Islamic Feminism, an Emerging Branch of Feminism and its Presentation in Indian Literature in English

More on Portrayal of Women in Literary World

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night,
But, ah my foes, and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay (from “A Few Figs from Thistles”)
This candle, burning from both the sides, is symbolized here in my favorite lines as the saga of suffering sung by any woman. The two sides can very keenly be traced by male domination of their own domestic world and the other one is a common suffering of being “the second sex” in the world outside of their homes. This two sided suffering has given voice to the feminist discourses worldwide. Concepts of femininity and how to conceptualize the feminist subject have been the focus of scholars like Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Miller and Julia Kristeva in Western world. These western perceptions are not always universally applicable. Every nation, every society, every region and every religion have their own ways of reaction against male dominations from the time immemorial.
The very recent phenomenon called Islamic Feminism receives quite a lot of attention from academia and media alike. To get the clear-cut definition, Margot Badran is cited here:
It is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Quran, seeks rights and justice for women and for men in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism is both highly contested and firmly embraced. .. This new feminism has given rise simultaneously to hopes and to fears.
(Badran, 2002)
Badran furthermore declares that the term feminism was coined in France in the 1880s by Hubertine Auclert, who introduced it in her journal, La Citoyenne, to criticize male predominance and to make claims for women’s rights and emancipation promised by the French Revolution. The term has been given many meanings and definitions; it has been put to diverse uses and inspired many movements. By the early 1920s it was in use in Egypt where it circulated in French and in Arabic as nisa’iyya (‘Nissa’ means female in Arabic language). However, feminism is a plant that only grows in its own soil. Hindus, Muslims and Christians women all alike face the male domination in their households as well as in politics, economics and trading in our country.
This term began to be visible in the 1990s in various global locations. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini explained the rise and use of the term Islamic Feminism in Iran by women writing in the Teheran women’s Journal Zanan which was founded in 1992. Saudi Arabian scholar Mai Yamani used the term in her 1996 book Feminism and Islam. Turkish scholars Yesim Arat and Feride Acar in their articles, and Nilufer Gole in her book The Forbidden Modern published in Turkish in 1991 and in English in 1996, used the term Islamic Feminism in their writings in the 1990s to describe a new feminist paradigm they detected emerging in Turkey. South African activist Shamima Shaikh employed the term Islamic feminism in her speeches and articles in the 1990s. Already by the mid-1990s, there was growing evidence of Islamic feminism as a term created and circulated by Muslims. The historical attestation is done here to look into the emerging deep ocean of its practices as a term and philosophy.
Turning towards the Indian understanding of the term, one should peep inside the various writings of various authors who do not directly use the implication of the term in vigorous ways but here is an attempt to find out the spirit of such phenomenon through the writings of Female Muslim writers of India. The real notions, contextual interpretations of Quranic verses and Hadith (Sayings of Prophet during his lifetime), patriarchal nuances and false practices of fundamentalists have been the subject matters of different authors throughout the world in different languages, in different literatures. Masoodul Hasan defines literature of India in his scholarly article “Muslim Image in post-Colonial South Indian Fiction” in the book titled as Behind the Veil: Representation of Muslim Women in Indian Writings in English 1950-2000 like this:
Literature is both a determiner and denominator of culture. As such it concerns itself with the individuals and inter-group equations and cross-responses of the people. With its infinite cultural resource the Indian pluralistic society offers a fertile area of literary study and evaluation of these mutual perceptions. (Kidwai, 2007)
Attia Hosain (1913-1998), Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) and Qurratulain Hyder (1928-2007) are few names to cite here as the prominent names in this particular group. Attia Hosain was born into a feudal family in Lucknow, north India in 1913 and grew up knowing many of the major political and literary figures of the time. When Independence came to India and Pakistan in 1947, she was among the most privileged and perceptive observers of the partition of the sub-continent. Her husband Ali Bahadur Habibullah was posted to London in early 1947, and she would spend much of the rest of her life in the onetime capital of Empire. Perhaps this distance contributed to the keen insight displayed in what has since emerged as one of the finest novels about those chaotic days, Sunlight on a Broken Column. (1961) It talks about the female protagonist Laila’s quest for self esteem in a very crucial time of independence in India.
