Fatema Mernissi, Nawal El Saadawi, and Amina Wadud: A Survey of Islamic Feminism by Anne Bouleanu

Muslim WomenIntroduction

The wearing of the veil is the most publicly acknowledged women’s rights issue in Islam. The divisive issue has become the centerpiece of political and public speculation on the rights of women, and as a result, the assumption that this issue is the sole focus of feminism in the Muslim world has abounded.

This essay will explore the concept of Islamic feminism as an entity entirely derived of the veil, through the analysis of feminist thought and theory, focusing particularly on three women. Fatema Mernissi, a prominent Moroccan feminist, has focused much of her career studying the history of Islam and the resulting modern manifestations of the roles of women within the religion, and will be addressed first. Next will be the analysis of Nawal El Saadawi, who has been writing and speaking about feminism for more than five decades. Finally, the Qur’anic interpretations of Amina Wadud will be discussed, focusing more acutely on her claims that the Qur’an is an egalitarian document.

By surveying these three women, a larger spectrum of Islamic feminism will be presented. Through the use of these women’s writings on history, the lives of everyday Muslim women, and the history of gender in Islam, this essay will dispel the misconception that Islamic feminist theory focuses primarily on the insular debate over the wearing of the veil, and instead will assert that feminism in the Muslim world is complex and varied, and should be treated as such.

Fatema Mernissi

Moroccan born Fatima Mernissi was raised in a Harem along with several other women, and was educated traditionally, studying the Qur’an in an all-girls school. As she grew, Mernissi distanced herself from traditional education, studying first at the Sorbonne, at Brandies University, where she earned her doctorate.
The physical and emotional separation of Mernissi from her upbringing provided her the opportunity to explore Muslim texts and practices from an academic perspective. These contextual analyses allowed Mernissi to reconcile feminism and Islam; as she continued to study historical texts, it became clear to Mernissi that Islam, as an historic institution, is not inherently sexist or oppressive.

While Mernissi spends but a fraction of her time studying the issue of the veil, she does acknowledge it as a valid matter of concern. Rather than frame the veil only within the context of female oppression, Mernissi approaches the subject within historical contexts of identity, citing the issue as a byproduct of the struggle to develop a societal role for contemporary Muslim women. Mernissi explains that,

The fundamentalist wave in Muslim societies is a statement about identity. And that is why their call for the veil for women has to be looked at in the light of the painful but necessary and prodigious reshuffling of identity that Muslims are going through in these often confusing but always fascinating times.

These fundamentalist changes in identity are in opposition with the teachings of Muhammad. While modesty is encouraged in the Qur’an, Muhammad did not intend that the wearing of the hijab would result in the separation of women from public and religious life, demoting women to a role of lesser spiritual beings.

Mernissi also notes the suggestion that Muslim societies have proven resistant to change and modernization, and so have resisted the evolution of gender equality. Mernissi argues against this claim, as Muslim countries have welcomed technological advances such as electricity, telephones, television, and the internet. This welcoming attitude does have its limits, however, and, ‘…the social fabric seems to have trouble absorbing anything having to do with changing authority thresholds: freely competing unveiled women; freely competing political parties; freely elected parliaments…’ These freedoms threaten Muslim fundamentalists, and the resistance to unveiling acts as a barometer by which to measure this perception of danger. In fundamentalist societies,

Whenever an innovation has to do with free choice of the partners involved, the social fabric seems to suffer some terrible tear. Women’s unveiling seems to belong to this realm. For the last one hundred years, whenever women tried or wanted to discard the veil, some men, always holding up the sacred as a justification, screamed that it was unbearable, that the society’s fabric would dissolve if the mask is dropped.

