Islamic education and feminist agency

26 October, 2017

In recent years, scholars interested in the study of gender issues in Muslim societies have been fascinated by one particular phenomenon: the emergence and spread of female Islamic education movements.

Since the 1970s, these movements have emerged across the Muslim world in different organisational forms. Most promote orthodox readings of Islamic texts so that their teachings on gender roles appear highly problematic when viewed from a western liberal framework. Yet, these movements have spread during a period when Muslim societies have been undergoing major societal change, with increased access to modern education, growth in formal employment opportunities for women, and increased exposure to western cultural influences due to the rapid spread of the internet, telecommunication, and TV networks.

The emergence and spread of these movements in a context of such rapid societal change, especially among modern educated and professional Muslim women, has thus been a puzzle. In a new book, Female Islamic Education Movements: The Re-Democratisation of Islamic Knowledge, I draw on prolonged fieldwork in Pakistan, northern Nigeria, and Syria (with restricted access since 2011) to address two key questions: why have these female Islamic education movements emerged?; and what do they mean for women, as well as for the way in which Islam will be interpreted and lived in the future? Existing work has focused on identifying their orthodoxy; in this book I question the dominance of this narrative and highlight their creative energy and pursuit of alternative modernities.

Knowledge creation and student profile

My key contention is that it is critical to see these movements not just through a narrow theoretical lens of female agency or piety, as is the case in the existing literature: we need to understand that knowledge creation is in fact a complex process, where the outcomes of an educational experience are directly shaped by the socio-economic and professional background of the students, and – even more importantly – by their cultural background.

While considering the experiences of women of diverse profiles who join these movements, I show the creative potential that is unlocked in the religious imagination when educated, culturally liberal and progressive societal elites engage with Islamic texts. Women of this profile do not absorb orthodox rulings uncritically, nor do they absorb modernist arguments without question; they are convinced of religious ideals only when they are intellectually convinced of their moral superiority to competing moral frameworks, western liberalism included, or of their optimality in addressing challenges as well as opportunities offered by contemporary realities.

Unlike the modernists, these women retain due respect for the shari‘a and the scholarship within the four Sunni madhhabs (schools of Islamic law); they do, however, put pressure on the ‘ulama (Islamic scholars) and traditional religious elites to find optimal answers to issues posed by modern life, while respecting the Islamic frame of reference. The significance of these women’s engagement with Islamic texts becomes particularly clear when we juxtapose them against historical developments, whereby colonial rule led to the exit of Muslim elites from Islamic education platforms, which led to a clear division between Islamic and modern knowledge. This process led to the isolation of Islamic knowledge production and its disengagement from modern socio-economic and political institutions; the earlier patterns of knowledge production in Muslim societies which allowed for the mixing of Islamic knowledge with other fields and the realities of people's lives were severely distorted.

The future of Islamic scholarship

My central argument in this book is that by bringing educated, professional, and culturally progressive women to the field of Islamic studies, these platforms (often unintentionally) are contributing to the revival of a democratised process of Islamic knowledge production, a process which had historically been central to unlocking the creativity that marked the rise of Islamic civilisational identity. The number of such women within these movements might arguably be small, but, given that they come from influential families and elite networks, their impact is wide ranging.

Further, as I show in the last chapter of this volume, these movements are not alone; rather, in the first quarter of the 21st century we are witnessing a major societal shift in Muslim societies, and even more visibly among Muslim diaspora communities in the West, leading to changed modes of religious engagement. There is growth in an array of Islamic movements which are bringing not just modern-educated Muslims but also culturally progressive Muslims to the study of Islamic texts, working towards an intellectually rigorous, yet spiritually grounded, approach to the study and practice of Islam. The outcome, I argue, indicates the potential for a revival of creative energy within Muslim societies, at a phenomenal pace, in the next few decades.

Finally, I show that among the modern educated and professional Muslim women increased exposure to the West has in fact created a degree of discomfort about how western feminism has impacted the social and moral fabric of society and the family unit. These perceived limitations of western feminism have in fact played a critical role in convincing these women of the optimality of Islamic gender norms. A contentious argument indeed, but one which I hope will stimulate an interesting debate in the field. 

Masooda Bano (2017) Female Islamic Education Movements: The Re-Democratisation of Islamic Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 

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About the author(s)
Masooda Bano
Professor of Development Studies