Projek Dialog

Feminist Women of Faith: An Oxymoron?

by Yvonne Tan

Feminism is sometimes discussed utilizing religious and localized lenses, but remains primarily discussed through the “Big Three” schools of feminist thought – liberal, socialist and radical feminism. Not to mention in the globalized world we live in, feminist narratives from the western world may seem more prominent, hence, the rise of the term “golongan liberal” has become an easy clapback in Malaysian discourse. Religion has never completely gotten on the feminist agenda and vice versa, viewing each other as reactionary versus radical, institutional respect versus institutional contempt, patriarchal versus lack of problem with the patriarchy, western influence versus local culture. Despite this, religion is still a hugely influential aspect of the lives of women all around the world.

Take for example a Projek Dialog video presented by Suri Kempe titled “Islam dan Feminisme”. The comments in the video immediately pointed out that she could not necessarily comment about Islam without wearing a hijab, questioning how religious she really was. Several contradictions were also pointed out which did not have much to do with the video such as that feminists support abortion, but Islam did not. Nevertheless, the video made important points on how Islam actually allowed for the expansion of women’s rights and to be treated as an equal by their husbands.

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There are sustained efforts to localize feminism, primarily through highlighting prominent feminists in Malaysia who campaigned for women’s rights especially the core leaders of Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS): Shamsiah Fakeh, Sakinah Junid and Aishah Ghani and Kaum Ibu UMNO: Khadijah Sidek and Lily Eberwein Abdullah, the latter of which was also a leader of the anti-cession movement of Sarawak. Other women in history like Sybil Kathigasu, a nurse who supported the resistance against Japanese forces are used to emphasize that feminism is not a foreign concept particularly in domestic politics, and more importantly that they played a role in the independence movement from the British.

At times the prominence of women in the Malay Sultanates such as Cik Siti Wan Kembang and Tun Fatimah or the Minangkabau’s matrilineal Adat Perpatih is brought up to show the long cultural history of feminism in the region. However, even though “Malay court narratives are set within the progressive spread of Islamic faith”, to speak of religious feminism in Malaysia not only in Islam but in other faiths has an added layer of uneasiness that has yet to be tackled [1].

Hinduism, particularly in India, has seen the reevaluation of privileged narratives, shifting to female deities that have typically been used to illustrate the ideal, domesticated woman in today’s society. Take, for instance, the explosion in reinterpreting Sita’s characterization in the Ramayana, an important part of Hindu’s Itihasa, is usually used to illustrate the model woman encapsulated by Naari Dharm, meaning endless loyalty towards her husband.

She was forced to endure Agni Pariksha, trial by fire, by Rama who questioned Sita’s chastity and purity after rescuing her from being kidnapped. She is seen as helplessly waiting for Rama to save her and immediately following his command. Arshia Sattar in Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish, talks about how Sita decided to leave Rama and her sons forever after she asked for the trial by fire to prove her innocence and more importantly, that Rama is wrong to doubt her: “It’s the patriarchy that has persuaded us to see Sita as gentle and submissive and weepy. She’s not that by any stretch of a woman’s imagination.”

Propping up crucial women figures has been an approach in other religions. Such as in Projek Dialog’s “Islam dan Feminisme”, Prophet Muhammad’s (s.w.t.) wives Khadijah and Aisyah, are placed to the forefront for their role in spreading the religion. Fatima Mernissi’s The Forgotten Queens of Islam is also a seminal work for feminist theology that also brings to light the contributions of women to early Islamic history. Meanwhile, another example in Buddhism, Chang’e or the Goddess of the Moon in the earlier version of the myth, had stolen the elixir for immortality from Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West instead of her husband Yi. As the Han dynasty’s version has become the most popularized, Chang’e’s theft from her husband illustrates women’s suffering being put in a no-win situation to choose between denying her husband’s right to the immortality elixir or landing in the hands of evil. She chose the latter and is depicted as a sad forlorn woman, living a life of solitude on the moon, her story rewritten so “as to emphasize blind obedience to the trinity of ruler, father and husband, where any form of disobedience would lead to punishment and calamity.”

Needless to say, the reevaluation of religious narratives on women that have been co-opted by the state is far from the being popularized within religious communities itself.  They remain intellectual or outsider interpretations of religious traditions and in the same way, the feminist movement in Malaysia has been more or less concentrated within NGOs, where a large distrust stems from.

The loss of control on the democratizing of religious narratives is the main problem that traditionalists have with “kelompok liberal”: “Islam liberal juga menyeru ke arah pembukaan pintu ijtihad, kefahaman Islam yang terbuka dan progresif. Antara tema dalam Islam liberal berdasarkan karya mereka ialah membawa idea seperti Islam ‘warna-warni’ iaitu Islam bukan satu dan mempunyai pelbagai tafsiran […] Dengan bantuan media baru, semua orang mendapat pelbagai maklumat tanpa dikawal dan menetapkan agenda pembacaannya.” 

As religious feminism is still in its infancy – one that does not dismiss religion as superstition or irrational – work on the prevalence of socio-cultural power relations, inherited oppressions and concealed narratives within religions are needed and celebrating figureheads is a step in that direction. To bridge this gap, working with religious communities as well has been recognized as crucial as “feminists who choose to struggle within a religious framework must inevitably engage with the actors of political Islam, in a terrain which is highly politicized and beyond the boundaries of the merely cultural or social aspects of the faith” [2]. Hence, opening the doors to allow for a more open and understanding approach in religious communities is easier said than done.

Nevertheless, Suri Kempe’s “Islam dan Feminisme” immediately opened the can of worms on the anxiety and discomfort that is often associated with the two topics and opinions. Not to mention this uneasiness is made known as Islam remains the most prevalent religious feminism discourse in Malaysia. Continuing in the spirit of allowing for multiple understandings, religious pluralism can also contribute to reclaiming longstanding traditions of women empowerment where feminists of different faiths continue to highlight the plight of women and democratize what it means to be a woman of faith.

Take Kuan Yin, who is sometimes connected to Siva, both of which hold gender-fluid identities that form the foundations of their respective religions. Or reinterpreting the role of Eve or Hawwa in the garden of Eden. Eve or Hawwa are usually blamed for the original sin and said to be created from the man’s rib. This has since been dispelled by Pope Francis while the Quran does not indicate blame except in hadiths narrated by Abu Hurairah. The appeal of religion has remained significant in many personal lives, be it man or woman. Reinterpreting religion shows agency by women even in spirituality and that it is possible to tease out its specific history of female liberation, although it is the women themselves in these religious communities that have to reclaim it. 


[1] Hisham, Ruzy Suliza, Out of the Shadows: Women in Malay Court Narratives. Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2003, p. 93.

[2] Mohamad, Maznah. Ng, Cecilia. And Tan, Beng Hui. Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia: An Unsung (R)evolution. Routledge, 2006, p. 88.

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