Gender Perspectives in Islamic Tradition

by Omaima Abou-Bakr

Edited transcript of Prof. Abou-Bakr's talk given at the Second Annual Minaret of Freedom Institute Dinner, Gaithersburg, Maryland on June 26, 1999

[Introduction by Sharmin Ahmad, Secretary of the Minaret of Freedom Institute:]

Sister Omaima Abou-Bakar has a fascinating background. She has been a womenís rights activist and scholar. She is currently an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University. She earned her bachelorsí degree in English language and literature from Cairo University, her M.A. from North Carolina State University at Raleigh. Her thesis title, I thought, is very interesting: Cleopatra in Shakespeare and Shawqi. She earned her Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley. Apart from her teaching experiences at these universities, she taught poetry, comparative literature, composition, and Arabic as a foreign language. She is also a founding member of "WOMEN AND MEMORY FORUM" in EgyptĖthis is a research cell to which she has devoted her time and energy on research and gender issues on women. Her research interests include topics like female spirituality and rereading Arab-Islamic history from a gender sensitive perspective. She has published numerous articles that are scholarly, thought provoking, as well as soul nourishing. Sr. Omaima Abou-Bakr is married and is the mother of two children. Currently, she is a fellow at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington D.C. It is really a pleasure and an honor to invite Sr. Omaima Abou-BakrĖhere she is. 

[Prof. Abou-Bakr's speech:]


First of all Iíd like to thank Dr. Imad for inviting me here for this lovely dinner and for lovely company. Itís my pleasure really. Iím going to talk to you today about whether or not it is valid or appropriate for Muslims to adopt a so-called gender-sensitive approach to the study of religious, historical, or cultural texts.

Perhaps we can reverse the question. Can we study gender issues from a Muslim womanís perspective? In attempting to answer such a question we can refer to three incidents related in the authenticated tradition. Two of them relate to the context of the occasions for the revelation of two particular Qur'anic verses.

The first incident: It was related that Umm Salama, the wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in her room with her maid combing her hair when she heard the Prophet calling for a community gathering for an announcement in the mosque: "O People!" Her maid said to Umm Salama, "You donít have to go; heís calling for the men of course, and not the women." Umm Salama replied, "Indeed, I am one of the people. (Innî min an-nâs.)" The second incident also involves Umm Salama. She went to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and wondered, "Why are the men being praised for their sacrifices in the hijra and not the women?" This was the cause for the revelation of verse 195 of the third surah:

Bismillah ir-Rahmân ir-Rahîm,

And God has heard them and responded

Verily, I suffer not the work of any worker of you, male or female, to be lost;

You are one of another.

The third incident that is narrated is that a group of women went complaining to the Prophet (pbuh) that the Qur'an only mentioned the wives of the Prophet and not women in general. "Men are mentioned in everything and we are not. Is there any goodness in us to be mentioned and commended at all?" And this was the cause for the revelation of verse 35 of the thirty-third surah: Verily, Muslim men and women believers, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, patient men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and womenĖthose who mention and remember God, men and women, for all those God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. What is the significance of these narratives? First, they demonstrate the concern on the part of the women for being included in the public affairs of the community or the divine address itself or to be a visible part of Muslim lifeĖits public aspect as well as its religious aspects. Second, they reflect concern for the recognition and acknowledgement of what women do and participate in so as not to be excluded, ignored, or marginalized. Third, such narratives also show the necessity of observing a certain balance between the two groups of the community in other words, a gendered view that is also holistic and seeking equity. This view or the expression of this view underscores a womanís perspective, initiative, and agency in questioning and debating. Fourth, a final important point here is that God Almighty responded (this is the Quranic word "istajâba") to the questioning by a revelation that inscribes and hence validates, womenís right to voice concerns and questions. If God himself and the Prophet (pbuh) gave ear to Muslim womenís queries, then why should not any particular Muslim community if the need arises at another point of our history?

