Islamic feminism in Germany: A contested terrain

As Germany’s politicians ceaselessly question Islam’s place in the country, more and more Muslims take issue with being side-lined in these public debates: it is a discussion about them rather than a conversation with them. As a response, Muslims have striven to organise themselves and to enhance their public visibility.

Sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani describes this dynamic in his recent book The Integration Paradox: while earlier generations – who were, more often than not, recent immigrants and/or ‘guest workers’ with limited social, linguistic, and economic capital – kept silent, contemporary Muslims are more eager to join debates, claim rights, and influence political decisions. Paradoxically, then, more integration leads to more public contestation – or so El-Mafaalani argues.

Muslim feminist activism

One group of predominantly younger activists that has received increased public attention are self-professed ‘Islamic feminists’. Yet as Dina El-Omari – a Muslim theologian at the University of Münster – points out, Islamic feminists are hardly a cohesive group: “the spectrum of views that can be summarised under this term is very broad, including widely divergent orientations and goals.”1

El-Omari’s own focus is a feminist exegesis of the Qur’an: as a post-doc at Münster, she is working on a project titled “The human couple in the Qur’an with due regard to the gender question: An attempt at a contemporary Qur’anic commentary.”2

‘Empower’ women through Quranic exegesis

El-Omari’s aim is to empower women: speaking to online magazine Qantara, she often relies on a distinctly Kantian phraseology of enlightenment, stressing the potential of Islamic feminism to help women cast off the shackles of a self-imposed immaturity.

Doing so requires taking a hard look at the Islamic tradition – a task from which some self-styled Islamic feminists shy away: referring to issues surrounding the meaning and the importance of the hijab, El-Omari observes that “there are […] women in this country who, as feminist Muslims, have become spokeswomen and who see wearing a headscarf as a duty.”

Against such positions, which she sees as at odds with the emancipatory aim of feminism, El-Omari hopes that Islamic theology faculties at German universities will become a “space for critical self-reflection” – a space denied in conservative mosques as well as in public debates dominated by Islamophobic overtones.

Muslim feminism beyond theology

Explicitly theologically informed voices, such as El-Omari’s, are comparatively scant among Germany’s Muslim and/or Islamic feminists; and her commentaries have not triggered sustained public debates. While she has emerged as a regular speaker on feminist issues, the perhaps most enduring contestation El-Omari has been involved in was centred not on questions of feminism but on the works of her mentor Mouhanad Khorchide, criticised for free-wheeling Quranic interpretations.3

In fact, the field of Islamic feminism in Germany has been dominated by figures distinctly more ‘pop’ in formation, outlook, and style. Its best-known players are not theologians but rather journalists, bloggers, freelance writers, or female rappers.

Muslim feminists vs. Islamic tradition

What is more, the notion of ‘Islamic feminism’ remains contested in the German context. A first generation of Muslim women, who publicly identified as ‘feminists’, implicitly or explicitly construed their feminist outlook in opposition to Islamic traditions. Here, feminism is conceived as the external cure to an Islamic tradition that is presented as providing no tools for female emancipation.

During the 1990s, individuals such as Necla Kelek and Seyran Ateş emerged as spokeswomen for a feminist cause that depicted Muslim women as oppressed by the weight of an irremediably patriarchal Islamic tradition. Some younger activists are following in their footsteps today, for instance Zana Ramadani, founder and former leader of the Femen organisation’s Germany branch.

Core concerns of this group have been issues of forced marriage and of violence in Muslim households and communities, cast into sharp relief by so-called ‘honour killings’. They are united by a fierce rejection of the hijab as a symbol of both female oppression and of political Islam. Their criticism of left-liberal feminists as politically correct and unwilling to stand up to the inherent machismo of the Muslim male has transformed them into darlings of the political far right.

“Liberals and above all Feminists have lost their political mind
when it comes to Islam and the integration of migrants.”

Rabeya Müller and a liberal Islamic feminism

As a consequence of their (often willing) participation in a racist political project, a number of Muslim women have sought to reclaim the ‘feminist’ label from this first group of activists. An early figure in this movement has been Rabeya Müller. Taking the theological dimension of a self-consciously ‘Islamic’ feminism seriously, Müller seeks to “derive the power to implement this [feminist] vision of gender equality from religion, from the Qur’an itself.”4

To bring together like-minded women, Müller founded the Centre for Islamic Women’s Research (ZIF) in Cologne. Taking inspiration from Amina Wadud in the United States, Müller has been a staunch advocate of the female Imamate – and has also practiced it for years in her own local, gender-mixed mosque community.

Together with fellow activist Lamya Kaddor, Müller has been involved in the conception of schoolbooks for the expanding subject of Islamic religious education in German public schools. One of the books they co-authored was awarded the prize of the Best European Schoolbook at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009.