Begum Rokeya was an inspiring figure who contributed much to the struggle to liberate women from the bondage of social malaises. Her life can be seen in the context of other social reformers within what was then India. To raise popular consciousness, especially among women, she wrote a number of articles, stories and novels, mostly in Bengali. Begum Rokeya used humor, irony, and satire to focus attention on the injustices faced by Bengali-speaking Muslim women. Sultana's Dream is a classic work of Bengali science fiction and one of the first examples of feminist science fiction. This short story was written in 1905 by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer who lived in British India, in what is now Bangladesh. The word sultana here means a female sultan, a Muslim ruler.
"Sultana's Dream" was originally published in English in The Indian Ladies Magazine of Madras, and is considered part of Bengali literature. It depicts a feminist utopia in which women run everything and men are secluded, in a mirror-image of the traditional practice of purdah. The women are aided by science fiction-esque "electrical" technology which enables labourless farming and flying cars; the female scientists have discovered how to trap solar power and control the weather. This results in "a sort of gender-based Planet of the Apes where the roles are reversed and the men are locked away in a technologically advanced future."
She criticized oppressive social customs forced upon women that were based upon a corrupted version of Islam, asserting that women fulfilling their potential as human beings could best display the glory of Lord. Begum Rokeya wrote courageously against restrictions on women in order to promote their emancipation, which, she believed, would come about by breaking the gender division of labor. She rejected discrimination for women in the public arena and believed that discrimination would cease only when women were able to undertake whatever profession they chose. In 1926, begum strongly condemned men for withholding education from women in name of religion as she addressed the Bengal women's education conference:
“The opponents of the female education say that women will be unruly...fie! they call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam which gives equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?
Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider was an influential Indian Urdu novelist and short story writer, an academic, and a journalist. One of the most outstanding literary names in Urdu literature, she is most known for her magnum opusAag Ka Darya (River of Fire), a novel first published in Urdu in 1959. She received the 1967 Sahitya Akademi Award in Urdu for Patjhar Ki Awaz (Short stories), 1989 Jnanpith Award for Akhire Shab Ke Humsafar, and the highest award of the Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 1994. She also received the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India in 2005. Her Sita Betrayed (1960), The Housing Society (1963) and other stories have the tone of extreme pessimism on account of the tragic fate which meets the female characters. Being a woman herself, Hyder understands and deals sensitively with the problems of women. Another contemporary and sophisticated female novelist of contemporary India was Shama Futehally (1952-2004) who has used very lyrical language to show the philosophical temperament of Muslim higher class characters in Mumbai and Delhi. Her Tara Lane (1993) and Reaching Bombay Central (2002) are the well acclaimed novels of contemporary India where the female protagonists suffer internally with outer problems as well.
The presentation of this unknown cast is really remarkable in each authoress. The writers have shown deep sympathy for muted characters and gave them a unique voice. The estimation of these writers and their presentations of Muslim characters give us a strong notion of women suffering from different dimensions of social, emotional, economic, intellectual surround of Indian world. Weaker females should re-think about their rights of equality and must get a loud voice against any discrimination with the proper knowledge. 

1. Badran, Magrot. (2002) “Islamic Feminism: What’s in a name?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online Journal. Issue 569, 17-23, January 2002. Web 22 May 2011.< >
2. Futehally, Shama. (2006) Tara Lane. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Print.
3. --- (2002) Reaching Bombay Central. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Print.
4. Hosain, Attia. (1992). Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961). Delhi: Penguin Books. Print.
5. Hossain, R. Shakhawat. (2005) Sultana’s Dream – The Feminist Utopias. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Print.
6. Kidwai, A. R. (etd.) (2007) Behind the Veil: Representation of Muslim Women in Indian Writings in English 1950-2000. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation. Print.
7. Wikipedia. “Islamic Feminism”. 19 April 2012. Web. 20 April 2012.

Mubina G. Qureshi [M.A., M.Phil. (English)]
Gujarat Arts and Science College, Ahmedabad.