labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018


Islamic Feminism in Norway

Margaretha A. van Es




This article discusses the efforts for women’s emancipation that have been taken by different minority organizations by and for women with a Muslim background in Norway since the late 1970s. It pays particular attention to the emergence of Islamic feminism from the 1990s onwards. Islamic feminism is a form of feminism that explicitly draws upon an Islamic discourse. Research is based on archival material and semi-structured interviews. A key argument is that Islamic feminism has increasingly become attractive for Norwegian Muslim women, because it not only enables them to contest particular patriarchal ideas and practices,  but also to counter stereotypical images of Islam as an oppressive religion, in a context of growing Islamophobia and heated public debates about the emancipation of Muslim women. However, the same circumstances have urged many of these women to adopt particular forms of Islamic feminism that are characterized by essentialist representations of Islam.

Key words

Islamic feminism, Muslim women, minority organizations, forced marriages, Norway



In Western Europe, Islam is commonly associated with the oppression of women. The religion is thought to be inherently patriarchal, and hence incompatible with feminism. However, growing scholarly attention is being paid to Islamic feminism: a form of feminism where women use sacred texts such as the Qur’an and hadith as sources of inspiration for their struggle against women’s oppression. Although Islamic feminism is a transnational phenomenon, this article specifically discusses the emergence of Islamic feminism among women with a Muslim background in Norway from the 1990s onwards. What makes Islamic feminism attractive to more and more women with a Muslim background, and how do local circumstances in Norway urge women to apply Islamic feminism in particular ways?

To answer this question, this article explores the histories of a variety of minority organizations in which women with a Muslim background have been active: the Foreign Women’s Group/MiRA Resource Center for Black, Immigrant and Refugee women; the Pakistani Women’s Forum; the Islamic Women’s Group of Norway; the Minhaj Women’s Forum; the Muslim Student Society, Pak Women’s Association, and The Islamic Youth Organization in Norway. Research starts from the year 1979, when the oldest of these organizations (the Foreign Women’s Group) was established.

Obviously, these organizations do not represent all voices of women with a Muslim background. Moreover, many women have fought feminist battles inside and outside the media as individuals, without being attached to a specific organization (Helseth, 2017). Nevertheless, grassroots organizations have historically played an important role in the Norwegian struggle for women’s emancipation (Nyhagen and Halsaa, 2012: 30–40; Danielsen, Larsen and Owesen 2015). Besides, a benefit of studying organizations instead of individual women is that it enables a historical analysis based on archival material. Norway makes an interesting case study, because it has a strong record in terms of gender equality, which is also an important part of the national identity (Lister 2009; Danielsen, Larsen and Owesen, 2015).

For a long time, there was very little religious diversity in Norway. Until 2012, Lutheranism was the official state religion. During part of the nineteenth century, it was even forbidden for followers of other religions to settle in the country. In 1964, freedom of religion became a constitutionally protected right. Despite the ongoing secularization of Norwegian society during the last decades, and despite the growing religious diversity as a result of immigration and globalization, about three quarters of the Norwegian population is still registered as a baptized member of the Church of Norway (Brochmann, 2003: 344–346; Thorkildsen, 2014: 59–63; Church of Norway, 2015).

Muslims began to arrive in significant numbers in Norway during the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was a great demand for cheap labor in the unskilled labor market, and migrants came from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco, and Yugoslavia looking for work. Most of them were men. After the Norwegian government implemented a selective immigration stop in 1975, many migrants decided to opt for family-reunification in Norway. This caused a strong increase in the migration of women and children from predominantly Muslim countries to Norway (Brochmann, 2003: 137–143, 150–151). In later decades, Muslim immigration continued as a result of marriage migration, when children of labor migrants married spouses from their country of origin (Brochmann, 2003: 143). Furthermore, from the 1980s onwards, significant numbers of refugees arrived in Norway from many different countries, including Iran, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq (Brochmann, 2003: 161, 243). By the end of the period studied, about five percent of the Norwegian population had a Muslim background. Among Norwegian Muslims, Pakistani-Norwegians and Somali-Norwegians form the largest groups (Daugstad and Østby, 2009).

