speech Els Van Hoof

29 May 2017, Brussels

Islam & feminism – Sherin Khankan

Speech Els Van Hoof


Dear ladies and gentlemen, 

I am honoured to welcome you today to this debate about islam and feminism.

I will keep this speech short, because I’m sure you are all waiting to hear from our honourable guest this evening, imam Sherin Khankan. Nevertheless I want to let you know why we decided to organise this event.  

At the end of the 19th century a fierce debate erupted in the Middle East about the position women should hold in society. One of the prominent voices in the debate was the Egyptian jurist Qassim Amin, who criticized veiling, the physical segregation between men and women, early marriage, and lack of education of Muslim women.  Those customs were the reason for the backwardness of Islamic societies he said. Amin blamed traditional Muslims for Egyptian women's oppression, saying that the Quran rather supported women's rights. His beliefs were often supported by Quranic verses. Qasim Amin has been historically viewed as one of the Arab world's "first feminists".

And although his manifesto in 1899 marked the beginning of feminism in Arab culture, it was also subject to controversy because it served nationalistic purposes. Amin believed that heightening a women's status in society would greatly improve the nation. Egyptian women were the backbone of a strong nationalistic people and therefore their roles in society should drastically change to better the Egyptian nation

Why am I telling you this? Because it shows that already a century ago, men in Europe and the Middle East were using women for political purposes. In demarcating and controlling women’s lives, often justified through religion and societal norms, men asserted power on society as a whole.

Over a century later, things haven’t changed that much in this regard. In Belgium liberal partyleaders are writing books  about the superiority of our culture to Islamic culture. Nationalistic partyleaders are misusing women’s rights to serve xenophobic discourses and are debating about an non-existing problem as wearing a burqini, considering the lack of tropical beaches and sunshine in this country. Let it be clear that introducing another law on how women should or shouldn’t dress will not be helpful. Nor is it helpful if a father, brother or son tells a woman how to dress.

As a women, and as the president of the largest political women’s movement in the country I’m telling you… : We have had enough of a discourse in which not the well-being of women is really the big issue but the stigmatisation of Muslims. As a women’s movement we should not fall in that trap. We will no longer let us be divided and ruled upon. We will no longer be employed as a means to serve other agendas. We demand that in this society, the best possible context is created within which women can make fully independent choices. We focus on what connects us and on mutual challenges, instead of on what divides us. Instead of debating on the burqini, we want to empower women to interpret religion in their own way…. Instead of pondering about jihadi-brides, we want to start the debate about how to include Muslim women on the labour market, veiled or unveiled. It’s their free will that counts.  As a society, we need to create the optimal circumstances so women can make conscious and free decisions. 

What is the right way to go?

We want to promote a European Islam as an answer to radical and traditional Islam. The clash of civilisations will continue if one stays attached to traditions that undermine democratic values, the rule of law, freedom of speech and gender equality. Traditions have to be reshaped and interpreted to fit western society. We take a critical stance to those who divide the world into Islam and the West because we think that Islam and democracy are compatible, the same is true for women’s rights and Islam. The active role that women have played in the history of Islam has to be unveiled because it empowers Muslim women. A feminist interpretation of Islam could make an end to islamophobia. A feminist reading of the Koran also tackles radical Islam and their dogmatic interpretation of the Koran. There is no true version of Islam, religious multiplicity and active pluralism is our starting point.

To talk about alternative interpretations of Islam and religious multiplicity we invited one of the few female imam’s that exist around the world. Sherin Khankan has a remarkable track record when it comes down to giving Muslim women more power. How can we achieve a feminist reading of the Koran? How do we evolve towards more female leadership within religions such as Islam? When you want to get rid of patriarchal structures, you don’t ask for permission I suppose. Power needs to be seized, you don’t ask for it. I am convinced that Sherin Khankan will inspire us to think about these questions. Because these are the real questions that deserve an answer.

Ramadan mabrouk!

Thank you.