” My conversion to Islam became the spiritual foundation of my struggle. I was happy to discover there was a divine plan where women were not designed to be subjected to man, that our destiny was not paying eternally the “original sin”. It was a deep happiness to know I have the greatest reason for my struggle: Accomplish the will of Allah for women as commanded in Quran, which is Equity, development, fulfilment.”
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente known islamically as Nasreen Amina, is a Chilean Feminist Muslim woman and women Rights Advocate. She graduated with highest honors in Public Relations, studied Journalism and has a Postgraduate Degree in Management.
She has been a feminist and involved in movements for the restoration of democracy in her home country, Chile, since her teenage years and has successfully led international volunteer initiatives and training programs surrounding Gender and Women’s Rights issues within rural Andean communities in Peru. Her journalistic work can be found on international websites such as The Huffington Post, Women News Network, Global Press Institute, World Pulse, Web Islam and Nurain Magazine.
Nasreen Amina is a pioneer of Islamic Feminism in Latin America and has been a speaker at various seminars and conferences on the topic of social development and gender throughout Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Recently she was the only Hispanic Muslim among 29 women selected worldwide to participate in a six-month international training program entitled Voices of Our Future and sponsored by UN-Women, Nobel Women’s Initiative and Channel Foundation. She believes strongly in what she calls “The Spiritual Revolution and the power of words being able to change the world.”
This interview has two parts. In Part 1, Nasreen Amina explains the ideology known as Islamic feminism in an effort to help us gain an understanding of what Islamic feminism is all about and its relationship to secular feminism. She talks briefly about what led her to Islamic feminism and and clarifies the use and impact of interpreting Quran and other islamic texts have on enforcing the rights of Muslim women.
Muslimah Voices: Assalaamu alaikum sister Nasreen. Ramadhan Mubarak! May Allah (s.w.t) accept your fast, salaat, duas and all your efforts towards the deen inshallah. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with Muslimah Voices.
Islamic feminism is a relatively new concept and has been the centre of much controversy and debate in the Muslim world over the years; and I sense that some Muslims, especially from amongst the so-called “grass-roots” are either unclear or are unaware of what Islamic feminism is and what Muslim feminists such as yourself are really trying to achieve.
So please explain to readers what is meant by Islamic feminism and how is it different from secular feminism?
Nasreen Amina: Wa aleykum salam and thank you. First I think is important to define what is feminism because many of the wrong concept spread by Patriarchy about feminism are put on IF also and sadly are repeated ignorantly for other Muslim and non-Muslim women and men:
Feminism; this term has bad reputation but, despite everything, a beautiful meaning, refers to the attitude that promotes the realization of women as genuine human beings, fully equipped and also very different and deserved of the same rights , dignity and power in all spheres of life. It’s also a coordinated set of ideas as well a practical plan of action, rooted in women’s critical awareness of how a culture controlled in meaning and action by patriarchy, to its own advantage, oppresses women and dehumanizes men.
Islamic Feminism is a reform movement based in the Quran that in one hand wants to promote the participation of women in the building of Islam as Faith; visibilize their achievements and contribution and claim for women the right to read, interpreting, communicate and spread the revelation according to the rights and duties we have as Muslims. On the other hand, we work for the inclusion of Muslim women in all areas of social life, to end with the myths and misunderstanding about Islam, we struggle for the end of Islamophobia as well as for the end of violence, discrimination and exclusion that affect all women as part of humankind.
We believe the current interpretations of Quran have been twisted in behalf of the maintenance of Patriarchy system and not in the name of Islamic model of life; we state also, most of the interpretation we listen from muftis, sheikhs and mullah are not according to a serious hermeneutical work but to a very pleasant attempt to legitimate male opinions in the name of Allah (SWT); an example of this is the bunch of videos you can see in you tube of sheikhs justifying gender violence as part of Islamic Ethics when from a serious hermeutical approach is easy to find the intention of Allah never was to give the power of harm to any creature on other.