How have women with a Muslim background organized themselves since the late 1970s? Did the organizations that are included in this study actively campaign for women’s rights, and how? What problems did they address, and how did they try to solve those problems? Did the women who were active in these organizations discuss religion? If so, did they present Islam as an obstacle to women’s emancipation, or as a source of inspiration? To what extent did women adopt an Islamic feminist discourse, and how exactly? What made Islamic feminism attractive for them?

This article takes a historical approach. Research is based on a study of the organizations’ archival material, and on semi-structured interviews with women who have played a key role in their organization.[1] Between two and four women were interviewed per organization. The amount of available archival material varies widely per organization, but nevertheless provides a wealth of information. Women have been writing about women’s rights in Islam in minutes of meetings, funding applications and activity reports, but also in information leaflets, and in the Islamic Women’s Group of Norway’s own magazine Kvinnebladet (1998–2002) and in the Muslim Student Society’s magazines Tankevekkende (1996–2004) and Salam (2004–present). Besides, some of the organizations have appeared in Norwegian mainstream news media. In those cases, the women’s quotes have been included in the analysis.

The following sections will provide a brief description of Islamic feminism as a transnational phenomenon, followed by a short history of the self-organizing of women with a Muslim background in Norway. The article then explores the efforts for women’s emancipation taken by these organizations. After that, it discusses how women in these organizations have presented the position of women in Islam. This leads to an analysis of why many Muslim women seem to have adopted (elements of) Islamic feminism since the 1990s, and the local specificities of Islamic feminism in Norway. Last but not least, this article will address a very recent development in Norwegian society, where a diverse group of young women with a Muslim background – devout Muslims as well as atheists – have joined forces in a struggle against social control under the name ‘Shameless Girls’.

What is Islamic feminism?

Islamic feminism can be defined as a form of feminism that explicitly draws upon an Islamic discourse (Cooke, 2000: 94–95; Badran 2011: 81). It has in common with other forms of feminism that it sees all human beings as having equal value, highlights gender as the basis on which women have been discriminated, rejects certain expectations for women’s treatment or behavior, and wants to put things right through a form of activism (Cooke, 2000: 92; Bergman, 2004: 28). However, what is specific to Islamic feminism is that the Qur’an and hadith (traditional accounts of things said or done by the Prophet Muhammad) are used as resources in a struggle for women’s emancipation. A central idea is that Islam was originally much more empowering to women than it is as practiced by Muslims today. Islamic feminists point to texts within the Qur’an and hadith that emphasize equality between men and women, and argue that a system of unequal gender opportunities is incompatible with the deeper value of social justice in Islam. According to Cooke (2000: 95) and Badran (2011: 81–82), an essential feature among Islamic feminists is their objection to the fact that throughout the history of Islam, women have often been excluded from interpreting religious texts. Islamic feminists call for a critical re-reading of religious texts in order to improve the position of women in the family and in society at large.

While Muslim women have been engaged in different forms of feminism for a very long time, Islamic feminism has emerged as a transnational phenomenon since the 1980s (Badran 2011: 80–81). In Western Europe, Islamic feminism has first and foremost become known through the works of activist scholars such as Fatima Mernissi (1985; 1991), Riffat Hassan (1996), Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1996), Amina Wadud (1999; 2006) and Asma Barlas (2002). More recently, the Norwegian convert to Islam Lena Larsen has made significant contributions to the scholarly (and public) debate about Islam and gender equality (Larsen et al. 2013). However, it is important to note that ‘Islamic feminism’ is not an emic term. Those who are labeled as such by scholars or secular feminists do not necessarily self-identify as feminist, and the extent to which they position themselves as committed Muslim women varies (Badran 2011, 81).

