During the past two decades, reform-oriented Muslim women scholars, also known as Islamic feminists, started “speaking for themselves”. Their voices seek to correct the narrow representation of their struggle and craft a better understanding of how to engage in a two-front battle (against Islamic traditionalism and Western imperialism) and the difficulties they endure. Their fundamental questions about Islam and women may help in transforming Islamic laws and bringing about modern, egalitarian Muslim societies. Muslim women scholars are playing a key role in the reinterpretation of their religion and the modernization of their societies.
Faced with Islamic revival, more and more Muslim women intellectuals are finding it necessary and beneficial to engage in the dialogue about their religious and gender identities. They articulate a gender-sensitive discourse within an Islamic framework or paradigm. They use ijtihad (independent investigation of the religious sources) and tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an) as their basic methodology in order to establish a new gender-sensitive hermeneutics in order to confirm gender equality in the Qur’an that was lost sight as male interpreters constructed a corpus of tafsir promoting a doctrine of male superiority, reflecting the mindset of the prevailing patriarchal cultures.
Critical to the work of Muslim women scholars is the role of spirituality and religious knowledge in strengthening and empowering the self and the collective to resist marginalization (i.e. social agency). Religious knowledge becomes the foundation for social transformation and collective struggle. Muslim women scholars evoke spiritual knowledge to transform society and challenge oppressive systems and structures.
Muslim women who claim authoritative and authentic knowledge should be able to use their intellectual skills to convince a skeptical public audience (Muslim men and women). This task should not be so hard as long as the sanctity of the Qur’an is maintained and that the alternative Qur’anic exegesis is rooted in the Islamic tradition untainted by either culture or gender discrimination.
Unlike other approaches to gender and social change, the “new knowledge” produced by Muslim women intellectuals could be the foundation of the most far-reaching and meaningful social change in the Muslim world as well as a useful mechanism for norms internalization in Islamic social settings. In contrast, in order to promote women’s rights, Western governments used strategic bargaining or coercion, and in turn governments in the Muslim world responded either by making some concession in order to increase their international legitimacy or rejecting women’s right as Western concept. In both situations, change was not gradual; norms were seen as imposed and alien to the local culture and hence rejected or not applied.