Disrupting (Gendered) Islamophobia: The Practice of Feminist Ijtihad to Support the Agency of Young Muslim Women

Amanda Keddie. Journal of Gender Studies. Volume 27, Issue 5. July 2018.


Aida and Yulia are 17-year-old Australian schoolgirls. They are energetic, highly intelligent, thoughtful, friendly and well liked by their peers. Aida just won dux of her school and would like to go into medicine, while Yulia also academically gifted would like to be a medical researcher. Both girls are strongly committed to their Muslim faith and are ‘visibly’ Muslim. They wear a headscarf with their uniform—a ‘Muslim version’ that also includes long sleeves and a long skirt or trousers. They do not define themselves solely by their religion, yet they often feel reduced to it in their everyday lives. Whether it is in relation to violence, terror or the hijab, Aida and Yulia often feel they need to justify their faith.

The directives listed above are from Aida and Yulia’s concerned parents about how they should behave in public if they are to avoid being harassed or attacked. Both girls have heard about and are a little fearful of the all too familiar stories of, for example, women having their veils ripped from their heads or being subject to religious vilification and sexual harassment. They thus take their parents’ advice when in public seriously. As if to compensate or mediate the hostility of the general Australian public, they consciously subdue their energy and avert their gaze or put on a cheerful smile.

In Western societies such as Australia, young women like Aida and Yulia are negotiating and shaping their identities within multiple and contentious discourses, many of which undermine their agency. This paper is inspired by the work of postcolonial and Muslim feminist scholars such as Ahmed, Barlas , Hamzeh, Wadud and Mernissi, that draws attention to, and seeks to transform, the racist, sexist and Islamophobic discourses constraining the identities of Muslim women. The paper examines how four young Brisbane Muslim women are understanding and finding spaces of agency within and through these discourses with reference to their faith. The Islamic principle of ijtihad (jurisprudential interpretation of religious text) and the practice of feminist ijtihad are theorized as powerful tools in this endeavour in supporting the young women to counter the Islamophobia and gendered Islamophobia in their lives. In relation to the latter forms of oppression, however, the paper draws attention to the problematics of such engagement in its capacity to reinscribe unhelpful and disempowering gender and ethno-cultural relations (Martino & Rezai-Rashti; Zine).

In light of the Islamophobia endemic in most Western contexts such as Australia, the misrepresentation and distorting of Islam and Muslims within public and media discourse, the increased significance of faith and faith identity among Muslims worldwide and the increased emphasis on wearing the hijab among young Muslim women in the post 9/11 era, the focus of this paper is highly significant (see Shah). These circumstances illuminate the imperative of improving knowledge and understandings about Islamic teachings and values, particularly in relation to gender. They also highlight the imperative of providing greater opportunities for listening to Muslim women and girls who are finding spaces of agency within the religious, gendered and racialized discourses that shape their identities—it is these voices in the current environment that tend to be silenced.

Islamophobia, Gendered Islamophobia and (Feminist) Ijtihad

While globally there has been a long history of antagonistic relations between the ‘West’ and Islam, such antagonisms have reached new heights in the post 9/11 era. The terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September and the many attacks subsequently perpetuated against the West in the name of Islam, have fuelled Islamophobia and the demonizing of Muslims. Amid this contention, there has been significant broader debate in Western nations such as Australia about the threats that unprecedented levels of cultural diversity and immigration pose to social cohesion and harmony. Many view the current heightened racial and religious tensions as signifying the failure of the multicultural project. In Australia (as in other Western contexts), fears that multiculturalism is creating these tensions have led to policies that focus on reigning in diversity around national unity and identity (see Fleras). Matters of national identity and securing national borders from the threat of the ‘other’ are what feature most prominently in current political discourse concerning multiculturalism and immigration. The anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic sentiments of this discourse have been strongly apparent in Australia’s hard-line border protection policies. The ‘Team Australia’ mantra offered by former prime minister Tony Abbott, for example, as part of his government’s counter-terrorism strategy to unify the nation against those ‘who wound attack us’ (i.e. Muslims) is an instance par excellence of such sentiments and the racialized version of Australia they reflect. These sentiments are also strongly apparent in the heighted political impact and traction of right-wing parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and similar anti-immigration/new nationalism parties like the Australia First Party and the Australian Liberty Alliance. These groups, as with their counterparts in the UK and the US, tend to be explicitly anti-Islamic—aligning Islam with religious extremism, terrorism, violent male behaviour and women’s oppression.