Is there a need for that? What is it and of what kind of need? Womenís legal and religious rights in Islam are well known to us all and are unquestionable. My point is they need to be more defined in terms of actuality. The divergences between theoretical statements about the rights and status of women in Islam and the actual implementation or application of these rights and then, present day state policies in the legal arena through facilitating opportunities for education or work, etc.Ėall these issues need to be addressed. All Muslim countries are called upon to take seriously the issue of the humane and equal treatment of women. Respect for their common humanness, a theme that as we all know is reiterated throughout the Qur'an, is never allowed by interpreters and religious scholars to be a governing principle in constructing gender relations. In seeking to bridge the gap between theory and practice in this area, we can never overemphasize the difference between the basic equitable religious principles of the Qur'an and the authenticated Sunnah as referential framework, on one hand, and culture or cultural trappings on the other hand. These constitute the inherited cultural concepts and notions about gender distinctions and women, practices that have developed historically as a result of a very complicated process of acculturation or, sometimes, pre-Islamic ideas that heavily influenced religious thought and were thus incorporated and canonized. Eventually, these notions have become part of the popular understanding and practice of religion. This is where the hard part lies: Working up the care and patience to sift through all of this entanglement and specifically trace the cultural history of Muslim society.

One approach would be to examine the historicity and development or evolution of some of these cultural constructions that have proven unfair to women, promoted illogical assumptions about gender differences and were, in my opinion, oblivious of the higher Qur'anic paradigm of moral, ethical, and religious egalitarianism. This approach would also entail examination of the sheer compassion and humanity of the Prophet (pbuh) himself in his treatment of his wives, daughters, and the women around him. For example, in looking at the literature of Qur'anic commentaries throughout the centuries, I've discovered that certain which concepts appear at certain historical periods get contaminated through the centuries.

For now, Iím going to address a problem that faces some of us working on gender issues or womenís issues in the Middle East. We face the accusation that this is something imposed by the West or that we are following a Western agenda. Many apprehensions or reservations of Muslims concerning such discourses as feminist consciousness and gender issues in patriarchy can be answered by emphasizing that we can develop our own agenda. I donít have to subscribe to any foreign Western agenda or discourse on feminism and gender. We understand that some of these specific issues are simply irrelevant, issues like homosexual rights, anti-family, excessive individualism, the problem of secularism. We need not subscribe to whatever is on the Western agenda or in Western feminism. These have become, unfortunately, the characteristic criticisms of women generally working on womenís issues or gender issues in Muslim societies. However, one can define oneís own context and paradigms for a gender sensitive perspective.

We should also not forget that feminism in itself, or feminist scholarship, is no longer a simple monolithic entity. A variety of approaches have developed along the years ranging from radical feminism to socialist-Marxist feminism to modernist feminism to religious and evangelical Christian feminists to essentialist Womanism to more egalitarian feminism and so on and so forth. There is also the gender perspective that analyzes power relations and their cultural applications. It seeks not so much to empower women over and above men as much as to redress the balance and fairness to include womenís perspective for holistic purposes, to analyze issues of unequal distribution of power, and finally, to promote womenís agency and negotiating stance in our culture and history. Hence my position would be not so much seeking sameness of gender but a balanced, fair, and egalitarian kind of difference. Personally, I try to do this from within an indigenous and Islamic frame of reference.

Already within the last ten to fifteen years there has been a growing trend among women researchers and scholars studying such issues. They are discussing and analyzing discourses and methodologies from within our indigenous tradition that can be developed or employed to articulate gender awareness. They also seek to apply the intelligent use of Islamic principles and fields of meaning for the acquisition of rights or for revising discourses that encourage gender consciousness. Examples of such scholarly issues currently debated that might have positive implications for Muslim women are: returning to a more direct examination of the Qur'anic text and message, superceding exaggerated gender distinctions with the Qur'anic egalitarian worldview, and repeated emphasis on ethical, moral, religious equality. The higher paradigm of egalitarian values should be made to prevail, thus focussing on the general just intent and purpose of the divine message. Another interesting ongoing is consideration of inner Qur'anic references to the overall picture of certain themes and issues: the Qur'anic view on womenís integration into the public sphere and the evolving issue of the public-private dichotomy, which was never part of the Qur'anic world-view, but is entirely cultural. Many interesting things are going on in the Muslim world right now.

