Guest speaker embraces Islamic feminism

By Ryan Connelly and Theresa Evans

 Sylvia Chan-Malik spoke to the Rider community about Islamic feminism on March 26 in The Spitz. 

Sylvia Chan-Malik, an assistant gender studies professor at Rutgers University, gave a lecture, titled “Women, Feminism and Islam,” to the Rider community as part of the university’s effort to celebrate Women’s History Month on March 26. 

Chan-Malik noted that this topic is very broad and that the terms women, feminism and Islam can be explored in depth individually. 

Crediting the audience for knowing what the term “woman” meant, Chan-Malik gave an overview of feminism and Islam. 

“In the United States, we have a particular way of talking about feminism and so, when we’re talking about Islamic feminism in the United States, it’s often grounded in the ways in which Americans talk about feminism,” she said. “And the ways in which feminism in the U.S. has developed overtime.” 

Chan-Malik explained that, due to the various feminist phases throughout history, including the activism for women’s right to vote and women’s right to work post WWII, Americans view feminism differently from the rest of the world. 

These phases “emerged out of particular historical moment when women advocated for the right to work, equality, equal pay in the workplace, to choose in sexual autonomy,” said Chan-Malik. 

According to Chan-Malik, this framework has continued to define feminism in modern-day society. 

It is unclear whether the current realm of feminism is considered the third phase of feminism, which began in the early ’90s during the case regarding Anita Hill’s testimony of being sexually assaulted by Clarence Thomas and ultimately ignited awareness of sexual assault in relation to the workplace and intersectionality, or the fourth phase that involves social media activism and some individuals who claim that feminism is no longer needed, Chan-Malik said. 

Since feminism in the U.S. has experienced phases, it influencesAmericans to overlook and assume things about Islamic feminism, according to Chan-Malik. 

Islam is often misperceived as having patriarchal aspects, but according to Chan-Malik, many female Muslims identify as feminists. 

Muslims follow the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith and live by Sharia Law. 

“Sharia Law is not law in the sense that we think about the constitution or the laws of a city,” said Chan-Malik. “Sharia Law is a set of moral and ethical guidelines and framework that muslims engage everyday.” 

Sharia Law is often perceived as a patriarchal entity. 

“If we think about all of the abrahamic faiths— Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there has been a particular structure in terms of who has been allowed and had access to be those voices of interpretation in any religious community,” said Chan-Malik. “And it’s actually pretty similar across all the faiths that mostly men and mostly patriarchal instructors have been the primary arbiters and primary interpreters, of religious text.”

According to Chan-Malik, female Muslims, whether they were raised Muslim or converted later in life, are drawn to the Islamic faith because the teachings represent gender equality.  

“They said, as opposed to the story of Adam and Eve as told in the Bible, there is no first,” said Chan-Malik. “The male is not first. Men and women are created at the same time and they are created of the same entity.”

Chan-Malik said that interpretation of these religious texts help female Muslims find empowerment. 

“The only way in which those words gain power in the world is for people to interpret them in a particular way and translate their meanings into action,” she said. “That they enjoin you to do.”

Chan-Malik said that Islamic women were found to be “extremely committed to notions of justice, equity, access and safety.”

She also suggested that Islamic feminism differs from American feminism because it focuses on things according to the needs of their countries. 

“Islamic feminism is a form a feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam,” Chan-Malik read from a summary. “It aims for the full quality of all Muslims, regardless of sex or gender in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate for women’s rights, gender equality and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, rooted in the religious tradition, the movement’s pioneers have also utilized secular in European or non-Muslim feminist discourses and recognize the role of Islamic feminism as part of an integrated, global feminist movement. Advocates of the movement seek to heighten the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the Quran and encourage the questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Quran, Hadith and Sharia toward the creation of a more equal and just society.” 

Junior public relations major Melissa Indecere believes it is important for the Rider community to be exposed to feminism. 

“I think it’s beneficial because we’re a small campus and it allows us to be exposed to topics that are relevant today,” she said. “Being able to have an educated guest speaker come to our university to speak about feminism is a great way to become more informed on the topic.”

Chan-Malik said, “We see the ways in which women who are calling themselves Islamic feminists, or even not, are confronting these patriarchal interpretations of Islam, of their religion Not by leaving the religion, but with their own interpretations of the religion. Going back to the text themselves and giving themselves the power and authority to be the interpreters of the text. And just say, wait a second, you can’t do or say that that because it’s actually not Islamic.”  

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