The approach Mernissi takes to debating the veil is indicative of her academic and political observations of many other feminist issues. Through historical exploration, Mernissi is able to dissect the oppression of women in an analytical manner, and in so doing, proves that Islamic Feminism goes far beyond the issues of the veil.
Much of Mernissi’s work has centered on the historical analysis of traditional Muslim texts. Rather than question the validity of the Qur’an, she casts doubt upon Hadith, words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad, some of which justify the oppression of women. In one often cited Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, ‘Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity’. The importance of this Hadith is elevated because of its officially approved validity. Because ‘…this Hadith is included in the Sahih-those thousands of authentic Hadith accepted by the meticulous al-Bukhari- it is a priori considered true and therefore unassailable without proof to the contrary…’ Mernissi challenges this assumed truth, bringing into question the text which would suggest Muhammad’s approval of female oppression.

As Hadith are considered sacrosanct, many have studied the texts in depth. In one text recording each Hadith of Muhammad, the author,

…does a line-by-line commentary…For each Hadith of the Sahih, [the author] gives us the historical clarification: the political events that serve as background, a description of the battles, the identity of the conflicting parties, the identity of the transmitters and their opinions, and finally the debates concerning their reliability-everything needed to satisfy the curiosity of the researcher.

These painstaking accounts of the history behind each Hadith reveal incongruities and thus the unlikelihood of the prophet speaking these words. Mernissi observes that the man who presented these words as Muhammad’s did so more than twenty five years after the Prophet’s death, and as a result, there is a low probability that Muhammad’s words were parlayed verbatim. The portrayal of these words as Muhammad’s is an unreliable method of relaying history, one which has wrongfully proposed the condoned devaluation of women.
The argument against the Prophet’s sexism is strengthened by historically factual accounts of the time of Muhammad. Evidence ‘…portrays women in the Prophet’s Medina raising their heads from slavery and violence to claim their right to join, as equal participants, in the making of their Arab history’. Driven by Muhammad’s promise,

Women fled aristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women…Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship, the status of sahabi, Companion of the Prophet.

Many agree with Mernissi and deny the validity of any blatantly sexist Hadith which would grant men the right to oppress women. While denying the explicit approval of oppression in Islam, many still argue that the Qur’an is a complacently sexist document. This argument suggests that the Qur’an should be subject to a certain level of criticism for its effect on women’s rights in Islam. Some assert that, ‘…even though the Qur’an is not a misogynist document, it confirms and legitimizes the existing patriarchal structures in Arab societies’.
Mernissi denies the validity of these criticisms, and deeply values the Qur’an, embracing this most important Islamic document as evidence that oppression was not condoned by Muhammad. The use of the Qur’an to argue otherwise, she says, is purely the result of purposeful misinterpretation by some elite Muslim men who try, ‘… to manipulate the texts in such a way as to maintain their privileges’.

These manipulations have affected the entire institution of Islam and all of the women who subscribe to Muhammad’s teachings. Mernissi calls for the advancement of women through education, literacy, and female empowerment in Arab cultures. Among many obstacles in her way, however, is the preoccupation with the veil, especially from within Islam. Mernissi, ‘…interrogates Muslim leaders’ obsession with the veiling (and hence the silencing, in her view) of women and their lack of attention to the more pressing problems women face’.
It is not the veil itself which should be the centerpiece of Islamic feminism; attention granted to it should not surpass the underlying causes of gender issues As Mernissi writes about democracy, education, employment, and religion, she recognizes that, ‘Legal and social equality for women everywhere has been linked to the transformation of socioeconomic structures, secularism, the legally protected toleration of difference, recognition of and respect for individual freedoms, and an acceptance of individuals’ moral agency and ability to make their own choices.’ Simply addressing the issue of the veil will not bring about any of these changes; Mernissi’s approach supersedes the issue and goes to the heart of Islam, focusing on the words of Muhammad rather than conjecture and manipulation.

Nawal El Saadawi

Over the course of a prolific career, now having spanned more than five decades, Nawal El Saadawi has taken her place as a leading Islamic feminist. With ten non-fiction books published, as well as nearly thirty novels, short story collections, plays, and memoirs, Saadawi has become a world renowned. Incredible in her own right, what is most intriguing about Saadawi is her methodological approach to feminism. Saadawi’s narrative takes on a nearly anthropological tone as she investigates the reflective effects of female oppression. She often emphasizes the psychological consequences of oppression, which alludes to her background as a medical doctor, a career she held for many years. This diagnostic approach is a hallmark of Saadawi; as with any examination, she begins with the symptoms, in this case the injustices women face, and works backward to identify the root causes.

