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On (my lack of) Muslim Feminism

January 3, 2012

Although this blog is about faith in strange times, I somehow made it this far without talking about the looming elephant in the room: Islam and feminism.

The thing is, when it comes to Muslim feminism, I’m a bit of a coward, me. I knowingly and actively partake of the benefits feminism bestows upon me while skirting away from the feminist label itself. And here is why: while I wholeheartedly love and am thankful for feminist theory in itself, being specifically a Muslim feminist opens up a host of negative connotations that I simply do not wish to be associated with.

Yep. Told you I was a coward.

Because I don’t adhere to either essentialist notions of Muslim femininity or the idea of female imams or praying when one is menstruating, I wonder if there’s a place for me somewhere in between. I realize I’m posing my own framework by denoting extremes and thinking that there’s a “middle,” but that’s how I see it.

Muslim feminists have tirelessly repeated themselves in saying that their stance is based on the premise that the Quran addresses men and women equally. I, of course hold that stance. And I also greatly admire the conscious efforts undertaken to talk about prolific Muslim women in a way that has not been done earlier due to prevailing patriarchal structures. I even acknowledge that historically and culturally-entrenched male privilege is something very real, and a serious force to be contended with in the realm of the Muslim community.

What I have a problem with is the notion that Islam needs to be redefined and the Quran needs to be reinterpreted in light of feminist ideals. I am very skeptical of apologetic tendencies about the parts of faith that are unpopular. I find feminism liberating in terms of negotiating with my South Asian cultural baggage (Now, why on earth can’t I dance at my brother’s wedding?) but I just don’t see it working in terms of my internal faith. I am more in favor of conversations that confront the unpleasant realities of Muslim practice and their legal bases.

The extent to which “Muslim feminism” doesn’t compute for me recently became profoundly clear when I noticed how glad I was to read a piece in favor of the motion that Islam is incompatible with feminism. Although reading responses to the piece (especially those at Muslimah Media Watch here and here) made me rethink some of the nuances of Taabba’s argument, a part of me was still glad that someone managed to take the unpopular stance and at least attempt to address what is unsound about reconciling the two in any way. The part that resonated with me the most was the idea that

Islam is not feminism, just as feminism is not Islam. . . Each has its own foundations, epistemologies, methodologies, worldviews, discourses and paradigms. This means that, while they have the potential to overlap at times, they cannot be coherently merged into one another without fundamentally compromising one or radically expanding the other.* The push to merge Islam into feminism is akin to trying to squeeze an elephant into a birdcage; either the elephant will be killed by being forced into such a narrow entrance, or the birdcage will have to expand so significantly that it would no longer be recognised as a birdcage.

*(my emphasis)

Tabbaa’s finer points about feminism being based on a “Godless” postmodernist discourse were much better handled in the MMW responses, and my philosophical theory is too rusty to be able to comprehensively respond to their arguments. What he says in the above paragraph, however, gave me the disembodied feeling of seeing an idea that I before had never been able to put words to.

It’s like how belief in God operates as a light switch: it’s either there, or it isn’t. No amount of scientific rhetoric about evolution and the origin of the universe can make a believer stop believing. Similarly, no amount of exposure to feminist approaches to Islam is doing anything to change my core belief and uneasy feeling that the two schemas are not fitting nicely in my way of thinking. I wish I could do a better job of explaining why, a way that builds on the paragraph above, but the task proves just as difficult as explaining why I believe in God.

So this is me coming out as a pseudo-feminist who–at least for now–is eschewing the “Muslim” label. I have a deep respect for the profoundly intelligent women at MMW and my personal Muslim feminist idol, Wood Turtle, and that respect comes from the fact that they are doing what I am not made to do. They give me a much-needed way of seeing the Muslim community. They provide tools for thinking that are direly needed in order for Muslim women to actualize themselves as meaningful members of the Ummah.

But for me, that is where it ends. I take what they offer and run. I don’t agree with the complete version of the way some Muslim feminist scholars envision the roles of women and, by extension, Muslim community to operate, but I do think that their critiques can result in much-needed changes in our ummah: the expansion of prayer spaces and including women in the same hall as men, having more women deliver lectures (not sermons, but lectures) and talks in the mosques, having more women like Ingrid Mattson who are leaders in our communities.

