Maha F. Habib


Within the ‘New Woman’ debates within the Victorian era in Britain and the modern Muslim world (the areas of the former Ottoman Empire), one can witness a powerful feminist consciousness and astounding consistencies in the quest for gender equality, despite the difference in religious traditions, contexts, and contingencies. The debates attest to a consistency in feminist goals and challenges across time and space. The challenges include: intimate and long-standing linkages between scriptural traditions and the social order; interpretative legacies on women and their ‘nature’ that solidified cultural understandings of gender; and the relationship of these legacies to structures of power, namely patriarchy, resulting in limitations placed on women and their access to modernity. In response, women sought the undoing of regressive, patriarchal notions of gender and gender roles that suppress women in culture and law and sought more favorable religious and political expressions in support of women’s progress in their respective societies. More specifically, in the Muslim world, women of all classes began articulating a feminist consciousness in explicit ways from the nineteenth century onward. In the mid-nineteenth century, the writings of Zainab al-Fawwaz (1860-1914), Hind Nawfal (1860-1920), and ‘Afifa Karam (1883-1924) re-articulated understandings of women’s nature, deconstructing linkages between nature and moralities. By the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, women like Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918), Nabawiyyah Musa (1886-1951), and Huda Sha’rawi (1879-1947) tackled fixed socio-cultural notions, hierarchies, and gender-specific practice and participation, opening up avenues for women’s education, public participation, and social and political activism. In an attempt to undo patriarchal notions that suppress women in culture and law, they argued for equal religious participation and legal rights, and an expansion of roles of women beyond the bounds of domesticity. Towards the mid-to-late twentieth century, women such as Nezihe Muhiddin (1898-1958) and ‘Aisha Abd Al-Rahman (1913-1998) voiced political and religious ideas in support of women’s progress. Women in the Muslim world, in similarity to their European counterparts, broadened frontiers and constructed new sensibilities and inclusive modernities with their writing.