Saadawi explains that the inequalities women face present themselves at birth in a process she calls ‘Sexual Aggression Against the Female Child’. Saadawi explains that, ‘The first aggression experienced by the female child in society is the feeling that people do not welcome her coming into the world’. Brought into a world in which their presence is not celebrated, the female child becomes immediately subordinate, often neglected. This subordination continues to manifest itself more fully in infancy, and, ‘…from the moment she starts to crawl or stand on her own two feet, she is taught that her sexual organs are something to fear and should be treated with caution, especially the part that much later in life she begins to know as the hymen’.

As a Muslim woman’s life progresses, these psychological harms are compounded through practices which can drain women of her personality and will. Saadawi argues that the education of women in Arab society is marked by body shaming and religious obedience, and as such the female child is ‘…trained to suppress her own desires, to empty herself of authentic, original wants and wishes linked to her own self, and to fill the vacuum that results with the desires of others.’

This loss of self is translated into every sphere of a female child’s life, from her home to her fundamentalist education, which Saadawi argues has been transformed into ‘…a slow process of annihilation…of her personality and mind… A girl who has lost her personality, her capacity to think independently and to use her own mind, will do what others have told her and will become a toy in their hands and a victim of their decisions’. The loss of self, will, and independent thought prepare a female child for a life of subordination.

Another practice which gains much international attention, and which Saadawi is unafraid of addressing, is female genital mutilation, which she also was the victim of at a young age This practice, which many have declared a violation of human rights, is undertaken routinely across the world, and as Saadawi recounts in her own words, the act of female circumcision leaves many women forever scarred, both physically and psychologically. Saadawi describes that, ‘In 1937, at a time when I had just reached the age of six, all girls were circumcised before they started menstruating…’ Confused, a young Saadawi questioned the practice, and a female relative explained to her that‘…the Prophet had ordained that the bazaar of girls be cut off. Yet I could not imagine that Prophet Muhammad, or Jesus, or any other prophet could ordain that such a thing be done…How could the prophets carry such a hatred for the bazaars of young girls, and if they did, why was it so?’

Although she would not have her questions answered as a child, Saadawi came to understand the underlying dominative motivations of such acts. The mutilation of genitals is traumatizing, and often leaves a child in this state of trauma even after the initial act. Several days after Saadawi’s own mutilation, the woman who had carried out the procedure examined Saadawi and declared her healed, praising Allah for her quick recovery. But for Saadawi the wound had not healed;

…the pain was there, like an abscess deep in my flesh, I did not look at myself to find out where the pain was exactly. I could not bear to see my body naked in the mirror, the forbidden parts steeped in shame and guilt…Now my body…had turned against me, and might face me with terrifying things.

The sense of shame and indignity provoked by these mutilations speak to the institutionalized degradation of female sexuality as a means of oppression. Although praised by many for her accounts of this trauma, these retellings have also garnered her extensive criticism, with some equating the easily sensationalized issue of female genital mutilation with that of the veil.

The trouble begins with translation. Saadawi’s works, originally written in Arabic, have been translated into English, with growing popularity, for decades. These translations complicate the interpretations of her writings, but not in terms of linguistics. Rather, ‘… what El Saadawi says or writes is less important than the places from which she speaks and writes, the contexts in which her words are received, the audiences who hear and read her, and the uses to which her words are put’. As Saadawi’s popularity continues to grow in the West, particularly in the US and UK, her audience has shifted. The struggle between her growing popularity and the ability to control her image seems to have resulted in Saadawi catering her writings to western audiences.

