On feminism, religion and religious women

The debate over the meaning(s) of feminism seems to be an endless one.  A common problem facing any social movement is that of definition: what are the goals we are fighting for, what are our values, and how do we bring about change? Answering these questions in the case of feminism has proven to be more divisive than inclusive, and has alienated many who previously identified as feminists. An important question is whether defining feminism should even be a goal in and of itself? In other words, is the process of defining feminism a process of exclusion?

In this post I want to bring up some of the tension(s) that have often arisen between the feminist project and the issue of religion. Feminism has long had difficulties in engaging with women who are religious. On the one hand, many believe that religion is an inherently oppressive institution, that by nature excludes women and renders them unequal to men. On the other hand, the fact that many women continue to see themselves as both feminist and religious raises important questions about the ways in which feminism has approached the question of religion. Key among these questions is the following: if feminism advocates women having the freedom to make choices (insofar as a choice is ever ‘free’), then what happens when a woman makes a choice that is seen as oppressive? More importantly, who has the right to decide which choices are oppressive and which aren’t?

My aim is not to debate or decide whether religion(s) are patriarchal, or whether they are essentially oppressive to women. My aim is to question the consistently exclusionary approach on the part of mainstream feminism towards women who see themselves as religious. I will focus specifically on the Islamic context because that is what I am most familiar with.

In an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua, it is argued that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholars has meant that they do not see the full picture:

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

One of the main issues is that women are often denied subjectivity when religion is seen as unquestioningly oppressive. Authors such as Saba Mahmood have pointed out that many women choose to be submit themselves to God, and do not see this as a form of oppression. Indeed by deciding for these women that their choice is illegitimate from the perspective of feminism, other women can be said to be exercising oppression over these women.

Nevertheless Mahmood does acknowledge that the women she worked with (Islamist women in Cairo) are choosing to be part of structures that see women as unequal to men. This leads us to the question of choice feminism. It often happens that feminists speak of feminism as being the freedom to choose. But what happens when women choose to be part of structures that see men as superior and thus reproduce gender inequality? These two questions are closely linked to debates about the nature of choice. To clarify, I do not believe ‘free choice’ exists in the sense of making choices outside of power structures or hegemonic systems. However, in today’s world certain “choices” have been designated as feminist, and others as oppressive. The way this designation has happened is closely linked to power relations coming from both patriarchy and feminism, but this is an entirely separate post.

This brings us back to the key problem that confronts feminism: who gets to decide? Our ideas of what are wrong and right; good and bad; or healthy and unhealthy, all come from the ways in which we have been socialized. Although it seems almost natural to accept that certain ways of dressing are demeaning to women (think of the hijab or burqa), the reality is that this dominant worldview can be deconstructed and demolished, once we un-learn what we have been brought up to believe is “truth.”

One of the main arguments in this debate is that religion, in this instance, Islam, is important to many women. While religion itself is a highly contested term, there is little doubt that to many, it provides a spiritual framework with which to view, and experience, the world. This spirituality also serves as a counter-point in a world in which rationality is valued above all other systems of meaning.

A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.

This balance is an extremely important aspect in the lives of millions of women, who experience religion as an intrinsic aspect of their everyday lives. The quote also highlights another important point: that feminism needs to listen to the different views of real women. In its battle to become inclusive rather than exclusive, the various feminist projects need to move away from Feminism and try to explore the option of multiple feminisms. In a world as complex as ours, no two realities are the same, which means that every single woman will experience oppression differently. It also means that every single woman will find peace differently.

Another key tension in the feminism vs. religion debate is the question of patriarchal texts. Often feminists who are against Islam tend to focus on patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, and ignore movements that call for more inclusive or feminist readings of these texts. They claim that the religion is patriarchal, no matter what the interpretation. This, however, leads us away from choice feminism and towards a feminism where oppressive structures are decided upon beforehand (but by who?) and are strongly rejected. My issue is not with feminists who engage with these reinterpretations of Islamic texts and then reject them as patriarchal or as not coming up with a new framework of understanding. My issue is with the lack of such engagement on the part of most feminists. In other words, the many attempts to re-interpret Islam on the part of Muslim women are seen as further proof of false consciousness. This is a problematic stance for a movement claiming to take women (and their experiences) seriously.