Allah stated clearly in the Quran the principles of wilayat and shura for the life of the community, for men and women so, Why they preach lies? Why the justify with Quran things that are not there? Why they, in fact, exclude women systematically when Quran include them and recognize them as a vital part of society in all areas?
As Islamic feminist I use my right to knowledge, my right to Iytihad given by Allah from the very first verse of Quran,( Iqraa! ) To question all the interpretations, especially those that justify the ban on my rights given by Allah i.e my right to be treated as equal inside the community, my right to education, to give my opinion, to decide about my life, to be part of the government of the community, to work and enjoy the product of my effort, to a fair divorce and social protection, the right to not to be punished, threatened or excluded from the umma for being a woman.
If we understand the humankind as the big ummah of Allah (SWT) we can extend the recognition of these rights to any women on earth so in this frame, Islamic feminism has a lot of sense not only for muslim women but for all women.
About secular feminism, first of all I have to say there is no only one secular feminism. There are many feminisms. Islamic Feminism can be placed in the third wave of feminisms together with black, Latin, indigenous feminisms and any other that come from the awareness of belonging to a particular identity. This is possible since the recognition of feminism as a revolution of subjectivity. From this point of view, there are many feminisms as women with gender conscious.
The only difference with other feminisms, are the particularities and context Islamic Feminism looks to explain and bring a solution to the problem of gender from. We state as Islamic feminists the discrimination for reason of gender, violence and exclusion of women and minorities can’t be accepted since are not the conditions Allah (SWT) commands for a fulfilled life, and also because prevent women to accomplish and enjoy the duties and rights given for Allah (SWT). Being Islam a message to all humankind, all the problem that affect them are our problems, so no matter if is about non – Muslim women, if they suffer violence, is our problem; no matter if is about non – Arab citizens if they are excluded and banned from their rights is our problem and on…
In the objective and mission, all feminisms share the same: Freedom, Equity, Social Justice, Inclusion, Understanding.
Muslimah Voices: What is the relationship between Islamic feminism and secular feminism? And what can the two learn from each other, if anything at all?
Nasreen Amina: The relation depends on the context and level. In an academic level, there are some resistances from “mainstream” feminism, I mean, White European high-medium class feminisms, that think they have to save the rest of the women of the world without recognizing them their own ability to explain and liberate themselves. This approach doesn’t recognize the existence of an Islamic Feminism as well as consider as second classes feminisms the reivindications coming from other subjectivities as African, Latin, Natives- american, immigrants or other cultures, as middle east and Asian feminisms etc.
Islamic feminists work in order to debate and debunk the wrong assumptions about Muslim women who are always seen as passive and subjected, with no initiative or ability to think for themselves.
It’s important to point out here that Islamic feminism is not the same as Arabic feminism. Not all the Arab feminists are Muslims or recognize Islam as a path of liberation for humankind and, as well as mainstream feminism, they deny totally the possibility that is possible to contribute to women’s rights and social justice from a religious approach.
But, in my experience, in the social and grass-roots level, is a struggle on a daily basis, those kind of separation doesn’t exists or are just framed in a theoretical discussion. I work on prevention of gender violence with non-Muslim women; when I join a march to claim the approval of a law on Femicide or the legalization of abortion I march with non-Muslim women. I anchor a radio program that I produce together with non-Muslim women where we receive claims on gender violence and promote women’s rights. I make advocacy on domestic violence claims and the women I listen their cases are not Muslims. This year I had the chance to be the first Muslim women to talk about gender issues in a University to a non-Muslim audience and brought the point of view of Islam on it. In October I will be in the National Meeting of Argentinian Women that will gather together more than 5 thousand women from all the country around the issues that affect us. All those women know I am a Muslim, they can see me with my hiyab in the march, at the radio, in the police station, in the conferences and is publicly known my spiritual option.
However, I never was asked to go back home or they made me feel I am out-of-place; actually are other Muslim women that ask me to do that, saying activism is not suitable in a Muslim woman and rather I should get a man and stay at home to “complete my Deen”. I wonder what would have been the destiny of Islam without women who played important roles in its history as soldiers, scholars, teachers, philosophers, political leaders and spiritual guides?