In Western media, Islamic feminism received moderate attention after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, as part of growing debates about the position of women in Islam and the (in)compatibility between Islam and Western liberal values (Ahmed 2011: 196, 231 and 273). In Norway, this debate already started halfway the 1990s, when there was growing attention on the integration and emancipation of migrant women with a Muslim background.  Public debate was dominated by stereotypical representations of Muslim women as ‘pitiable’ women who were oppressed by their husbands and male relatives. Problems such as forced marriages, violence in intimate relationships, female genital mutilation and honor killing were increasingly attributed to Islam, which was then depicted as a violent and oppressive religion. This happened even more after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Strong appeals were made for political action in the form of migration control and assimilation demands, especially by the right-wing populist Progress Party and by the government-sponsored think tank Human Rights Service (Razack 2004; Bredal 2005; Døving and Kraft 2013; van Es 2015). Critics see this as a typical example of ‘white men (and women) saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1988).  Moreover, numerous scholars have argued that essentialist representations of Islam as a patriarchal religion should be seen as part of a process of boundary drawing, where Islam is being presented as incompatible with Norwegian values, and being Muslim as incompatible with being truly Norwegian (Razack 2004; Bredal 2005; Døving and Kraft 2013; Thun 2013; van Es 2015).

Cooke (2000, 108) argues that Islamic feminism should be seen as a ‘multiple critique’ that allows Muslim women to speak to, with, and against several audiences. Islamic feminists criticize patriarchal ideas and practices among Muslims while referring to (feminist interpretations of) the Qur’an and hadith. They criticize the dominant notion of Islamic scholarship as an exclusively male activity. In arguing that they can be free and equal to men and good Muslims at the same time, they simultaneously criticize stereotypical representations of Islam as inherently misogynistic, which they perceive are rooted in Western cultural imperialism. Moreover, in rejecting the very idea that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, and in navigating the spaces between what appear to be mutually exclusive identities, these women challenge and subvert the boundaries that others try to draw around them (Cooke 2000, 93–95 and 100).

Women with a Muslim background and their organizations in Norway – a short history

When Muslims began to arrive in Norway in large numbers during the 1970s, the first organizations that they established were foreign worker organizations and mosques, both of which were strongly male-dominated (Eggebø at al. 2007: 12; Vogt 2008: 110). In 1979, however, a group of migrant women in Oslo started the Foreign Women’s Group [FWG], which soon developed into a (secular) feminist and anti-racist activist group by and for women from ethnic minorities, regardless of their religion or their country of origin. A significant proportion of the women had a Muslim background. The group existed until 1989, after which one of its founders, the Pakistani-Norwegian Fakhra Salimi, transformed it into the MiRA Resource Center for Black, Immigrant and Refugee women. The MiRA Resource Center still exists today and is by far the largest organization by and for women from ethnic minorities in Norway (Nyhagen Predelli and Halsaa 2012: 36–38).

The Foreign Women’s Group was a pioneer organization, and for several years it was the only organization that included a significant number of women with a Muslim background in Norway. However, from the late 1980s onwards, migrant women increasingly began to organize themselves in small women’s groups based on their country of origin. This also applies to women from Muslim majority countries. Most of these groups were local organizations, but some operated on a nationwide level (Eggebø 2007: 10–11). An example is the Pakistani Women’s Forum [Pakistansk Kvinneforum], which was established in 1988 in Oslo by Shamim Akhtar Sattar (NTB press release, 28 November 1988). Its primary goal was to organize social and cultural activities for Pakistani women in Norway, but it also helped women to find their way in Norwegian society. As is the case with many minority organizations, the Pakistani Women’s Forum strongly depended on one leader who served as a driving force. When Shamim Akhtar Sattar stepped down in 1996, the organization ceased to exist.