Amid this debate and contention, it is Muslim women by virtue of their appearance as visibly Muslim, who continue to bear the brunt of Islamophobia. Indeed, in Australia, the wearing of the hijab is the most common reason cited for provoking racist abuse with such abuse ranging from all manner of verbal insults (e.g. accusations of terrorism) and physical assaults (e.g. having their headscarves pulled or ripped from their heads) (see Mansouri & Marotta; Poynting & Noble). What this abuse illuminates is how the bodies and sexuality of Muslim women continue to symbolize for many in the West the oppressiveness, backwardness and inferiority of Islam (see Abu-Lughod; Bulbeck; Khan; Mahmood). Hamzeh’s term ‘hijabophobia’ encapsulates the sexist and racist discourses of this discrimination and the ways in which Muslim women are essentialized through them. Such hijabophobia signifies the positioning of Muslim women within the racial and religious oppressions of society at large. It also encapsulates the patriarchal forms of religious oppression Muslim women experience in their own communities (see also Hussein; Zine through, for example, the traditional Islamic values of purdah (protecting Muslim women from contact with men outside their immediate family) and izzet (family honour; see Anwar). Within the context of these values, young Muslim women are positioned with the responsibility of protecting their family’s honour through their gender modesty and sexual chastity. They are the public face of their family and community and, as such, their social relations are monitored and curtailed for fear of moral ‘transgressions’ that may bring shame to families (Basit; Keddie). Muslim women thus experience a ‘burden of representation’; on the one hand, their behaviour is essentialized by the West to represent all Muslims and, on the other hand, it is essentialized by Islam in their positioning as guardians of their faith who must be safeguarded from Western moral corruptions (Zine; see also Barazangi; Khan; Martino & Rezai-Rashti).

Muslim feminists have long attempted to negotiate these pressures with reference to their faith and the Qur’anic precepts of peace, social justice and gender equality. The individual right in Islam to ijtihad (jurisprudential interpretation of religious text) has been a crucial tool in this negotiation (see Ahmed; Al-Hibri; Barlas; Wadud). This tool reflects the intent of Islam to be universally beneficial—an intent that allows flexibility and multiplicity of Qur’anic interpretation. As there is no central authority charged with the task of interpreting the religion to the faithful, women’s entitlement to engage in ijtihad enables them to challenge injustices and oppressions through women-focused or feminist interpretations of religious texts. Such engagement has involved Muslim women critically examining Islamic tenets in light of their historical locatedness and context, and their textual representation (see Barlas; Wadud). This feminist ijtihad has enabled a challenging of literal readings of Islam and, importantly, a separating of inappropriate (or oppressive) customary or cultural practices from religious practices that has led to new understandings of Islam that better reflect women’s cultural contexts, and public interests (Afshar; Ahmed; Al-Hibri; Barazangi; Barlas ; Marcotte; Mernissi; Mir-Hosseini; Wadud). Feminist ijtihad has opened up possibilities for interpreting Islamic tenets in ways that prioritize the ‘true spirit’ of the Qur’an—the emulation of justice, equity, harmony, moral responsibility, and spiritual awareness and development (Wadud).

Hamzeh (drawing on the work of Mernissi) advocates supporting young Muslim women and girls to adopt this critical feminist approach. She offers a vision of ‘deveiling pedagogies’ centred upon Muslim girls and women accessing the tools of feminist ijtihad so that they can understand the gendering discourses in their lives as socially constructed and thus amenable to questioning and transformation. She proposes that this critical literacy will encourage Muslim girls and women to be agents of change in terms of creating their own possibilities of social/gender justice. This process of agency is, however, neither uncomplicated nor unproblematic. Muslim women are a very diverse group whose relations with and interpretations of Islam are necessarily highly varied and complex. They are not united in how they might construct agency within the various discourses in their lives. Moreover, their constructions of agency may challenge inequities and oppressions but they may also reproduce them (see Abu-Lughod). These complexities around agency are well captured in the politics and practices of veiling and this is unsurprising given the continued contention this religious symbol represents. The contentions associated with the ‘hijab-rows’ are acknowledged here. I do not wish here to regurgitate discussions about the veil that have become tiresome for many Muslim women. However, as Hussein (p. 2) points out, ‘we need to keep talking about [the] hijab [to] allow our ways of discussing it to evolve’. It is clear and well recognized that the ‘choice’ vs. ‘force’ discourses do not adequately capture the complexities associated with Muslim women’s wearing of the veil and there is much championing of the former discourse from within and beyond Muslim communities—especially in countering the dominant trope of the submissive and voiceless Muslim woman who needs to be saved from her barbaric and misogynistic religion. What is far less clear are the racialized and gendered impacts of this choice discourse for non-Muslim girls and women. This paper considers some of these impacts.

