A social project is persuading many Islamic women in the UK that religion is no bar to joining the debate on women's rights
|Islamic feminist voices: from left, Myriam François-Cerrah, Hannah Habibi Hopkin,|
For many feminists the headscarf is a glaring symbol of male oppression and the patriarchal power of religion. But now there is a small but growing number of Muslim women looking to take their places in Britain's rapidly expanding women's movement.
A new project to connect Islam to feminism has been launched to tackle long-standing concerns that religious women are excluded from the women's rights debate. In what is a deeply controversial area for many in Islamic communities and for many mainstream feminists, the linkup between a Muslim charity and the UK Feminista group is seen as a pioneering step in bringing women from different cultural backgrounds together in the battle for sexual equality.
The social enterprise Maslaha, established by the Young Foundation to work on improving social conditions in Muslim and minority communities, said the programme had attracted a huge response in the past few days.
"An awful lot of Muslim women have felt excluded from the debate about women's rights and this project really focuses on bringing ordinary women into a debate about Islamic feminism that has so far only really been heard in academic circles," said Latifah Akay of Maslaha.
She said the online resource islamandfeminism.org was bringing out some extraordinary responses from British Muslims who reported feeling previously isolated.
"This is really taking off. Islamic feminism is not a new thing, which will probably surprise most people, but Muslim women have the same core concerns as white, secular, British women: the workplace, discrimination, childcare. And also they have different layers of struggles and different layers of oppression, just as a black lesbian will have different struggles to white disabled women, and none of them should be excluded just because they are diverse.
"There has been a dire lack of spaces for women within Islam to have these kinds of conversations and they have felt very much that their religious beliefs exclude them because religion is seen as patriarchal."
Islamic feminism has been on the rise over the past few years in various countries around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, but it remains a taboo in many more traditional communities who fear that it will lead women away from religion.
"The internet will help Muslim women find each other, just as it has for young secular women in Britain, and start a real conversation," said Akay.
While a number of new books on Islam and feminism have been appearing around the world in recent years, the UK has been slow to catch up. Last year when a University of Derby lecturer, Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, published Muslim Women in Britain: De-mystifying the Muslimah, she said she believed that many of the misconceptions around Islam were directly linked to how people believed the faith treated its women.
"The media portray Muslim women as oppressed and subjugated and Islam is often presented as misogynist and patriarchal," she said, and her book was intended as an antidote to that.
The term Islamic feminism first made its appearance in the 1990s. In 1992, Shahla Sherkat, an Iranian who took part in the revolution of 1979, published the first issue of an Islamic feminist magazine, Zanan, which was later banned.
Feminism from an Islamic perspective
Consultant in innovation at the University of Oxford
"At first I was not very interested in feminism because I felt excluded. I thought mainstream feminism in the west did not include a woman like me and that me being feminist would mean I would have to not be religious.
" But now feminism to me is about making conscious decisions yourself. It doesn't mean I have to give up my cultural background or religious beliefs. Feminism is about standing up not just for my right to dress the way I dress but also standing up for the rights of other women so they can also dress the way they want to dress."
Former actress and now author
"Unfortunately people assume it's an oxymoron if you say you are both a Muslim and a feminist, but I find that a little patronising. There is still a fair bit of resistance to the idea that people of faith have anything to contribute to feminist ideals, particularly because religion is still viewed through a prism of it perpetuating patriarchial practices. And to some extent, undeniably it does.
"For Islamic feminists, the framework is Islam, the references are the core texts of Islam. My frame of reference as a Muslim is the texts, but truth is truth wherever it's coming from – and something I hear from any feminist, Gloria Steinem or Germaine Greer, that reflects truth then becomes part of my Islamic lexicon."
London pop artist
"It's very important to introduce other ways of looking at feminism and bring in other voices who may have felt ostracised from the movement in the past. I've met some really go-getting, exciting young women who have not called themselves feminists and that's because it's been practised in a very Eurocentric, white, Wasp-ish kind of way.
"It's been too easy to dismiss Muslims as being anti-feminist. I wore a hijab for six years. Just because a woman chooses to wear a hijab doesnt mean she can't be feminist, and to think that is a bit naive."