The spread of female Islamic leadership

As increasing numbers of articulate women use Islamic sources to defend varying ways of life, they are challenging western feminist models, at least in name and quite often in substance, making detailed study of the full range of female Islamic leadership crucial, say Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach
Hilary Kalmbach Masooda Bano
21 November 2011

Visible growth of conservative female Islamic movements in both Muslim-majority countries and western Muslim-minority communities in the West has brought the apparent tension between women’s rights and Islam to the fore. There has been outright rejection of certain Islamic practices and symbols in particular communities, as shown by the banning of the niqab in France and inside Syrian government schools. Furthermore, the high participation of youth, and especially young women, in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ led some to argue for a post-Islamist turn. Still, many of those protesting actively argue for future democracies to take inspiration from Islam rather than the secular norms. The active participation of Muslim women in Islamic movements, now aimed not only at increasing individual piety but also political reform, presents a serious challenge to the claims to universality made by western feminist and women’s rights discourses.

These female Islamic movements are attracting attention due to recognition that a growing number of women choose to live by Islamic precepts not out of habit or tradition, but as a result of active engagement with Islamic teachings and practices in formal study circles led by female instructors. Female study groups have emerged in communities across Middle East, Africa, South, East and Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. These study groups take different forms, such as madrasa classes in South Asia, mosque-based study circles in the Middle East, or Muslim associations and youth networks among Muslim diaspora communities in the West. Furthermore, the female preachers and teachers leading these groups and their followers come from across the socio-economic spectrum, and advocate a much wider variety of positions on the social role of women than is normally recognized. Yet despite their diversity, almost all present a challenge to western feminist models, at least in name and quite often in substance.

Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority (Brill, 2012) explores the diversity of female religious activities in Muslim communities and the women who lead them, and traces similarities in the factors leading to their emergence, their growing appeal, and the implications they have for shaping of Muslim societies. The expansion in female religious leadership in the latter half of the twentieth century is especially significant because it represents a major shift in structures of Islamic authority; specifically a curtailment of male domination of religious leadership in core religious spaces such as the mosque and madrasas, spaces that have long been central to the establishment and exercise of religious authority within Muslim communities. The book's authors analyse the ways in which these women construct their authority as leaders whose legitimacy is recognized by those around them - including their audiences, female peers, and male religious authorities - and discuss the full spectrum of female religious leadership, from the conservative women active in male-dominated contexts, to women in North America and Europe actively furthering gender parity in textual interpretation and religious leadership.

Muslim women have established themselves in a variety of religious leadership roles ranging from instructors of mosque and madrasa lessons to (re)interpreters of texts, leaders of prayer, and even heads of women-only mosques. These women base their claims to authority on the knowledge acquired through at least some – and occasionally quite a lot of – formal religious training, and supplemented by experience as a religious instructor or volunteer. Other factors that can feature in their claims to authority include a pious reputation, a charismatic style, family ties to religious leadership or education, and demonstrated commitment to religious outreach work. While many are active in longstanding religious spaces such as mosque and madrasa, others have built followings using alternative physical and virtual spaces – such as television and internet, participant’s homes, flats rented by religious associations, or community centres – in order to circumvent the limitations placed on some mosque and madrasa spaces, or to reach audiences beyond regular mosque attendees.

The forces behind this expansion in female Islamic leadership are complex. Female Islamic leadership has important historical precedents , yet its emergence in the twentieth century can often be linked more directly to, first, the changes in women’s status brought about by early twentieth-century women’s movements, and, second, the expansion of religious revival movements beginning in the 1970s. Active encouragement of male ‘ulama and movement leaders has often played a key role. In some contexts, the emergence of female preachers and study groups is also linked to the active involvement of the state, either (as in Turkey and Morocco) through the state’s introduction of state-trained and sponsored female preachers, or (as in Saudi Arabia) through state-enforced gender segregation of all public spaces. In Muslim communities in Europe, the rise of female study groups is often closely intertwined with identity politics, both with respect to women’s active search for legitimate ways of being both Muslim and European, and their engagement with non-Muslim communities and media as communal representatives. The creation and expansion of space for female Islamic leadership highlights the roles of external factors – chiefly invitation from the state or male religious authority – as well as the role played by women themselves – often in institutions or spaces distinct from those used by state or long-established (male) authorities.

The extent of the authority exercised by these women varies. In many countries, preachers with different profiles reach out to followers from diverse backgrounds; their collective reach is therefore not necessarily limited to economically-marginalized or uneducated women, but instead often includes significant representation from middle and upper income groups, especially among professional women working in urban contexts. In many cases, the authority of female mosque and madrasa instructors is limited and subordinate to men; however, in several notable but exceptional cases female leaders call for a radical re-conceptualisation of women’s roles by arguing for seemingly-controversial practices such as female leadership of mixed congregations.

Focusing on the construction of the authority of female leaders helps explain the differences between the influence and impact of these various leaders. Most interestingly it shows that women whose leadership largely conforms to the norms and structures established by male scholars are better able to win popular following among Muslim communities than those who actively confront the gender biases in textual interpretation and leadership, for instance, in the case of Amina Wadud, arguing for a woman’s right to lead a mixed congregation in prayer.

It is also important to recognize that even in contexts where female mosque and madrasa instructors are supported by male ‘ulama and promote traditional roles for women, their teachings have the potential to enhance the socio-political standing of their female students. Islamic knowledge can provide women living within conservative communities with argumentative tools that increase their assertiveness, their activities within the public sphere, and their awareness of the rights vis-à-vis the male members of the family granted to them by even relatively conservative interpretations of Islam. This raises the possibility that women seen publically defending traditional Islamic precepts could be engaged behind the scenes in renegotiating their rights and asserting more autonomy in day-to-day family affairs.

The growing number of female preachers on the conservative side of the spectrum nonetheless poses a critical challenge to claims of universal appeal of western feminism, a challenge that has led to the increasing dominance of explicitly Islamic arguments in discourse on the rights of women in Muslim communities. Many preachers and followers from the conservative side of the spectrum are educated and economically-empowered women, who by choice find Islamic formulations of gender relationships more convincing than those presented by liberal western feminism; while others choose to argue for reinterpretation of Islamic texts on gender-specific issues. The growth of these movements shows that in the future there will be more articulate women coming forward, within both Muslim-majority countries and Muslim diaspora communities in Europe, using Islamic sources to defend varying ways of life. At the same time, a closer look at these movements suggests that the impact some of these leaders have on their followers – especially in terms of empowering them vis-à-vis established authority structures in the society – has more in common with western feminism than is normally recognized.

Studying the full range of female Islamic leadership is thus crucial because it not only enhances our understanding of the appeal and spread of various religiosities, but also enables us to understand the role female leaders – both conservative and liberal – play in moulding the place of women within their communities. Scholarship along these lines is made all the more important given the likelihood that the challenge posed by these women to western feminism will continue to grow in future.

This is the first in a series of articles stemming from Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority, edited by Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach, and published by Brill (December 2011)

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