Feminism permeates through religions and cultures

Marium Chandna Mar 23, 2009

Ever since it made its debut in feminist scholarship, the term “Islamic feminism” has been the topic of intense debate and scrutiny.

While secular feminists view it as a divisive strategy to form a counter-camp to Western secular feminism, advocates of Islamic feminism disagree.

“The West has no understanding of women’s mobility in the East,” said David Kaufer, head of the English department at Carnegie Mellon.

“Many people in the West see ‘Islamic feminism’ as an oxymoron,” he added.

Western feminism occupies a memorable space in American history because it emerged when women in the West demanded rights to assemble and vote, whereas Islamic feminism is seen to be an “import from the West” because people are not aware of a similar tradition in Islamic history, said Kaufer.

Assistant teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, Amal al-Malki, stated in an e-mail that “Islamic Feminism, as a paradigm and a movement, transcends geographical boundaries and talks to Muslim women not just in the Muslim world but [also] to those living in the West.”

Islamic feminism is a product of its time and is not born out of any contemporary political Islamic movement, stated Malki, whose article on Islamic feminism was published in last week’s Sunday forum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In her article, Malki discusses the importance of Islamic feminism as a defense mechanism adopted by Muslim women to protect themselves from the oppressive practices of patriarchal cultures by emphasizing the rights guaranteed to them in Islam.
“We need to differentiate between Islam as a religion and political Islam. Political Islam has been synonymous for religious extremism that took a violent path, deviating from the peaceful message of Islam. It has created a whole world of images and symbols that have negative connotations in the Western mind,” she stated in the e-mail.

Kaufer also suggested that Muslim women bear the burden of proving that while they may appear to embrace certain Western ideals of feminism, they are by no means imitating Western feminism.

“The Islamic woman faces an identity battle where, in order to be taken seriously, she must from the grassroots of Islam extract a word — ‘feminism’ — that the West would understand, and yet not be mistaken for simply importing the history of the Western conception of women,” he said.

While Islamic feminism does not occur often in Western discourse, it faces opposition by secular feminists in Islamic countries, such as Iran and Turkey.

For example, Haideh Moghissi, a professor of sociology at York University in Canada and founder of the Iranian National Union of Women, stated in her book Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism that while “it has become fashionable to speak sympathetically and enthusiastically about the reformist activities of Muslim women,” this is a problematic development as it resonates the political message of Islamic fundamentalism.

Moghissi, who left Iran in 1984, also mentions in her book that the term “Islamic feminism” originated in Iran to cater to the female political elite and serve the interests of the country’s “clerical rulers,” rather than the average Iranian woman.

On the other hand, Melek Yazici, a senior business major at the University of Pittsburgh, believes that Islamic feminism is a response to the cultural oppression that resulted in the exclusion of women from the social sphere.

“It is a struggle to get our rights back and make our way back into mainstream society,” she said.

Yazici, who hails from Turkey, also pointed out that a more nationalistic concern underlies the clash between secular Turkish feminism and Islamic feminism in Turkey.

“Turkish feminists think of Islam as the cause of all our problems in Turkey, without taking into consideration cultural values,” said Yazici.

Straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey was strictly secularized in 1923 under its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Since then, many Muslims in Turkey have been caught between religion and secularism, as Islamic practices like wearing the headscarf have been banned in public institutions, including schools and colleges.

“They have been brainwashed with the idea that Islam is the reason why Turkey couldn’t become a developed country earlier in time,” she said. “You would see a lot of Turkish feminists supporting the ban in schools, which is ironic: women not supporting the freedom of fellow women,” Yazici said.

Miles away in the Persian Gulf region, in Qatar, the local government continues to initiate women’s empowerment in both academic and professional arenas, stated Malki.

“This counts for them as some change needs to be based on strong and legitimate grounds,” she said.

“For example, the Women’s Department in the Supreme Council of Family Affairs have been working on empowering women through different means; the most fundamental is to educate them about their legal rights,” Malki stated.

Dana Hadan, a Qatari national and a senior at the Tepper School of Business, said, “Islamic feminism means to me enjoying all my rights as a woman, such as getting an education, working wherever I want, getting married whenever I want and to whoever I want, and living on my own terms without having to take a male’s permission to do anything. “However, doing this does not force me to compromise my religious values. My religion allows me to do it,” she said.

A University of Pittsburgh alumnus, Abrar Rageh, said that women in the East and West “can build a bridge of understanding and unity” based on their complementary position in this realm of feminism.

“Women in the West had to fight for rights that were already granted for women in the East, such as voting,” Rageh said.

“Women in the West finally got that right. Meanwhile, women in the East have the religious right, but culturally are oppressed. Women in the East and West can then stand together as one, help each other overcome these obstacles, and oppose oppression in any shape or form,” Rageh said.

“The key lies in getting the best education we can,” said Hadan. “With education and confidence, Islamic and Western feminists can force governments to create laws that support women’s rights rather than feed the agenda of a male-dominated society,” she said.

On whether women across the world can establish a “global sisterhood,” Malki stated that the “universality of women’s issues and concerns are almost often interrupted by the specificities of their local culture.”

“I know as a woman that, although there is an emotional connection that relates me with all women in the globe, I am still different and unique as I am a product of a certain culture that has its set of freedoms and constraints,” she said.