There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.

The view of religious women as brainwashed and passive is, needless to say, problematic. Where is the space for different subjectivities? Where is the space for women who, on a daily basis, choose to be Muslim? When we tell women that Islamic feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an are flawed, wrong, or wishful thinking, then are we simply confirming that the texts belongs to male scholars, and men in general? Are we saying that no matter how hard women try, they can never take back these texts?

(On a side note, after having engaged with a lot (if not most) of the Islamic feminist literature, I was personally not convinced that it manages to completely deconstruct or “reconcile” patriarchal aspects of the Qur’an or Hadith (speaking specifically only about scholars who call themselves Islamic feminists and their work, not about “Islam” generally or any other types of interpretations, nor am I talking about the Qur’an itself). In fact much of it falls into the trap of either over-historicizing problematic surahs/hadith, or over-interpreting them so as to change the meaning completely. That said, there are scholars within Islamic feminism who have instead opted to accept the contradictions within the Islamic texts, and see that the need to “reconcile” doesn’t need to always be central. Kecia Ali is a good example of this.

Nevertheless, despite disagreeing with the conclusions of much of the work within Islamic feminism, I do think it is an extremely important project, and a good example of trying to challenge knowledge production and meaning making within a confined space. Traditional Arab male interpretations have reigned supreme for centuries and this elite group of interpreters have managed to construct “Islamic ideals” that have not sat well with many Muslims. Simply the idea of a feminist interpretation of Islam is already a challenge to this, and in some ways an attempt to imagine a different reality, which in my opinion is an exercise of power.)

A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.

The answers to all of the questions I’ve asked aren’t likely to fall on either side of a binary. Religion is too diverse and complicated to be seen as either oppressive or liberatory. Whose religion, which interpretation, which individual and to what end? The same can be said of feminism: it is not, and should not be monolithic. Given its history of exclusion, one would expect the feminist project to be more wary about rejecting the experiences of millions of women.

On the other hand, the question of who decides what continues to be pertinent to feminism. One could argue that everything is imposed, and that imposing the idea that religion is oppressive on women is just another type of imposition that in the end is more beneficial for those women. After all, we all have our ideas of what a better world consists of, and what type of feminism is “right” or more just. In other words, we all have specific subjectivities that we want to spread. It isn’t just about living the way I want to live. If I say that I want to fight patriarchy, then that implicitly involves changing the views and lives of other people. But who is to say that me changing these views is better than those views continuing? Who is to say that me telling other women that you can’t be a feminist and religious is better than these women believing they can be religious feminists?

This goes back to the old debate about whether different subejctivities can co-exist or whether people who are sure their subjectivity is more beneficial should impose it on others. Another way of looking at it is to assume that subjectivities are always imposed, so why not attempt to impose a more just one? But who defines justice? Back to square to one!

In conclusion, I would argue that my issue is not so much with the need for feminist projects to accept Islamic feminism or Islam in general, or to refrain from critiquing what they see as systems that perpetuate patriarchy. Rather my issue is with the lack of willingness to even engage women who identify as religious, and to pre-judge them as suffering from false consciousness. The process of critical engagement is what has been lacking from feminism since its inception. Through such a process (and I don’t mean dialogue in a liberal sense), power relations inherent to feminist movements will become more visible and can thus be challenged more openly.

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The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

The Muslim Woman

Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:

An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.

Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:

in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.

It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?

If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.

This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.

An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”

The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:

If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one  implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

Finally,

Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.

We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.

She proposes what western women (and men) can do:

It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.

Amen!