My final point is there are pitfalls to avoid if we are going to undertake this project. First, in trying to be reformist or critical, one has to avoid the Orientalist tone and standpoint that historically represented Muslim women as across the board, the eternally down-trodden, oppressed females. Her inferior position taken as a symbol for inferior culture and religion. Second, one also must be wary of the secularist and modernist position, sometimes pro-Western, that seeks to completely exclude religious and cultural specificity from the picture when discussing improving womenís lives or unconsciously redefines the Orientalist view that the Muslim woman stands for, or is a symbol of, the success and failure of our progress and march toward the Western model of modernity. Third, at the same time, we do not want to be naïve in denying that there have been specific problem concerning womenís life conditions, or that they havenít been treated fairly or provided with equal opportunities for education and work etc. We donít want to be defensive and apologetic so that we end up defending passionately the wrong side of our culture although perception and application of religion as indeed a cherished part of the religion.

My concluding point is that if as Muslim women we are aware of all these dimensions and can intelligently maneuver our way out of this maze of discourses, then we should be all right. Personally, when I began to get interested in learning and researching these areas I thought there were going to be in the field dozens of researchers anyway. Whether Muslims or not, male Orientalists or not, secularists or not, theologians or not, representing me, speaking on my behalf, interpreting and writing me, it is my responsibility as a Muslim-Egyptian-Arab woman to acquire knowledge. If gender is going to be an issue, let us study it our way and for our own benefit and betterment. The list of names is increasing in the Arab region or in Muslim countries or among Muslims here in the US of those who are studying culture and religious roots to validate present day concerns. Granted there are divergences and convergences among them, but a certain commonality remains that womenís views and place in religion and culture are important and should be addressed. Shukran. Thank you very much.


Ilhan Cagri: It seemed to me that part of the solution of gender issues is recognition of gender problems by people who not part of that gender. I think that one of the main areas where you can do that is obviously within the family because thatís where you have the most intimate connection between those of the male gender and those of the female gender. And yet, thereís an area within families, domestic abuse, that is prevalent everywhere, among some of the best families and within the best communities, and I think we hear very little of that. When youíre fighting racism, you really have to talk about some of the worst violations of racism, where it exists, and in what situations it exists. The same should be done in terms of domestic abuse. Iím not talking just about domestic violence, but psychological abuse and emotional abuse. Are you going to address that? Is that part of the forum? What should we do with that?

Omaima: When you say domestic abuse you said you donít mean domestic violence as such but you mean domestic abuse in the sense that gender distinctions or gender hierarchy within the family.

Ilhan: And how are distributions of power roles specifically within the family.

Omaima: Specifically, thatís just what Iím interested in. Thatís what my work has been onĖlooking at the literature of Tafasir or other kinds of Arabic Islamic literature and trying to look at the representations of gender relations in terms that it is exactly what it is Ėan unequal distribution of power or the cultivation of an inferior gender consciousness because things start on the level of consciousness really. We all have to work together. All over the Middle East, there are people working in the areas of law, of social service, particularly domestic violence or circumcision or whatever, but we also have to work on the level of thought, of consciousness, of discourses, of revising discourses. Exactly what Iím interested in is within the familyĖexamining gender relations within the family, to try to define them, because not many people understand what it means to have a gender perspective. Itís not just an empowering of women, per se, itís an equal distribution of power, no matter what. Itís a power relationship and it can shift and it can exist between two generations of women for example. So, yes, we have to define that and understand how it works within the family and how it affects social hierarchy and social behavior and social thinking and social consciousness that also interferes with law, social reform, or the probability of fixing law, or fixing what weíve been working on forever in the Middle East, in EgyptĖin particular, on fixing the personal status law. There are a lot of problems or obstacles among not just the legal acts. The obstacles start from here from being convinced that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, needs to be addressed.

Unidentified male attendee: I want to thank both speakers for their excellent reports. I think that we should not restrict this wonderful activity, resolve, and study to Egypt or Turkey. I think we take it take all over the Dar-us-Salaam.

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