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A woman’s dilemma: How to harmonize feminism and Islam within yourself?

Feminism is growing in popularity worldwide, and the issue of gender equality is now being raised in Asian countries, where Islamic culture has a strong tradition. Can a Muslim woman find a balance between the two movements while preserving her full identity? The countries of Central Asia and South Caucasus can provide an example.

Today, feminism is one of the dominant global trends. According to a recent study by Ipsos and The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, 65 percent of the world’s population believes in equal rights for men and women. For example, Saadia Zahidi, the author of the book “Fifty Million Rising,” says the number of employed women from the Muslim world increased by 50 percent over the last 15 years. Today, almost one third of all jobs in Islamic countries are filled by women.

However, the relationship between feminism and the Islamic world is complicated. To date, only six countries with predominantly Muslim populations have adopted anti gender discrimination laws in regards to employment. It is noteworthy that three of them (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) are located in a historically and culturally unique Eurasian region, embracing Central Asia and the South Caucasus. And it’s worth mentioning that although the majority of the regional population practices Islam, these countries are secular constitutionally. 

Countries in this part of the world are generally inclined to respect women’s rights. For example, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, the gender gap index, which measures the equality of men and women in terms of health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment, is 60 percent in Kazakhstan and 58 percent in Mongolia. Higher than Italy, Greece, Brazil, China and Japan, for example. Eurasia also ranks highest globally in level of women’s literacy – female students make up more than 50 percent of the total number of higher education applicants in every country in the region with the exception of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The explanation of this juxtaposition can be found in the region’s history. The majority of Eurasian peoples have Turkic roots, and the Turkic people were nomads. In nomadic cultures, women were more involved in the social life of the community and had a successful track record of fighting for their rights. Women helped manage inter-tribal diplomacy and conflict alongside men, and some were extensively engaged in politics or followed their warriors into battle, as described by the biographers of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

These societal characteristics have remained over the centuries. Despite the patriarchal structure of society, women in Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus played active roles in political life, the economy, and scientific development. Since 1905 and later on, being part of the Soviet Union, the region has actively promoted women’s freedom and emancipation. The revival and strengthening of Islam at the national level brought with it the assurance of educational opportunities for women, and their more active involvement in social and political life.

For example, in the Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollontai became the first female government minister in 1917, and Mukhlisa Bubi was appointed as the first female Sharia judge, one of the six qadi of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Russia. Also at this time, the Provisional Government of Russia granted women the right to vote, while in Switzerland it took more than 50 years (until 1971) for that, by comparison.

During the World War II approximately one million women fought in the war, learning the “male” roles. Women participated in the development of science from rocket building to microbiology to space exploration. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova (USSR) became the first female cosmonaut.

How can this unique history be of help to Islamic women today? After all, they are seemingly stuck in a vicious circle of strict cultural norms.

A professional, educated and independent Muslim woman without a husband and children will never be looked at as a role model. And yet, an exemplary housewife and an excellent mother garners sympathy for not having access to career opportunities and being forced to depend on men. While Muslim women can be employed and engaged in social life – such as small and medium businesses, education, etc. – this doesn’t grant them consistent financial independence, since their work efforts are residual, after household and family duties. In Western terms, a Muslim woman’s work-family balance always tips in favor of family. As a result, her work rarely turns into a career.

As Michelle Obama writes in her book “Becoming,” it’s not always possible for women to have it all. This is especially true for Muslim women. However, Eurasian women demonstrate by their own unique example that one does not need choose between feminism and Islam. A modern woman can be a Muslim and build a career just as women in Eurasia have been doing for centuries.

We, contemporary Muslim women, are so many that we have the power to establish balance between Sharia Law and a secular lifestyle. Let the winds of global change enrich us, not weaken us.

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