During the 1990s, Norway witnessed the establishing of a growing number of Islamic women’s organizations, both inside and outside of the male-dominated mosque associations that already existed (Vogt, 2008: 110–111). The Islamic Women’s Group of Norway [Islamsk Kvinnegruppe Norge or IKN] was founded in 1991 as an independent organization by Nina Torgersen, a Norwegian convert to Islam. It was the first Islamic women’s association in Norway that organized Muslim women across their countries of origin, and that used Norwegian as its main language (Vogt, 2008: 214). It started as a women-only sports group in Oslo, but soon developed a wide variety of activities. Within ten years it grew into a nationwide association with six local chapters and thousands of members across the country. In 2005, declining membership and conflicts within the board caused IKN to dissolve. A different example of an Islamic women’s organization is the Minhaj Women’s Forum [Minhaj Kvinneforum or MKF], which started as a women’s group within the Idhara Minhaj ul-Qur’an mosque association and gradually developed into a large women’s organization. Almost all of its members are women of Pakistani origins.[2] MKF still exists today and offers devotional as well as social, cultural and pedagogical activities.

Around the same time, a growing number of Islamic student and youth associations were established, and young Muslim women and girls became increasingly active in these mixed-gender organizations. Just like IKN, these associations included Muslims across ethnic origins and used Norwegian as their main language (Vogt 2008: 214; Jacobsen 2011: 68). The first Muslim student association in Norway was the Muslim Student Society [Muslimsk Student Samfunn or MSS], which was founded at the University of Oslo in 1995. An early example of a large, nationwide Muslim youth association was Norwegian Muslim Youth [Norges Muslimske Ungdom], which started in 1996 and ceased to exist about ten years later (Vogt 2008: 231–233). In 2007, a Shiite Muslim youth association was established under the name The Islamic Youth Organization in Norway [Den Islamske Ungdomsorganisasjonen I Norge or DIN].

The rise of Islamic organizations from the 1990s onwards is indicative of the fact that on average, women (and also men) with a Muslim background have increasingly come to identify as Muslims. This development can be observed across Western Europe, and especially applies to young Muslims who were born and brought up there. A number of factors have contributed to this development, including the growing influence of the transnational Islamic revival movement on Muslim minorities in the West, the attractiveness of an Islamic identity as a source of self-affirmation and in-group solidarity that transcends ethnic and national boundaries, the opportunity that the religion offers for ethical self-fashioning, and, last but not least, the politicization of Islamic identities as a result of the growing negative attention on Muslims and their religion in Western societies. These factors do not operate separately, but in interaction with each other (Jacobsen 2011: 7, 10, 29 and 78).

Nevertheless, new organizations keep being established that are not explicitly religious, and in which women gather based on their country of origin. Usually, these organizations are founded by relatively new migrant groups, or they focus on specific problems. An example of the latter is Pak Women’s Association [Pak Kvinneforening]. The initiative was taken by Tahirah Iqbal in 2003, with the specific purpose of providing a support network for Pakistani-Norwegian women in crisis situations.


Efforts for women’s emancipation

Out of the seven organizations studied, only two were established with the primary purpose of strengthening women’s rights: the Foreign Women’s Group/MiRA Resource Center and Pak Women’s Association. FWG – and later the MiRA Resource Center – combined a feminist struggle with a struggle against racism. Inspired by black feminism and postcolonial feminism, the women wanted to simultaneously counter their marginalization as women and as people of color (Halsaa 2013: 232–241). FWG organized cultural activities, debates, lectures, study circles and public protests, and representatives of the group participated in the UN World Conferences on Women in Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). The MiRA Resource Center provided an even wider range of services and activities: it also provided counseling to women in crisis situations, issued research reports and information booklets about topics relevant to minority women, and participated in consultation sessions with the Norwegian authorities. Nyhagen and Halsaa (2012: 37) aptly summarize the current role of the MiRA Resource Center as ‘a watchdog in relation to government policies and a support center for migrant women and girls’.

Pak Women’s Association focused on finding pragmatic solutions for Pakistani-Norwegian women who were exposed to violence in intimate relationships, forced marriages, or social isolation. In addition to providing a variety of social and pedagogical activities, the association tried to mediate in family conflicts, and Tahirah Iqbal offered counseling and practical assistance to women and girls in particularly vulnerable situations. These included women who wanted to file a divorce after years of abuse, and girls who had run away from home.

