XXIX.6 November - December 2022
Page: 6
Digital Citation

Breaking stereotypes: Islamic feminism and HCI

Hawra Rabaan, Lynn Dombrowski

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As HCI matures into a richer discipline interlacing with the humanities and social sciences, there has been a growing consciousness to embrace pluralist [1] and intersectional approaches in understanding and addressing systems of oppression within computing [2]. Islamic feminism and intersectional feminism are highly complementary approaches to understanding oppression and power. While both focus on gender, each brings its distinct attention to how gendered violence manifests. In research, Islamic feminism is a theoretical, analytic, and design lens to understand and attend to the needs of Muslim women. Beyond being useful for understanding issues that only Muslim women face, as a theoretical approach it expands how we understand agency, sheds light on the historical and sociocultural contexts, and explores design around cherished and socially familiar values [3,4]. This article calls for expanding HCI feminist theories to account for nonsecular and non-Western contexts, and answers the following questions: 1) What is Islamic feminism? 2) Why should we as academics care about it? and 3) How can we bring it into HCI research and design?

back to top  What is Islamic Feminism?

Islamic feminism scholarship, similarly to mainstream Western feminism, centers studying gender and systems of power and oppression. Primarily, Islamic feminism differs from mainstream feminism in 1) its perception of religion and 2) its definitions of agency and resistance. While there are many dangerous tropes portraying Islam as anti-female empowerment or as patriarchal, within Islamic feminism, Islam is viewed as feminist for several key reasons. Islamic feminists see Islam as a way to promote social justice and equity; however, Islamic feminists are critical of orthodox interpretations of Islamic texts and cultural praxis and often position them as the sources of patriarchal beliefs [5]. Thus, Islamic feminist scholars—Amina Wadud, Husein Muhammad, and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, among others—have worked extensively and continue to produce alternative interpretations of sacred texts to challenge the patriarchal elements in Islamic jurisprudence and shift the paradigm of religious authority. For example, verse 4:34 is commonly used by religious scholars to promote wife-beating, whereas Islamic feminist scholars interpret the verse to encourage temporary separation and reflection. The interpretation is inferred from a holistic Quranic stance on spousal relations rather than verbatim explanations, concluding its focus on respect, reconciliation, and justice, and consequently opposing harm and violence [4].

Islamic feminists are critical of orthodox interpretations of Islamic texts and cultural praxis.

The second dispute between mainstream feminism and Islamic feminism is how agency is defined and identified. In mainstream feminism, agency is fundamentally based on the liberal political theory's concept of freedom, where an autonomous will is fulfilled through "universal reason," unburdened by tradition, customs, or transcendental will. Islamic feminists view this definition of free will as limited; instead, agency is not just about a person's capacity, but rather about how societal, economic, and political structures create and reinforce conditions, cultural norms, possibilities, and oppression around gender [6]. In Islamic feminist thought, resistance and agency are often inseparable and extend agency to include nonresistive actions. For example, a woman in an abusive relationship patiently remaining married is an autonomous choice made within layered constraints that takes time, careful consideration, and effort [4]. Another form of agency that Western feminists regularly overlook is religious agency, which consists of acts grounded in religious beliefs—to adhere to a transcendental power (i.e., their God) rather than to the abusive figure or patriarchal norms. Lastly, using an Islamic feminist lens reveals more depth of the human experience. It urges us to practice greater empathy and reduce harm by acknowledging and working within the practical conditions influencing participants' autonomy.

back to top  Why and When to Use Islamic Feminism?

The HCI community centers diversity, equity, and inclusion. Islamic feminism provides tools to conduct justice-oriented research and design, where participants are not "othered" or looked down upon, where we value our participants' voices and build upon community assets and values. As HCI scholars, we call for us to turn inward and surface the biases we may have as researchers and designers, to find and routinely use tools to help us overcome our biases, and to bring about the progressive change we seek as academics and global citizens.


As the field continues to broaden its reach and impact, the problem-solving standpoint familiar to the HCI community must shift. By using an Islamic feminist approach, we strive to provide implications and design within the context of entangled political and cultural norms, rather than eradicate those norms or perceive our user as a passive victim [4].

back to top  How to Use Islamic Feminism In HCI

We leave you with three takeaways on how to begin following an Islamic feminist approach in HCI:

  • Do not take on a savior complex, orientalize, or deem cultures as less than the West. When approaching social issues that concern sensitive problems and vulnerable populations, be diligently cautious of causing more harm, whether it's in perpetuating stereotypes, interacting biasedly, or superficially tackling the problem.
  • View practicing agency as culturally and historically specific. It is the researcher's job to acutely understand the practical conditions and sociohistorical processes contributing to participants' autonomy. Such lenses are essential within all roles of research: problem formulation, analysis, implications and design, and research evaluation [7].
  • Call for empowerment from within the participants' structure, by designing around cherished, internalized, and socially familiar values when evaluating current technologies or providing implications for future inclusive designs [3]. Include norms beyond social impositions and focus on the participants' cultural dimensions, historical developments, and different ideas of justice.

While it goes without saying that Muslims are not a homogeneous group, portraying Islam as a violent religion or Muslim women as passively oppressed is inexcusably prevalent within the broader society and this unfortunate stereotype has not escaped the academic realm.

We have faith in our community and the future of inclusive technologies. When in doubt, connect with fellow Muslim scholars or groups such as the IslamicHCI group [8], who will be open to sharing their insights when needed. We can do better, HCI!

back to top  References

1. Bardzell, S. Feminist HCI: Taking stock and outlining an agenda for design. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2010, 1301–1310.

2. Rankin, Y.A. and Thomas, J.O. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 64–68.

3. Alsheikh, T., Rode, J.A., and Lindley, S.E. (Whose) value-sensitive design: A study of long-distance relationships in an Arabic cultural context. Proc. of the ACM 2011 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, New York, 2011, 75–84.

4. Rabaan, H., Young, A.L., and Dombrowski, L. Daughters of men: Saudi women's sociotechnical agency practices in addressing domestic abuse. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 4, CSCW3 (2021), 1–31.

5. McDonald, L. Islamic feminism. Feminist Theory 9, 3 (2008), 347–354;

6. Mahmood, S. Feminist theory, agency, and the liberatory subject: Some reflections on the Islamic revival in Egypt. Temenos-Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 42, 1 (2006).

7. We would like to take the opportunity to express our gratitude to the CSCW reviewers who pushed our work into maturation by providing constructive criticism and actionable feedback.

8. Members of the group can be reached at [email protected]

back to top  Authors

Hawra Rabaan is a Ph.D. candidate in human-computer interaction at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis's School of Informatics and Computing. Her work combines social work and HCI by focusing on examining sociotechnical practices in response to domestic violence and designing for countering domestic violence within the Muslim community through a transformative justice lens. [email protected]

Lynn Dombrowski is an associate professor in the human-centered computing department in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She runs the Design Justice Lab, where she studies, designs, and evaluates computational systems focused on social inequity issues with her students. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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