St Petersburg University expert: Islamic scholar Natalia Tambieva on Islamic feminism in Russia and the world
25 November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, established by the United Nations. We spoke with Natalia Tambieva, a graduate of St Petersburg University, theologian and Islamic scholar, about what Islamic feminism is, how decolonial feminist theories develop, and what her PhD dissertation in theology is about.
How did you come up with this research topic?
My research interest is intrinsically linked with my everyday practices of: being a Muslim woman and part of the Muslim community of St Petersburg; and liaising with women’s Muslim organisations in other regions of Russia. For five years, a Women’s Wing (or a women’s club) has been operating under the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region. It focuses on: educational and awareness programmes; the principles of religion; and an introduction to psychology, art, culture, fashion, healthy eating and lifestyle. The aim is to offer advice and guidance with regard to opportunities for personal development and self-realisation, vocational options, and assistance to women who find themselves in difficult life situations. The latter includes: provision of basic necessities; clothing; food; medicine; as well as spiritual guidance. It was from these experiences and practices that my research interest emerged. I wanted to apply the scientific method to study the status of women in Islam and various approaches in addressing this issue. Studying sources on the topic, I discovered that there is such a school of thought – Islamic feminism.
In my everyday interaction with women, I immerse myself not only in their interests, but in their lives and their problems. Consequently, I have a desire to explore this topic from a scholarly perspective. First, I studied and reviewed the international experience; now, my task is to analyse the Russian experience to understand how things stand with respect to this issue in our country.
Natalia Tambieva earned a bachelor’s degree at Moscow Islamic Institute. Then she completed a master’s programme at the Faculty of Asian and African studies at St Petersburg University. In 2020, Natalia completed a postgraduate programme at St Petersburg University and is currently working on her PhD dissertation ‘Islamic feminism in the context of the modern history of Russia.’
Today, the concept of feminism is interpreted differently by different movements and figures. What is Islamic feminism? And where did this concept come from?
Islamic feminism – as a term and a school of thought – emerged in the 1980s in the US academe. The representatives of this school of thought are Islamic scholars, Muslim women who emigrated to the United States from various countries of the Muslim world, received secular education, and earned academic degrees. They are engaged in education and research. Some of them are actively involved in various social and religious movements. I want to stress right away that in the West they have a slightly different approach to the organisation of academic work. Almost every university has a theology department. Thus, Islamic feminists had the opportunity to come into contact with both secular science and classical Islamic theology, while being members of one or another Muslim ethnic community.
However, the ideas and concepts of Islamic feminism can be found in the works of Islamic modernists – Muhammad Abduh, Qasim Amin, and Tahar Haddad – as early as at the end of the 19th century. Later, these ideas were supported by the 20th and 21st century scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, Adis Duderija and others.
The term ‘Islamic feminism’ was advocated by a researcher from Georgetown University,
Margot Badran. While studying the activities of Muslim women in the Middle East and North Africa, she saw that women quite often took a proactive approach to the political, social and religious issues. Moreover, Muslim women took on leadership roles in different public organisations and civil right movements. However, it would have been incorrect to call them feminists, since this word bears colonial connotations. Therefore, Margot Badran proposed an alternative term – ‘Islamic feminism’, emphasising confessional and cultural identity.
To say that Islamic feminism is merely about the fight for equality would be not only superficial but incorrect. Women’s rights are viewed through the Islamic paradigm, in which the Qur'an and Sunnah play key roles. By and large, Islamic feminism is a response to the ideas of liberal feminism, which is defined by its focus on achieving gender equality through the rejection of religious and ethnic identity. Islamic feminism is one of the decolonial feminist theories.
There have been new directions within the theory framework. Researchers such as Fatema Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Aysha Hidayatullah, Asma Barlas, and many others have been exploring the possibility of women’s participation in theological discourse, in interpreting the Holy Text of Islam, which used to be the exclusive prerogative of men. Thus, they scrutinise the verses of the Qur'an related to women’s status in marriage and divorce and the rules for married life. They also analyse verses that Western feminism regards as discriminatory in nature. For example, there are verses about polygamy, the use of physical force, equating the testimony of two women to that of one man, and unequal inheritance. Islamic scholars offer their own interpretations of these verses, emphasising that the classical interpretation offered by male theologians cannot be considered the only true one.
How is Islamic feminism developing abroad?
No phenomenon can be explained simplistically, without taking into account the legal and cultural contexts, as well as mentality, and economic conditions of life in a particular country. Feminism came to our country quite early – at the beginning of the 20th century – with the advent of socialism. But it was soon diverted and at some stage completely forgotten; while today, our country has witnessed heated debates around the adoption of the law on domestic violence, and we can see how many different opinions there are on this issue.
- Interviews with Natalia Tambieva were also published on The Village portal and the radio ‘Echo of Moscow’ website.
In addition to theological work, Islamic feminists overseas are engaged in scholarly and research activities in areas related to theology. For example, they study the topic of women’s leadership from both secular and faith-based perspectives. This topic is explored by the aforementioned Amina Wadud, who herself acts as imam and leads a mixed congregation – both men and women – in salat (prayer).
Muslim women in Denmark opened the women’s Mariam mosque in Copenhagen, which has only female imams. It may appear as an ordinary women’s Islamic centre, but this is more than that. It is a female-led mosque, where Friday prayers are led by a female imam, who also conducts weddings (nikah ceremonies), as well as divorces. This could have never happened in a traditional mosque. Another example is from Berlin, where the Ibn RushdGoethe Mosque was inaugurated in 2017. It is the only self-described liberal mosque in Germany. In this gender-equal mosque, women and men pray together and women are not obligated to wear a headscarf. The mosque is open to Sunni, Shia and other Muslims and it accepts LGBT worshippers. Its founder, Seyran Ateş, advocates for voluntary circumcision upon reaching adulthood and makes efforts to address the problem of early marriage. These are the most striking examples.