However, also the other five organizations took efforts to strengthen the position of women in their families and/or in Norwegian society at large, despite the fact that these efforts had not always been planned from the start. The Pakistani Women’s Forum that had been established by Shamim Akhtar Sattar in 1988 did not refer to itself as a feminist organization. Yet, in organizing low-threshold lectures about socially relevant topics, and in  trying to build bridges between Pakistani migrant women and Norwegian school teachers, social workers and health care workers, the association gave voice to a large group of women who had only recently arrived in Norway, and contributed a great deal to their quality of life.

The Islamic Women’s Group of Norway had originally been established to provide gender-segregated aerobics and swimming lessons to Muslim women, but within a few years it became an important advocate for Muslim women’s rights in Norwegian society. In the late 1990s, the association fought fierce battles against forced marriages and against discrimination of women with headscarves, among other things. Moreover, it actively encouraged Muslim women’s participation in Norwegian society. Also the Minhaj Women’s Forum became more and more socially engaged over time. After the turn of the century, it began to organize seminars about forced marriages with the intention of de-legitimizing the practice from a religious perspective. In addition, it tried to mediate in family conflicts, which ultimately resulted in the formal establishing of the Minhaj Council for Conflict Resolution.

It is no coincidence that both organizations began to address forced marriages at around the same time. During the second half of the 1990s, dramatic news reports about forced marriages began to appear in Norwegian media, resulting in heated political debate. The efforts taken by IKN and MKF against forced marriages were in part a result of the allocating of specific project funds by the Norwegian government, but they also resulted from a perceived need on the side of these organizations to address this topic on their own terms and conditions (van Es 2016a: 203–218).

 The Muslim Student Society and DIN did not develop specific projects for women’s empowerment, but they critically addressed forced marriages and other gender-related topics in some of their activities and in their writings, such as in the MSS magazine Salam. Furthermore, the associations encouraged men and women to foster career ambitions, and in 2009, MSS leader Bushra Ishaq became a strong voice against hijab discrimination in the labor market. Besides, the associations were strongly concerned with equal gender representation in their boards. According to the DIN website, this served to ‘uphold their principle of gender equality’. These organizations illustrate the fact that a rigid distinction between ‘feminist organizations’ and ‘women’s organizations’ does not necessarily reflect the historical reality (Melby 1997: 34, 38; Nyhagen and Halsaa 2012: 111–116).


Women’s rights in Islam

The secular organizations Foreign Women’s Group and Pakistani Women’s Forum did normally not address Islam. In the beginning, this was not part of any strategy: the women simply did not consider religion to be relevant. Shamim Akhtar Sattar remembers that at the time when the Pakistani Women’s Forum existed, most Pakistani migrant women perceived Islam as a natural part of their cultural heritage that did not need to be discussed. In the case of FWG, a significant proportion of the women involved did not have a Muslim background at all. Moreover, the organization did not see Islam, or any religion for that matter, as something that could be reduced to a fixed essence that contributed negatively or positively to women’s emancipation. Once Islam started to become a subject of debate in Norway, Fakhra Salimi discussed Islam on a few occasions, but only as part of a postcolonial critique against stereotypical representations of Muslim women as victims of a ‘backward’ and ‘oppressive’ religion (Aftenposten 1988; MiRA-Magasinet 1994; Klassekampen 2006).

By contrast, the Islamic organizations IKN, MKF, MSS and DIN addressed the position of women in Islam quite often, and they always emphasized that the religion did not oppress women. During their activities, in their written publications, on their websites, and in interviews in mainstream news media, women argued that they had a high status in Islam. They claimed that according to the Qur’an, men and women had equal value before God, and that they held equal rights to education and full participation in the public sphere. To strengthen their argument, they sometimes referred to narrations about strong women who played an important role in the early history of Islam. A typical role model was the prophet’s first wife Khadija: a wealthy businesswoman who had married the prophet on her own initiative. Shi’i Muslim women who were active in DIN also frequently referred to the prophet’s daughter Fatima and his granddaughter Zainab, who were known for raising their voice against injustice.