In this point, there is something is important to understand here that lead us to the need to work together, since feminism is a personal revolution that struggle for shared objectives and this is what we can learn from each other: At the end of the day, further than our particularities, we’re women, subjected to the same pain and the same hope. No matter our life and religious options, that are always private and particular, we live in a world where women are subjected to harsh and systematic violence on a daily basis and, no matter what the holy and secular texts say about the condition of women, the reality is the words don’t match the reality so, if we women don’t get awareness and take over our situation and struggle to make that match and make the laws and revelations work in our behalf no one will do it.
In Argentina, where I live, a woman is murdered per day on an episode of gender violence, many women are raped and not always the court punish properly the criminals; In Mexico, in 10 years, more than 30 thousands women were victim of femicide and only the last year in Pakistan 1000 women die for honours killing. Argentina and Mexico recognize to be religious countries, same Pakistan so what? What is the problem? These situation make feminism the way to visibilize and put this issues on the agenda and search for solution, otherwise they won’t be there; because at moment, no Constitution of any Republic neither the Quran nor the Bible nor any Sacred Book have end by itself with these shameful situations women must to face in countries, where supposed these books are important foundations and inspiration of social life, and this is because people in charge are not interested in including women and give back to women their holy dignity and recognize them freedom to own themselves.
Muslimah Voices: Have you always been a feminist? Why Islamic feminism? Did a particular life experience (s) lead you to Islamic feminism?
Nasreen Amina: I have always been a feminist, officially since 15 years old and proud of be, always in training since feminism as well as Islam is a way of life. I am a feminist woman, single mother of a girl of 21, a writer, a free-thinker, a woman and an activists for lesbian, gays, transexuals and bisexuals; an advocacy against gender violence, a pro-choice defender and a Muslim. I am the honest product of my honest and well-informed decided options.
I became a feminist, like all feminists, from a particular reflection about myself and about what it meant to be a woman. I have always said feminism is a Jihad that first happens within ourselves: All feminists and activists have made a similar path: A fact of our lives that hit the bottom of the spirit and makes us wonder all, disassemble and reassemble reality and ourselves, and then assume a responsibility to the improvement of our life and lives of others.
I started my path as feminist and activist when I was a teenager in a situation that I am glad to share: Patricia had been my friend and classmate since the age of 10 and in 1989 we were in the first year of High School. She got pregnant and for this she had been expelled from the school but the boy involved won’t. The laws of the country and the rules of the school said a pregnant girl cannot study. She never told anyone because the social punishment and discrimination that in those years supposed to become a teen mom.
I had been recently elected president of my class. I used this representation and influence to organize my classmates around Patricia‘s case. After one month of struggle, the Educational Council decided always not to allow Patricia in the regular classes agree with the idea of “The Bad Apple…”;but, they decided she would have the chance to finish the high school attending tutorial workshops and free exams.
This experience was a life-changing one. For me, it was my first approach to social activism and the starting of my reflection and training as feminist. I felt first-hand the results of teamwork and organization around a cause of justice. I learned how important collaboration, empathy and friendship for everyday life are. More than any book, this experience taught me that solidarity among women is a gift we must make grow cause its fruits are abundant in every time and place.
My conversion to Islam became the spiritual foundation of my struggle. I was happy to discover there was a divine plan where women were not designed to be subjected to man, that our destiny was not paying eternally the “original sin”. It was a deep happiness to know I have the greatest reason for my struggle: Accomplish the will of Allah for women as commanded in Quran, which is Equity, development, fulfilment.
Muslimah Voices: Many Islamic feminists, refuse to be called ‘feminists’. Why do you think this is? And do you feel the same way or are you okay with being labelled an Islamic feminist?
Nasreen Amina: I can’t answer for other women, since I believe strongly in the power of every women to explain themselves. Any thing I could say about what they refuse to be called feminists would be unfair no matter how accurate could be. All what I say is in the name of myself since, as feminist, I respect the right to subjectivity of all women. I can say I am happy and proud to be recognized as Islamic feminist, since are two words that explain my vision and lifestyle completely.
