Is Feminism the Problem? Why Ideological Bandwagons Fail Islam

Published: November 1, 2017 • Updated: February 14, 2021

Author: Dr. Tesneem Alkiek

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.


[Tesneem:] It was at the point in our weekly Islamic Studies session where I began to zone out when I heard the shaykh’s words floating past my ears, “...and that’s why women shouldn’t memorize the Quran.” What did he just say? I had just finished memorizing the Quran myself that year, so I sat up in my seat. “My sister memorized the Quran,” he continued, “but she’s been so busy with her newborn baby that she never has time to review it, and now she’s forgotten it all. So it’s better for women not to memorize because they won’t be able to retain it while raising children.” I couldn’t hide my shock and immediately responded that I knew many men who had memorized the Quran and, for some reason or another, had not retained it. But the encounter stayed with me: how could he have discouraged women from simultaneously pursuing two of the greatest deeds—memorizing the Quran and raising children? In that moment, he took something that had given me inspiration, strength, and serenity—the endless hours and dedication put into memorizing the Quran—and left me feeling disempowered.
We cannot deny that Muslim communities have a problem with gender. On the one hand, Muslims feel frustrated by the injustices they see—both major and minor—when it comes to gender. On the other hand, many Muslim men (and some women) feel exasperated by what they see as a growing segment within the Muslim feminist movement that condemns all men as sexist and all institutions, including religion, as inherently misogynistic.  

What is Feminism?

During the late 19th century, the term féminisme surfaced in France and quickly spread to other European nations, eventually reaching the Americas by 1910. The original French term reveals the roots of the concept: femmemeaning "woman," and -ismemeaning a social or political ideology. Yet, from the outset, the label feminism was not readily adopted by most women due to disagreements over its meaning. Hence, from its inception, what it meant to be a feminist was in constant flux, changing as a function of culture and politics. Some aspects of the ideology, nevertheless, have remained relatively consistent: feminism in general seeks to challenge expectations and disparities associated with gender. In any case, segments of this movement have continued to develop, with some branches representing revolutionary changes in what “being a woman” means. At times it has involved a call for equal career opportunities for women; at others, it has involved rejection of prevailing attitudes towards gender rooted in religious paradigms.
In the United States, in particular, the history of mainstream white feminism is often described in waves. First-wave feminism involved the movement for women’s suffrage; it was introduced at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 by prominent figures Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This wave emerged in the context of industrialization and focused on equal employment opportunities for women. In the 1960s and 1970s, the second wave of feminism was closely tied to both the post-war and civil rights movements. Finally, beginning in the 1990s, feminism entered its third wave, which, like so many other movements, deals with the questions of post-colonialism. Of course, throughout history, women across the world have always struggled for themselves and their families, whether they have been labeled “feminists” or not.
Feminism has naturally continued to evolve. Today, many different movements, causes, and groups claim ownership of the term and its values, and it has become, like other social justice ideas, intersectional in its application. Now, self-identifying feminists have their own understanding of the term that is informed by their experiences. Some feminists speak out against sexual assault and unfair wages; others critique the movement as a whole for its whiteness and class privilege, while reclaiming their unique space in it. What has been primarily identified as a movement about gender and equality has had to grapple with different conceptions of both of these terms, as well as their intersections with race, class, religion, citizenship, war, imperialism, and more. Feminism, then, is defined by its history as much as it is by critiques of that history.
Critics of the Muslim feminist movement, in particular, argue that the ideology leads its followers down a slippery slope that begins with concerns over gender-based oppression, goes on to attribute that oppression to religion, and ends with the abandonment of faith altogether due to the perception that religious institutions and doctrines are inherently patriarchal and misogynistic. Much of this argument rests on the fact that some foundational aspects of the feminist project  have been incompatible with religion in general, and may even be irreconcilable with Islam (e.g., the ascription of all gender differences to social determinants, or the wholesale rejection of any distinct gender roles). Thus, opponents of feminism argue that some who embrace this ideology may leave, or may be prone to leaving, the fold of Islam. In this piece, we describe the problem as we see it and assess the most effective ways forward that are rooted in our tradition.