Within each organization, women disagreed a bit in terms of how different men and women were from each other, and to what extent such differences should lead to different rights and duties. Some women emphasized gender equal opportunities, while others emphasized complementary rights and responsibilities in order to give room to women’s ‘innate’ qualities. However, they all rejected the idea that Islam was inherently patriarchal and that Muslim women had to leave their religion in order to become emancipated. Some Muslim women explicitly stressed the compatibility between Islam and feminism. This particularly applied to young women who were active in MSS and DIN. For example, MSS leader Bushra Ishaq wrote an opinion piece in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet in January 2009, in which she argued that ‘many feminist values can be justified from Islamic theology’, including ‘the right to self-realization as an independent individual’.

The Islamic organizations did not deny that sexism existed in Muslim minority communities, but they maintained that harmful practices such as forced marriages, female gender mutilation and honor killing could not be legitimized through Islam. They blamed these practices on ‘cultural traditions’ that persisted because many Muslims did not follow the ‘real’ Islam. The organizations tried to de-legitimize such practices through a religious discourse. For example, an article about ‘entering into marriage’ in IKN’s magazine Kvinnebladet dating from 1999 stated that ‘it is haram [forbidden] in Islam to pressurize someone (physically or mentally) into a marriage that he or she does not want’.[3] Another example is a conference about forced marriages that MKF organized in 2003, in which the imam of the Minhaj congregation stated that ‘forced marriages are unimaginable within Islam’. Similarly, in the Autumn 2005 edition of MSS’ magazine Salam, a young woman argued based on verse 2:256 from the Qur’an that ‘there is no room for force in Islam’, and that this ‘of course also applies to marriage’. In 2002, IKN used a similar discourse in an article about honor killing in Kvinnebladet: ‘Islam clearly condemns honor killing and those who commit such a crime. […] To kill a human being is completely forbidden. In Islam, it is as if you kill all of humanity’. In other words, an essentially ‘good’ religion was separated from culture. The idea was that if Muslim women had more knowledge about women’s rights in Islam, they could use this knowledge to strengthen their position in the family and in Norwegian society.

Still, it would be wrong to say that only Islamic organizations used a religious discourse to de-legitimize violence and oppression against women. Pak Women’s Association adopted a similar strategy. Tahirah Iqbal remembers that when she started the organization, she encountered strong opposition from a number of Pakistani-Norwegian men. She then contacted a few local mosques, and asked the imams to openly express their support for her organizational work. They did so, and this helped to reduce tensions in the community. Not much later, Pak Women’s Association began to teach Pakistani-Norwegian women about women’s rights in the Qur’an. In October 2005, Tahirah Iqbal said in an interview with the Norwegian Broadcasting Service:  

We teach the Qur’an. It’s the wife of the imam in the World Islamic Mission who teaches us. In the Qur’an it is written that a man does not have the right to beat his wife. Many women in Oslo don’t know their rights and I want to do something about that. They must know that they can get a divorce from the husband if he beats her.

However, Pak Women’s Association did not emphasize Islam as much as IKN, MKF, MSS and DIN did, and its strategy was characterized by a pragmatic use of religious arguments for women’s rights, in combination with secular, human rights-based arguments. Perhaps, Pak Women’s Association’s activities can better be understood in terms of ‘holistic Muslim feminism’ than in terms of Islamic feminism. Holistic Muslim feminism has been defined by Badran (2011: 84) as a multi-stranded feminism that focuses on equality and justice in Muslim families, and that uses Islamic feminist discourses of equality and justice grounded in religious sources, together with the secular discourses of democracy and human rights.

All of this does not mean that there were no women with a Muslim background in Norway who were highly critical of Islam, and who propagated a form of secular feminism that was implicitly or explicitly anti-religious. However, during the period studied, these women tended to participate in public debate as individuals (Helseth 2017). They may have represented large numbers of women, but they did not unite in large organizations by and for minority women.

Islamic feminism in Norway?