Situating ‘liberals’ in a contested field

Müller and Kaddor have also co-founded the Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB), a small association running four mosques in different German cities. In this function, Müller has not escaped hostility: the LIB and its members have been faced with – frequently misogynist – death threats from hard-line Salafis and the German far right.5

Relations between the liberal Islamic feminism of Müller and Kaddor, on the one hand, and the feminist project of Kelek, Ateş, and Ramadani, on the other hand, continue to be deeply fraught. Müller and Kaddor have expressed their dismay at Ateş’ self-serving project of a gender-equal mosque. They have also criticised the successive political positioning of a number of ‘secularist’ declarations that have sought to align feminist and Islamophobic projects.6

For some Muslim women, in turn, the criticism delivered by Müller, Kaddor, and others does not go far enough. They seek to present themselves as feminists while also projecting a more self-confident and self-consciously Islamic image. The most prominent example of this trend has been blogger and activist Kübra Gümüşay.7

Feminism vs. racism

Gümüşay’s main concern have been the increasingly virulent attempts to integrate feminist issues into an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political project. Following the sexual violence in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, Gümüşay initiated the Hashtag #Ausnahmslos (“without exception”) on Twitter. #Ausnahmslos’ 23 originators aim to highlight the omnipresence of sexism and sexual violence across ethnic and religious boundaries.8

“It is harmful to all when feminist concerns are being instrumentalised
by populists to spread hatred against particular sections of the population.”

Together with others, Gümüşay also founded the Zahnräder (“cog wheels”) network in 2010: it serves as Germany’s most important networking platform for young Muslim activists and entrepreneurs from different sectors of society. Importantly, the network explicitly and unashamedly emphasises its identity as German and Islamic.9

A feminism too Islamic and ‘modest’?

This unabashedly Islamic self-presentation has been the object of sustained criticism. For instance, Gümüşay and fellow blogger Betül Ulusoy have been challenged on account of their ‘modest’ clothing style, seen as irreconcilable with a feminist commitment. In April 2018, Germany’s leading periodical professing a ‘feminist’ orientation – the magazine  Emma – was forced to amend an article it had published on Gümüşay because a court ruled it defamatory. (Even the amended version still attacks Gümüşay as a “fundamentalist”, however.)10

Yet Gümüşay and Ulusoy have also been criticised from a vantage point that is less dubious and polemical than the bile spewed by Emma. Another group of Muslim women, spearheaded by Reyhan Şahin – also known as Lady Bitch Ray, an alias from her career as a rapper – and Sineb El Masrar, a journalist and author, have repeatedly expressed their dismay at Gümüşay’s and Ulusoy’s self-presentation as Muslim feminists.

Şahin and El Masrar are not ‘Islamic feminists’ in the sense that they seek to offer theological arguments and interpretations of Islamic sources. Rather, they define as self-consciously Muslim and feminist commentators. Notably, they accuse Gümüşay and Ulusoy of not being attentive enough to patriarchal structures in mosques, as well as in Muslim families and communities.

What is the ‘main battle’ to be fought?

According to Şahin, “[i]t is a bitter truth […] that Islamic associations and their organisations in Germany (such as Ditib, IGMG or Atib) are, by virtue of their Islamopolitical agenda structurally biased in nationalist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic ways.”11 This is echoed by El Masrar, who castigates established Islamic associations as “duplicitous” and as “exploiting Muslims’ search for identity” without genuinely addressing their needs.12 (El Masrar has had her own spat with these associations, notably when the Islamic Community Millî Görüş [IGMG] won a court case against her, forcing her to excise a passage from her 2016 book Emancipation in Islam.13 )

For Şahin and El Masrar, figures such as Kübra Gümüşay fail to engage in the “Islamic feminists’ main battle” against patriarchal oppression carried out in the name of Islam, focusing only criticising non-Muslim audiences for their racism.14 Şahin and El Masrar also castigate Gümüşay for insufficiently distancing herself from organisations such as the IGMG or the Muslim Youth Germany (MJD).

Intra-feminist spats

Some of Şahin’s and El Masrar’s demands – for instance when they call for the ostracism of IGMG and MJD – simply overshoot their targets. Other aspects of their criticism cannot, however, be dismissed so easily. In fact, they highlight the dilemmas of Muslim feminists in contemporary Germany as they must navigate a hostile political environment.

For instance, in the aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt in 2016, Şahin took to Facebook in a fiercely combative posting and accused Gümüşay and Ulusoy of being supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and of his authoritarian, anti-feminist agenda.

@BetülUlusoy und @KübraGümüşay:Wie erklärt ihr euch die Vereinbarkeit von Eurer pro- Erdoğan- und pro-IGMG-Gesinnung…

Posted by Lady Bitch Ray – the official on Tuesday, July 19, 2016

“How do you explain to yourselves the reconcilability of your pro-Erdoğan
and pro-IGMG […] attitude – which you have been expressing for years
in your tweets and posts [either] explicitly (Ulusoy) [or] in a roundabout way
(Gümüşay) – with your statement that your want to be ‘feminists’ and are 
fighting for women’s rights?”

To be sure, other Muslim feminists have come out in support of Gümüşay against some of the allegations raised by Şahin.15 Yet one does not have to agree with the charge ‘Erdoğanism’ in order to recognise that Şahin raises a number of pertinent questions.

A ‘space for critical self-reflection’?

The perhaps most urgent issue is how to reconcile a sustained critique of the anti-Muslim racism prevailing in German society with an acknowledgement of existing patriarchal structures in some Muslim/ Islamic settings.

Şahin also raises the issue of the content of an ‘Islamic feminism’: the label often remains vague in German debates, claimed as a self-ascriptive and supposedly self-explanatory term by some while being derided as self-contradictory by others. In contrast to English-speaking contexts, the German intellectual landscape engaging with the substance of an Islamic feminism remains relatively modest.

All of this highlights the need for a “space for critical self-reflection” demanded by Dina El-Omari. Whether German universities and their faculties of Islamic theology – whose legitimacy is not without its own challenges – will be able to supply such a space remains to be seen.

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