“Listen to Those of Us Fighting”

My Women in Islam class meets tonight for the first time this semester.  It’s a class I teach regularly, as a way to bring more students into deeper contact with and understanding of a major world religion that most in my classroom don’t encounter often.  Using the lens of gender analysis helps me find one way in to the history and theology in a tradition of which I am not a part, and bring students into conversation about practical and political issues shaping the world we share.

I have always been intentional about bringing women’s voices into every classroom, and into this classroom, Muslim women’s voices.  To that end, we’ll be watching this 20-minute segment of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show tonight.  It features a discussion with Mona Eltahawy about her April 2012 article “Why Do They Hate Us?” as well as commentary on Mona’s piece from Leila Ahmed, author of two books we will be using in class.  It’s a couple of years old now, but as relevant as ever.

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(I really love the mutual respect that the two women show for one another’s work in the midst of a spirited debate and disagreement about big issues.)

In her original article, Eltahawy flips the post 9/11 “why do they hate us?” question asked by many in the U.S. against Muslims and employed by many politicians to promote “freedom!” at all costs.  By detailing the oppression of women throughout Middle Eastern and Arab countries, she actually is asking “why do they hate women?”  As context for the question, Eltahawy documents the many and varied forms that misogyny takes in this part of the world, as a complex product of patriarchy, culture, religion, and law among other things:

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129; according to Morocco’s Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.

The article concludes:

Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.

“Do you know why they subjected us to virginity tests?” Ibrahim asked me soon after we’d spent hours marching together to mark International Women’s Day in Cairo on March 8. “They want to silence us; they want to chase women back home. But we’re not going anywhere.”

We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye. There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.

It’s a provocative piece that prompted a great discussion on television, and may it also do so where you are.



About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.