ABC's Religion and Ethics has an interesting article by Rachel Woodlock on Orientalism and perspectives on Muslim women:
"It is precisely because Western Orientalists were refused access to the inner sanctum of the harem that they made up the most fanciful tales, and that the feminine in Islam is still the most poorly understood and misrepresented of all femininities.
This is not to say that feminism has no place in the Muslim world - far from it. From the earliest days of Islam, women and their supporters have been battling misogyny and oppression, from both within and without.
Nor is modern feminism necessarily a Western "import" into the Muslim world. The brilliantly inspiring Nana Asma'u (d.1864), for example, initiated a massive campaign of education and female leadership in northern Nigeria. And while second-wave Western feminism only really captured the attention of secular elites in the Muslim world, there also exists a strong Muslim feminist movement that reclaims the right to draw inspiration from Islamic textual and historical sources, to challenge patriarchal strictures on their lives.
The tale of Hagar is told through Islamic traditions and her search for life-saving water is re-enacted and celebrated by every Muslim who completes their life-time's obligation of performing the hajj. It is perhaps the only example of a woman-initiated ritual from any of the world's great religions that is obligatory for both men and women
Hagar is not the only female role-model to which all Muslims, men and women, look for inspiration. There is Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, who makes liars out of those who claim Muslim women cannot be leaders (Qur'an 27:23-44).
The Yemenis claim Bilqis as their own, along with the much-beloved Queen Arwa (d.1138). The latter, known as a wise and just ruler, is as fondly recalled today as ever before, something I discovered for myself when I visited Yemen in 2002.
There is Jochabed, the mother of Moses, who was given divine inspiration and strength from God (28:7-13).
There is Asiya, long-suffering wife of Pharaoh, who adopted and protected Moses. She was tortured and finally martyred by Pharaoh, but given a paradisiacal reward by God (66:11). Islamic tradition holds her as one of the most holy women in human history.
Then there is the pre-eminent Mary, mother of Jesus, after whom a whole chapter (19) of the Qur'an is named. She was brought up in the holy of holies, under the guardianship of Zechariah, and miraculously supplied with provisions (3:35-37).
Then we have Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (d.801), one of the greatest Sufi teachers of all time, known for developing a theology of selfless love for God; Imam Shafi'i's teacher Nafisa (d.824), who was so highly respected and honoured, that the eponymous founder of Islam's second-largest school of law asked her to perform his funeral prayer; and the various women that inspired one of the greatest Islamic thinkers to have lived - Ibn 'Arabi (d.1240)."
You can read the full article here.