mustafa al Siba'i 1976:38; Darwazah n.d.:78). The feminist demand for
separate legal status for women is therefore one that is equally
espoused by Islamic traditions.

POLYGYNY:  Although the taking of plural wives by a man is commonly
called polygamy, the more correct sociological designation is
polygyny.  This institution is probably the Islamic tradition most
misunderstood and vehemently condemned by non-Muslims.  It is one
which the Hollywood stereotypes "play upon" in their ridicule of
Islamic society.  The first image conjured up in the mind of the
Westerner when the subject of Islam and marriage is approached is that
of a religion which advocates the sexual indulgence of the male
members of the society and the subjugation of its females through this

Islamic tradition does indeed allow a man to marry more than one woman
at a time.  This leniency is even established by the Quran (4:3).[5]
But the use and perception of that institution is far from the
Hollywood stereotype.  Polygyny is certainly not imposed by Islam; nor
is it a universal practice.  It is instead regarded as the exception
to the norm of monogamy , and its exercise is strongly controlled by
social pressures.[6] If utilized by Muslim men to facilitate or
condone sexual promiscuity, it is not less Islamically condemnable
than serial polygyny and adultery, and no less detrimental to the
society.  Muslims view polygyny as an institution which is to be
called into use only under extraordinary circumstances.  As such, it
has not been generally regarded by Muslim women as a threat.  Attempts
by the feminist movement to focus on eradication of this institution
in order to improve the status of women would therefore meet with
little sympathy or support.


What can be learned about the future compatibility or incongruity of
feminism in a Muslim environment from these facts about Islamic
traditions?  Are there any general principles to be gained, any
directives to be taken, by those who work for women's rights and human
rights in the world?

foremost principle would seem to be that many of the goals of feminism
as conceived in Western society are not necessarily relevant or
exportable across cultural boundaries.  Feminism as a Western movement
originated in England during the 18th century and had as one of its
main goals the eradication of legal disabilities imposed upon women by
English common law.  These laws were especially discriminatory of
married women.  They derived in part from Biblical sources (e.g., the
idea of man and woman becoming "one flesh," and the attribution of an
inferior and even evil nature to Eve and all her female descendants)
and in part from feudal customs (e.g., the importance of carrying and
supplying arms for battle and the concomitant devaluation of the
female contributions to society).  The Industrial Revolution and its
need for women's contribution to the work force brought strength to
the feminist movement and helped its advocates gradually break down
most of those discriminatory laws.

Since the history and heritage of Muslim peoples have been radically
different from that of Western Europe and America, the feminism which
would appeal to Muslim women and to the society generally must be
correspondingly different.  Those legal rights which Western women
sought in reform of English common law were already granted to Muslim
women in the 7th century.  Such a struggle therefore holds little
interest for the Muslim woman.  In addition, it would be useless to
try to interest us in ideas or reforms that run in diametrical
opposition to those traditions which form an important part of our
cultural and religious heritage.  There has been a good deal of
opposition to any changes in Muslim personal status laws since these
embody and reinforce the very traditions which we have been discussing. 
In other words, if feminism is to succeed in an Islamic environment,
it must be an indigenous form of feminism, rather than one conceived
and nurtured in an alien environment with different problems and
different solutions and goals.

THE FORM OF AN ISLAMIC FEMINISM: If the goals of Western feminism are
not viable for Muslim women, what form should a feminist movement take
to ensure success?

Above all, the movement must recognize that, whereas in the West, the
mainstream of the women's movement has viewed religion as one of the
chief enemies of its progress and well-being, Muslim women view the
teachings of Islam as their best friend and supporter.  The
prescriptions that are found in the Quran and in the example of the
Prophet Muhammad, salallahu alehi wasallam, are regarded as the ideal
to which contemporary women wish to return.  As far as Muslim women
are concerned, the source of any difficulties experienced today is not
Islam and its traditions, but certain alien ideological intrusions on
our societies, ignorance, and distortion of the true Islam, or
exploitation by individuals within the society.  It is a lack of an
appreciation for this fact that caused such misunderstanding and
mutual distress when women's movement representatives from the West
visited Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution.

Second, any feminism which is to succeed in an Islamic environment
must be one which does not work chauvenistically for women's interest
alone.  Islamic traditions would dictate that women's progress be
achieved in tandem with the wider struggle to benefit all members of
the society.  The good of the group or totality is always more crucial
than the good of any one sector of the society.  In fact, the society
is seen as an organic whole in which the welfare of each member or
organ is necessary for the health and well being of every other part. 
Disadventagous  circumstances of women therefore should always be
countered in conjunction with attempt to alleviate those factors which
adversely affect men and other segments of the society.

Third, Islam is an ideology which influences much more than the ritual
life of a people.  It is equally affective of their social, political,
economic, psychological, and aesthetic life.  "Din," which is usually
regarded as an equivalent for the English term "religion," is a
concept which includes, in addition to those ideas and practices
customarily associated in our minds with religion, a wide spectrum of
practices and ideas which affect almost every aspect of the daily life
of the Muslim individual.  Islam and Islamic traditions therefore are
seen today by many Muslims as the main source of cohesiveness for
nurturing an identity and stability to confront intruding alien
influences and the cooperation needed to solve their numerous
contemporary problems.  To fail to note this fact, or to fail to be
fully appreciative of its importance for the average Muslim - whether
male or female - would be to commit any movement advocating
improvement of women's position in Islamic hands to certain failure. 
It is only through establishing that identity and stability that
self-respect can be achieved and a more healthy climate for both
Muslim men and Muslim women will emerge.