Final Essay: Implications of Language and Naming in Issues of Gender and Sexuality in Islam

I. Introduction: Language and Communication

There are many means of effective communication amongst humans, including body language, facial expression, music, visual art, and more, but the most widely accepted and perhaps generally effective means is indubitably that of language. From birth, we absorb the ways people around us use words and string them together so as to produce understandings between one another, in both mundane and seemingly spiritual ways; as we grow, these words shape our understandings of our environments, and we eventually emanate these understandings through words ourselves. Thus, language has the power to both build and destroy worlds in the realm of human consciousness.

II. Amina Wadud: Language in Activism, the Importance of Definition, and Interpretation

One of the first things that Amina Wadud addresses in Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, a work that contributes to her objectives in “fighting the gender jihad,” or the gender “struggle,” is the complexity of the process by which people communicate through language; she maintains that “the most basic aspect of [this] process is that people understand and use language on the basis of their contextual experiences and the potential of their imagination beyond those experiences” (95-96). Consequently, she asserts the cruciality of paying due attention to the role of language in defining the terms of a movement. In her eyes, the act of determining definition is power. Defining important terms and concepts ensures an understanding of what is being discussed amongst all parties, which is crucial for forward-movement. This emphasis on clarity of definition is particularly important in discussions of religion and other concepts that must be interpreted for “accurate” implementation, as Wadud notes that “definitions are the heart of interpretation” (18). This stress on clarification of definition in religious contexts is necessary, as “ultimately the textual meaning is neither fixed nor static”(22) because basic understandings of meaning result only from “human interaction with [doctrinal] texts”(22); thus, “a single source can and has led to diverse conclusions”(22).

This is where many people who, along with Wadud, advocate for the inclusion of women in discussions of textual, cultural, and legal implications of Islam, find the first flaw in historical interpretive processes; Wadud explains that “the patriarchal norms of seventh-century Arabia left its mark upon the nature of the Qur’anic articulation and continued to do so for centuries with interpretation and implementation” (22), so the “historical and current method of interpretive reference mostly excludes women and women’s experiences”(22). This lack of perspective is detrimental to attempts to most accurately and completely understand Islam, as, in Wadud’s words, “the Qur’an is the one ultimate source of direct verbal access to Allah’s self-disclosure and of the order of cosmic justice”(50), and it is a human duty to “[establish] and [maintain] dynamism between a linguistically articulated text, of divine origin, addressed at a fixed time while simultaneously intending to provide eternal guidance” (22-23). Therefore, in order to most effectively and precisely understand and implement Qur’anic values, “women’s experiences [are] essential to the work of human contribution and compulsory to the construction of how meanings affect ethical codes” (50). Unfortunately, many insist on the authenticity in traditional, patriarchal interpretations, even claiming that some of these alternative methods of interpretation “[deny] or [go] against ‘Islam’” (21), and thus, “[inhibit] a large majority of Muslims in their intent and claim to honor Islamic tradition” (18).

Here we run into the issue of defining “Islam” itself, as well as the concepts it employs, and the values it advocates for. For example, a widely misinterpreted concept in Islam is that of shari’ah. Though often used for fearmongering, Amina Wadud quotes Feisal Abdul Rauf in his explanation of it as “an immutable divine order”(34), meant “to make judgments about appropriate actions (92). In fact, while shari’ah is indubitably intrinsic to Islam, its historical origins are in “an intellectual movement that began after the death of the Prophet, the end of revelation, and [shari’ah] is never referred to in the Qur’an to mean a man-made legal system” (34).

The word “Islam” alone carries diverse connotations, not in its place as the descriptor of a religion, but in its many written and unwritten implications. These implications depend upon the context in which it is invoked, and by whom it is invoked, but each invocation claims authority; “people attach the word ‘Islam’ onto their arguments to acquire definitive authority and to authoritatively construct limits on discourse”(18). These usages, however, are oftentimes misled or manipulative. For example, some understand the actions of Muslims as reflections on the meaning of “Islam” itself, and some Islamic “political regimes or opposing political parties corroborate with certain definitions provided by their own experts incorporated in ministries, advisory councils, or think tanks specifically set up to determine religious legitimacy” (19). The many invocations, and the intents behind these invocations, establish different “fixed” meanings of Islam. This wide array of “fixed” meanings counterintuitively blurs pure meanings of Islam, and simultaneously “narrow[s] the space for genuinely free and open dialogue” (19).