At a conference on women’s rights led by the United Nations, Saadawi spoke of her upbringing and feminist issues in the Muslim world. Among the topics she discussed, such as education, class, and colonialism, came the story of her own genital mutilation, and as a result, female circumcision became the prevailing topic of public conversation at the conference. In an interview following the conference, Saadawi expressed her dismay and criticized, ‘…Western feminist attendees for their ignorance of third-world women’s concerns and for their focus on issues of sexuality and patriarchy in isolation from issues of class and colonialism’. Specifically in reference to female circumcision, Saadawi expressed frustration with the ‘sensationalizing of marginal issues in Copenhagen’. In this sense, female genital mutilation and the veil draw similarities; both are symptomatic issues placed at the forefront of the Islamic feminist discussion.

This ‘lost in translation’ effect is critical to understanding the global interpretation of feminism in Islam. Drawing on two topics, both easily identifiable and sensationalized, gender inequality in Islam is routinely simplified, allowing a large, culturally superior, divide to form. For years, Saadawi expressed her dismay at, ‘…those women in America and Europe who concentrate on issues such as female circumcision and depict them as proof of the unusual and barbaric oppression to which women are exposed only in African and Arab countries’. Saadawi denies the apparent great differences between cultures, and instead notes that the similarities between the treatment of women across the world should be highlighted, going so far as to say that all women have been circumcised; if not physically then ‘psychologically and educationally’.

Similarly, Saadawi does not allow the west to separate itself from the issue of the veil. Saadawi says,

We Arab and Muslim women know that our authentic identity is based on unveiling our minds and not on veiling our faces. We are human beings and not just bodies to be covered (under religious slogans) or to be naked (for consumerism and Western commercial goods). We know that veiling women is the other side of the coin of nakedness or displaying the body. Both consider women as sex objects

Saadawi grants the issue of the veil importance, and yet simultaneously dispels the idea that veiling of women is the cornerstone of Islamic feminism, as well as the idea that the west is free of such similarly oppressive practices. This assertion does more than just shallowly interpret a complex issue; it serves as another injustice to the women of the Arab world, for as Saadawi continues, ‘The authentic identity of the Arab woman is not a straightjacket or dress, or veil. It is an active, living, changing process which demands a rereading of our history, and a reshaping of ourselves and our societies in the light of present challenges and future goals’.

A truly individual way in which Saadawi makes the case for female liberation is through the discussion of self expression. As a result of her efforts to publish a feminist magazine in Egypt, Saadawi was imprisoned. During her time there, Saadawi was denied pen and paper, creating for her a secondary imprisonment. Prison was, ‘….horrific not only because it means physical confinement, but also because it breeds doubt: it crushes the intellect and deprives the subject of her convictions and her powers of expression’. Having experienced physical and intellectual imprisonment simultaneously, Saadawi discovered the importance of self expression and revelation. Upon her release, she began using her ‘…writing to conceive women’s liberation from various forms of imprisonment, and…figure women’s fractured, convoluted and at times opaque self-expression as a direct form of resistance to both patriarchal and colonial oppression’. Protests and political change are essential to the feminist movement, and this cannot be denied. Saadawi, however, has also fully recognized the importance of personal and intellectual freedom, the freedom of a woman to have, and to express, their own thoughts.

Through her personal and professional writings, Nawal El Saadawi has woven together the everyday struggles of Muslim women with overarching feminist goals on a broad range of issues. Whether writing of sexual aggression toward children, education and self worth, the veil or genital mutilation, Saadawi’s personal and psychological approach to feminism has separated her from her peers, and elevated her to international fame. What truly defines her as a feminist, though, is her ability to connect the personal with the theoretical.

Speaking of her own evolution, Saadawi wrote, ‘I realized the connection between the liberation of women and the liberation of the country from subordination or occupation by any form of new or old colonialism. I understood the connections between sex, politics, economics, history, religion and morality’. This intricate understanding of feminism in the Muslim world is indicative of the complexities of the topic at hand. For Saadawi, Islamic feminism is not about any one topic; instead, itis about the women of Islam, and the lives they lead.