There are striking similarities between Islamic feminism as described by Cooke (2000) and Badran (2011) on the one hand, and the statements about women’s emancipation made by women in Islamic organization in Norway on the other hand. First of all, the Norwegian women critically addressed specific practices and expectations towards women that they perceived as misogynist, and they argued for women’s rights through a religious discourse. Mariam Javed, who was the leader of MSS in 2008, recalls:

We wanted to use Islam in a positive way, to speak up against forced marriages, honor killing, and so on. I know several people who have used Islam in their own lives, so that they could marry the person they wanted. Islam has been a source of freedom for us.

" [...] I know a number of people who have been in trouble at home because they were about to get married off to a cousin, or something like that. But they were practicing Muslims, and they said with the Qur’an in their hands: ‘But, dear Mom and Dad, I can decide myself who I want to marry, and you cannot take that right away from me, unless something is clearly wrong [with the marriage]'".

Second, their statements about women’s rights in Islam can be seen as a multiple critique: the women not only wanted to contest the oppression of women, but also to criticize stereotypical representations of Islam as an oppressive religion. In the interviews as well as in the organizations’ archival material, women expressed much frustration with the ongoing public debate about Islam and Muslim women, which they perceived as highly stigmatizing. In representing their religion as a source of freedom and empowerment, they negotiated the boundaries drawn between a Norwegian ‘us’ that was supposedly modern, civilized and emancipated, and a Muslim ‘them’ that was supposedly backward, uncivilized and unemancipated. Especially for young Muslim women and girls who had grown up in Norway, stressing the compatibility between Norwegian and Islamic values was also a means to gain acceptance for themselves and their religion in Norwegian society. Take, for example, an opinion piece written in November 2007 by MSS women Bushra Ishaq and Mariam Javed in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten:

Many of the values that the liberal society encompasses are already present in Islam. We follow the Islamic lifestyle when we are integrated as good citizens, and live side by side in peace and harmony with different faiths.

However, there were also differences. Norwegian Muslim women who used an Islamic discourse in their struggle for women’s emancipation seemed to have rather essentialist notions of women’s rights in Islam. Especially those women who were active in an Islamic organization tended to make a rigid distinction between religion and culture. They did not openly criticize the fact that Islamic scholarship has so far been a predominantly male activity, and they did not explicitly call for a critical re-reading of the Qur’an and hadith. Quite the contrary, some women – including Bushra Ishaq – were eager to point out that they were not reformists, but that they followed the traditional Islamic law schools. Besides, few of them referred to themselves as Islamic feminists, and there are no signs that they directly engaged with the works of Islamic feminists such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas. How can these differences be explained? And to what extent can these women’s efforts for women’s empowerment still be seen as Islamic feminism?

First of all, the women studied were not activist scholars such as those described by Cooke (2000) and Badran (2011), and it is quite common among lay believers to have a somewhat essentialist understanding of their religion. More importantly, these women made their statements while being in an extremely defensive position – which can also be noted from the ways in which they formulated themselves. The essentialist representations of Islam as an oppressive religion that predominated in Norwegian public debate seem to have provoked representations of Islam as ‘good for women’ that were almost equally essentialist. Separating a patriarchal culture from a more ‘authentic’ and empowering religion made it possible for them to address misogynistic practices without discrediting their beliefs (van Es, 2016a and 2016b).

These circumstances may also explain why many of the women studied refused to identify as reformists. Reformists tend to position themselves as opposing the mainstream and are therefore easily perceived as being at the periphery of religious discourse. In arguing that they followed the traditional Islamic law schools, they did not only make it easier for themselves to de-legitimize misogynist practices. It also helped to avoid the suggestion that their religion needed to be changed to accommodate for any form of feminism. In a debate characterized by competing essentialisms, there is little room for speaking in terms of change and internal oppositions.

In short, there are similarities as well as differences between Islamic feminism as described by Cooke (2000) and Badran (2011), and the efforts for women’s emancipation made by women in IKN, MKF, MSS and DIN. Probably, these efforts can best be understood in terms of ‘diffused Islamic feminism’ (van Es 2016b). ‘To diffuse’ literally means to spread or scatter widely and/or thinly. Some central ideas of Islamic feminism may have become adopted consciously or subconsciously by Muslim women across the world, but these women do not necessarily apply Islamic feminist ideas the same way, and not all of them identify as feminists. Whether Norwegian Muslim women’s efforts for women’s emancipation can be called Islamic feminism or not, depends on whether one applies a narrow or a broad definition of Islamic feminism.