For clarity and maximization of inclusion, Wadud chooses to define Islam as “engaged surrender,” asserting that “Muslims either choose engaged surrender to Allah’s will or justify deviation from it by selective inclusions and omissions within the broad possibilities for naming ‘Islam’” (21). Other important terms that Wadud emphasizes are tawhid, the concept of “the unicity of God”(14), taqwa, “moral consciousness, not accessible to external human judgment” (28-29), and khilafah, or the idea that that “human beings are created to be trustees on earth… that [they] are charged with fulfilling a trust with Allah” (33). These terms and their importance in Islam further Wadud’s argument for the urgency of women’s inclusion in major Islamic discourses. In her discussion of taqwa, she attempts to deconstruct the importance of the hijab, a hair covering many Muslim women wear so as to maintain modesty. She contends that “over the past several decades, the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance within and without Muslim communities… [and that] it is certainly not the penultimate denotation of modesty, as mandated by the Qur’an, ‘the best dress is the dress of taqwa’”(219). In this context, the definition of taqwa as “moral consciousness” takes on the moral incarnation of “modesty.” Wadud attempts to redefine taqwa and its implications for modesty as not directly related to covering up certain parts of the female body. In her discussion of tawhid, Wadud explains that “God acts upon all creation to bring peace, harmony, and unity … [so] ultimate separation between creature (self) and Creator (Allah) is an allusion. Separation between one person and another is literal, but metaphorically or internally an illusion, causing prejudice” (29). This extends to the separation between men and women; the hierarchical nature of who has (and does not have) permission to determine the meaning of doctrinal texts and thus shape a just world on Earth, is contradictory to the concept of oneness that tawhid embodies. From this, we see responsibility in being khilafah, or the trustees of Allah, to employ taqwa, or moral consciousness, into everyday life as it pertains to maintaining “equilibrium and cosmic harmony” (28).

Interestingly, the “oneness” and “equilibrium” of tawhid is not interchangeable with “equality” and “sameness.” In Islam, the gender binary remains quite present, and gender roles are traditionally, culturally, and even at times, doctrinally determined. Wadud explains that she does “not adhere to a definition of equal that requires some feigned sameness in order to be applied” (155). Rather, she believes that the inevitable “distinctions are worth celebrating – especially for women, who have been compared to and contrasted with men for too much of our life in civilization”(155).

In addition to defining religious terms, Wadud emphasizes the importance of defining social terms, as they are affected by religion, and influence how people understand religious and cultural values. Some critical social terms concerning women that Wadud endeavors to define for the modern Islamic world include “mother,” “motherhood,” and “family.” She claims that, in terms of the relationship between, and the purposes of, the mother and father, “the word family is also a word for gender relations” (140), and that “family is a construction of relationships…  [in which] the procreation, protection, and care of offspring” (131), are central. In these claims, her definition of family is somewhat traditional, as she employs standard notions of the gender binary, and its role in childbearing and the upbringing of children. Its strand of traditional thinking, however, is thinned by Wadud’s employment of the term “egalitarian” to the ideal family unit, which she understands as “the means by which both the inherent equality of human beings and the equity of responsibility toward other members in the family are reconciled” (156). Further, she explains that motherhood “is socially constructed [, and that] The ‘role’ of mother has been variously conceived and variously fulfilled” (127). This explanation lifts more weight off of the potentially rigid separation of gender roles, in that it lifts the traditional rigid definition of “motherhood” from its pedestal; she follows by explaining different understandings of the meaning of “motherhood” throughout history. Further, she criticizes the common understandings of “maternal traits,” such as selflessness, as solely belonging to the mother. Ultimately, Wadud emphasizes the importance of redefining the term “family” by redefining the roles of family members in her assertion that

the failure of civil society, including Muslim civil society, to look carefully at the underlying notions of the term ‘family’ while simultaneously relying upon it as a ‘cornerstone’ of social well-being, the source of a system of ‘values,’ and the place for the development of morality, implicates those societies in the commitment of the various crimes and abuses which occur within the family (131).