The recent increase in Muslim women’s wearing of the veil has been associated with the assertion of a Muslim identity and a defending of a Muslim community that feels under attack especially from the West (see Shah). There is, of course, a history of such assertion, as Eid points out (p. 1903), the emergence of the hijab in the 1970s reflected a ‘strong symbol of a religious nationalism setting up Islamic values as a protective screen against Western culture’. The hijab symbolized restored dignity against a backdrop of Western excess and immorality (see Ahmed; Hoodfar). Similarly, for many Muslim women, today their choice to wear the hijab is a statement against what they see as the ‘oppression’ and hyper-sexualizing of women in the West (see Ruby). Many Muslim women view Western cultural expectations (especially in relation to the gendered expectations of the multi-billion-dollar fashion, cosmetic and diet industry) as sexually objectifying and oppressive to women (see Eid). For these women, the veil is a protective shield from such objectifying and, relatedly, from men’s sexual desire. It is a sign of moral purity and chastity that affords them greater respect from men. In its consideration of feminist ijtihad, this paper reflects on these issues in relation to the views of veiling offered by the four young women. In particular, it reflects on some of the problematics of aligning the veil and Islam with moral purity set against the immorality of Western culture in terms of how it assigns women with both the power and responsibility for containing men’s sexual urges and positions women’s bodies, rather than broader patriarchal processes of sexualization and men themselves, as a threat to morality (Eid).

The Research

The research presented in this paper is drawn from a broader study that explored issues of social justice in a culturally diverse secondary school in suburban Queensland. In particular, this study sought to highlight productive ways in which this school addressed cultural diversity and involved interviews with school personnel, students and the broader community. During the course of this research, I came across Aida and Yulia, the two 17-year-old girls whose voices appeared earlier. Given their marginalized religious identities, these girls had much to say in light of the study’s focus. Their participation led to a concerted emphasis on matters of Islam and gender and, more specifically, to exploring how these girls were experiencing being Muslim at school and in their broader community. Both girls are Sunni Muslims and were born in Australia. Aida’s heritage is Pakistani, while Yulia’s is Indonesian. The other two young women whose voices appear in this paper are ‘Sadira’ and ‘Jasmin’ both university students and 21-years old. Both are finalizing their Bachelor of Education degrees. Sadira’s background is Pakistani, while Jasmin’s is Fijian Indian. They have, like Aida and Yulia, been friends for many years. The study’s community focus and emphasis on matters of Islam and gender led me to inviting these young women to participate. Following a general recruiting process of contacting Muslim women’s organizations in the area of the school, a total of 16 women (aged between 17 and 40) agreed to participate in an interview. Most of these women were veiled and identified themselves as Sunni Muslims, but some did not mention their particular Islamic affiliation. I have selected the voices of Aida, Yulia, Sadira and Jasmin for discussion in this paper as they reflect the traits and aspirations of the younger members of this broader group (i.e. all were strong, intelligent, either in education or further education and aspiring to professional employment and all were highly committed to Islam and thoughtful in relation to articulating their agency within its tenets).

The data presented in this paper were derived from interviews with the young women (in pairs). Aida and Jasmin were interviewed three times at their school, while Sadira and Jasmin were interviewed twice (once at a café and once in a public library). The aim of these interviews (lasting approximately 60-90 min in duration) was to explore the young women’s thoughts and experiences about being Muslim in relation to, for example, their commitment to their faith, different interpretations of Islam, cultural and religious stereotypes, myths about Islam they would like to dispel and women’s empowerment and disempowerment within Islam. Reflective of their predominance in broader media and public discourse, there were particular issues that dominated our discussion. In relation to Islamophobia, and gendered Islamophobia, key topics were violence in relation to terrorism and veiling in relation to gender modesty. These topics worried the young women and were reflective of the concerns in their local Muslim community. The regular Islamophobic abuse and attacks from vandalism on mosques to the victimizing of Muslim women through hate mail and threatening phone calls indicated the ways in which broader discourses aligning Islam with violence and misogyny had taken hold within this community (Brodnik). The Muslim population in Brisbane is quite small at 10, 500 (Brisbane’s population is around 2.4 million) and while this population is highly diverse culturally, the vast majority, like the young women, are Sunni and reside in the southern suburbs and many (about one third) were born in Australia (Brisbane City Council).