I am more than open to–and even love–reading Muslim feminist discourses while knowing that I don’t subscribe to the entirety of what they purport in terms of affirmative action. So perhaps Muslim feminists operate for me the way Taqwacores did: I can’t create or even entirely endorse their idealized universes, but I can laud the spirit of what they do. Just like I’m glad Taqwacores exists, I’m glad that Muslim feminism exists.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Leah permalink
    January 3, 2012 8:47 pm

    hey Sarah:
    I think we are getting a way TOO excited about periods, praying and female imams.
    Let’s talk about real stuff there – I honestly don’t think female imams or rabbis or priests are the main issue here.
    Are women allowed to drive, have a bank account, own property, wear what they find appropriate, marry who they love and WHEN they want, not when society wants them to, sit on the bus where they would like to, work outside their homes if they wish, not to get married if they chose, get divorced, play sports, have senior positions at work, be in the army, police.
    Are women forced to be circumcised? Are they decision makers in families? Can they do abortions if they wish? Do men aklso dress modestly? Modesty is not ALL about women.
    We are not talking here about any ethical issues with any of the above – but do women ultimately have a choce.
    So when they do, we I guess can proceed and talk about female religious leaders. I mean, why not.
    I think women’s rights are human rights. Unfortunately, there are still certain communities and not necessarily Muslim where women have none.

    • January 3, 2012 9:14 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment, Leah. You’ve raised a really important issue that I’ll take the opportunity to address.

      All of those things you outlined–owning property, using public transit, choosing whom to marry–are the result of SECULAR feminism. They also happen to be the result of women’s rights in Islam. They are not problematic because they’re rights that for the most part don’t conflict with any of Islam’s established rulings. If they happen to overlap, they are fine and should be celebrated. Many Islamic scholars who don’t identify as feminists advocate for those rights. And I absolutely agree that lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia takes priority over female imamship. But I agree with it because it’s a right that, by consensus of the jurists, does not conflict Islamic rulings.

      On the other hand, Islamic/Muslim feminism entails movements to renegotiate what’s already been established in legal rulings and Quranic commentary. That is because feminism is about critiquing the world as it is. Muslim feminists would not prioritize the driving issue on basis of its Islamic legality. They would think that it’s a symptom of a greater problem that needs to be addressed by ‘reforming’ Islam.

      That’s why to me “Muslim feminism” a problematic label. Like I said in my Facebook comment, I don’t go by that label because it means that I agree with most of what well-known Muslim feminist scholars are saying. I’m an “all or nothing” kind of thinker. It may seem like this differentiation unnecessarily complicates things further, but to me it’s really important to maintain that difference. At least in my scheme of thinking. I know that a lot of Muslim women–feminist or not–will disagree with me, and I’m fine with that.

      • Leah permalink
        January 4, 2012 6:23 am

        I don’t think the feminism is about criticising the world as it is. Some feminists might go into extremes, but after all Muslim or not, thanks to them we are enjoying the world as it is with bank accounts, ability to vote and property for women. If we go back to where first feminists started, we can see what a long way we have all come.

  2. January 3, 2012 11:07 pm

    let’s find peace in the fact that the Quran advocates equality, justice, and fair treatment for all human beings, whether it is for men, women, children, rich, poor, middle class, or any other category we like to place ourselves in. We are all human before we are any label or category and God tells us to respect the rights of our fellow human beings.

    • January 5, 2012 3:42 pm

      Your’e absolutely right: in fact I think that’s how we get by on a day to day basis. That’s very beautifully and simply stated, thank you.

  3. Mohamad Tabbaa permalink
    January 4, 2012 11:09 pm

    Salam alaykoum Sarah.

    Thanks for the feedback on the feminism article, appreciated. I thought I’d make a quick 2 points which may be of interest to you.

    1) Following the amount of questions/feedback I’ve received about the article, I’ve written a follow-up article with some clarifications (http://goatmilkblog.com/2012/01/04/the-goatmilk-debates-islam-is-incompatible-with-feminism-response-by-mohamad-tabbaa/#more-5113). This might address some of your concerns also. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that, given the size/nature of the article, I wasn’t able to include everything relevant, nor provide too much depth on the issue.

    2) I also read the MMW responses, and was disappointed that none of them actually addressed the core epistemological argument in the original piece. One commentor eventually mentioned this issue, but I didn’t feel the need to respond as Yassir took this initiative, and I believe made a very strong case. It might be worth checking out his comments.

    All the best.

