SPbU Graduate Shares her Insights on her Doctoral Research on Islamic feminism

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Natalia Tambieva, a graduate of St Petersburg University, theologian, and Islamic scholar, speaks about what Islamic feminism is, how decolonial feminist theories develop, and her PhD dissertation on ‘Islamic feminism in the context of the modern history of Russia.’

On asked about how she decided to choose this research topic, Natalia says, “My research interest is intrinsically linked with my everyday practices of being a Muslim woman and part of the Muslim community of St Petersburg, and liaising with women’s Muslim organizations in other regions of Russia. I wanted to apply the scientific method to study the status of women in Islam and various approaches in addressing this issue. Studying sources on the topic, I discovered that there is such a school of thought – Islamic feminism.”

She continues to elaborate on what Islamic feminism is and where the concept originates from. “Islamic feminism – as a term and a school of thought – emerged in the 1980s in the US academe. The representatives of this school of thought are Islamic scholars, Muslim women who emigrated to the United States from various countries of the Muslim world, received secular education, and earned academic degrees,” she explains.

“However, the ideas and concepts of Islamic feminism can be found in the works of Islamic modernists – Muhammad Abduh, Qasim Amin, and Tahar Haddad – as early as the end of the 19th century. Later, these ideas were supported by the 20th and 21st-century scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, Adis Duderija and others,” Natalia adds.

“The term ‘Islamic feminism’ was advocated by a researcher from Georgetown University, Margot Badran. By and large, Islamic feminism is a response to the ideas of liberal feminism, which is defined by its focus on achieving gender equality through the rejection of religious and ethnic identity. Islamic feminism is one of the decolonial feminist theories,” she explains.

On Islamic feminism shaping overseas, Natalia says, “In addition to theological work, Islamic feminists overseas are engaged in scholarly and research activities in areas related to theology. ”

She goes on to cite that, “Muslim women in Denmark opened the women’s Mariam mosque in Copenhagen, which has only female imams. It may appear as an ordinary women’s Islamic center, but this is more than that. It is a female-led mosque, where Friday prayers are led by a female imam, who also conducts weddings, as well as divorces. This could have never happened in a traditional mosque.”

“Another example is from Berlin, where the Ibn RushdGoethe Mosque was inaugurated in 2017. It is the only self-described liberal mosque in Germany. In this gender-equal mosque, women and men pray together and women are not obligated to wear a headscarf. The mosque is open to Sunni, Shia and other Muslims and it accepts LGBT worshippers. Its founder, Seyran Ateş, advocates for voluntary circumcision upon reaching adulthood and makes efforts to address the problem of early marriage. These are the most striking examples,” she adds.

Natalia has received both religious and secular education which she says has helped her in her work. “The bachelor’s degree program at Moscow Islamic Institute was designed in such a way that, while religious disciplines were most prominent in the curriculum, we also studied secular subjects, such as the history of Russia and philosophy. This gave me a good foundation for continuing my education at St Petersburg University,” says Natalia.

“While studying for a master’s degree, I had to switch from theological discourse to secular. However, the postgraduate program ‘The History and Culture of Islam’ allowed me to combine theological and historical methods.”

“The topic of my research is ‘Islamic feminism in the context of the modern history of Russia.’ I explore Islamic feminism in the Muslim community in Russia. As a St Petersburg University master’s student and then postgraduate student, I was able to study the history of the issue in detail and conduct ethnographic research. My thesis also contains a practical part, represented by a series of in-depth interviews with women’s rights activists from the Muslim community of St Petersburg. Also, to defend a dissertation in theology, I will need to focus on the theological component of the research,” she adds.

“The very concept of ‘Islamic feminism’ is inextricably linked with the idea of renovation in Islam and neo-modernist Islamic thought. As I already mentioned, the researchers of Islamic feminism are part of both theological and secular discourses. Professor Mukhetdinov is my research supervisor, and he also published a few articles on Islamic feminism. In fact, on his advice, I found many interesting works,” Natalia says.

On being asked if she envisions being the first female theologian to earn a doctorate, she says, “I do not like to get ahead of myself, but if everything goes well, I do hope to defend my PhD thesis in theology at St Petersburg University. The successful defense of the first dissertation in Islamic theology gives me confidence. I may say that this sphere is very important to me. I can see there are real prospects for the future.”