What is Islamic feminism?

05 Jul 2018
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Y sits down with documentary filmmaker Nadja Frenz from Vincent TV Hamburg to learn more about the upcoming documentary Woman in Islam, and how Oman came to be the only GCC country to be featured in the groundbreaking production that focusses on feminism.

Nadja Frenz wants to start a conversation. The German producer and filmmaker has been traversing the globe, interviewing
women across the Muslim world in a trail-blazing new documentary, Women in Islam. This June her travels brought
her to Muscat, highlighting the voices of women in the Sultanate in a quest to unravel answers to the questions surrounding female identity and Islamic feminism that’s taken to her to Tunisia, Morocco, France, Germany, and Indonesia.

What is Islamic feminism – and what is the crux of its awakening? This is the question Women in Islam seeks to answer. Produced by Frenz and commissioned for French-German station Vincent TV for network television and cinema, the documentary turns its focus to Oman to represent the Arabian Peninsula.

“I chose Oman because I noticed that something here is different,” says Frenz. “Women and men should be equal, and I once heard something that drew a stark picture in my mind. The saying goes that we are all birds – we have the right wing and the left wing, the male and the female. If they’re not balanced, then the bird can’t fly.”

German filmmaker Nadja Frenz

In Oman, Frenz goes on to explain that this equality is most evident in the public sphere with female employees making up 41 per cent of the government sector and 47 per cent in the civil service sector – more or less half. While estimates at universities in the Sultanate put the average student body at 60 to 70 per cent female.

The production’s mission statement is a call to action: “When people in European countries think about Islam as a concept, they often think of the oppression of women. But there are a variety of women who fight this simplistic idea shoulder-to-shoulder, claiming instead the Quran propagates an image of equality. These Islamic feminists are Muslim scholars, professors of Gender Studies or Islamic Studies, bloggers, and activists, and they can be found all over the world – predominantly in Europe, North Africa, Malaysia, and the United States.”

“In Germany we have had Muslim immigrants coming from 60 years ago from Turkey,” Frenz says. While in France she explains that the majority of Muslim immigration stemmed from its colonized countries of North Africa – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria. “In both societies in Europe they are the minorities, and I thought they could be a great sample population to delve into – to speak with women from each country and ask them how they live, how they would consider themselves, and how much Islam influences them as a cultural movement and lifestyle.”

The goal of Islamic feminism as Frenz describes is to address pervasive views in the West of Islam that are associated with misogyny and develop arguments to counteract such misconceptions. Like any other global religion, Islam may be interpreted and lived in different ways, making the practice of Islamic feminism as much a political one as it is theological – targeting movements of reform in civil society. One such recent example is the recent achievement of women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. It’s an international movement that’s ever-growing, led by inspiring female Muslim artists, educators, and activists.

It’s Frenz’s hope to give further voice to these leading figures in the movement through the platform of the Women in Islam documentary which seeks answers to the questions of: What exactly is Islamic feminism? How does western Islamic feminism differ from its counterparts in North Africa and Asia? How is the fight for women’s rights compatible with religion? And which historical figures of Islam do modern Islamic feminists refer and relate to?

“In order to change something in society, the only way to do it through democratic structures is to affect and impact social and political participation,” explains Frenz. “I noticed in Oman the role and influence of women is different here than in other Gulf countries – so that is why I chose it. And I want to involve two or three different women from the Sultanate and show how they live – their daily routines, what they want from society, what is good for them, where they think they’re equal. But also, what are their issues? What would they want to change for the future?”

Frenz cites examples of paternalistic societal structures that still hold sway – from inheritance laws that favour male family members, to female representation in political and social participation in Oman. “If you look at the structures of middle-class management [in the country] you have 21 per cent female representation – although we can also say that even in Germany in regard to female CEOs it’s also not so good,” states Frenz. “At the State Council Oman you have just 17 per cent female representation, and at the Majlis Shura…just one per cent.”

Most importantly, she emphasizes that these disparities are a result of civil society structures – not religious ones.

“In my point of view, these are things that could be solved,” she concludes. “Oman is a young country and not every country has the same pace. It’s also a country with a lot of tradition. I’m looking for someone who is interested in these issues and who is looking for solutions towards them.”

Are you an Omani female over the age of 18 interested in offering your views on Islamic feminism and are willing to participate as an interviewee for the Women in Islam documentary? Email hamburg@vincent-tv.com for more information.

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