Muslimah Voices: In many instances, traditionalist Muslim scholars, as well as Islamist ideologues, conflate fiqh and shariah – using fiqh to represent the shariah or using it as if it’s synonymous with the shariah; and in some cases they give the impression that fiqh is somehow the superior of the two. Isn’t this a major problem for Muslim women when it comes to enforcing Islamic laws concerning Muslim women? And how do we make a distinction between the two?
Nasreen Amina: Yes this is a major problem since the most of unfair rules that affect women in Islam are identified as Sharia when they are only Fiqh. That means they are seen are seen as immutable, as laws that can not be changed, when in fact the fiqh is human product and as such can and should be subject to constant review and revision, for that Allah gave us the ability to think and reason and the privilege of ijtihad.
The absurdity of judging current issues through law dating back hundreds of years ago, has only led to the oppression of women and minorities, to a total lack of mercy in the law enforcement, reinforcing the idea that Islam is a religion of extremists, closed minds and misogynist.
Islam is more than a religion: It isn’t a set of dogmas and rituals to follow and apply blindly; Islam is an ethic of life, and as such is dynamic, is in constant interaction with the human experience; Islam does not propose a way of suffering in this life, to live happily in the other: Islam is a proposal for a full life, which can and should be lived in peace, harmony in this world as well in the hereafter.
To live in peace and harmony with Allah and the creation, mercy, equity and social justice are necessary. This is the spirit of Sharia. Sharia means the way to the source. A source is something that keeps the essence of a thing, an idea, a feeling. Well, the essence of the Quran is Sharia that is the spirit of justice, reason and freedom that contains the message of the Quran.
It’s easy to see the difference between Sharia and Fiqh: Sharia is inspired on mercy, equity, in a reasoned sense of justice. The value of Sharia is eternal since is an expression of Allah attributes. Mercy is one of the most important attributes of Allah, is how we call Allah many times in every salat: The Most merciful, the most compassionate. I wonder: where are the mercy and compassion in fiqh currently?
Fiqh can be changed, is human product of the interpretation and application of sharia. The fiqh has to be inspired by Sharia and fits with its spirit otherwise is useless and must not be considered. Currently is not like that, because the fiqh conforms to the spirit of Patriarchy and not the Quran. Actually, the mainstream Islam, especially that one promoted for some politicians and oil vendors, serves Patriarchy rather than Allah. It’s the only explanation for the maintenance of unjust laws that do not go with the times and that absolutely contradict human rights i.e: In many countries who call themselves Islamic – hypocritically- still leaders continue justifying female genital mutilation and sale of girls into forced “marriages” with Islam, when in fact they are 100% patriarchal practices that have nothing to do with our faith and yet, our faith should be a reason to fight actively to its eradication.
Islamic feminists give part of our time to the comparative study of Fiqh and Sharia, and the study of Tafseer; also the analysis of the hadiths, as we believe that not every hadith is in harmony with the Quran logic those contradicts revelation must be considered as not reliable, especially those who justify the oppression of women and reinforce the idea she is a second-class creature.
Personally, since I have a special concern for gender violence, during these months I have been devoted to study comparatively various laws on domestic violence, femicide and honor crimes both in Muslim and Western countries. I found that many laws that are said to be inspired by Islam, for example, those to exempt from punishment who kills for “honor”, are originated in the Napoleonic Code not in the Quran. Are part of colonial heritage, so my question is: Why are they considered as base of Jurisprudence in Islamic countries? Why are they taught as part of Islam? My conclusion is they are kept to support a Patriarchal system against women, and this is not an isolate but a global approach to the value of the life of women. A few weeks ago I prepared a report on the subject which was included as part of the foundations that were presented to the National Congress of Argentina, to ask for a law on Femicide. I was happy to bring that information to attorneys, activists and legal scholars here and in this way contribute at the end of prejudice and a joint struggle for the rights of women.
