On Islam and feminism: exploring the nature of Islamic feminist movements

Dr Roja Fazaeli speaks on Islam and feminism with the Trinity Global Development Society and the Phil

On Tuesday night, Professor of Islamic Civilizations Dr Roja Fazaeli, was invited by the Phil and Trinity’s Global Development Society to speak on Islam and feminism. The talk, organized in light of the cancelled Phil debate on whether Middle Eastern women need Western feminism, was based on Dr Fazaeli’s book, Islamic Feminisms: Rights and Interpretations across Generations in Iran. More specifically, Dr Fazaeli focused on her personal experience with the law in Iran. She began by asking the audience to think about how they personally understood the definitions of Islam and feminism, then asked for those in the audience who self-identified as a feminist to raise their hand, and consider what that means to them. The question of language, definitions, and the importance of reflection on the stigma and implications attached to specific terms was something Fazaeli circled back to throughout the talk.

“It was through her extra-curricular endeavors that Fazaeli developed a passion for human rights, religion, and gender.”

Beginning her narrative in 1992, when she moved from Iran to Ireland, Fazaeli spoke about her time at Trinity. While studying computer science, she worked at local NGOs and translated for asylum seekers. It was through her extra-curricular endeavors that Fazaeli developed a passion for human rights, religion, and gender. Once again, she asked the audience to consider their own personal definitions, but this time in relation to the dichotomy between Islam and the West.

In 2003, Fazaeli returned to Iran and was impressed with the rate of change. She recalled seeing adverts where war propaganda previously hung, women wearing tight clothes and leaving their hair exposed, and she carefully quoted Ashis Nandy stating, “The West is now everywhere, within the West and outside: in structures and in minds,” before reminding the audience that it is not always productive to homogenize when establishing definitions. Upon her return to Iran, Fazaeli began working for a number of different NGOs and Human Rights organizations. In 2004, Fazaeli was nominated by an Iranian NGO to go to the UN Pan-Asian Youth Leadership Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. As she left for Japan, she was stopped and questioned by Iranian immigration officers. Fazaeli described the dialogue as strange, with the officers telling her that she was the “pride of Iran,” prior to releasing her. After returning from Japan, Fazaeli realized that her airport experience was only the beginning of the strange behavior.

“She defined Islamic Feminism as the process of individuals re-reading the Quran from either an egalitarian or female perspective.”

Fazaeli described being approached by the police upon her return to Iran. They took her personal documents, as well as the documentation of research she had been conducting throughout her time with the NGOs and Human Rights organizations. She was served an arrest warrant and was required to attend interrogations with the Iranian morality police, the sector of Iranian government which enforced laws regarding drugs, drinking, ‘bad’ hijabs, or any other behavior that the Iranian government deemed immoral on the basis of Islam. As she painted a picture of terrifying interrogations that lasted for months, Fazaeli stated that she finally realized she was in “lots of trouble, [she] didn’t know why, and [she] didn’t know how to get out”.

Leaving the audience at a bit of a cliffhanger, Fazaeli shifted gears to break down what she meant by the term Islamic Feminism. She defined Islamic Feminism as the process of individuals re-reading the Quran from either an egalitarian or female perspective. She also explained that the term “feminism” is somewhat vague and misunderstood in Iran, as the term did not have a Persian translation. Fazaeli recalled interrogators using the term feminist as a pejorative term, stating that “all feminists are immoral bitches” and that “what you Westerners call human rights is against our religion”. Eventually, as the interrogations became less frequent, Fazaeli’s personal documents were returned to her, and she was able to leave Iran. Before moving on from her personal account, Fazaeli highlighted that she was lucky, she survived interrogations when other women have not.

Shifting tone once again, Fazaeli began to discuss feminism in Iran more explicitly. She broke down feminism into four different types: Islamic State Feminism, Islamic Non-State Feminism, Muslim Feminism, and Secular Feminism. She defined these respectively as feminism that functioned within both the framework of Islam and of the state, feminism that existed within an Islamic framework but not within the state, feminism that operated within an Islamic conceptualisation as well as beyond Islamic communities, and feminism that had no ties to religion whatsoever. Fazaeli described that from her research, many Iranian women did not personally identify with the term feminist, despite likely being considered feminists by others, and preferred to identify with terms such as “radical”, “socialist,” or “pragmatist”. Fazaeli pointed out that for many Iranian women, especially ones with ties to Islam, feminism had a negative connotation and is considered a “western import”. She concluded her talk with an anecdote about an author she admires and how over time the author’s relationship with feminism became less and less tied to religion as she experienced conflict between Islamic governments and feminism.

“Fazaeli also pointed out the importance of respect, education on a topic, and understanding the implications of what is being presumed with the title of a debate.’’

After a riveting description of her experience with the Iranian government and the impact of her activism, Fazaeli opened the floor to questions. When asked about modern resistance movements, she highlighted the success of social media driven efforts such as the “Stealthy Freedom” Facebook page, where women post photos of themselves without hijabs. Additionally, Fazaeli explained how makeup can be used as a means of resistance and that wearing makeup can balance the simultaneous modesty of a hijab. When asked to comment on the cancelled debate, Fazaeli said that she believes that debating and open conversation, especially in relation to extremely controversial topics, is important. With that being said, Fazaeli also pointed out the importance of respect, education on a topic, and understanding the implications of what is being presumed with the title of a debate. Finally, an audience member reminded Fazaeli, and the audience, that it is important to understand that one individual’s experience with Islam does not define everyone’s. Fazaeli agreed, highlighting that there are different practices everywhere in the world. Islam has mingled with cultures that are distinct from one another, creating differences in practice and implementation of Islam.

Fazaeli reminded the audience that to fully understand and discuss gender and feminism in Islam, one must be diligent about clearly defining and contextualizing the information and issue. Dr Fazaeli’s talk was not only riveting, thought provoking, and informative, but it was an example of one of the many ways we can constructively and respectfully start a conversation on difficult issues.

Jessica Hobbs Pifer

Jessica Hobbs Pifer is a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Fresh Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures student.