Amina Wadud and Sherine Hafez: Activism and the Voices of Women in Arab Societies

By Marian Phillips

During the final semester of my undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas, I took a course titled “Religion, Power, and Sexuality in Arab Societies” with Dr. Marwa Ghazali.  The course and the professor made a deep and everlasting impact on me. Throughout the course, I gained an abundance of knowledge on a variety of topics in Arab societies, such as religion, power, class, sexuality, and many others. As I read through articles by Amina Wadud and Sherine Hafez, I found that the voices of Muslim women are integral to unpacking the patriarchal translations of the Qur’an. Furthermore, they draw attention to necessary activism through images, which can influence more women to become activists in Arab societies. When reflecting on the knowledge I gained, three distinct moments of this activism stuck out to me based on Wadud’s text Qur’an and Woman (1992) and Hafez’s article “The Revolution Shall Not Pass through Women’s Bodies: Egypt, Uprisings and Gender Politics” (2014): the subjectivity/objectivity of translations of the Qur’an, the social and cultural interpretations of the text, and the importance of imagery in activism. By analyzing Wadud’s discussion of the Qur’an and Hafez’s article with an emphasis on activism, I find that the voices of women in Arab societies greatly enhances a larger awareness of the injustices they face and deeply impacts activist efforts. 

Amina Wadud’s text illustrates the subjectivity and objectivity of interpreting and translating the Qur’an. She considers the fact that men such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali have the privilege of this opportunity rather than women. Wadud notes the inherent sexism and gender bias that men have towards women when translating the text: “the Qur’an does not propose or support a singular role or single definition of a set of roles.” [1] Furthermore, she cites that Yusuf Ali’s translation seeks to provide a definition of the roles of men and women based on social morality and modesty. She illustrates that these social mores vary in interpretation of the Qur’an based on time, location and culture significance by an individual. In turn, Wadud locates Yusuf Ali’s inherent gender bias in his subjective translation of the text. As the Qur’an never definitively separates men from women with a distinction of one having more power over the other, the patriarchal interpretations have the ability to, “place an inherent distinction between males and females and then give values to those distinctions.” [2] Thus, Wadud unpacks the gender biased interpretations of the text, going further to deconstruct the inequality that women face when they are impacted by a subjective and negative translation. She provides previous translations and interpretations of the Qur’an with the voice of a Muslim woman to make women in the Qur’an visible, attempting to remove the negativity that women have faced as a result.

As Wadud uses her voice to shed light on the negative interpretations women face based on gender biased translations of the Qur’an, she prompts women to seek further empowerment through their own visibility and voice in Arab societies. Sherine Hafez continues to establish the importance of women’s voices in Arab societies through detailing activist efforts and imagery used by women, for women when fighting against injustices. Hafez details, “the events of the Egyptian revolution,” where, “women – as well as men – rose to demand their right to ‘bread, freedom and social justice.” [3] By doing this, she draws attention to Muslim women activists such as the woman in the blue bra, Aliaa al Mahdy, and Samira Ibrahim. Each woman signifies a piece of the fight towards social justice as their names, stories, and images are markers of the greater injustices women face in Arab societies. Images of the woman in the blue bra, while unidentified, have been imperative to the discourse surrounding police brutality against Muslim women. One photograph caught the moment she was dragged across the ground by police as her clothing was pulled over her head, exposing the blue bra. 

The woman in the blue bra influenced women such as Aliaa al Mahdy to use their own bodies in their activism. Aliaa al Mahdy uses “her body as a weapon to expose hypocrisy and male chauvinism” [4], participating in nude feminism and joining the nude feminist group Femen. While both instances can be classified as imagery, highlighting the importance of voice through images is imperative to understanding the influence of the woman in the blue bra on al Mahdy’s use of her own naked body as a form of activism. A photo, painting, and other sources of imagery have a specific message attached to them by their creator and audience. The voice that an image has speaks to an array of topics; sometimes love, anguish, injustice, prejudice, and even violence. As some have said, an image is worth a thousand words, and in these cases those words pertain to social injustices, police brutality, and the fight towards freedom for Muslim women. Samira Ibrahim’s case illustrates the strength of voice in a political and legal arena, as she spoke out against the brutality and trauma of forced virginity testing on women in Arab societies. Having been a victim herself, Ibrahim’s lawsuit against the police officer who assaulted her prompted other women to vocalize their own trauma and the impact these forced testing procedures have had on them. The three women mentioned, while having individual experiences, find commonality in their ability to form a sense of community amongst women in Arab societies, and prompt other women to seek out methods to fight against the social injustices that they face. 

In summary, Amina Wadud’s ability to use her voice to counteract the subjective and patriarchal voice of translations of the Qur’an, the image of the woman in the blue bra, Aliaa al Mahdy’s nude activism, and Samira Ibrahim’s court case highlight the importance of women’s voices in Arab societies. Specifically, the voices of women are crucial when tackling social, cultural, and political issues that they have faced in a society that has been dominated by men. When I reflected on what I learned throughout that final Spring semester, I found myself drawn to the voice of Arab societies. As we discussed in the course, the prophet Muhammad spoke on the equality of women and men, but as we dove further into the semester, I found that his voice became lost in translation, figuratively and literally. What often brings me back to when I first learned of the prophet Muhammad are the voices of women interpreting the Qur’an, such as Amina Wadud, and the women who are actively fighting against the inequality they face based on the translations of the Qur’an that express a gender bias. This bias is not the only one to blame for the social injustice Muslim women face; there is also the continuous lack of Muslim women’s voices in Arab societies that further silences them. By the provision of women’s voices, it encourages women to further their efforts towards bread, freedom and social justice. 

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies.

End Notes

[1] Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Women, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1993, pp. 8.

[2] Wadud, pp. 35. 

[3] Sherine Hafez, “The Revolution Shall Not Pass Through Women’s Bodies: Egypt, Uprising and Gender Politics,” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2014, pp. 172. 

[4] Hafez, pp. 175. 

Works Cited

Hafez, Sherine. “The Revolution Shall Not Pass Through Women’s Bodies: Egypt, Uprising and Gender Politics.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2014, pp. 172 185., doi:10.1080/13629387.2013.879710.

Wadud, Amina. Qur’an and Women. Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1993.