The thoughts and experiences of the young women presented here are necessarily partial and fragmentary. They are not offered as representative texts that reflect any sense of generalizability in research terms other than their verisimilitude—their sense of resonance for others who may encounter or know of similar experiences. What the young women’s stories do offer is insight into an engagement in (feminist) ijtihad. Such was the key analytic drawn on for making sense of the data. With reference to the Muslim feminist literature presented earlier, this involved identifying within the young women’s stories, the Islamic principle of ijtihad and the practice of feminist ijtihad. It involved exploring how this principle supported the young women to understand and question the Islamophobic and gendered Islamophobic discourses in their lives in ways that fostered a sense of agency. Agency was conceptualized here as evident in the sense of presence (rather than absence) in the young women’s talk—and reflected in their take up of subject positions wherein they could speak and be heard and where they were the authors of ‘their own multiple meanings and desires’ (Davies, p. 66). The data analysis also involved identifying the potential problematics of the women’s take up of ijtihad in reproducing relations of inequity and disempowerment (Martino & Rezai-Rashti; Zine).

In attempting to represent these young women’s stories, I was, of course, highly conscious of my positioning as a feminist researcher of middle-class and Anglo-Australian heritage (who is also an atheist). I was conscious of the long held concerns articulated by minority women about research and writing about them conducted by members of dominant groups that have misrepresented their culture and religion (see Bhopal; Mohanty; Mirza). Such misrepresentations have reinforced the dominant trope of the oppressed Muslim woman and silenced or distorted these women’s equity priorities and spaces of empowerment. Reflective of the women-centred focus of feminist ijtihad, what I tried to do in my encounters with the young women was to privilege and centre their voices. I did my best here to create a context of connectedness, rapport and deference so that the young women felt comfortable to share their stories. While I referred in our interviews to the pre-determined areas (as detailed above), I encouraged the young women to elaborate on and explore issues and experiences that they felt were important and relevant. Along these lines, my representation of the women’s voices in the following sections tries to centre their authority in ways that foreground their priorities, concerns and interpretations (see Bhopal) about being a Muslim woman grappling with religious and gender oppressions. My representation is also heavily guided by the work of the Muslim feminist scholars whose critical insight is woven throughout this paper. In light of this framing, the following articulates the young women’s concerns about being ‘visually’ Muslim and the ways in which they referred to their faith as a central mechanism for responding to the Islamophobia and gendered Islamophobia in their lives (see Afshar, [NaN] ; Al-Hibri; Hussein; Wadud; Zine).

Islamophobia and the Principle of Ijtihad

Well because we’re visually Muslim, it feels like when you’re out in public, you can’t do the things you would normally do … because like if they see you acting stupid it will come back to your religion and they’ll say you’re an uneducated Muslim or whatever and I just feel like you can’t have a day off (Sadira).

Being ‘visually Muslim’, Islamophobia was a daily and inevitable struggle for all four women. The young women reported varying degrees of abuse from being directly challenged to explain misconstrued notions of their faith to being labelled a terrorist or extremist. Aida, for example, referred to ‘crude’ and ‘insulting’ 9/11 humour she experienced that blamed Muslims for terrorism and instances where fellow students called her ‘Sharia Aida’ and asked her if she had ‘joined’ yet. Jasmin expressed her annoyance at what she described as misconceptions directed to her about Islam such as: ‘Muslims are terrorists, Muslims are hostile, Muslims are rude, Muslims don’t know how to communicate’. All of the young women were aware of and commented on the hurtful, vengeful and violent messages in various online forums directed towards Muslims. Consistent with Sadira’s remarks above, the young women were highly conscious that their behaviour could be essentialized to represent all Muslims in a negative light (Zine). This burden of representation was encapsulated by Aida: ‘I think it comes down to, “oh, if a Muslim does it” then all of a sudden it’s the whole religion being blamed …’

As is well recognized, such essentializing of Islam and Muslims as dangerous and violent tends to reflect a ‘more deeply held perception that there is a strong divide between Islam and “the West”’ (Moosa, pp. 63, 64; see also Abu-Lughod). This divide encapsulates the view that Islam is inherently antithetical to Western liberalism—the West is associated with liberal values while Islam is associated with illiberal values. Such essentializing and binarizing has been thoroughly critiqued by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars (see Abu-Lughod; Joseph; Martino & Rezai-Rashti). In particular, it is regarded as highly problematic in ignoring the complexities and fluidities of identity and culture within and between these groups. While value disparities obviously do exist from the ideological standpoints of various forms of liberalism (e.g. secularism or feminism, for example) and Islam, it is spurious to assume that liberal or illiberal values can be assigned to a particular identity group. Moreover, it generates a belief that an individual’s loyalty to Islam necessarily negates loyalty to ‘the West’ or that one must choose or rank these loyalties (see Modood; Joseph). What seems evident in the young women’s remarks is their symbolism in these discourses. As Moosa argues (p. 64; see also Abu-Lughod; Khan), Muslim women are used as ‘markers in the debate, becoming a metaphorical category rather than a group of diverse women who themselves have individual and complex relationships with Islam, the West and liberalism’.

