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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Islamic Feminism Not an Oxymoron, Female Muslim Leader in St. Petersburg Says


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Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 6 – Islamic feminism is not yet a movement in Russia, but it has a growing number of supporters, is changing the way both men and women think about their relations within the faith and should not be dismissed as an oxymoron, according Natalya Tambiyeva.

            An ethnic Russian from Stavropol who came to St. Petersburg to study ecology and then shifted to theology and is currently preparing a dissertation on feminist issues in Islam, she works as chief of staff of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of St. Petersburg (daptar.ru/2020/11/06/islam-fem2/and the-village.ru/people/experience/350759-islam-women).

            Two things about her views are striking. On the one hand, she many ethnic Russian converts to Islam become radicals, but in her case, she has become a modernist, committed to changing what many Muslims believe about gender and placing herself squarely in the reformist wing of the faith and committed to its evolution.

            And on the other, she has not only adopted this position but with the support of her MSD, she is actively spreading it among Muslims of both genders in the northern capital and more generally, helping Muslim women to escape abusive husbands and fathers and promoting the idea that Islam favors agency among women as well as men.

            To those who say that one can be a Muslim or a feminist, she responds that “everything depends on how we understand Islam, feminism and ‘Islamic feminism.’” Many Muslim men have been anti-woman, but there are at least two ways to oppose that: viewing that as in the nature of Islam or viewing it as a violation of Islam.

            Tambiyeva plants herself in the latter camp. She points out that Islam is constantly evolving. While the Koran is unchanging, the way in which those who accept Islam read it reflects changing historical circumstances. Practices like polygamy, for example, that may have been appropriate 1500 years ago no longer are.

            And the notion that only men can serve as imams and muftis is cultural not Islamic is simply wrong. In Russia, there is a remarkable tradition which sometimes is forgotten running in the opposite direction. In the Middle Volga in 1917, a woman, Mukhlis Bubi, was elected to a shariat court; and one of her first fetwas was to denounce polygamy as un-Islamic.

            In this way, Tambiyev plants herself squarely in the tradition of Tatar jadidism, the modernist movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century that sought to change Islam and bring its norms into correspondence with the contemporary world. It is truly remarkable that that tradition is now being promoted by a Russian convert to Islam.

            “The times are now good both for Islam and for the development of feminist ideas,” Tambiyeva says, “including in Russia. Two or three years ago, the situation was different: ‘feminism was associated with aggressive half-naked women with posters and ‘Muslim women’ with terrorists in the Nord-Ost theater.”

            Now the times make “certain steps forward” possible, she continues. Whether these will be made “under the slogan of Islamic feminism or without any slogans” is irrelevant. Far more important is what needs to be accomplished. “If a good deed comes to be called something other than feminism, that isn’t a problem as long as it is done.”

Window on Eurasia — New Series