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.

Islam in the Economist

I’m currently doing a media analysis class, and I think it is one of the most stimulating classes I’ve ever taken. It’s amazing how many types of analyses you can do on different types of media, and how many biases you can find. One technique is to go word by word through an article to see which words are repeated the most. I would never have thought of doing this but it is so interesting to find out which words recur the most often. I would be very interested in doing this to some Dutch newspapers at some point, especially articles about Muslims, immigrants, Moroccans, Arabs, etc.

Anyway we had to find an image that represented social relations of power. I thought to myself that it should be pretty easy to find something in a western media outlet about Islam or Arabs. After some searching, I found this picture:

This is the cover of The Economist, March 31 2011. The title is Islam and the Arab Revolutions. Subtitle is: Religion is a growing force in the Arab awakening. Westerners should hold their nerve and trust democracy.

This picture is troubling on several levels. First of all, there is a clear sign of Islam, which is the crescent and the star. This has somehow come to represent Islam in the media.

So this picture is characterizing the following with Islam (represented by crescent and star):

  • the desert
  • a man
  • in black
  • with a gun
  • with his head covered
  • the desert is unsettled, not calm
So we see a man, who is in all-black with a head covering, coming towards us, carrying a gun that looks like an AK-47. And this is somehow to supposed to make westerners who are “worried about Islam” feel better. Hmmm.
If I were a westerner afraid of Islam (as many apparently are), I would not feel better after seeing a picture like this.
The man is intentionally made to look scary: all-black, hidden, his features are not clear, he’s wearing a head-covering, he HAS A GUN. I mean how is this supposed to convince anyone that everything will be fine and that they should “hold their nerve”??
And WHY is this representative of Islam? A MAN who is not very CLEAR with a GUN? Who is approaching me through a desert? With a gun? A GUN? Okay seriously, this is ridiculous.
Finally, what kind of a story is this anyway? So what if religion is a growing force in the Arab revolutions (not awakenings, for God’s sake)? Why does that scare the west? (oh right, their ridiculous preoccupation with Islam and politics). And why should they hold their nerve and trust democracy? (as if the west would ever allow democracy in the Arab world anyway, see: Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) Is anyone telling us Arabs and Africans that we should hold our nerve about DONALD TRUMP or SARAH PALIN running for president in the US? or WILDERS or SARKOZY in Europe?
No. Well I’m telling everyone now: Islamophobia, right-wing politics and stupidity are rising forces in European and American awakenings. Non-westerners should hold their nerve and trust democracy.
Oh wait, these people are getting in through democracy. Hmm.
Anyway, back to the post. I expected more from the Economist, which isn’t exactly Fox News. But I guess when it comes to Islam, it’s pretty much the same story in every western newspaper/magazine/news channel.
I’m pissed.

Islamophobia in Europe

"For more security" Used in an election campaign

There is little doubt that Islamopobia is rife in Europe, a continent that only 60 years ago was host to the worst genocide in human history, shocking in both scale and execution.  Today, one by one European countries are electing far-right parties into parliament and presidential office, and Muslims and other non-white Europeans are finding it harder to “fit into” European society.

I just read a brilliant article called “The success of Islamophobia in Europe” (here). There is no doubt that things in Europe are getting tense:

Immigrants are caricatured and scapegoated, whole ethnic groups are implied to have criminal personalities and to be anything but normal, moral and hard-working. Wilders, for example, speaks of Moroccan ‘street-terrorists’ while his party proposes replacing civil servants with street militias; the Sweden Democrats commissioned an advertisement showing a woman in a burqa harassing an elderly pensioner; the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, asserts that Muslim men routinely allow their daughters to be raped by family members, while the Scandinavian internet is awash in tales of ‘Islamic rape gangs’; and the head of Germany´s new Freedom Party, René Stadtkewitz argues that it is impossible to integrate (Turkish and Arab) Muslims into German society without doing fundamental damage to its Judeo-Christian culture.

Top: Zurich 2010; bottom: 20 years later

What is even more worrying is that so many Europeans seem to support anti-Islam rhetoric. In an election in the Netherlands in the summer of 2010, Wilders’ party received approx 2 million out of the 8 million votes that were cast. If that isn’t scary I don’t know what is.

The article brings up many good points.  One of these is the fact that Europe seems to be plagued by the Holocaust, yet not by its colonial past. Why so much guilt over the Holocaust but not the colonial empires so many European countries ruled over brutally?

While the Holocaust has increasingly been taken as the foundational trauma for the whole of western Europe – a shared inheritance enabling an overarching moral project – colonialism has been approached from the opposite perspective. Notwithstanding that at one point 85% of the world was under European control – affecting the economics, ideologies, politics, consumption, and cultures of all Europe and all non-Europe along the way – colonialism nonetheless has been seen as a matter of purely national significance, to be dealt with individually as each nation and state might occasionally see fit.

One major misleading effect is that non-western immigrants are now largely imagined to be encountering Europe for the first time and to be bringing with them a purely alien culture untouched by decades and centuries under European control and influence. It is as if Europe had never gone out into the world in any significant cultural fashion, but only economically and militarily, while its own cultures were somehow left magically untouched.

Another interesting point is that Islamophobia is not necessarily a resurgence of racism:

The critical innovation of these movements, particularly in northern Europe, is that they have managed – for their supporters – to delink Islamophobia from racism so that today it is quite possible to argue that one is both anti-Islam and anti-racist.

This could explain why the Dutch, for example, normally obsessed with political correctness, have no problem complaining about (at the least) or insulting (at the most) Islam. Stephen Gash, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of Europe, has taken as his tag-line:  “racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the highest form of common sense.” This reminds me of how being anti-Islam has become acceptable in many parts of the world. It’s okay to complain about Islam, to generalize about Muslims, and to support anti-Islamic proposals/laws/wars. Muslims are the ultimate ‘Other’ and so any negative action/rhetoric used against them is completely understandable and therefore acceptable.

Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions.

When Muslims appeal to such legislation, said legislation is suddenly accused of inflicting an unacceptable limitation on one’s freedom of speech – a misuse of anti-hate legislation that silences all criticism.

The author suggests 2 solutions to the problem. One: the formation of Islamic political parties in Europe (yeah right! there will be some kind of mass conflict before that happens); and two: remove all anti-hate speech legislation (so all groups can be targeted? isn’t it better to ensure that anti-Islam speech is punished, the way all other hate-speech is?)

Personally, I think the problem at this point can only be solved through socialization. No legal, economic, or political solution will work anymore. The problem is racism, Islamophobia, and the fact that Europeans just do not seem to like people different from them. The colonial past and the Holocaust are two events that make it clear that Europe has an issue with difference. This is not to say, of course, that ALL Europeans are like this; but from my personal experience, many are. This is especially the case with Muslims, who are seen as completely different and simply backwards. They are not modern, rational, and do not support human rights (what exactly are human rights? are they universal or western? when did non-white people agree to these universal human rights?)

In conclusion:

How rare it is for a national politician to claim Muslims as one of his or her own. The fundamental paradox is that while the established and progressive elite of continental Europe are fiercely against rhetorical and institutionalized discrimination – to the point that many consider this a deep violation of their most vital personal and national values – many are at the same time highly unwilling to stop considering Islam and immigrants as backward in one fashion or another.

Elite and populist alike agree on the Muslims´ otherness; they just differ on the question of what to do about it. And as long as they agree on this – through their actions even more than their words – we have nowhere to go but down.