    • January 5, 2012 12:11 am

      Wsalaam,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Thank you also for taking on such a difficult and unpopular position.
      I did feel that some of the MMW critiques were too harsh and Yassir did an okay (although not perfect) job of handling them. What’s extremely unfortunate is that the people trying to vouch for your side were male. I wish I could have been the female voice to add to the mix, but I’m just not made for MMW comment sections and don’t even know if I can take a strong enough stance.
      Anyway, thanks again. As someone who’s been hated on and ridiculed by the opposite gender because of something I wrote, I do empathize.
      I wish you the best as well.

  4. Mohamad Tabbaa permalink
    January 5, 2012 4:52 am

    Thanks for the response Sarah.

    “What’s extremely unfortunate is that the people trying to vouch for your side were male”

    That is extremely unfortunate. I have however had a number of sisters (whom I don’t know) message me through facebook stating that they agree with the argument and thanking me for taking the stance. I think, as you rightly point out, that it is a very unpopular position, and probably moreso for a female, hence the lack of female voice. However, I do think we do need to take such stances, both males and females, or risk having Islam become as subjective (and hence meaningless) as Christianity of today.

    I do have a question though, if you don’t mind. I’ve had many people raise this point that some authority is lost due to the fact that I’m not female. The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m not actually discussing women or women’s rights, but the philosophies of Islam and feminism; neither of which are female.

    But that aside, I have to admit the argument confuses me a bit. When it comes from feminists it shocks me, as I know much of feminism bases its critiques of patriarchy on anti-essentialist grounds. So I wonder then, if the only difference between males and females is strictly physical, why would it matter if a male spoke about ‘female’ issues? I know that some then say that, although there are no biological differences, there are differences in experience, and that’s why the distinction is made. However, I then wonder what these experiences are based on, and why they’re specific to females? I’m sure you’ll agree that even female experiences differ very greatly depending on numerous variables (class, race etc) and that there is no such thing as a ‘female’ position. So, if experiences vary so much so that gender simply becomes one of many variants, why is there still such a distinct line drawn between males and females (eg: we rarely tell people they can’t speak about poverty because they’re not homeless..)? I would also think that believing in an inherent difference between male/female experiences would simply be a case of non-biological (maybe sociological) gender-essentialism, wouldn’t you agree? In such a case I would imagine the feminist quest for equality would be not only futile, but ultimately unfair. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    By the way, these are genuine questions. I’m not asking you to justify yourself or attacking your stance, I’m merely curious as to what this stance is based upon, as I hear it often, but can’t understand it entirely. (By the way again, I’m interested in knowing whether you found Yassir’s responses okay due to the manner in which they were conveyed, or due to the arguments themselves?)

    And thanks for the comment on the Goatmilk blog : )

    Take care
    Salam

    • January 5, 2012 3:05 pm

      You’re welcome, Mohamad, and those are some interesting insights.

      I think the answer regarding gender and your discussion of this issue is simple: as a male you’re considered to be guilty by association, and your agenda is being questioned. your gender’s not only being taken into account, but being made into a subject of attack. That was another incredibly unfortunate thing. What I really liked about your post is that it was anything BUT misogynistic, and that you were dealing with ideas rather than the superiority/inferiority of women themselves.

      There is definitely an irony in the fact that your gender was made as a point of attack by feminists who idealize “genderlessness.” But I have to admit that it does matter that you as a male are speaking on female issues. If I look at the situation from their perspective, it makes sense to me to actually “practice what I preach” in terms of feminist perspective. If I think the dominant narrative is male and I take serious issue with your argument that goes against the feminist perspective, it would be make sense for me to make note of the correlation. That is all. I’m not saying that makes it okay to be abrasive or make attacks personal (I feel that Nicole could have made note of the fact that you are male in a much classier way) but I would think, as a Muslim feminist, that it isn’t possible for a Muslim woman to go that deep to construct the argument you did because she’s not conditioned by patriarchal conditions to have the same agenda.

      You may not have a conscious agenda or are personally responsible for the sins of men, but your perspective is influenced by the fact that we live in a patriarchal world. You can say “let’s take feminism out of the equation” because, well, you’re male! If I were a Muslim feminist, I’d say that It’s very, very easy for a someone with male privilege to say that Islam in itself is sufficient and doesn’t ‘need’ feminism. You do have female Muslims (including myself) who support your perspective, but the point is that we didn’t conceive it.

      Please note that I say all the above as an exercise in thinking on part of the MMW commentators that attacked you. At the end of the day, I think it was completely unnecessary to subject you to that and think that one should look at what’s being said, not who’s saying it, especially when there’s no misogyny to speak of (at least according to the way I read it).