Amina Wadud

Amina Wadud’s entry into feminism began with her conversion to Islam at the age of twenty. Much of her career has been academically driven, publishing several books on Islamic feminism and interpretations of the Qur’an, but Wadud is perhaps best known for her active pursuit of religious gender equality. On multiple occasions Wadud has broken with tradition, and has acted as an imam (a prayer leader)-a role typically inhabited by men- angering many Muslim leaders.

In order to understand the ways in which Wadud’s feminist approaches far surpass the issue of the veil, it should be noted that over the course of her career, she has had to discuss the topic many times. As a convert to Islam, Wadud’s thoughts on the veil are of particular interest. The act of wearing the hijab has always been one of Wadud’s own will, and she does not consider this act a religious obligation. The constant focus on the veil frustrates Wadud, who would rather the topic take a more appropriate place on the periphery of feminist discussion. For decades, ‘…the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance both within and without Muslim communities…we cannot discuss Islam and gender without discussing the hijab’.

Wadud discredits the debate over the veil as one of oversimplification and distasteful stereotyping. The conception that the hijab marks a woman as a sexually oppressed victim of male domination is not beneficial to feminism; rather, it reinforces the sexual simplification of women. The sight of a woman wearing a hijab does not ensure her victimhood, and just as importantly, a woman free of the hijab is not indicative of liberation. It is impossible to decipher whether or not a woman is wearing the veil of her own volition by mere sight.

These simplifications further suggest that the veil provides respect and protection for the woman wearing it, but as Wadud makes clear, men who want to objectify, belittle, or sexualize women, will continue to do so regardless of a woman’s attire. Whether arguing on behalf of, or opposed to, the veil, ‘Reducing women to their sexuality, rather than affirming that sexuality is part of the whole of women’s human make up…’ is damaging. The attention paid to the hijab grants it more importance than it is worthy of, and using it as a way to measure a woman’s freedom is unwise.

Wadud’s opinion on the matter of the heavily debated veil can be summed up in what she refers to as her ‘hijab mantra’: ‘If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised’. This well practiced verse has granted Wadud the opportunity to discuss issues which she truly finds important.

Wadud’s approach to exploring Islamic feminism is grounded largely through the interpretation of religious texts. Much of Wadud’s work focuses on the exegesis of the Qur’an; she challenges the claim that there is only one ‘right’ interpretation of the Qur’an, arguing that this is an alienating practice. Instead, the Qur’an should be seen as a living text with which each reader has an individual relationship. As a living text, the Qur’an ‘…must be flexible enough to accommodate innumerable cultural situations because of its claims to be universally beneficial to those to believe’. Denying the Qur’an this flexibility, and placing it within one cultural perspective, even, ‘…the cultural perspective of the original community of the Prophet- severely limits its application and contradicts the stated universal purpose of the Book itself’.

The flexibility of the Qur’an acts as the basis of many of Wadud’s arguments. She disputes the idea of an ultimately ‘right’ interpretation of the Qur’an as being sexist, and goes on to say that arguments that the Qur’an encourages gender inequality are shallow and negligent. A popular claim is that the Qur’an insists male leadership is superior to female leadership in all realms. Wadud disputes this, pointing out that the Qur’an ‘…does not restrict the female from being in authority, either over other women or over both women and men’, but rather calls for the most efficient completion of necessary tasks through the appointment of the most capable leader. The appointment of such a leader should not be limited to a selection of males as, ‘Neither male nor female will be equally beneficial in every situation’. The consequence of such limited interpretations of the Qur’an is the exclusion of women from authority roles and resulting oppressive practices.

These limitations have a long history; for centuries, women have been marginalized in their desire to interpret and give voice to the Qur’an. Wadud explains that, in the fourteenth century, while men were allowed to err during recitations of the Qur’an, women were expected to recite the same versus verbatim. Males were allowed to err, as it was part of their humanity. In so recognizing the humanity of males as permissibly flawed creatures, the humanity of women was denied. Allowing nothing short of perfection, ‘…to prevent error, women [now] deny their right to make utterances about the text, then accept the subsequent marginality as a Divine decree’.

