The Republic, a brilliant Nigerian journal, published a provocative piece on Islam and feminism in its February/March 2020 issue, and then a compelling response in its April/May 2020 issue. Both pieces are by Nigerian Muslim women, the first a daughter of the former Emir of Kano Muhammad Sanusi II (in office 2014-2020) and a rising thinker in her own right, and the second a prominent writer and journalist.
In the first piece, “Between Feminism and Islam,” Khadija Yusra Sanusi narrates her own intellectual journey from writing a 2018 undergraduate thesis called “How to Be a Muslim Feminist” to the present, where she views feminism and Islam as incompatible:
Unlike the feminists I had come across, I sought to educate Muslim women about their God-given rights. Like Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi writes in her 2017 essay, F is for Human, ‘the problem with Western feminism remains that Western feminism has always seen itself as representing the universal experience of womanhood.’ This can be in the shape of a white, blonde, tall, non-married, sexually-active, homosexual or bisexual working woman; and feminists around the world must stand by this figure. Intersectionality is an important aspect of feminism in that every group must be represented, advocated for and carried along to the battlefield. You can’t call yourself a feminist, claiming to advocate for women’s rights but excluding the LGBTQ+ community and identifying with institutions that are primarily patriarchal – a category many religions around the world subscribe to. Feminism is a ‘one size fits all’ t-shirt that cannot be reshaped to align with one’s religious beliefs. But intersectionality–being inclusive of sexualities and accepting sex work as a respectable occupation–is not in accordance with Islam, which criminalizes acts of homosexuality, adultery and prostitution. Thus, feminism cannot work within the Islamic framework because it advocates for certain groups of people which Islam admonishes.
In the second piece, “Muslim Feminism Is Here to Stay,” Wardah Abbas responds:
I knew Islam before I knew feminism. I never studied Islam through the lens of feminism, so when I decided to take on the label of ‘feminist’, it was with the knowledge not only of the inherent synergistic relationship between Islam and feminism but also of the plurality and polysemy of feminist ideology. Never had I once questioned aspects of Islam such as why Islam allows polygamy and not polyandry; why Muslim women are required to wear the headscarf or why a woman’s inheritance is half that of a man’s. I understood that the Qur’an is not a sexist text that privileges a particular gender and I understood the historicity and ontology of these provisions and the relativity of their legal consequences, which in itself already answered the question ‘why?’.
To be a Muslim feminist is to render useless the mantra that Islam gave women a theoretical set of rights that for thousands of years have remained unimplemented. To deny the synergistic relationship between Islam and feminism is to affirm that child marriage, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, all forms of domestic abuse and enslavement; rape culture; moral double standards and a denial of women’s fundamental rights to education, work, financial empowerment, divorce, child custody and a host of others; are compatible with Islam.
Both pieces are explicitly global in scope and in references. For example, both authors are attuned to debates in the United States: names such as Amina Wadud, Kecia Ali, and Daniel Haqiqatjou* appear in Sanusi’s essay, which is partly a response to Wadud’s work. For her part, Abbas cites thinkers from Nigeria to Egypt to Denmark to the United States. As these references indicate, the debate itself is also global and long-running. Indeed, the two pieces make for fascinating reading not just for the content of the debate itself but also as a case study of how ideas travel and are reshaped in different contexts.
*Haqiqatjou has gone after my friend Jonathan Brown and people I deeply respect, such as Omar Suleiman, in very unfair and misleading ways. I was a bit disappointed to see that Sanusi had been influenced by him, because the perspectives she cites from him about feminism (or anti-feminism) can be found in more sophisticated forms among other, more constructive thinkers.