Referring to their faith was central to how the young women responded to this burden of representation (see Afshar, [NaN] ; Al-Hibri; Wadud; Zine). The young women expressed a strong commitment to their faith. Aida and Yulia, for example, spoke of being ‘proud’ to be Muslim. Aida referred to her Islamic ‘responsibility’ to be ‘educated’ and express ‘high regard for looking after the people around you’ while Yulia described the ‘whole point’ of Islam as ‘spreading peace’ and ‘showing you are a good person’. Jasmin spoke of loving Islam for the respect it shows women while Sadira loved its ‘simplicity’ and ‘whole community feel’ where she never felt alone. This commitment to their faith and their experiences as visually Muslim led the young women to challenge the negative essentialisms of Islamophobia in their lives (Zine). Consistent with Sadira’s comments above, all of the girls spoke of their efforts to regulate their behaviour to represent their faith in positive ways. All of the young women spoke of feeling a sense of responsibility to educate non-Muslims about their religion.

The young women were particularly keen to defend Islam as non-violent with reference to the Qur’an. Yulia noted, for example: ‘It says nowhere [in the Qur’an] that you [should] kill … the whole point is to spread peace’. She further stated in relation to violent extremism perpetuated by some Muslims in the name of Islam: it’s so sad, ‘cause in our religion, you are not even allowed to kill anyone … what the hell kind of Muslims are they?’ In Aida and Yulia’s view, these Muslims did not see their religion in total. As Yulia explained, they take ‘things out of context’. She further stated: [everything] can be taken out of context [and] … not interpret[ed] in the right way. Aida agreed that some Muslims ‘chose … like a line of the Qur’an’ that could be interpreted as advocating violence to ‘plan [a] whole plot thing around that one thing’. All of the young women noted the significance in Islam of respecting different interpretations of the Qur’an or hadiths. Aida explained for example: ‘there are so many places in the Qur’an where it says ‘your religion is for you and my religion is for me, and that’s how you should leave it with people’.

The young women’s critical examination of the different ways in which the Qur’an can be interpreted reflects the principle of ijtihad and its capacity to support a challenging of injustice. Their understandings of Islam can be seen as prioritizing the ‘true spirit’ of the Qur’an—the emulation of justice, harmony, moral responsibility and spiritual awareness (see Wadud). From this standpoint, Aida and Yulia challenge violent interpretations of Islam as inconsistent with the ideals of ‘spreading peace’ and ‘looking after the people around you’ and as ‘taken out of context’ (Ahmed; Barlas; Wadud). In line with the principle of ijtihad, these young women recognize and value the notion that there are multiple interpretations of Islam. However, and consistent with the practice of feminist ijtihad, it is the precepts of peace and harmony, as the ‘true spirit’ of the Qur’an, that inform their critical evaluation of these interpretations (see Wadud).

For Aida, however, in relation to violent interpretations of her faith, this allowance for ijtihad was something she found unsettling:

I don’t know it’s so hard to have this conversation … I was having this exact kind of like talk with ‘John’ [fellow student] … he always asks me how I can say that those people who have interpreted the Qur’an in a different way [are] wrong? And it really stumps me. I’ve no idea how I can say that they’re wrong … why can’t I respect their beliefs and be like that’s YOUR opinion? But I feel like that’s because they’re invading like … other people’s beliefs, and they want to live peacefully, you want to kill, that’s not how to co-exist … I think that’s where you draw the line…

In these comments, Aida is struggling with how to respect the principle of ijtihad in terms of its allowance of flexibility and multiplicity of Qur’anic interpretations. As her earlier remarks point out, the Qur’an supports such differentiation when it says that ‘your religion is for you and my religion is for me’ but she is unsettled by interpretations that she disagrees with. Here again, the Qur’anic principles of peace, harmony and justice support her to reconcile this struggle. From this standpoint, she interprets violence as a possible interpretation of the Qur’an but one that ‘invad[es] other people’s beliefs’ and desire ‘to live peacefully’ and thus is a ‘wrong’ interpretation given the broader endeavour in Islam to generate harmonious co-existence and to be universally beneficial (Ahmed; Barlas; Wadud).

Hijabophobia and the Practice of Feminist Ijtihad

As indicated earlier, the young women felt constantly under surveillance and judged because of their headscarves. In public, as the opening story to this paper indicates, fear that they would be a target for abuse meant (for Aida and Yulia) subduing their behaviour so as not to draw attention to themselves. The hijabophobia (Hamzeh) the young women encountered ranged from ignorant questions (such as fellow students asking Yulia, ‘are you bald under there [the veil]? Do you wear it in the shower?’) and assumptions that they were refugees, could not speak English or were uneducated, to strong verbal abuse like that described in the previous section (see Poynting & Noble). Certainly, it seemed that the girls’ religious identities were often reduced to the visual representation of the hijab as a symbol of otherness (Hamzeh; Hussein; Mernissi).

