Sunday, September 6, 2009

Finger-Wagging Won't Help Muslim Women

By Geraldine Brooks (for the Guardian UK)

"I'm proud to be a western feminist – but we're not the only ones exquisitely sensible of gender injustice"

The question: Can western feminism save Muslim women?

"By Allah, we're an arrogant lot.

By 'we', I mean modern western feminists, a group among which I am generally proud to be included. Except when we're full of ourselves.

Western feminism is not the only ideology exquisitely sensible of gender injustice. Nor are western feminists the only ones willing or able to speak up about it. Muslim women have been doing this themselves for decades, loudly and often effectively. To cite just a few examples: It was Egyptian Muslims, Huda Shawari and Saiza Nabarawi, who publicly threw off their veils in 1923 at the Cairo railway station, leading to wide acceptance in Egypt that wearing hijab is a personal choice. Tamam Fahiliya, a Palestinian Muslim, started a women's group to protest honor killings in 1991. In the US recently, a young Muslim writer named Asra Nomani posted her list of theses regarding women's Islamic rights on the door of her local mosque in West Virginia, sparking spirited nationwide soul-searching among members of America's fastest growing religion. And in Iran, it is observant Muslim women who have achieved the most positive change in matters of economic and social equality.

By contrast, western feminist finger-wagging or attempts by pro-western governments to alter Islamic laws by fiat have been spectacularly counter productive. In 1979, Anwar Sadat enacted mild reform of marriage and custody laws, but by 1985 Egypt's Islamists had succeeded in having those laws struck down. In Iran, on the other hand, a young generation of Koranically-literate Islamic revolutionary women sparked a national conversation on personal status issues, using Islamic jurisprudence rather than legislative measures. By educating women in the use of Islamically sanctioned pre-nuptial agreements, for example, an Iranian woman can secure for herself the right to divorce in set circumstances, to continue study or work after marriage and to establish her share of property if the marriage is dissolved. All of this was done without parliamentary debate, because Muslim women argued their case from within the Islamic establishment.

Reporting in Iran in 1995, I witnessed a similar exercise of Muslim feminist power. A university professor had looked out on his incoming engineering students and commented with disgust about the number of females, who would marry and waste their training. The women in the group who were the more "westernized" and less Islamically "correct" in their dress and beliefs felt their position too tenuous to object. But a band of chadoris, young women who were conspicuously observant, led a demarche on the professor, demanding a retraction and an apology. Which they got.

I'm not saying here that a human right is what the local despot says it is. I find the kind of moral relativism that justifies practices such as female genital mutilation disgusting and fatuous. What I am recommending is a little humility. Western feminists with a genuine desire to raise the status of oppressed women in Afghanistan or elsewhere should call their nearest mosque and make an appointment to talk to the sisterhood there. (I'm not talking about Wahhabi or Salafi-dominated mosques, which really are hopeless.) But in the majority of mosques they will learn of efforts long afoot to reclaim the positive messages about women's rights in the Koran, messages obscured for too long by patriarchy and oppressive social customs. It is those efforts that we western feminists should support if we care about the women, and not the sweet sound of our own politically correct bleatings."

* The above appeared in the Guardian UK on August 28th as a part of its "question" series and I have reprinted it in its entirety including the internal links, which are her references, not mine.

I am curious to hear your responses to Brooks' essay, which is not perfect (by Allah?) but is unusual in my experience for referencing actual Muslim feminists (!) Nevertheless, the comment thread for the original Guardian article quickly reasserts the Western arrogance that Brooks is attempting to address. This is annoying and I think it highlights two significant conflicts 1) The tensions between European "values" and Muslim immigrant populations in Europe and 2) the default tendency of white, Western feminists to speak on behalf of "women" in general, as if women who fall outside those categories cannot decide things for themselves. The common thread here is the casual disregard for the basic humanity of Muslims, which becomes racialized contempt for South Asians, Arabs, and even Eastern Europeans (Borat, anyone?)...

Anyway, let me know what you think.


  1. By pointing at Asra Nomani and claiming that her actions caused "spirited nationwide soul-searching among members of America's fastest growing religion" shows that she isnt really up to speed on what goes on in the Muslim community.

    Nomani's self seeking actions didnt spark much of anything because the vast majority of Muslims out there ignored her from the start, those that did address her actions were mostly to slam her in about everyway imaginable.

    Nomani, and others like her, ie Irshad Manji, will never make it anywhere in the Muslim community because their starting point comes from a perspective that is COMPLETELY outside of a perspective that comes from within the religion. Neither of them are practicing Muslims and much of what they have to say seems more directed at some kind of outside attempt to "reform" Islam rather than trying to come up with solutions within an Islamic framework.

    The author, talking about Nomani's "thesis" seems to want to compare her actions to Martin Luther and his actions which helped lead to the split in the Catholic Chuch in Europe.

    Nomani is no Luther and she, like Manji, will have no practical impact at all in the Muslim community. Their greatest fans lay in the neo-con/religious right community who use their screeds to bash Islam and Muslims.

    Anyway, having said that I give kudos to the author for at least understanding the concept that the women's rights issues in the Muslim world will be lead by Muslim women themselves. I think it is very hard for women outside of the Islamic world and communities to understand all of the small details involved.

    She does talk about Muslim feminists working within an Islamic framework to help Muslim women, I just wished she had realised that referencing Nomani kind of steps outside of this example.

    It will be observant Muslim woming, working from within an Islamic framework that will bring positive change to women's issues in the Islamic world. A quick read of Muslim/Islamic history will show that attempts to bring outside reform into Muslim countries, whether directly from the West, or with pseudo "natives" like Nomani and Manji, will fail.

  2. Joseph, I agree that this article was refreshing - considering. She rillllly coulda left out that the "by Allah" thing, though. You know how sometimes that friend-of-a-friend who you meet at a party will get tipsy and say something insulting to you in jest? Yeahhhhh, it's kinda like that. Too-comfortable misstep aside, it was a thoughtful piece. I especially liked this:

    "[I]n the majority of mosques they will learn of efforts long afoot to reclaim the positive messages about women's rights in the Koran, messages obscured for too long by patriarchy and oppressive social customs. It is those efforts that we western feminists should support if we care about the women, and not the sweet sound of our own politically correct bleatings."

    Yup. It's a start.