Gender Studies

The International Women’s Movement and the Politics of Participation for Muslim Women

This article explores the potential for Muslim women’s political engagement in the international women’s movement. Irrespective of the barriers that exist to deny and undermine the agency of Muslim women in the movement, this article calls for a more sustained involvement of Muslim women in global feminist thought and praxis. By articulating a faith-centered approach to social justice, Muslim women have important contributions to make in order to push forward a collective agenda against all forms of violence and oppressions affecting women, in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies. This article suggests that Muslim women implement a strategic-integrative approach to our involvement based on creating our own independent and integrated analyses and political frames, and engaging in solidarity and alliance-building with women across our diversity and difference based on mutually defined goals.


Few social movements are comparable to the international women’s movement in their ability to leave permanent imprints on the global political structure. The movement has made staggering and unprecedented inroads in global governance and has carved a unique space often termed the new global feminist “public.”1 The relatively recent mantra of “women’s rights are human rights” has made many states nervous, as feminist advocacy efforts seek to influence intergovernmental and multilateral processes and routinely urge state compliance with, or adoption of, key international treaties – mainly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action.

As expansive and compelling as the feminist movement has become, critiques made against it have been just as forceful. Third World and antiracist feminists have been particularly critical of the privileged positions held by the international feminist networks based in Europe and North America.2 As the self-established pillars and purveyors of global feminist advocacy, they are often criticized for their dismissive or cursory treatment of racial, ethnic, and religious identities and differences. Just as the narratives of racially and religiously minoritized women have a history of silence within feminist discourses, their “invisibility” is paralleled in international feminist organizing.

I do not mean invisibility in terms of minoritized women’s participation at the major global conferences (e.g., United Nations conferences in Nairobi, Cairo, Vienna, and Beijing), where women from diverse backgrounds were active participants. In my analysis, invisibility is the structural and politically strategic absences of racially and religiously minoritized women in shaping the framework and scope of global feminist advocacy. It refers to their exclusion in the critical processes before, during, and after the actual international forums. Some examples are determining and prioritizing key themes; producing and disseminating independent research for policy consideration; presenting and circulating narratives that oppose and even conflict with the dominant one; launching media campaigns; and participating in the regular diplomatic forums held in New York, Brussels, Paris, and Geneva. By these accounts, international feminist organizing is indeed privileged work.

Moreover, the politics of racism, exclusion, and marginality have long been exposed as structural features in the relationship between women from the North and the South. Furthermore, the international women’s movement tends to brush aside the testimonies and lived realities of women as they negotiate their rights and identities differentially– across the cultural, political, social, and economic spaces they inhabit – and in particular, as members of national, ethnic, racial and or religious collectivities.

Due to these entrenched complexities, the political project to save the “downtrodden, oppressed Muslim woman,” which is frequently taken up and thrust into the vanguard of feminist frames for global advocacy, is consistently challenged by many Muslim women. The entry points for Muslim women’s political engagements have largely been in resistance to the notion that we are to be rescued from our intrinsically sexist cultures and patriarchal religion. Further, attempts by Muslim women to reclaim and reframe our own struggles from faith-centered perspectives have been intensely challenging and very often resisted by both feminist academics and activists alike.

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