This not only points to issues in defining gender roles and related terms as they affect the less physical or visible realms of consciousness and understanding, but highlights the issues as they contribute to physical and emotional abuse.


III. Aysha A. Hidayatullah: Implications of the Term “Feminism” in Islamic Work

Besides religious and social terms and definitions that have direct bearings within discussions of Islam itself, Aysha A. Hidayatullah demonstrates the importance of defining the terms we use to describe the discussions of the place of women’s work in Islam themselves. In her book chapter “The Frames of Feminism” from her book Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, Hidayatullah focuses specifically on the term “feminism.” She prefaces the chapter with a quote by Asma Barlas, who critiques the dominating nature of the term “feminism,” and following, the inevitable consequences of definition, as she pronounces that “one can’t avoid being called a feminist any time one speaks about women’s liberation or equality, no matter what sort of language one speaks in…Even if we believe that reality exists independently of how we choose to define it, as we know, the very process of defining it also gives it a particular shape” (37). Defining something is not without consequence, as Wadud demonstrates in her emphasis on carefully defining terms for discussions of Islam for effective conversation; here, we see that similar to the term “Islam,” the term “feminist” adopts a wide array of “fixed” meanings, and Hidayatullah presents the consequences of this – she is hesitant to define how works are placed within a field with the term “feminist,” as the very definition of “feminist” is so all- encompassing that it becomes ambiguous and shapeshifting; for Barlas, her understandings of the definition of “feminism” as problematic in certain forms, discredits its credence in any and all forms. She furthers this, insisting not only on its lack of applicability due to its lack of credit, but on its dangerous nature; its claim to all work on “women’s liberation or equality” gives it the ability to appropriate “agendas that are so widely divergent as to be absurdly contradictory to one another; granting feminism this openness means that positions that are offensive and even dangerous to the proponents of other positions are called by the same name”(42). Here, she refers to the discontinuities “Western feminism” has with the widely adopted term “Islamic feminism,” and its almost inherent attacks on not only Islam itself for its supposed treatment of women, but on the ways many so-called “Islamic feminists” see the role of women in issues such as modesty. Additionally, Hidayatullah quotes Ziba Mir Hosseini in her argument that even within Islamic feminism itself, the stances of self-proclaimed Islamic feminists are so “‘local, diverse, multiple and evolving… [that it is] futile and even counter-productive to try to put these diverse voices into neat categories and generate definitions’”(41).

In discussions that effectively serve as counterarguments to those of Barlas and Mir Hosseini, Margot Badran and Sa’diyya Shaikh maintain that the term “feminism” is applicable and even important to issues Islamic feminists take on. Hidayatullah explains that Badran believes that

the terminology of Islamic feminism provides a common, inclusive language to describe the wide variety of Muslim women’s profaith work against sexism and male domination… [and thus] remains useful for resisting assertions that ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ are inherently opposed to one another, as well as for challenging the notion of any one group’s exclusive ownership of feminism (37).

Badran thus pushes for more broad and cohesive definitions and understandings of “feminism” and “Islam,” as she believes “the view of Islam and feminism as mutually opposed to one another is due to ignorance about Islam and/or feminism and utilized by Muslims threatened by gender reform to discredit the activist and scholarly efforts of Muslim women”(40). Of course, while Asma Barlas rejects the term “feminism,” she is not “threatened by gender reform,” and rather, in her rejection of the threatening agendas of certain incarnations of feminism, denies all of its incarnations. Similarly to Badran, Shaikh argues that due to its claim to all discussions of women’s liberation and equality “to accept feminism as a Western concept is…to concede the most visible discourses around women’s rights and gender justice as the property of the West and to marginalize the indigenous histories of protest and resistance to patriarchy by non-Western women” (40), but emphasizes, in perhaps a more effective counterargument to Barlas, that Islamic feminists must ‘“navigate the terrain between being critical of sexist interpretations of Islam and patriarchy in their communities while simultaneously criticizing neo-colonial feminist discourses on Islam”(40).