Given their experiences of hijabophobia, the young women were keen to talk about veiling in our conversations. While not an uncomplicated or seamless process, like many Australian Muslim women, all spoke of freely taking up the practice of veiling in their teenage years as a religious commitment that signified their strength (see Hussein). They also explained their veiling as distinguishing them from non-Muslim girls. In this respect, they were situated by others, as well as situating themselves, outside of an idealized Western femininity (see Zine). Aida noted, for example (and Yulia agreed), that they would ‘be with a different group of friends at school’ if they didn’t wear the veil. Yulia expressed the view that they were ‘perceived’ differently and they would be friends with the ‘popular girls’ who are part of the ‘drinking, clubbing and party culture’ if they didn’t wear the veil. For Sadira and Jasmin, their practice of veiling was a more explicit statement against an ‘idealised’ Western femininity—it was more a way of morally distancing themselves from the sexual permissiveness and objectification of women in the West (see Bulbeck; Hoodfar). These young women were particularly critical of non-Muslim girls who they felt put their bodies on display and incited (in Jasmin’s words) ‘dirty’ and ‘rusty’ comments from boys and men that ‘cheapened them’. For Jasmin covering up created a ‘safety barrier’ from the ‘male species’ many of whom just wanted sex; it was a means of ‘not worrying about’ such things and ‘not relying on men’ or ‘outside eyes’ to ‘tell her [she is] pretty’. For Sadira, the veil meant that the boys and men she encountered could focus more on her ‘personality’ rather than sexuality. She explained with reference to a male friend:

… he [does say] ‘you are pretty’ [or] ‘you do have a good body but you don’t show it off’ [but] he won’t categorise me like with the other girls … because you know they wear really low tops and their chest hangs out and they wear tights or miniskirts and he kind of won’t generalise me like them, he’ll be more respectful of how I look and the way that he talks to me and says things about me.

The veil is clearly seen here as a refuge from the ‘male gaze’ and as a statement against Western ideals of female sexuality (see Bullock; Eid; Hoodfar). While no doubt empowering for the reasons the young women offer, there is also a sense of disempowerment in these remarks. The veil-as-resistance or empowerment discourse (see Bullock) clearly challenges the dominant discourse that aligns it with Muslim women’s oppression. However, the views Sadira and Jasmin express play into another discourse of oppression. Jasmin’s view is that the veil prevents boys and men cheapening her while Sadira’s view is that it avails her more respect from boys and men. In both realities, the young women are catering to and acting within male-centred norms and expectations—their bodies and sexuality are disciplined within and thereby reinforce these norms (Zine). The onus of responsibility for avoiding sexual harassment and attaining gender respect is on them rather than on boys and men (Eid).

Jasmin and Sadira do not seem to be aware of the paradox and contradictions in their views—Jasmin states that the veil means that she does not need to ‘rely on men’ to tell her she is pretty and Sadira that it enables a shift away from boys focusing on her sexuality. However, in both cases, contradicting the sense of agency in their statements, there is not only deference to the male gaze, but also a reinscription of the objectification of Muslim women (as needing protection from the ‘male species’ to use Jasmin’s words). There is, moreover, a sense of reductionism here in terms of the young women’s construction of men and boys as unable to control their sexual urges and whose relations with women and girls are, at a basic level, wholly sexual. In this respect, and consistent with the research of Eid, the young women are reinforcing the gendered power relations they are trying to disrupt. Threats to morality lie, for these women, with their bodies, rather than broader patriarchal processes of sexualization and men themselves (Eid). They are also reinforcing the false dichotomy between the West and Islam with their essentializing of non-Muslim (i.e. Western) girls as sexually available on the basis of their revealing clothing and Muslim girls as sexually chaste on the basis of their non-revealing clothing. For both Sadira and Jasmin, and again deferring responsibility for sexual harassment away from boys and men, it seems that the revealing clothing of non-Muslim girls justifiably leads to them being seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘cheap’ and perhaps less deserving (as suggested in Sadira’s remarks) of respect (see Eid). Such comments infer an immoral/moral binary and the sense of moral ascendancy these young women take up in relation to their veiling practices.