Some people may think that Islamic feminism is a 21st century phenomenon. However, the beginning of the 20th century was also marked by the rise of feminist sentiments. What was happening in Islamic thought then?
The end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century was marked by the emergence of the Renovation thought in Islam. Many Islamic theologians were imbued with the spirit of renovation. Such famous Islamic thinkers as Muhammad Abduh and Qasim Amin turned their attention to the problem of women’s rights in the Muslim world. Hence, this topic was one of the key issues raised by Jadidism (Islamic Renovation movement).
In Russia, this period set unique precedents in Islamic women’s activism. Much as in the feminist movements of France and Germany, Muslim women in the Volga-Ural region and the Crimea embraced the idea of women’s right for secondary, higher, and vocational education. For example, philanthropist Mariam Sultanova opened a free school for girls in Ufa, and Fatikha Aitova established the first female grammar school in Kazan.
I cannot but mention the personality of Mukhlisa Bubi (Nigmatullina). In 1917, she became the first appointed female Qadi – a judge in the Sharia court. This is a judicial position in the religious court system traditionally held only by men. This event earned itself a place in the world history of Islam. Indeed, this has been repeated in other foreign countries since then; yet, we know that it happened for the first time in Russia. Mukhlisa Bubi issued fatwas (precedent decisions on legal issues), one of which was against polygamy. The fatwa against polygamy was received very negatively, primarily by men, but special conditions were imposed on a man wishing to enter into another marriage, and these requirements were infeasible. Many of her decisions were progressive and innovative not only for her time. Even today, more than a century later, it is difficult for me to imagine that such an activity could be carried out by a woman-Qadi. There is a positive experience in the history of
Russian Islam that can be used for the development of Islamic feminism in our country.
In 1903, the orientalist and theologian Rizaeddin bin Fakhreddin published a book Meshhur Khatunlar (‘Famous women’). In his book, he wrote about famous women from different cultures and civilisations. Not only Muslim women were included there. Recently, this work has been translated from Arabic into Russian; the Russian-language edition is being prepared for publication. I hope it will be released soon.
I must admit that sometimes, when I got my hands on another book from that period, I would automatically recheck the year of publication. The works of that time are so relevant today!
The stereotype of a disenfranchised Muslim woman, overshadowed by a man, is widespread in society. Why is Islam associated with discrimination against women in the minds of the average man? What should be done to dispel this negative image?
Most importantly, we managed to overcome a certain psychological barrier particularly prevalent among Muslim women in Russia. We have acknowledged that problems do exist, including the problem of domestic violence, abuse and humiliation of women, and we have to tackle them. The thing is it is extremely difficult to raise awareness of the problems in traditional societies.
The importance of awareness programmes in our work cannot be overestimated. Through public talks and interviews in the media we were able to convey our message to the public. Thus, women learned that we have a crisis assistance programme for those in need. The programme includes provision of food, clothing, and psychological help.
Islamic feminists posit that Islam is very affirmative regarding women’s rights – in fact, it protected them. They claim that Muslim women’s discrimination arose from incorrect interpretations of Qur'anic verses that bestow privilege on men over women. Over the centuries, the Holy Text of Islam was interpreted exclusively by men; therefore, today we are dealing with a male interpretation of Islamic teaching. Therefore, we are not talking about acquiring rights, but about Muslim women reclaiming their rights. Western scholars of Islamic feminism prove this in their works.
It is noteworthy that Muslim women activists, who work to help other women, sometimes abandon the clichéd reference to feminism. Nonetheless, it is not infrequent that their activities are equated with feminism and interpreted negatively by their religious community – perceived as an interference with tradition and faith.
You received both religious and secular education. Does it help you in your work?
The bachelor’s degree programme at Moscow Islamic Institute was designed in such a way that, while religious disciplines were most prominent in the curriculum, we also studied secular subjects, such as the history of Russia and philosophy. This gave me a good foundation for continuing my education at St Petersburg University.
While studying for a master’s degree, I had to ‘switch’ from theological discourse to secular. However, the postgraduate programme ‘The History and Culture of Islam’ allowed me to combine theological and historical methods. The topic of my research is ‘Islamic feminism in the context of the modern history of Russia.’ I explore Islamic feminism in the Muslim community in Russia. As a St Petersburg University master’s student and then postgraduate student, I was able to study the history of the issue in detail and conduct ethnographic research. My thesis also contains a practical part, represented by a series of indepth interviews with women’s rights activists from the Muslim community of St
Petersburg. Also, to defend a dissertation in theology, I will need to focus on the theological component of the research.
Not long ago, the first doctoral dissertation in theology was defended at St Petersburg University. Professor Mukhetdinov’s research was dedicated to Islamic Renovationist movement. How is Islamic feminism related to this movement?
The very concept of ‘Islamic feminism’ is inextricably linked with the idea of renovation in Islam and neo-modernist Islamic thought. As I already mentioned, the researchers of Islamic feminism are part of both theological and secular discourses.
Professor Mukhetdinov is my research supervisor, and he also published a few articles on Islamic feminism. In fact, on his advice, I found many interesting works.
Are you planning to become the first female theologian to earn a doctorate?
I do not like to get ahead of myself, but if everything goes well, I do hope to defend my PhD thesis in theology at St Petersburg University. The successful defence of the first dissertation in Islamic theology gives me confidence. I may say that this sphere is very important for me. I can see there are real prospects for the future.
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