This duty seems to embody the saying “caught between a rock and a hard place,” as criticism comes from both “sides,” which explains why the authors of much work on women’s liberation and equality in Islam stray away from using the term. Their attempt to “win over” Muslim communities often precedes their attempt to convince Western feminists of their validity, and they “are aware that the legitimacy of their readings by be undercut by Muslims’ negative associations with feminism” (42). These negative associations can cut so deep so as to sever their works off of bodies of Islamic work entirely, labeling them as “un-Islamic,” so many authors have resolved to argue that “their approaches are firmly internal to Islam…[; that they] derive from ‘Islam’ itself … [and even that] their readings are ‘prior’ to feminism”(42). Hidayatullah, however, argues that

their stances continue to be shaped by feminism, since their opposition to it is still a response that is connected to an irrevocable history…Feminist discourse still sets the terms of those who resist it. Thus, referring to this field of Qur’anic interpretation as something other than ‘feminist’ does not isolate it from feminist discourse, as it is inescapably impacted by it (43).

This stance responds to both Wadud and Barlas’ holdings that definition has consequences, as Hidayatullah holds that even when a work is labeled as “unaffected by feminism,” if it deals with concepts under the umbrella of feminism, due to its historical placement, it is indubitably affected by feminism. Barlas would certainly resent this holding, as she believes that “when we ignore how people choose to name themselves, their work, and their struggles, we necessarily do some epistemic violence to them”(43). Ultimately, Hidayatullah reasons that “one is unable to control the [greater] meanings attached to Islamic feminism, no matter how one chooses to relate to it or define it” (41), and that the meanings and implications of Islamic feminism depend “first and foremost on one’s definitions of ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’”(41). Thus, it is crucial to clarify those definitions in discussion to promote proactivity.

Tales of the Waria: Language in Discussions of Gender

Formal discussions of gender, not in relation to gender roles and the gender binary, but in relation to the diversity of gender and the “gender spectrum” seem to be more scarce than those of the prior. Tales of the Waria, a documentary about a community of Muslims in Indonesia, introduces the complications in discussing the gender spectrum when it comes to different cultures; while westerners may view the film and proclaim that it is about “transgender” women, “gender fluid” or “gender non-conforming” people, “drag queens,” or simply “flamboyant gay men,” these descriptions are inaccurate and even perhaps insensitive. These terms come from secular, Western understandings of gender, and other cultures and histories have different notions of the concept of gender and its “options.” For the waria, religion plays a critical role in determining their essences as human beings, including their associations with gender. The gender binary is deeply ingrained in this culture and religion, so it translates to the idea that the waria are essentially “men with the souls of women;” note that this does not allow for more western understandings of ambiguity in the gender binary, as this definition still fit into it – they cannot simply be human or androgynous in their essence. This definition prompts questions of the roles of souls in religion to those of bodies – it is interesting that it is acceptable to consider the soul, the seemingly most religiously-connected aspect of humanity, as the so-called “opposite” of the “intended” gender. This “intention” is confirmed as it is explained that many of them that they cannot simply embody the so-called “opposite” gender through conviction or drastic bodily transformations, as Allah sent them to Earth as men, so in death, they must return to Allah as men. This is reflected in their approaches to prayer – they remove any indication that they identify as something other than “male,” and wear modest “masculine” dress. Again, are their bodies returning to Allah, or is it their souls? Does the acceptance of the soul as that of a woman change the gender they return to Allah as? These are questions that arguably arise from my lack of understanding in coming from a western perspective; perhaps they are deemed irrelevant based on the gender-language of the communities of the waria. I am limited to provincial understandings of how the waria exist in soul and body, due to my limited notions of how gender manifests in humanity.

V. Conclusion: The Ability of Language to Create and Destroy

From our explorations in the role of language in human understanding and communication, and the complications in defining religious, cultural and social terms so they are able to shift and change along with time and progress, so that they stand alone, and so they can encompass their purest meanings as they relate to to the humans who employ them, we see that definition, clarity, and conviction of intent is crucial. Even so, many terms are – sometimes literally – “lost in translation.” Nevertheless, it is clear that language frames discussions of religion, gender roles, women’s rights, and activism – all highly contested and fragile topics, – and has the ability to do so in both detrimental and constructive, fruitful ways. The nature of its usefulness is determined through careful word choice and definition.


Works Cited

“Chapter 2: The Frames of Feminism.” Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, by Aysha A. Hidayatullah, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Huang, Kathy, director. Tales of the Waria. New Day Films, 2011.

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oneworld, 2008.


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