Further contentions were apparent in relation to the young women’s accounts of the behaviour of Muslim boys and men. They all commented on the double standards they observed in their community that meant that boys and men could behave how they liked in their sexual and social relations while girls were expected to be the epitome of modesty—as Aida stated in relation to the Islamic tenets of gender modesty and respect: ‘… [Muslim boys] are definitely not allowed to [disrespect women] in the religion … you’ve got to respect the woman … guys have to do that but … Muslim boys are just crazy, they don’t follow it’. Along similar lines, Sadira and Jasmin referred to many Muslim boys who were promiscuous and weren’t ‘choosey’ about who they slept with, ‘they just go for it’, according to Jasmin. Both young women referred to this double standard as cultural not religious, as Sadira stated: ‘if the parents found out that [their] daughter was sleeping around compared to [their] son it would be so much worse for the daughter’.

Jasmin explained that such differing cultural expectations arose through girls and women being constructed as jewels who lost their value when they lost their chastity:

Girls are seen as like the jewel and once you chip a diamond it loses its value … you know a boy can be as grubby as he wants and do whatever he wants and at the end of the day he will find a wife … but if a woman does that, if she is dented, if she is chipped, if she has a label to her name, it then becomes difficult to kind of erase that …

Like Sadira, Jasmin referred to the gravity of cultural and parental influence in upholding these attitudes. She explained this as a matter of honour and reputation that fell to Muslim girls and women—that a ‘dented’ or ‘chipped’ jewel (i.e. a girl/woman who wasn’t a virgin) would ruin another family’s reputation should she marry into it. Sadira also challenged the double standards associated with divorce, as she stated: divorced Muslim women are ‘seen as less’, like ‘something [is] wrong’ with them, ‘they’ve got baggage’. In the view of both these young women in relation to these sorts of issues, ‘men got it so easy’.

Such critique of the double standards that play out in the young women’s lives in relation to gender and sexual behaviour reflects an engagement in feminist ijtihad. Firm in the knowledge that men and women in Islam are equally expected to observe the Islamic tenets for gender modesty and respect, the young women are able to challenge and problematize the failure of Muslim boys and men to observe these tenets and the failure of others to hold them to account to these tenets (Afshar; Mir-Hosseini). From this standpoint, the young women see the double standard as not founded in religion but, rather, culture. They can, as reflected in feminist ijtihad, challenge the injustices of this double standard by separating inappropriate (or oppressive) customary or cultural practices from religious practices in relation to gender modesty (Barlas; Wadud). In distinguishing culture from religion in this regard, the young women draw attention to, and prompt a challenging of, the onus of responsibility that befalls to women in this respect. Unlike the earlier remarks from Sadira and Jasmin, these latter comments challenge the cultural expectations that align their sexual chastity with the honour and reputation of their family while no such alignment exists for boys and men who can be as ‘grubby’ as they like with no recourse in terms of damage to family reputation—as Sadira notes, while women are seen as less in this equation, men get it ‘so easy’. As in the work of Read and Bartkowski, the young women thus seem to recognize that likening women to jewels that lose their value if dented or chipped when no such likening is apparent for men supports a ‘double standard’ that undermines their agency.


Being a Muslim woman in a Western context such as Australia brings with it many difficulties and challenges. The instances of Islamophobia and hijabophobia described in this paper are far from uncommon in the lives of women like Aida, Yulia, Sadira and Jasmin—they reflect the daily race, gender and religious-based discrimination that come with being visually Muslim. The bodies and sexuality of Muslim women continue to be used as symbols within broader debates polarizing the West and Islam. Within a binary that associates the West with liberal values and Islam with illiberal values, Muslim women are essentialized as an oppressed group in need of saving from an inherently patriarchal and oppressive religion. The endurance of such views highlights the imperative of improving knowledge and understandings about Islamic teachings and values particularly in relation to gender. It also highlights the imperative of listening to Muslim women and girls who tend to be silenced in such debates. Clearly, as this paper has highlighted, there is much insight to be gained through greater attention in this space to the work of Muslim feminist scholars in relation to the utility of the principle of ijtihad and the practice of feminist ijtihad in supporting Muslim women and girls to challenge the injustices and oppressions in their lives. (Feminist) ijtihad was a practice that resonated with the ways in which the young Muslim women featured in this paper understood and questioned the Islamophobic and gendered Islamophobic discourses in their lives. This practice fostered a sense of agency for these young women—it enabled their sense of presence and authorized their own ways of being in relation to issues of gender and Islam.

The young women’s challenging of views that associate Islam with violence reflected the principle of ijtihad. Consistent with this principle, they accepted that there are multiple interpretations of Islam and particular Qur’anic verses and that their fellow Muslims are entitled to hold different interpretations. However, in prioritizing the ‘true spirit’ of the Qur’an, they were able to critique and challenge interpretations of Islam inconsistent with or compromizing of the ideals of this spirit, which is to emulate justice, equity, harmony, moral responsibility and spiritual awareness.