      As for your point about “(maybe sociological) gender-essentialism,” I’m going to have to turn the tables now, because we’re no longer talking about a direct reconciliation between feminism and Islam, but the the validity of a feminist critique altogether.

      I think you’re going a bit far in saying that “female experiences differ very greatly depending on numerous variables (class, race etc) and that there is no such thing as a ‘female’ position.” As far as our temporal existence goes, I believe that there is, unequivocally, a ‘female’ position. Even though women with more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds in Pakistan have different issues from those living in dire poverty, the reality is that they get hit disproportionately harder in terms of cultural norms or economic crises. You can’t tell me that women don’t suffer from a large-scale discrimination and entrenched misogyny in face of the fact that women are preyed upon in the workplace and have to keep silent, or women tend to be the primary victims of honour killings. All these things, I feel HAVE to have some thread of commonality. And the feminist perspective allows me to see that.

      Your perspective is extending to the validity of the feminist perspective itself, which I find troublesome, because I am fully in favour of that critique as long as it doesn’t directly pose and opposition to what I accept as Islamic legal rulings and scholarship. What I advocate is not putting religion and its exegetical interpretations at the center of the problems women face and feminist perspectives highlight.

      All that said, I recognize that it’s perhaps contradictory (even hypocritical) for me to espouse both feminism outside Islam and Islam, but that’s because we differ on another point: while you believe it’s impossible to be Muslim and feminist, I do believe it’s possible. I just relegate feminism in terms of my existence in the dunya, again provided that it doesn’t contradict Islamic rulings. It’s just “Muslim” or “Islamic” feminism that I have an issue with.

      As for Yassir’s responses, to put it very briefly, I didn’t find them as satisfying as, say, Rochelle’s comment about the feminists that don’t incorporate postmodernism in their beliefs. I also wasn’t a big fan of the manner of his response, but I guess both parties are equally guilty in that regard. It’s sometimes just really disheartening and frightening to see Muslims so divided over such issues, especially in light of this hadith: http://sunnah.com/urn/264430. May Allah help us in respecting one another and in speaking the truth, even those that aren’t easily accepted.

      Thanks for bringing up those issues. This response was a lot of me thinking out loud so if anything doesn’t make sense, do let me know. You can also contact me by email if you wish: amuslimahwrites@gmail.com

      • ned permalink
        January 30, 2012 7:45 pm

        This is a total misrepresentation of the feminist perspective. The feminist distrust of male perspectives has nothing to do with “guilt by association” and everything to do with systemic power imbalances between men and women. Those imbalances have nothing to do with biology and everything to do with a historically maintained cultural infrastructure and wider inequalities and asymmetries, aka male privilege. We also call this standpoint epistemology. Taken to an extreme, standpoint epistemology can lead to some absurdities, but it isn’t something baseless or irrational, and it isn’t something that contradicts anti-essentialism either.

        I’m afraid you’re misrepresenting feminism, and if Mr. Tabba really wants to learn about it he should hit the theory books, visit a women’s studies department, and/or talk to actual feminists.

        Came over here from the Goatmilk debates. Frankly, the lot of you make me feel even more relieved than I usually feel that I’m no longer a Muslim. (And before someone gets misled by my nick and concludes that I’m an orientalist or whatever crap, I’m Pakistani, and born and raised there.)

      • January 30, 2012 8:10 pm

        Thanks for your comment. ‘Guilt by association’ was maybe completely the wrong way to put it, but I actually tried to explain that what it comprises, and in doing so I address the same things you bring up–male privilege and power imbalances. In fact, I wonder if you even read the second half of the comment.

        Your last paragraph I feel was written more for you than for us. No matter. Express away.

  5. January 5, 2012 10:02 am

    Really liked reading this post! I think it’s often helpful too to remember that we can define terms however we want to. Many people say that secular feminism is racist / classist / etc. And while some elements are, and historically it was, I take the term and do it my way – and search out others who also care about rights of all women rather than just the upper-class white women. Perhaps there is a middle ground somewhere that would allow you to be more comfortable with the label – or perhaps the secular feminism just fits better for you. I applaud your honesty and don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think too that as with religious belief (as we talked about the other day!) the way we feel about feminism and other issues evolves over time as well. If that makes sense!

    • January 5, 2012 3:41 pm

      I see what you mean, although I’m reluctant about defining terms however I want to as I wouldn’t want to define feminism in a way that it becomes something completely different. I guess as long as the common idea we share is that radical notion that women are human, that gives us some common ground. And yes, I do like seeing my post as the beginning of an evolution of personal feminist identity 🙂 Thank you for helping me understand that!

