Interview with Dina El Omari on feminism and Islam

"Muslim women need space for critical self-reflection"

Is there such a thing as a feminist Islam? If there is, it is hard to define. Instead, there are different interpretations and above all female Muslim theologians who do not use the term "feminism" to describe what they do, namely interpret the Koran in a gender-equal way. An interview with theologian Dina El Omari

Feminism and Islam – can they actually go together?

Dina El Omari: Yes! Even though many people in Germany think they are contradictory. The problem is that the term "Islamic feminism" is being used in debates without anyone defining what it means exactly. And this in turn is due to the fact that a definition is not so easy, because the spectrum of views that can be summarised under this term is very broad, including widely divergent orientations and goals. What's more, a separate branch has developed out of Islamic feminists' quest for women's equality in Muslim contexts: feminist Koran exegesis. These two terms are thus related in terms of content, but they are not the same.

What is the difference?

El Omari: The problem starts with the term feminism itself, which designates a political movement that struggles for social change. Islamic feminism, from which feminist Koranic exegesis emerged, wants the same thing. But a certain group of female scholars and Islamic theologians rejects the term "feminism", saying: we don't need it, because feminism has something to do with colonisation, while Islam, on the other hand, is inherently in favour of gender equality.

Others say: we want to achieve the same goals as feminism, so we should feel free to use that term. Although feminist Koran exegesis also aims at far-reaching social and political change toward greater equality, it argues on the basis of the Koran and takes a stand on its problematic passages. To do so, it applies exegetic methods, such as the historical-critical method, in order to arrive at a gender-neutral reading. The emphasis is on ending women's disenfranchisement, whether involuntary or self-imposed. It's therefore all about "empowering" women. This, in turn, can only succeed if the right conditions are met.

How do we get there?

El Omari: Feminist Koranic exegesis deals with questions such as: are women able to make independent decisions, assert their interests and stand up for their goals? Because it's all about women's rights, all the suras and passages in the Koran that quite obviously express the patriarchal social structures of the 7th century are interpreted from today's point of view instead.

Feminist Koranic exegesis is about defusing these passages and interpreting them in a gender-equal way. Things get difficult, however, when Muslim women define themselves as feminists yet fail to be consistent. To be in favour of gender equality and women's rights and yet exclude certain passages of the Koran from the contextual reading is inconsistent.

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