Muslimah Voices: With regard to fiqh and tafsir. Over recent years, classical fiqh and tafsir texts have been brought under public scrutiny and made the subjects of public debates and discussions, offering compelling arguments and articulating alternative, gender-friendly understandings of Islam. But how far do you think Islamist feminist discourse and other efforts has been able to reach out to and influence the ‘grassroots?’
Nasreen Amina: It’s a good question that I would like to divide in two parts. First, about how far we are reaching our objectives; For me it all depends on context, while Islamic feminists have common goals, even with non-Muslim feminists, the changes are effective when they are the product of “think globally and act locally.”
According to my experience, every Islamic feminist person or organization that promotes women’s rights in Islam, has specific objectives, acting at different levels that relate to shared global goals.
Some of us are in academia, working in coordination with researchers, feminist scholars, theologians, experts in Islamic sciences, men and women, Muslims and others to produce new knowledge and interpretations of what is said about women in Islam for example, Amina Wadud, Laury Silvers, Leyla Ahmed, Fateema Mernissi, Ziba Mir Hosseini, Asma Barlas, Riffat Hassan, Asma Lamrabet are some to mention.
Others of us, without losing our commitment to the study, are in the frontline as activists, educators and counsellors. At this level, I would emphasize organizations as “Sister in Islam”, “Musawah”, “Baobab” providing support and legal advice to respect the rights of women in Islam in Muslim countries. They do an excellent job in Asian and African countries in this regard.
A group of us who live in non-Islamic countries are joining forces with women from all origin and conditions in the struggle for their rights, while working to overcome the barriers placed by ignorance, prejudice and Islamophobia, which undermines the inter-religious and inter-feminist dialogue and , at the same time, encouraging Muslim women to be an active part of the pursuit of society based in social justice, promoting the self teaching about our rights in Islam, organizing groups of discussion to learn from each other, to read and interpret the Quran and validate our own vision about what it has to say to us, as women.
About the second part of the question, my opinion is that it is still difficult, but not because of our lack of will, but because the essence of space for the Muslim community life, is closed to women on equal terms: I refer to the mosque. Because long ago ceased to be places where knowledge flourishes and have become more social clubs where marriages are arranged, and second, because it is practiced gender discrimination. Islam demands that women and men be spiritual equals. It defines relations between women and men as mutually complementary, and indeed, this mutuality is itself a sign of the Divine. Both have been given the guidance to inspire goodness in each other, and thereby, the goodness in all of society.
The respect, compassion, and mutuality that Allah has placed between women and men must be visible in not only our family life, but also in how Muslims conduct public transactions. Women and men, girls and boys should have equal access to and must feel equally welcome to participate in schools, the Masjid, and other civic and cultural institutions.
However, the trend towards inclusion is not as widespread as the standard demanded by Islam. There are many mosques that relegate women to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregated quarters with their children. Some mosques actually prevent women from entering. There are also some Islamic centres and mosques that discriminate against women by denying them the rights of membership, voting, or holding office. No wonder to say a woman can’t be a teacher or be part in theological discussions.
To this I have to add the gender bias in the treatment of the problems faced by women. When a woman comes to the Sheikhs and Imams for advice, her vision of problems such as marriage, are always seen most often as a result of her lack of patience or her lack of control over her emotions. Nothing is done for her, she is told to be patient and pray. I have known cases of domestic violence, men who have driven out their wives from their homes, without following the procedure Quran states in the case of divorce and no one of these women have received any useful advice or support in the mosque, just the phrase “May Allah help you “and sometimes the ban to come back again.
These practices are unjust and degrading, and they contradict the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It is urgent that they are corrected. Preventing women from full participation in the Masjid is a disservice to the institution and the community.
As Islamic feminist I think it is necessary to recognize the right of women to be sheikhs, counsellors, educators, as it was in the first days of Islam; it is necessary and urgent to return back to women their full rights to be part of the community and be treated as an equal. That is why I support the initiative for women Imams, for women giving khutbas, for the presence of women in the mosque to give legal advice and psychological support; the mosque must be open to women and the community in its broadest sense. The presence and voice of women should stop being awrah.
Interview for Muslimah Voices