  6. January 6, 2012 4:59 am

    Salaams!

    I’m actually glad you wrote this piece. From a male perspective, I have to admit, I feel a bit uncomfortable or maybe just a uncertainty with the “Muslim feminism” label. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that Muslim women are the rock of our Ummah as a whole and that we have too much negativity and abuse of Islam by men in certain positions, eroding away the rights that Islam has given women. Surprisingly, I’ve now come across several via Twitter, one of which is based here in Oregon, MMW founder Fatemeh Fakheraie, whom I have much respect for and insha’allah hope to meet for tea one day, given our proximity. I applaud her and others’ efforts to keep these important issues at the forefront of the larger battle we have against those tarnishing our Faith, especially from within.

    I do agree, some of the more extreme issues do seem to go a bit too far, though of course, I’m still learning – and as some of the comments above have said, we should focus on the universal concepts that Islam and the Qur’an promotes, as “happygomuslim” so nicely stated above and hope that we can bring about positive change – in the form of bringing our community back to the true essence of Islam that we have lost in this day and age.

    My 2 cents. Hope that was readable – just what came to mind.

    • January 6, 2012 9:28 am

      Thank you for those two cents! I’m not even satisfied with my definitions of what ‘extreme’ feminist interpretations of Islam are and want to keep away from associating it with ‘evil.’ The very people I might see as ‘extreme’ also provide powerful insights into things like the media’s depiction of Muslim women and how structured forms of segregation can disadvantage Muslim women. Fatemeh F. definitely spearheaded a much-needed initiative and I’m so proud to have someone like her in our Muslim community as well.

      And at the end of the day, we really are in all of this together. May Allah (swt) keep us from becoming overly fragmented and quarrelsome amongst ourselves.

  7. Mohamad Tabbaa permalink
    January 10, 2012 5:12 am

    Salam Sarah.

    Sorry, I’ve been meaning to respond for a while, but just been very busy (moving houses at the moment). I’ll email you soon inshallah.

    Take care

  8. January 30, 2012 7:07 pm

    Came across this recently and thought it was a beautiful perspective in light of this post: http://www.altmuslimah.com/a/b/rsa/3859/

    • January 30, 2012 8:30 pm

      Thanks for sharing the link! Really interesting read.

      While I agree with the writer on some points, overall I find it hard to agree with her because in effect she is taking away choice and preference. Saying that most men are like that and that most women should learn to deal makes it about biology rather than choice which I disagree with. I don’t see femininity and masculinity as being things we’re born with necessarily but see culture playing a huge role. That being said, I don’t think it’s right to just dismiss polygamy for those who freely choose it, and agree that many of us need to work on jealousy.

  9. Sage permalink
    June 25, 2012 5:35 pm

    “What I have a problem with is the notion that Islam needs to be redefined and the Quran needs to be reinterpreted in light of feminist ideals.”

    I’m late to this discussion, but here is where I find your argument fundamentally flawed. You’re assuming that the prevailing interpretations of the Quran and prevailing definitions of Islam are somehow more fundamentally correct or enlightened than the interpretation of a modern, learned woman who is examining her rights in light of Islamic teachings. The 11th century male scholar, the 19th century fundamentalist firebrand, the turn-of-the-century Orientalist male convert—-their interpretations and ‘redefinitions’ just don’t garner the horror of Muslims as long as they don’t upset the apple cart on women. Whatever Islamic literature you’re reading, translated hadith, etc., did not come out of a vacuum—they are influenced by the times and culture of the writer/interpreter. I don’t believe that someone who is engaging in jurisprudence and coming to a currently unpopular or minority opinion a la Amina Wadud has a less valid viewpoint than that espoused by the free Islamic books that are so abundantly available (and that are being funded by petro-sheikhs with an extremist ideology.) It’s just that the latter has been normalized, entrenched, and internalized in Muslim communities worldwide in a way the former has not.

    • January 31, 2013 3:43 pm

      Sage, thank you so much for your comment. I’m extremely late to respond, but that’s because I have been ruminating on the issues that you raised, and I think a solid, grounded response to your comment should take the form of another blogpost.
      In the meantime, however, I did want to state this: having a problem with Muslim feminism does not equate endorsing the wide-spread teachings of “petro-shaykhs.”
      Also, I am wary of the fact that the Muslim feminist revival is taking place post-Western sexual revolution; in other words: Muslim feminism became a thing after it became cool to be a feminist.
      Thank you again for your input.

  10. July 28, 2013 11:16 am

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