Feminist critique and Islamic feminism: the question of intersectionality


From The Postcolonialist

Written by Sara Salem


Since its inception, mainstream Western feminism has constituted a site of exclusion on multiple fronts, a consequence of first-wave feminist assumptions that have continued to influence mainstream feminism. Questions of definition and change are central to any project aiming to bring about social, political and economic change, but definition brings with it an intrinsic risk of delineating borders that include some but exclude others. In other words, the act of defining constitutes an exercise of power that creates certain women’s experiences as patriarchal and others’ as emancipatory. This article focuses on the tensions that have often arisen within the feminist project on the subject of religion and religious women. Mainstream Western feminism has long had difficulties in engaging with women who are religious. On the one hand, it is argued that religion is an inherently patriarchal institution that by nature excludes women and renders them unequal to men. On the other hand, many women see themselves as feminists and as religious, thus raising important questions about whether feminism has conceptualized religion too simplistically. At the center of this debate is the question of choice and how judgements about choices are made, and by whom. In other words, who decides that religion is oppressive to women, and what power relations are inherent in such a decision? The aim is to contextualize the consistently exclusionary approach on the part of many feminists towards religious women through focusing on the specific case of Islamic feminism, as well as to question whether intersectionality poses a possible solution to this exclusion.


“Religion can contribute to a post-patriarchal world.” [1]

The silence around feminism and religion is a profound one, and its roots lie in the metanarrative of secularising[2] that influences knowledge production in the field of feminism (and more broadly the social sciences). The silence functions to highlight not only a difficulty in approaching the subject of female autonomy in relation to religion, but also indicates a negativity towards religion on the part of feminist scholars.[3] Although there has been a significant amount of work on religion and patriarchy as well as on agency, autonomy, and gender; there has been little on the specific subject of women, religion and autonomy.

In an article by Elina Vuola, it is argued a shallow or condescending view of religion in the part of feminist scholars has meant that they do not see the full picture:

“On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist ‘blindness’ of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hand, there is a ‘religious paradigm’ type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by Western scholars on Muslim countries.”[4]

This reflects the tension within the literature: while there is a focus on women and religion, this focus is problematic as it reproduces religion as inherently patriarchal and women as lacking autonomy in relation to said religion. This has especially been the case in studies on “women and Islam,” a genre that has grown exponentially since the attacks on September 11, 2001. In this paper I want to focus on the feminist ‘blindness’ Vuola mentions, and try to unpack the various reasons why mainstream Western feminism has largely neglected the area of religious women. Read More

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