October 24, 2015
A few weeks ago I was drawn to the launch of a new project by the group Maslaha on the topic of Islam and Feminism. Maslaha, which means ‘for the common good’ in Arabic, is a social enterprise that strives to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between non-Muslims and Muslims so that, instead of current negative stereotypes, Islam ‘becomes synonymous with social justice, compassion, and creativity’. To coincide with International Women’s Day and World History Month this March, they launched a new website www.islamandfeminism.org to explore the relationship between these two, supposedly conflicting, identities, creating a wonderful archive of Muslim women’s contributions to female emancipation in the Middle East and around the world. The website makes for fascinating reading, telling the stories of diverse women’s activists from Egyptian founder of the Muslim Women’s Association Zaynab al-Ghazali born in 1917, to British artist Hannah Habibi Hopkin exhibiting in London almost a hundred years later.
Whilst I think this work by Maslaha is incredibly positive, stimulating and engaging, I can’t, however, say the same for the public response. Ordinarily I am all for a big debate, as a healthy and enjoyable expression of democratic ideals. Of course I’m a feminist, so I love a big argument, right? So I was confused by my unwillingness to get involved in the debate that ensued following the launch of this online resource – perhaps I am getting old, losing my youthful, strident flare that characterised many a drunk night and almost ruined many a friendship of my uni days. Or perhaps it’s because the debate that ensued, about whether or not you can even be a feminist if you are Muslim, fits into an increasingly large category of feminist debates that are becoming, quite simply, tedious. These are the ‘Can you be a feminist IF…’ dialogues, and every week a new one will be unfolding across my Twitter feed…IF you are a man, IF you shave your pubes, IF you love Beyonce, and now, not for the first time, IF you are a Muslim.
These debates are irritating because they construe feminism almost as if it has a restricted-access door policy, which not only plays into stereotypes of feminism as being the chosen identity of hairy, belligerent, angry (white) lesbians, but also puts people, young women in particular, off from engaging with the movement. The amount of times someone has said to me, ‘well I guess I’m too girly to be a feminist’ or ‘feminism doesn’t really speak to me, I’m more for equality for everyone’, like that’s not what feminism is, and too often these portraits of feminism as a closed off cult suspicious of intruders haven’t been painted from the outside but come from within the feminist movement itself. These debates about the supposed rules of the group, on who’s out and who’s in, do so much of the work of misogyny because people who are still in the process of working out their identities are immediately made to think that their views won’t be accepted, and they come to reject what is seen as dogmatic. As Hannah, the contributor to islamandfeminism.org, states ‘feminism should not be an exclusive club.’ So lets get this straight – it IS not an exclusive club, it does not have a door policy. It is a form of identity, and like all identities it is fluid, contested, and ultimately your own. People are so quick to suggest that there is a criteria for being a feminist but actually, bar being a misogynist or acting in cahoots with patriarchy, I would like to go out on a limb here and suggest that there isn’t actually any criteria at all. I identify as a feminist because I care passionately about opposing the patriarchy that I see all around me and because I have chosen to identify as one – it is ultimately my choice, a label that I give myself and a badge I am proud to wear, and not one that needs any validation or verification from anyone else. Likewise we should stop acting as if we are in any position to give verification to anyone else. I might, for example, view prostitution as structural violence against women and I might disagree with someone who argues that it is a source of empowerment for women exploiting patriarchy for their own financial gain, but I would never have the audacity to say she or he is not a feminist if that’s how they identify. And I would certainly never have the audacity to ask if a Muslim woman can even be a feminist.
Far too often though people make this point or ask this question entirely without irony or shame. It comes back to back to that image of Muslim women that we are spoon fed by the press as timid, meek, voiceless, always oppressed and forever victimised. It’s become so entrenched that even when a Muslim woman stands up boldly, perhaps in hijab, perhaps not, and declares herself the agent of her own life and maker of her own choices, the fallback response is ‘oh but she just isn’t even aware of her oppression, poor thing doesn’t even know that her decisions were actually made by someone else’. It staggers me, the arrogance of it. And the thing is, the people who hold these kind of views are, and I’m willing to bet on this, people who have probably never even engaged in a real conversation with a Muslim woman. Because there is no way you could watch an impassioned lecture lead by a fiery 20 something-year-old university student wearing a hijab on the empowerment she gets from her faith, and look her in her steely eyes afterwards and say ‘oh love, if only you could see how fooled you are’.
