Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften

The trans(local) dynamics of “Islamic Feminism” and the Emergence of New Subjectivities among Muslim Women in India

The Self that is postulated and referred to in the context of the Islamic gender critique which has been labelled as »Islamic feminism«, is the so-called new Islamic Self. Although it may seem to privilege the social and communal over the individual, this »Islamic self« is currently expressed in very different ways in India - and of course, for very different purposes.

According to Nilüfer Göle, the increased public visibility of Islam and the specific gender, corporeal, and spatial practices underpinning it trigger new ways of imagining a collective self and common space that are distinct from the Western liberal self and progressive politics. Göle distinguishes two different phases of the contemporary Islamic movement and discourse. According to her, the first phase, which reached its peak with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, is characterized by mass mobilizations, Islamic militancy, a quest for an Islamic collective identity, and the implementation of a political and religious rule. In the second phase of the Islamic movement, the revolutionary fervour declines, the ideological chorus gives way to a multiplicity of voices, and a process of distancing and individuation from the collective militancy takes place. After the assertion of a collective form of difference, we observe, according to Göle, a transformation of these movements from a radical political stance to a more social and cultural orientation - but this cultural orientation is certainly no less political.

On the level of the re-conceptualisation of authoritative religious knowledge, one could thus argue that the first phase of the contemporary Islamic movement has also created the precondition for an Islamic gender critique and feminist qur'anic hermeneutics, since Islamic or »Islamist« organizations were among the strongest proponents of a return to the normative sources of Islam. The discourse of Islamic feminism is also based on the interpretation of the scriptural sources, although obviously not from a patriarchal or neo-patriarchal perspective, but from the perspective of gender justice. Accordingly, Ziba Mir-Hosseini has called Islamic feminism the »unwanted child of political Islam«.

In my project, I will look at the translocal and local dynamics of Islamic feminism in India. I am especially interested in the relationship and dialogue between these Islamic makings of the self and the specific forms of new female subjectivities that are currently evolving among a fairly large - though obviously not homogeneous or monolithic - group of Muslim women's activists in India. By exploring this question, I do not mean to imply that religion or religion-based discourses define the identity, belonging or personal narrative of every Muslim woman in India. However, I would argue that they play a very central role within the new forms of agency and communicative spaces that are indeed relevant to an increasing number of Muslim women in India who are actively seeking a public role, not only in their community but also in Indian society in general.

A number of eminent historians have shown that Muslim women and men alike have constantly strived for new or for re-definitions of existing women's rights since the second half of the 19th century. But in spite of many attempts to counter the essentialist construction of the Muslim woman as a »passive victim«, the stereotypes seem to persist. Although many of the Muslim women and organisations have been active for more than 20 years, it seems Indian media have only very recently started to cover their activities and agenda to a recognizable extent, which is also the result of an increased media activism on their part. Nevertheless, the relationship with the Indian (mainstream) media remains highly ambiguous for many Muslim women (and men) in India - activists, writers and film directors alike - as the predominantly negative and biased representation and perception of the Muslim minority in India has been and until today continues to be a very central issue of concern and debate among Indian Muslims.


Prof. Dr. Nadja-Christina Schneider
Junior Professor for Mediality and Intermediality in Asian and African Societies
Institute of Asian and African Studies
Room: 220
Phone +49 (0)30 / 2093-6643

Birgit Koch
Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 2093-6601
Fax: +49 (0)30 / 2093-6666

Cross-Section for Mediality and Intermediality
Institute of Asian and African Studies
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden 6
D-10099 Berlin