The Problem

So why do some Muslim feminists leave Islam? Although there isn’t only one answer to this question, a useful first step may involve asking a different question, “Why do some Muslim women leave Muslim spaces?” The 2014 Unmosqued study surveyed mosques across the country to assess the challenges associated with sustaining a successful Muslim community in the United States today. The main finding was that Muslim women are among the most impacted by these challenges. At that time, mosques reported a decade-long average female attendance of 18% at events like Friday prayer, compared to male attendance of 77%. Of course, while this may be partly due to the fact that attendance is obligatory for men and not for women, the data also suggest that, in general, mosques may not be the most welcoming places for women. While many mosques included women’s programs, only 4% of them prioritized these programs and activities, and only 3% of mosques prioritized women’s groups and associations. We know that historically, by and large, women’s representation in mosque leadership has been minimal, as has been the amplification of women’s voices at events, lectures, and other platforms. The issue of physical space also looms large: many mosques do not have adequate women’s spaces, and women often deal with prayer areas that are cramped, unsanitary, and otherwise inaccessible.
Outside of these houses of worship, Muslim women, like all women, face challenges at home and in society, including domestic violence and sexual harassment. In some cases, the perpetrators of these abuses use religion to justify and legitimize their actions—a problem certainly not unique to Islam.
And finally, Muslim women bear the brunt of what all Muslims—especially those who are visibly Muslim—face, which is increasing Islamophobia. A 2017 ISPU study of American Muslims found that Muslim women are the most likely to suffer from hate crimes and explicit Islamophobia in the post-Trump era, and that they are the most likely to report it.
What this leaves us with, then, is a community in which there are very few spaces tailored for, and committed to, empowering Muslim women to reach their full potential and make meaningful contributions. To be sure, some Muslim women continue to exercise their own agency to excel, achieve, represent their faith, and lead in their communities, despite these challenges. But oftentimes, they turn to other spaces that take their concerns—including the lack of support, resources, and literal and figurative space they are afforded in their own communities—seriously, and place those concerns within the context of a broader feminist struggle against patriarchal systems. What is often attractive here is not necessarily the ideology itself but its goal of addressing some of the injustices faced by Muslim women, a goal that is not seen to be on the agenda in many Muslim spaces. 

So What Should We Do?

Some Muslims promote a brand of Islamic feminism that predicates its notion of women’s liberation on the sociocultural norms of the West, taking these norms as universal truths by which they call into question the validity of gender-related teachings of the Quran and Sunna. They advocate for Muslims to embrace everything labeled ‘feminism’ and jump wholeheartedly on to this ideological bandwagon in order to solve the community’s challenges associated with gender. Meanwhile, other Muslims see feminism as a foreign threat to the integrity of Islam, a poison that will gradually erode all core Islamic values by forcing Muslims to change religious traditions to adopt western liberal ideals and norms. Some of these people direct their efforts entirely towards the refutation of feminism, while neglecting the underlying issues which drive women towards the feminist camp to begin with.
It is of course important to educate ourselves on the ideological roots of feminism and their potential contradictions with the faith, both at their origins and when taken to their logical ends. This is part of encouraging ourselves to be mindful in our activism and self-reflective in our critiques. At the same time, to focus on feminism as the primary reason for women leaving the faith is problematic for at least two reasons: 1) it involves addressing what we see as a symptom of Muslim women’s alienation and not its root causes; and 2) it risks further alienating those who already feel they have no space in the Muslim community. 
What is more pressing is addressing the reasons some Muslim women and men are turning to secular feminism in the first place. Instead of accepting gender norms in our community that are not rooted in Islam, and as a result brushing aside all forms of sexism, small and large, we should focus on establishing an environment that empowers Muslim women and recognizes their centrality in the Islamic tradition—historically, currently, and in the future. Before delineating all the reasons feminism is not, and cannot, be compatible with Islam, we should redouble our efforts to understand the Islamic approach to gender, and implement it in our families, mosques, organizations, and communities. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at a feminist bogey(wo)man that is pulling Muslims away from their faith, we should first hold ourselves accountable for failing to behave in ways consistent with prophetic teachings.

What is the Prophetic Example?

