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Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature: Women Claim Islam
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand


Author: Miriam Cooke

Publisher: Routledge, New York & London

Price: £13

Year: 2001

Pages: 175

ISBN: 0-415-92554-1



The normative status of women in Islam has been the subject of furious debate both among Muslims as well as between Muslims and others. Almost all that has been written on the subject has, however, been by men, which has meant that the debate has necessarily been somewhat one-sided. Patriarchal interpretations of Islamic law have been taken at face value, and have been assumed to represent the ‘true’ Islamic position on women’s status. Of late, a growing number of Muslim women have taken to writing about themselves and about Islam, seeking to interpret the faith for themselves. In the process, new understandings of Islam that remain faithful to the fundamental sources of the religion and at the same time offer the hope of empowerment to Muslim women are being articulated in this new genre of writing. It is with these Islamic ‘feminist’ perspectives and what, in turn, they imply for notions of religious authority that this book is primarily concerned.

Cooke bases her study on the writings, particularly novels and autobiographies, of a new generation of Arab Muslim women, mainly from Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt, to present a general picture of what she calls ‘Islamic feminism’. In contrast to an earlier generation of Arab women activists, influenced by socialist and secular thought, she writes, these women consciously choose to identify themselves as Muslims. This is to be seen in the context of the growing popularity, since the 1970s, of Islamic movements in many Muslim societies and as a search for ‘roots’ and religious and cultural ‘authenticity’ more generally. These women seek to claim their rights within a strictly Islamic paradigm. This means a re-reading of the corpus of Islamic texts, going straight to the Qur’ān and to the Hadīth, by-passing centuries of the accumulated tradition of Fiqh, much of which is dismissed as patriarchal aberration that is seen as having no legitimacy in Islam as such. They insist that since the Qur’ān is meant for all believers, they, too, have a right to read it and interpret it. Cooke writes that this has crucial implications for the nature of religious authority in Muslim societies. No longer are the male clergy to be considered to be the only authoritative interpreters of the faith. Indeed, it is implicitly argued, they have been complicit, whether consciously or otherwise in distorting Islam to deny women the wide range of rights that Islam provides them.

The book looks at the diverse ways in which more gender-positive understandings of the faith are being sought to be articulated by Muslim women in the Arab world. Thus, some would seek to advance women’s rights by working within Islamic tradition in a somewhat instrumentalist fashion, recognizing that to ignore religion in deeply religious Muslim societies is self-defeating. These include writers such as the Maghrebi activist-scholars Assia Djebar and Fatima Mernissi, and the Egyptian novelist Nawal el Saadwi. On the other hand are Muslim women who are deeply involved in Islamist groups, such as the Egyptian Zaynab al-Ghazali. These women, Cooke shows, are working for a more visible role for Muslim women in the public sphere based on a new vision of what it means to be a Muslim woman today, one who is true to her faith and, at the same time, capable of playing a role as an active citizen. The question of the veil and women’s seclusion necessarily assumes central importance in this regard. Cooke shows how these women challenge notions of complete seclusion of women, arguing that this is a later development and has no legitimacy in the Qur’ān. Indeed, she shows, the veil might actually help women by allowing them access to the public sphere in a manner and to an extent hitherto not possible.

In addition to Muslim women writers living in the Arab world, Cooke also looks at the role of a new generation of Arab Muslim women living and working in the United States. She examines the growing assertiveness of these women, linking up with other marginalized women to struggle for their rights and for a more gender-sensitive and socially just America. She also looks at the growing networking between these women and Muslim women in other parts of the world through the Internet. She argues that the Internet has radical possibilities for developing new understandings of Islam and women’s rights, and that it can lead to a further decentralization of religious authority in Muslim, as indeed in other, societies, as more people, including women gain new access to the sources of the faith and can interpret and debate them on their own.

Although the scope of the book, despite its title, is limited, focusing largely on middle-class women writers in selected countries, Cooke’s observations would seem to have a broader relevance for Muslim women elsewhere.



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