Since the late 1970s, women with a Muslim background have increasingly organized themselves in Islamic organizations. Meanwhile, Islamic women’s organizations and mixed-gender youth organizations have paid growing attention to women’s emancipation, and young women in these organizations have increasingly emphasized the compatibility between feminism and Islam. Not only the Islamic organizations, but also one of the secular organizations in this study have promoted women’s rights through a religious discourse. They used the Qur’an and hadith as sources of inspiration for gender equal opportunities, and as a legitimation for their struggle against specific misogynist practices such as forced marriages.

Promoting women’s rights through an Islamic discourse appears to have become an attractive strategy for many Norwegian Muslim women: it enables them to address problems without discrediting their religion, and also to counter stereotypical images of Islam as an oppressive religion. However, the intense and highly polarized public debate in Norway about Muslim women’s emancipation made it difficult for Muslim women to position themselves as ‘reformists’ offering new interpretations of sacred texts, and caused many Muslim women to resort to essentialist representations of Islam. All in all, this article reveals the value of studying how a transnational phenomenon such as Islamic feminism precisely takes shape in specific localities.


The Norwegian public debate about the emancipation of Muslim has not come to an end. New developments keep taking place, and new feminist voices are raised all the time. In Spring 2016, three young women – Nancy Herz, Sofia Nesrine Srour and Amina Bile – began a campaign against social control and conservative gender norms by writing opinion pieces in the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. They ironically called themselves the ‘Shameless Girls’. Although they soon received death threats, their message generally received a warm welcome in Norwegian society: both among ethnic minority women and in society at large. All three of them had a Muslim background, but one of them identifies as atheist, while the other two identify as believing and practicing Muslims.

There are some similarities between their struggle and that of the MiRA Resource Center, in the sense that the ‘Shameless Girls’ unite across religious boundaries in a secular feminist struggle that is simultaneously anti-racist. A difference, however, is that they specifically address a topic that is often used by right-wing populists to exemplify the so-called ‘backwardness’ of Muslim minorities and to demand assimilation. In their recent book ‘Shameless’, the three young women frame social control as a universal problem that nevertheless takes a specific form in many (Muslim) minority communities. They consistently deny that this problem is inherent to Islam, and explicitly reject any form of co-optation by ‘racists and right-wing populists who want to use them as evidence for their prejudices’ (Bile, Srour and Herz 2017: 8). Although nobody knows what the future will bring, these young women seem to have found a form of feminism that takes a widespread problem head on, and that transcends a debate about whether Islam is oppressive or not.




This work was made possible through a PhD research grant from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oslo, Norway, and funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action, with grant agreement number 703071. Many thanks go to my colleagues at the University of Oslo and at Utrecht University for their critical feedback. I also want to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of this special issue for their valuable comments.



Margaretha A. van Es is a social historian with specialization in the fields of religion, gender and media. She obtained her PhD from the University of Oslo, Norway. Her book ‘Stereotypes and Self-Representations of Women with a Muslim Background: The Stigma of Being Oppressed’ was published with Palgrave Macmillan in December 2016. She currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University, where she works on her MSCA-financed research project ‘Muslims Condemning Violent Extremism’. Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University, the Netherlands



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[1] The research data were collected as part of a larger research project about the dynamics between stereotypes and self-representations of women with a Muslim background (van Es, 2016a). Due to the small number of relevant organizations in Norway, full anonymization is impossible. Therefore, the organizations studied and the women interviewed are presented with their real names. Interviews were conducted with the participants’ informed consent, and all participants have been given the opportunity to check their quotes. The research project has been registered with the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD) to guarantee the ethical aspects of the research project. The interviews were conducted between July and November 2012. Translations are by the author.

[2] The head office of the Minhaj mosque movement is in Lahore, Pakistan.

[3] All quotes in this article have been translated from Norwegian by the author.


labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018