Such precepts also informed the young women’s accounts of their veiling practices. Resonating with their sense of moral responsibility and spiritual awareness, the young women explained these practices as empowering and symbolizing their religious commitment, gender modesty and sexual chastity. The ways in which such accounts counteracted simplistic misconceptions that associate the veil with women’s disempowerment, exemplified the practice of feminist ijtihad. Feminist ijtihad was also exemplified in the young women critique of the inequity and unfairness of the double standards in their lives where Muslim boys and men are free to behave as they wish in their sexual and social relations while girls’ and women’s sexual and social relations as they are tied to the honour and reputation of their families are subject to surveillance, control and punishment. This critique was possible through the young women’s knowledge that men and women in Islam are equally expected to observe the tenets for gender modesty and respect. With these tenets in mind, the young women could see the cultural basis of both the sexual permissiveness and freedom allowed to Muslim boys and men and the sexual restrictiveness of equating Muslim women’s value with their sexuality chastity. They could thus challenge the onus of responsibility for sexual chastity and honour that fell to them in terms of gender modesty rather than to Muslim boys and men.

Such engagements in feminist ijtihad clearly support these young women’s sense of agency and empowerment. They engender an understanding and challenging of the Islamophobic and hijabophobic discourses in their lives, opening up alternative and more just ways of thinking and being for them. However, as this paper illustrated, there are problematics that can arise from engagement in feminist ijtihad. The process of Muslim women reclaiming authority over their lives is complicated—especially given the ethnic and cultural diversity of Muslim women and their complex and varied relations with Islam and with Muslim and non-Muslim communities (Abu-Lughod).

These complexities aside, what this paper highlighted in relation to feminist ijtihad was the ways in which it could play into and reinscribe harmful essentialisms within gender (male/female) and ethno-cultural (West/Islam) binaries. This reinscription was particularly apparent in the young women’s views on veiling. For Sadira and Jasmin, in particular, the veil was explained as an empowering religious symbol and relatedly a refuge from the ‘male gaze’. In deferring to the male gaze, however, empowerment was constructed within male-centred norms and expectations thus endorsing the view that the onus of responsibility for avoiding sexual harassment and attaining gender respect should be on Muslim women and girls and reinscribing the notion that Muslim women need protection from Muslim men who are unable to control their sexual urges. While seen to be empowering, these views clearly reinforce the burden of representation in Islam that positions women as guardians of faith and honour and that brings about the gender double standards the young women complain about.

In their views on veiling as a statement against Western ideals of female sexuality, these young women reinscribed further gender as well as ethno-cultural essentialisms. In effect, Sadira and Jasmin positioned non-Muslim (i.e. Western) girls as sexually available on the basis of their revealing clothing and Muslim girls as sexually chaste on the basis of their non-revealing clothing. As such they again placed the onus of responsibility for sexual harassment on women and girls as well as attributing gender disrespect to the wearing of revealing clothing. This mobilizing of feminist ijtihad plays into gender and ethnic/religious essentialisms within an immoral/moral binary where these young women position themselves with moral ascendancy. Again, such views affirm their positioning within Islam as guardians of faith and honour. These views also affirm and render unproblematic the broader patriarchal processes that sexualize and objectify all women—processes that Sadira and Jasmin clearly object to (Eid). It is interesting that this form of agency was more pronounced with the two older women, which suggests that matters of maturity in terms of gender and sexual relations may be worth exploring further in relation to young Muslim women’s mobilizing of feminist ijtihad.

In Western contexts such as Australia, especially since 9/11, girls and women by virtue of their Muslim appearance continue to bear the brunt of Islamophobia and hijabophobia. Despite the injustices and discriminations of these discourses, there has been a rise in Muslim communities of faith-based affiliations as there has been a rise in the veiling practices of Muslim girls and women. This paper has argued the imperative of listening to the voices of Muslim girls and women who are challenging Islamophobic and hijabophobic discourses. The Islamic principle of ijtihad and the practice of feminist ijtihad are powerful tools in supporting Muslim women to find spaces of agency within these discourses. There is a clear warrant for supporting Muslim girls and women to access these tools given the burden of representation they are experiencing as visually Muslim and given that they are particularly subject to gender and religious oppressions. There is also, of course, a clear warrant for supporting Muslim boys and men to access these tools and to educate non-Muslim communities as to their utility. To be sure, ijtihad and feminist ijtihad are not unproblematic or uncontentious in their potential to reinscribe harmful gender and ethno-cultural binaries. However, to refer back to Aida and Yulia’s critique of interpretations of Islam that compromise others’ beliefs and desires to live and coexist peacefully, such problematics might usefully begin to be reconciled by referring to the ‘true spirit’ of the Qur’an and its imperative for all to emulate justice, equity, harmony and moral responsibility.