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.

Where does this inconsistency manifest itself?

El Omari: The most-debated topic here is the headscarf. To illustrate it with an example: there are activists who say that no contextualisation of the Koranic suras is necessary and that everything that is oppressive to women must be removed. The headscarf is seen as an instrument of oppression. But there are also women in this country who, as feminist Muslims, have become spokeswomen and who see wearing a headscarf as a duty.

But if covering one's hair is seen as a duty, what about women's political power to make this decision for themselves? Is a woman in whom it was inculcated as a little girl that wearing a headscarf is a duty really covering her head voluntarily? This is why it is so important to create the contemplative space that allows women to evaluate the sources without bias and come to their own conclusions. The idea is to support them and to respect the decision they make out of their own free will. Women who choose not to wear a headscarf and those who have chosen to wear one on the basis of a politically mature attitude must be equally supported.

Unfortunately, however, such space for critical reflection hardly exists at all in Muslim everyday life. We must therefore work to ensure that space is created. One such is certainly the Islamic theology department at a university, which can also supply women with the necessary tools for placing and understanding texts in their historical context.

What would an ideal Muslim feminist be like?

Muslim students attend the European Studies gala evening at the German Foreign Office in Berlin (photo: picture-alliance/Andreas Keuchel)
"Feminism means holistic thinking and is expressed in an attitude – one of liberating women from their political powerlessness. We must stand up for all oppressed women", says Dina El Omari

El Omari: Feminism means holistic thinking and is expressed in an attitude – one of liberating women from their political powerlessness. We must stand up for all oppressed women. If the focus is only on women who are oppressed because they wear a headscarf and whose freedom is therefore restricted, but not at the same time on women who have decided against a headscarf, then this is not feminism.

In my view, a Muslim feminist is a woman who engages with her own sources very self-critically – both the Koran and other religious sources. She must critically question the sources with a strong patriarchal tone, interpret them against their historical context and then proceed holistically. This means working for equal rights on all levels – including a woman's right to wear a headscarf or not as she sees fit. Such a feminist works to create spaces in which women can reach an informed decision.

What might such spaces be?

El Omari: Mosques should be such places, but unfortunately they are so only very marginally, because they are dominated by a strong patriarchal structure. The school is therefore the most important place because it reaches so many people. In my opinion, Islamic religious education is very important. For one thing, so that girls have direct contacts, teachers with whom they can reflect on their religion and talk about what they are being told about Islam at home and in the mosque.

What is your view of the public debates on Islam in general and Muslim women in particular?

El Omari: I think they should be balanced. "Balanced" does not mean that the audience has to agree with the guest on the podium. I plead for a plurality of opinions.

If you want to conduct an honest debate, you as organiser should make sure that you don't offer a forum to just one voice – especially not to those who argue in simplified, polemic terms. Unfortunately, it is precisely such people who are heard most and have the greatest influence.

Interview conducted by Canan Topcu

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Dina El Omari is a research assistant at the Centre for Islamic Theology at the University of Munster. The 36-year-old is a post-doctoral fellow in the junior research group "Theology of Mercy" with a research focus on "Feminist Koranic Exegesis". Since 2015 she has been responsible for the research area "Koran and Koran Exegesis".

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