Ignoring Islamic feminism

Firstly, a well-researched piece from The Guardian, Islamic Feminism On The Move:

Muslim societies, from Afghanistan where female teachers are singled out for killing by a resurgent Taliban, to Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive or travel alone, reinforce for the western media the stereotypes of Muslim women’s inferior place. All this comforts a certain western notion of superiority. Tell people you are going to a conference on Islamic feminism, and the response is mocking laughter.

However, Islamic feminism is alive and well, from Western Europe to Malaysia, and from North Africa to the US – far from the stereotypes of Islam and of feminism as a western movement.

But the powers of conventional Islam, and western media preconceptions, both have their own reasons for ignoring the phenomenon of strongly Muslim, very activist women who claim that complete equality for women both in private life and in public, and a host of other radical reforms, can be read in true Islamic scholarship.

In the Quran, they say, men and women are both equal, and complementary, with the same rights to education and self-fulfillment.

Later in the same article:

Islamic feminism is a decade and a half old. In the 1990s Iranian, Egyptian, Turkish, Moroccan, South African, American, feminists and religious scholars, among others, found they were all simultaneously working on reinterpretations of women’s rights under Islam.

But long before the phrase, “Islamic feminism”, was coined, leading Muslim women intellectuals like the Moroccan writer and academic Fatima Mernissi, and Dr Asma Lamrabat, a Moroccan paediatrician, were writing and speaking for muslim women’s rights and equality, and for the re-reading of the Quran. Dr Lamrabat, greatly admired by the new generation of European activists for her work on the ground as well as for her intellectual leadership, points to “the disconnect between a discourse claiming to respect spiritual values, and a reality where the worst discrimination is justified – from horrific honour crimes, forced marriages, and antiquated tribunals responsible for keeping women in inferiority for life.” To her, “Islamic feminism is very important – you cant just write off feminism as western.”

Islamic women activists are working hard to educate their fellow Muslims about the difference between misogynistic traditional practises which are cultural rather than Q’uranic. Their simple message that cultural traditions and Q’uranic imperatives are separate is one that neither conservative Muslim movements nor most of the Western media wish to hear.

Yet slowly and quietly the message is getting through, as more and more educated women meet within Muslim countries and now across borders to discuss the reform of antiquated laws. The reforms that have been gained so far have come about from a coalition of Islamic feminists and foreign advisory groups working within the human rights framework to challenge unfair laws and agitate for new laws against oppressive practises.

And it’s not only in Islamic nations that such activist coalitions are making their voice heard:

in Europe many note the new converging of religious and secular women in practical human rights campaigns not only for women, not only for Muslims, in areas such as for refugee rights, for improved housing, for girls’ education, and, one great unifier, against current western policy in the Middle East.

I sense a pro-war conservative nightmare: anti-war and pro-immigrant activists in Western nations who are leftist, feminist and Muslim!

Contrast this article with one written by Janet Albrechtsen last December. Albrechtsen huffs and puffs that what Islamic nations need is their own domestic feminist activists as if such movements don’t already exist and aren’t already working for reform as hard as they can. She scolds Muslim women in Australia for their silence about such issues at a conference where she gave a lecture. When she does mention a Muslim feminist she chooses to mention the secular (and stridently apostate) Ayaan Hirsi Ali, hardly a politic choice when addressing pious women wearing hijab.

Apparently, white Christian girls should not write or speak about such things. My error, they said, was to presume to speak on behalf of Muslim women. But, of course, I had done no such thing. The role of the media is to expose and debate. No apologies for that. And in doing so, a journalist is no one’s spokesman. When I pointed out that a more open debate depended on Muslim women talking honestly about the problems of radical Islam and the consequent inequality inflicted on women, there was only silence.

If I’d been one of those women there I would probably have been silent when scolded by Albrechtsen as well, my throat stopped by angry disbelief and outrage at the sheer nerve of the woman displaying such ignorance and arrogance combined. Exposing and debating is a fine goal as long as one has made sufficient effort to avoid being factually incorrect. Why should a single one of those women have trusted Albrechtsen at that moment? Why should any one of them have wasted their time saying things she didn’t want to hear, or that she would quote them correctly if they did so?

After all, I don’t think many feminists of any background would trust Albrechtsen to report them objectively when this is how she describes them:

This is not about Western-style feminism, where empowerment in the 21st century is baring one’s navel (and the rest), talking dirty and sliding up and down a pole, should that take your fancy.

Dearie me, Janet: if you clutch those pearls any tighter you’re going to break the string.

It’s articles like Albrechtsen’s that feed into the social conservative base’s stereotypes about both feminists and Muslims, and don’t end up helping a single oppressed Muslim woman. Scolding only makes the scolder feel self-righteous: it’s not actually a productive contribution.

Albrechtsen has much in common with the typical internet anti-feminists who like to argue that Western feminists are so useless, so self-centred, so busy being bleeding heart liberals about Muslims dying in the War on Terror that we are “throwing Muslim women under the bus” in our “support for terrorists” and ignoring women’s oppression in Islamic nations. They are of course wrong, and here’s why: Western feminists have been well aware of the Islamic feminist movement for the last fifteen years at least, and some of us were even aware of the earlier Islamic feminist pioneers. That’s a lot more than Albrechtsen, for one, can boast.

Islamic feminists do not need Westerners to lead them or speak for them in their own countries, and that’s where they are working because that’s where they are needed. They do need the support of Westerners financially and in networking to further their activism, and that is what Western feminists have been doing. The article doesn’t mention Australian Islamic feminists, but guess what? They also exist. Did Albrechtsen seek out and interview anyone from any Australian Islamic feminist group before getting up on her high horse?

Feminists are not the ones who have been ignoring Islamic feminists.

Categories: gender & feminism, social justice

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