With women’s voices silenced, male interpretation of the Qur’an became the only interpretation. In the Qur’an, the use of the term ‘Allah’ is, by nature, neither male nor female as ‘…part of the effort employed to embody and enhance the efficacy of the message relative to human limitations’. As such, both feminine and masculine voices were used. Over time, however, all feminine voice was stripped, leaving behind a heavily patriarchal text.

For fourteen centuries not only have men had exclusive authority over exegesis, affecting the perceptions of the human agency and of the Divine, but also, malestream grammatical constructs, analysis and deconstruction legitimates their own textual understanding then disrupts, discredits and invalidates female experiments of inclusive reading. Eventually these spirals of self delusion and aggrandizement are projected as fact.

Bearing these manipulations in mind, the resulting misconceptions of female and male power structures are no surprise. Women have been religiously disenfranchised by being denied a full connection with Allah, and Muslim leaders, espousing the singularly male connection with Allah as grounds for superiority, have institutionalized female oppression. Wadud’s forceful claims unravel Qur’an-based arguments for male dominance in Islam. It is her claim that it is not Qur’anic guided Islam which is to blame for the state of Muslim women, but rather what has become the male dominated institution of Islam.

Wadud goes beyond the identification of patriarchal issues facing Muslim women, and utilizes the Qur’an to seek out social justices which might remedy these issues. When considering inequalities, Wadud notes that the Qur’anic link between Allah and justice is as definitive as the link between Allah and immortality. Allah is just; Allah does not oppress, and therefore oppression is human-made. Borne of man, this oppression must also be ameliorated by man, and the Qur’an reinforces that, bringing, ‘…forth the notion that the social order should strive to reflect the divine order. Everything short of this yields injustice’. In order to correct these injustices, one must follow, ‘…the divine order, since it is determined categorically that God does not oppress’.

Reliance on the Qur’an to support gender injustice is in direct contradiction with its teachings. It is this disconnect between the holy texts of Islam and some oppressive Muslim societies which is the most concerning contradiction for Wadud. Wadud takes a holistic approach to her analysis of the Qur’an, arguing that gender equality would benefit not only women, but men as well, and of even greater importance, Islam in its entirety. Female interpretation of the Qur’an would undoubtedly expand the understanding of the divine, providing new perspectives from the underrepresented. By, ‘…accepting women in their place of equality, and by learning from them, through them and about them, new dimensions and potentiality in Islam are expanded and new perceptions of God are understood’.

In her call for social inclusion and justice, Wadud is able to utilize one of the most fundamental methods of analyzing the Qur’an. This tool, tasfir al-Qur’an bi al’Qur’an, maintains that the Qur’an is to be interpreted by the Qur’an itself. In other words, the best way to understand one Qur’anic verse is to reference another Qur’anic verse. By using this method, Wadud has been able to identify the injustices women face, as well as the call for the solution, for egalitarian inclusion.


The preoccupation over the veil as a feminist issue facing Muslim women is not entirely misappropriated, nor is it difficult to understand. The veil is a physical object which can be seen and touched, one which is publicly displayed, and has therefore easily become the symbol of the plight of Muslim women. However, the attention granted to the veil now outweighs the issue itself, and has overshadowed many more pressing troubles facing the women of Islam. This preoccupation has also led many to the belief that the veil is the crux of Islamic feminism, that Islamic feminism is comprised of little else.

Fatema Mernissi, Nawl El Saadawi, and Amina Wadud dispute this claim. All three of these Islamic feminists address the issue of the veil, neither ignoring it nor aggrandizing it to inappropriate levels. Arranged along a broad spectrum, each of these feminists utilize their own methods to speak to gender inequalities in Islam. Mernissi relies largely on history to contextualize female oppression; Saadawi places her focus on the lives of Muslim women themselves, working internally to externally; and Wadud argues on behalf of the Qur’an as an egalitarian document.

While widely varied in their methods and perceptions of Islam, all three call for a more extensive analysis of the rights of Muslim women. By focusing simply on the veil, the women of Islam are diminished yet again, neatly categorized and tucked away.


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