Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism

Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism November 13, 2008

This was written by Sahar and originally published at Nuseiba.

The third International Congress on Islamic feminism is underway in Barcelona. Muslim women from around the world have gathered to discuss the pressing issue of women in Islam and the Muslim world. Events like these and the debate which ensues – both from women and men–can often be heated and emotional. Just the very mention of Islamic feminism seems to arouse criticism. Too often there is a tendency to discredit women’s activism in the Muslim community simply because these women choose to label themselves as ‘Islamic feminists’.

Rather than getting into the various currents of Islamic feminism-which many of its critics tend to forget, I’d rather discuss the antagonistic and emotional reaction by many critics in the Muslim community. Why is there so much hysteria around the issue of women in Islamic discourse?

Sometimes, I wonder if the label ‘feminist’ is worth even using because too often it serves more of a hindrance than progress. This is perhaps because it is conflated with feminism’s role in the colonial period, and where it was used to legitimise the project of the colonial power. Further, it is also because it has been associated with the mimetic modernizing projects by bourgeois nationalists in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, etc. On the contrary, the reality is that neither the colonialist nor the nationalist forces ever genuinely pursued the ‘emancipation’ of women. Merely, the issue of women, in particular their bodies, were used as a battleground for conflicting ideologies. For instance in Tunisia, the Tunisian woman was ‘modern’ (unveiled) in the physical sense, but expected to maintain the traditional role as the ‘mother of the nation’ who produces modern Tunisian citizens. That was her primary role. My point here is that both colonialists and modern nationalists never sought to emancipate women (assuming here many needed it in the first place) but instead infused the image of the ‘Muslim woman’ as a reflection of nationalist ideology–whether modern or Islamic.

This historical background provides a clearer insight into why there has been such hysteria behind issues of women in the Muslim world. In modern history, she has been relegated into a position of producing culture and the nation. That is why in Iran, the image of the chador-wearing Iranian woman is emphasized to the degree that it is, because it has both a political nationalist and religious meaning of resistance: She symbolizes the Iranian revolution and the defiance of Iran. Or in the opposite case, the unveiled Turkish woman is the symbol of Attaturk’s efforts to bring Turkey out of ignorance and stagnation.

Considering the historical tradition, it’s not surprising that the word ‘feminism’ arouses such opposition and emotions. The situation of Muslim women today is far more harrowing as a result of these experiences. The fanatical discourses around her have made it very difficult for any Muslim woman (or mEn for that matter) to point out injustices to even discuss the rights given to us in our very religion. It’s a time of crisis for the Muslim community if downloading the rights of women in Islam is threatened with a death sentence or imprisonment– which recently occurred in Afghanistan. Moreover, this is all justified under the feeble effort to ‘preserve’ some sort of a constructed authenticity which has mummified our discourse to the point where voices have been smothered because we’re led to believe everything is a threat. These include the voices of Islamic feminists.

I don’t agree with all Islamic feminists, and understand the discomfort of the label ‘feminist’ sometimes. Single standpoint feminism has done a great disservice with its monological approach. But we should forget about the stress on terms and labels, and focus on the actual issues. Forget about the ideological background some of these women may be inspired by. Is not the reality of the continued marginalization of over half of our community more important?

I’m writing this soon after I read a report on an increase of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Indeed, such an act should be contextualized within the experiences of war, but as local Afghan human rights groups have reported, they are the result of women who come from abusive marriages and feel they have nowhere to turn. As an Afghan woman who has witnessed the disgusting chauvinism the culture has a tendency to express (clearly not always), I believe the evidence of self-immolation and other equally appalling acts throughout the country are symptoms of a deeper problem. The Congress is therefore addressing these issues and doing what the broader Muslim community has failed to do: Openly discussing women-related issues in our community-and they’re doing it within an Islamic framework. Encouraging the education of Muslim women, denouncing honour killings, forced and child marriages and other practices plaguing the lives of many Muslim women are often key issues raised in these discussions.

The broader Muslim community can decry the treatment of Muslim women in the West (example France or the Netherlands regarding the hijab); however, we’ve failed to voice the wrongs against them within our own community. The attitude from many Muslims has been to not shed light on these problems because it gives Western critics further reason to demonise Muslims and Islam. Ironically, by ignoring the suffering of these members of the Muslim community, we are doing just that. In fact, we’re allowing these victims to equate their suffering with Islam, and helping them to turn away from it.

Whether one agrees with the methodology and interpretations being employed by those who advocate for the rights of women in the Muslim world, it’s appalling to reject and deny the need to incorporate informed women’s voices in today’s Islamic discourse–which criticism of such gatherings shamefully suggests.

Editor’s Note: For another perspective, you can read Sobia’s post on this conference and another in India.

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