The other shameful thing about this debate is that it makes out that Islamic feminism is a new phenomenon. Even The Guardian, a paper I normally enjoy for being less ridiculous than others, released an article that might as well have had the headline ‘BREAKING: Muslim women finally entertain the idea that they might have rights!’ In the opening paragraph of this article, the author states that ‘now there is a small but growing number of Muslim women looking to take their places in Britain’s rapidly expanding women’s movement’, going on to assert that Islamic Feminism first appeared in the 1990s, suggesting that the first Islamic Feminist magazine was published as late as 1992. This is simply poor (mis)information. To cite just one example from one country, Huda Shaarawi, an Egyptian feminist, was organising one of the largest, female, protests against British colonial rule in Egypt in 1919, just after women got the vote in the UK. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 and shortly after went on to publish the feminist magazine, El-Masreyya. Commentators often conclude that Huda Shaawari drew her feminist strength from a rejection of her religion, with the oft-cited anecdote that she famously threw her veil into the sea upon returning from a trip to Europe. But what this hasty conclusion overlooks is that whilst she certainly did chuck her face covering into the waves, her hijab remained firmly on. She was a committed Muslim and a committed feminist campaigning for the exact same things as her English counterparts – political representation, economic empowerment, education, family planning – way back in the early days of the 20th century.
What’s more, she was in pretty good company; Egypt’s and Lebanon’s histories in particular are full of stories of powerful women like her, their stories just don’t get told as often.
The point that cynics seem to be missing here is that Muslim feminists aren’t a rare breed of feminists who are feminists in spite of their faith, they are many and they are feminists because of it. There is a long and little known history of women’s rights within Islam and when the religion was introduced in the seventh century, it was actually a giant leap forward for women, outlawing female infanticide, until then a common practice, and significantly limiting, although allowing, polygamy. When women in Europe didn’t have property rights, Muslim women owned property under rights protected by law. The first Muslim feminist in fact is often said to be Aisha, Muhammad’s youngest, and most adored, wife. She was an active citizen, standing up for vulnerable women to demand that Islam and the law protect them, and she held public office in a way that angered many men and still inspires many young Muslim women to this day – she even led an armed rebellion, leading an army of male soldiers into battle on her camel in the desert, against her adversary Ali. Ali crushed her rebellion which is perhaps why her story and her feminist teachings within Islam are little known to those outside the faith, which is a shame because it’s a lot more radical than some of the stories read to a lot of little girls.
Even the hijab, probably and I think quite annoyingly (it’s is just a piece of clothing after all), the most contested symbol in the debate on Islamic feminism, can be justified and reclaimed as a feminist symbol. I remember Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a guest lecturer at my university, saying that in her scarf she feels that when she speaks she is listened to with more respect – she is not seen for her body or her sexuality, but heard for her ideas and her intelligence. With women sexualised so much in Western society, she asked, are women really more liberated when they are subject to jeers in the street and harassment in the workplace? Do the bill boards and magazine ads that adorn Western culture really create a better body image for young girls? This contradiction is the subject of a Parisian grafitti artist going by the name Princess Niqab, who goes around Metro stations spray painting head scarves and burqas onto scantily clad underwear models, angry at the outrageous sexism that has become so naturalised to the point of being almost invisible. As someone who notices, notices for example the infuriatingly ridiculous poster of women in their underwear advertising noodles in the window of Itsu (seriously?!) on my way to work, I find these questions interesting and I don’t doubt their answers provide clues to the large demographic of white middle-aged, single, successful women converting to Islam, which comes as a surprise to many.
Of course it is true that whilst Muslim feminists may cite their faith as the source of their gender liberation, Muslim misogynists will cite it as the justification for their gender oppression. And there are many passages in the Quran that do nothing for equality and much for patriarchy. But this isn’t about a petty contest of point scoring or of endlessly weighing up advantages and disadvantages in the vain hope of coming to some ultimate truth. This is important because there is no ultimate truth – it is an interpretation that is always in the process of being defined and in a world where narrative means so much, those who win are those who have a monopoly on the narratives we listen and give our attention to. This came to me when watching a TED talk by Julia Bacha, a brazilian film maker who documents non-violent protest in Palestine. In this she says that non-violent protest does exist but we don’t read about it in our papers – and the power of attention is such that this silence carries profound consequences for the likelihood of social movements to grow. She compares activism to a form of theatre, pointing out that if violent actors are the only ones with an audience, it is very hard for non violent actors to win the support of their community.
The same case can be made for women’s rights in Muslim societies. Women’s rights in Muslim societies and in the Middle East are in transition, they are in the process of being evaluated. Religious doctrine isn’t always doctrine, it is malleable and changes with the ages. Islamic law accepts slavery, for example, and Muhammad set the tone by keeping slaves himself, but the Islamic world has come to condemn it universally. Is it so implausible that all Muslim societies will one day emancipate women too? For that to happen we need to pay attention to Muslim feminism – it will not be able to grow and leave its legacy on the Muslim world unless it is given support, and the very first act of support we can give is to believe that there can be a place for feminism in Islam, and, likewise, a place for Islam in feminism.
So on that note, sure, let’s debate Islamic feminism but let us celebrate it too.
The Joy in my Feet: Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, my blog The Joy in My Feet is about celebrating the work of women activists and artists around the world campaigning to end gender oppression. I am an intern with Equality Now working on a campaign to end FGM in the UK, so most of the posts you’ll find are covering current issues of sexual or gender based violence against women, interspersed with poetry and art.