Half of Aussies say they’re ‘feminist’. For Muslim women, it can be more complicated

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By Siobhan Marin Posted Wed 30 Jun 2021

Young Muslim woman Maab wears sky blue jacket and black hijab, with her hand resting below her chin.
Maab says feminism shouldn’t be reduced to a lifestyle choice.(ABC RN: Jess Pace)

Maab doesn’t look like a typical ‘feminist’. Or at least, that’s how she’s been made to feel.

As a hijab-wearing Muslim, she often receives stares on the street or comments from concerned bystanders assuming she needs to be “saved from this ideology”.

Maab says these remarks put the onus on her to defend her faith, fashion choices and individual freedom.

But they also create a chasm between Islam and feminism by insinuating these ideologies are at odds.

Young Muslim woman Maab wears sky blue jacket and black hijab, with a view of a park and buildings in the background.
Maab, a 22-year-old policy officer, says the stereotypes about how feminists should look are being toned down.(ABC RN: Jess Pace)

Maab says women’s equality has been part of Islam since its inception. She points to the faith’s condemnation of female infanticide, a practice which was common in pre-Islamic Arabia, as one example.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that the Prophet Muhammad advocated for the end of female infanticide,” she says.

“It began the liberation of women in that Arab world, in the Muslim world, because the rights of a woman begin from the moment they exist.”

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Why some Muslims ‘fear’ feminism

Around half (51 per cent) of Australians consider themselves to be a feminist, according to this year’s Australia Talks National Survey, but men are half as likely to identify as feminists as women.

Mouna Elmir, a researcher in Qur’anic translation, says misunderstandings around feminism can lead some in the Muslim community to “fear” the term.

“When you want to transfer concepts from one language to another, especially from English to Arabic, it’s very difficult,” she explains.

“You can never get it across [completely] and this is the problem sometimes causing social anxiety with Western feminism, because people are not understanding the whole concept.”

Qur'anic researcher Mouna Elmir wearing floral hijab and reading a book, with bookcases behind her.
Dr Elmir says there’s a desire among Muslim men and women in her community to learn more about feminism.(Supplied: Mouna Elmir)

Dr Elmir says some Muslims perceive it as a movement that “rejects all religion”.

“Other people are more tolerant towards feminism … but they still reject the concept because they think, ‘Islam is a feminist religion anyway, so why do we need it?’”

Culture vs religion

Dr Elmir says misconceptions around equality in Islam often stem from conflating religion with culture.Do Australians trust religious leaders?Forty-one per cent of Australians don’t trust religious leaders “at all”, according to the Australia Talks National Survey. It’s a six per cent rise since the survey was last conducted in 2019. Despite this trend, some Australians say they’ve never been ‘closer to God’. So what’s going on?Read more

“I grew up understanding lots of things which I thought were religious teachings, to find out later they have nothing to do with the Qur’an and or the prophet’s teachings,” she says.

“Really it’s just culture.”

But since diving into her research of Qur’anic translation by female scholars, she’s been approached by men and women wanting to dismantle their own misconceptions about traditional gender roles in the family.

“This generation is amazing. [They’re] all about investigating, researching, looking at things from different perspectives, which is great,” she says.

“We really need to decode feminism – and Islamic feminism – to raise awareness and break that fear. It’s about highlighting the egalitarianism of the Qur’an, and the teachings of the Prophet that we’re using.”

Fighting negative stereotypes

Jasmine Joyan, a 22-year-old law and arts student, believes social media is a powerful tool for debunking myths about Islam and feminism.

“Women across Instagram and TikTok are able to show themselves in a way that sometimes the media negates or doesn’t portray accurately,” she says.

Young Muslim woman Jasmine Joyan wearing black beanie and puffer jacket at dusk.
Jasmine says growing up, feminism wasn’t really a discussion because it felt so compatible with her faith.(ABC RN: Jess Pace)

Her concerns over religious misrepresentation extend to the film and TV industry, too.

For example, Jasmine points to Netflix’s Spanish series Elite, which attracted criticism over its portrayal of a Muslim woman who removes her hijab for a love interest.Religion, romance and rejectionAustralians are becoming less open to dating someone who is devout. So, how do young people of faith find a partner?Read more

“It has this idea of the ‘white saviour complex’ coming through and [of] changing things for a male,” Jasmine says.

When it comes to her own wearing of the hijab, Jasmine says the decision was based on both faith and her feminist stance.

“I didn’t want to be dictated by fashion structures that were primarily run by men,” she says.

“Instead, I dress in a way that aligns with my personal values on what to wear or what not to wear.”

Re-imagining Western feminism

Although Jasmine believes feminism goes hand-in-hand with her religion, she’s aware that some Muslim women feel excluded from the movement.

“It’s not that people will necessarily have an issue with feminism as a belief – people believe in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes – it’s that it stems from this idea of Western feminism,” she explains.

Young Muslim woman Jasmine Joyan wearing black beanie and puffer jacket looking to the side.
Jasmine says social media gives Muslim women a platform to own their narrative.(ABC RN: Jess Pace)

Jasmine considers herself lucky to be brought up in an era of fourth wave feminism, which recognises ‘intersectionality’.

It’s a term US professor Kimberlé Crenshaw first used in 1989 to describe how race, class, gender, and other social or cultural factors “intersect” with one another, and result in privilege or discrimination.

Is feminism inclusive enough?

Despite these social shifts, writer and researcher Shakira Hussein wonders whether the feminist movement has come far enough.

“Many Muslim women are uncomfortable with the word feminism because they most often hear it when they’re being told that Muslims treat women badly, and they don’t see their religion in those terms,” she says.

“On the other hand, they don’t believe in the mistreatment of women, and they’re prepared to fight very hard against it.”

Researcher and writer Shakira Hussein wearing a black top and red cardigan, sitting in a yard.
Dr Hussein says her relationship with feminism has become complicated.(Supplied: Shakira Hussein)

Dr Hussein says Western political leaders, including former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, have perpetuated damaging stereotypes about Islam and gender-based violence.

“If you think back to John Howard, he said that there are some elements in the Muslim community who were un-Australian because of their treatment of women,” she recalls.Narelle spent years sharing her income with churchWhy are some Australians practising an ancient religious custom?Read more

Until recently, Dr Hussein strongly identified as a feminist.

“When other Muslim women had difficulty with the term, I would say, ‘Oh no, what you’re concerned about isn’t real feminism, that’s just John Howard’s version of feminism.’”

But her relationship with feminism became more complicated after hearing from First Nations women, trans women and non-binary women who feel mainstream feminism fails to represent the challenges they face or acknowledge how their experience differs from other women’s.

While Dr Hussein’s attitude towards equality hasn’t changed, she says fractures within the feminist movement over who is included, and who is excluded, have encouraged her to question where she stands.

“Talking about feminism as though it’s some clash of civilizations between Western feminism and Muslim misogyny … it’s not a productive way to go forward,” she says. 

“There are a lot more rifts among Muslims, and among feminists, than there are between Muslim women and Western feminists.

“We should be actually looking at how many areas of commonality there are.”

The Australia Talks National Survey asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how your answers compare. Posted 30 Jun 202130 Jun 2021, updated 1 Jul 20211 Jul 2021Share

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