Ironically, the Prophetic precedent, in spite of its beauty and perfection, is often abused to promote negative treatment of women. Quite often Friday sermons and evening lectures are interlaced with decontextualized hadith that imply the inferiority of women and impede women from becoming full participants in their own communities. Take for example the hadith that ostensibly declares that women are nāqiṣāt ʿaql wa-dīn, or “deficient in intellect and religion.” It is easy to lose count of the number of times this hadith has been used with a pointed finger to remind the audience that men are superior and more fit to lead in every situation. Yet, often missing is the specific context of this saying of the Prophet ﷺ, which actually was not a sermon on the topic of gender, but was instead about charity. He said it on Eid day as he ﷺ was preaching to the men and women after prayer. He turned to the men and called out to them to spend in charity for the sake of Allah (swt). He then turned to the women, and by way of encouragement, reminded them to increase in their charity as well, alluding to the fact that during their menstruation and the like, they were not responsible for prayer and fasting. Thus, by advising them to increase their donations, the Prophet ﷺ was pointing them to other opportunities for coming closer to Allah (swt). The intention behind his words was immediately understood by those who were there to actually witness them. Zaynab b. Abu Muawiyah immediately ran back to her home after the Eid prayer, rushing to adhere to the counsel of the Prophet ﷺ and give from her wealth in charity. This crucial context to the hadith illustrates that the Prophet ﷺwas not making any kind of ontological declaration about the relative worth or capacity of women in relation to men, nor was he delineating some kind of cosmological hierarchy of gender with men occupying a rank above women; rather, he ﷺ was making an exhortation in that particular situation to women to take the lead in charity in light of their lessened responsibilities in other domains and their tremendous influence on men.
Now imagine that your average imam or religious teacher led his congregation with the assumption that women are just as capable of being scholars and leaders in their communities. Imagine that your average mosque or organizational leadership not only held this assumption, but actively implemented it by constituting itself of both men and women and valuing the voices and concerns of all members equally. We are far from this reality. Calling out “the patriarchy” is often representative of the frustration of women who do not see their concerns taken seriously, and do not see themselves reflected as integral to their own communities. Waging war against feminism may unintentionally enable those in our communities who seek to discredit and silence women by labeling every complaint they raise as due to feminism.
When the Prophet ﷺ received complaints from female companions, he listened to them attentively and took them very seriously. Take, for instance, the story of Khawla bint Tha‘labah (ra) who complained of her husband’s unjust actions towards her. The response to her complaint came from none other than God Himself, to be preserved in the Quran as an example until the end of time: “God has heard the words of the woman who disputed with you [Prophet] about her husband and complained to God: God has heard what you both had to say” [Quran 58:1]. In this verse and those that follow, Allah (swt) sets the best of examples by not only acknowledging the concerns of Khawla (ra), but also legitimizing them and providing a solution through an entire chapter in the Quran named after her.  
The reality of the matter is that Muslim women throughout history have been leaders in scholarship and luminaries in various fields. From Aishah (ra), the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, who corrected her male counterparts in matters of hadith and jurisprudence and Nusayba bint Kaab (ra) who fought alongside the Prophet ﷺ in battle, to Sutayta al-Mahamli who found solutions to some of the most complicated mathematical equations of her time and Queen Amina of Zaria who protected her kingdom, Muslim women have set unparalleled standards in serving their communities. Yet, despite this rich history, we have managed to erase our memories of their contributions and rewrite their stories to fall in line with our own expectations of women as marginal figures. It is up to us to revive these precedents and instill strength and motivation in our women, young and old, in order to empower the current generation and those to come to achieve their full potential in serving others and serving God.

Moving Forward

There may well be many ideas advanced under the label of ‘feminism’ that pose a problem for Muslims—and some that may even be antithetical to Islam. But the truth is that there are many secular ideologies that, when taken to their extremes, clearly contradict Islamic religious and moral creeds. The only way we can avoid the pitfalls of these ideologies is by looking beyond labels, evaluating the concepts themselves, and approaching them from a firm foundation in our tradition. If we are confident in Islam and its sources and methodology, we can face these dogmas head-on. Only then can we sort through complex theories to affirm what is good and discard that which does not align with our religion.
We must acknowledge, however, that not all Muslims—not even most—have this firm foundation. For this reason, we need to focus our efforts on training imams and community leaders to provide spaces where those struggling with their religion can be critical and ask questions. We must create platforms for everyone—but especially for those who are marginalized, like women, youth, converts, and others—to voice their doubts and misgivings about Islam without shutting down their very real concerns by accusing them of being brainwashed by Western ideologies. And where those concerns are a result of our own imperfections and shortcomings as human beings, and a failure to live up to the prophetic ideal, we need to recognize and address them. Until we do so, those who cannot fully express themselves in their own mosques and communities, will undoubtedly turn to outlets that will provide them with the answers they are looking for.


1 Estelle Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2002), 18.

2 Ibid, 17.

3 Ibid, 20.

4 Mary Kassian, The Feminist Mistake (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2005), 11.

5 Charlotte Krolokke and Anne Scott Sorensen, “Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls,” in Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance, (Thousand OaksSage Publications2006), pp. 1-25.

6 On intersectionality, see Kimberle Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics," University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989:1, 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8 

9 Dalia Mogahed and Youssef Chouhoud, “American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims at the Crossroads,” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, https://www.ispu.org/american-muslim-poll-2017/.

10 This hadith will be discussed in greater detail in an upcoming Yaqeen publication.

11 Critiquing the way this hadith has been used to engage in misogynistic rhetoric, the contemporary scholar Shaykh Salman al-`Awdah observed, “Reduction in religion (nuqṣān al-dīn) does not entail reduction in religiosity (tadayyun), for indeed there are many women who exceed men in religiosity. Rather, it means lessened responsibility (takhfīf al-taklīf), as a woman does not pray or fast during her period. ” (January 11, 2016, IslamToday.net, http://www.islamtoday.net/albasheer/artshow-12-221128.htm).

12 The Andalusian jurist, Ibn Hazm (d. 456 H) explained the fallacy of taking this hadith as an ontological description by pointing out that any man who makes such a claim must assuredly admit to being inferior in intelligence and religion compared to the revered Islamic figures of Maryam, Aisha, Fatima, the mother of Moses, and Sarah. He explained that the Prophet ﷺ’s statement refers only to reduction in prayers and fasting, and the reduction in testimony and does not entail a criticism of women. Refer to Kitab al-fasl fi al-milal wa-al-ahwa' wa-al-nihal, vol. 4, p. 104, accessed online: http://www.islamport.com/w/aqd/Web/2595/552.htm


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