Material Girls: Talking about Gender and Consumerism at ISNA

I spent this past weekend at a conference near Toronto, co-hosted by ISNA Canada (the Islamic Society of North America) and Reviving the Islamic Spirit.  The theme of the convention was “Serving God, Serving Humanity: Moral Basis of Effective Social Action.”  Overall, I have to say it was probably the best Islamic conference I’ve ever been to, and a very powerful (and much needed) pre-Ramadan spiritual boost, alhamdulillah.

Rabia Khedr. Image from the ISNA Canada website.

As much as I loved the convention, my biggest complaint, not surprisingly, was that out of 14 presenters, only one, Sister Rabia Khedr (pictured left), was female.  We’ve been through this before, with the last Reviving the Islamic Spirit convention in December.  As I said then, it is not okay for organizers to make so little effort to have female speakers, and there are indeed many very qualified women out there.  I really hope they start making changes in this area soon.

Also not surprisingly, the one female presenter who was there presented as part of a panel geared specifically towards women’s issues.  It seems rare to see women asked to speak on general Islamic topics; such topics end up being the domain of men (since maleness is generally seen as more neutral and normative, in contrast to the female “other”), with women pigeonholed into talking about female-specific issues, or even simply talking about personal experiences.  To clarify, there is nothing wrong with having women talk about women’s issues or their own experience; my issue is that these become the only places where women’s voices are heard, and that it would be nice to see more opportunities for women to speak on Islamic issues without it having to be from a specific framework of gender analysis.

The panel that the woman was speaking on at this particular conference was entitled “Don’t Be a Material Girl Living in a Material World.”  (Never thought you’d hear Madonna quoted at an Islamic conference?  Yeah, me neither.)  Speaker Rabia Khedr was joined by Imam Magid Ali and Imam Zaid Shakir.  The panel description was as follows:

The popular singer Madonna proclaimed, “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” The forces of rampant egoism unleashed in the contemporary world, particularly target women, pulling them away, in many instances, from a willingness to sacrifice for their families and communities. How can our sisters stand in the face of forces that encourage self-centeredness, vanity and egoism?

Upon reading the description, a friend of mine expressed concern that the focus was too exclusive one women, and took away from the fact that men can definitely also be victims of “self-centredness, vanity and egoism.”  She also worried that the women who are already sacrificing a lot for their families would be made to feel that they weren’t sacrificing enough, and that the burden of sacrificing for families and communities was again being placed too heavily on women.  I shared her concerns, and also worried that not enough emphasis would be placed on those who were promoting materialism and egoism in the first place.

I was very happy to have my concerns proven wrong, and to see an analysis that focused not so much on female sacrifice, but rather on issues of capitalism, consumerism, and disability.

Imam Zaid Shakir was the first speaker, and talked about how our current economic system reflects a “triumph of the material over the spiritual,” in which processes of commodification have replaced individuality and spirituality with market value.  He then talked about this in the context of women, femininity and female sexuality being transformed into material commodities, and their market values become the only way that they are considered to have worth.  He also discussed ways that women end up being seen in terms of utility value, with the result that if the utility is seen to be gone, women end up being discarded.  He advocated a focus on the Divinely-given spiritual value and integrity of each person as a way to counteract the negative effects of modern economic systems on human relationships and on gendered oppression.  It was a really interesting analysis of the relationships between economic oppression and patriarchal oppression, and very cool to hear it all talked about within an Islamic framework.

Rabia Khedr, a consultant on disability issues who founded and directs the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities (CAMD), was next. She began her talk by asking if there was anything additional that she could do to accommodate any of her audience members.  Khedr herself is blind, and let the audience know that we would have to give her verbal cues in response to her speech.  The focus on making sure that everyone could access her speech was a powerful way to start; I would love to see such issues arise more often in conference spaces (Islamic and otherwise.)

Khedr emphasised that self-centeredness, egoism and vanity are traits possessed by all genders, races, religions, and so on, and that women have always sacrificed for their families (generalizing, of course), so it is unfair to target women alone.  Interestingly, this comes from my notes from her talk, which I was writing as she was speaking (and not while looking at the conference program), but the language she used seems to respond very directly and explicitly to the panel description, and to challenge it based on some of the very same concerns that my friend and I had about it.  Khedr put a lot of blame on men (and their families) who look for a “Doctor Barbie traditional housewife in hijab” when searching for a wife, and dared families to look for someone other than Barbie when trying to find a spouse for their sons.

Khedr talked about how Islam doesn’t restrict having wealth, but that it does place conditions and call for responsibility for how wealth is used.  She mentioned in particular that Divine rizq (sustenance) is pre-determined, and that it is futile to be trying to gain more material wealth than has already been established for us (not to say that we shouldn’t have to work for what we earn, but rather that the material gains should not be our goal, as they are ultimately not in our hands.)

What I found particularly interesting about Khedr’s speech was the way that she integrated an analysis of her own (physical) blindness.  She talked about blindness not as a defect, or a weakness, or an obstacle to overcome, but rather as a way of being that might cause some challenges, but also allows her certain insights that sighted people might not have.  For example, she talked about how she doesn’t see the material world, and the relationship that this has to her understanding of materialism.  She later talked about how people have asked her if she would want to undergo a procedure to give her sight, and she said simply that she’s not all that interested because she doesn’t see her self as broken, and therefore does not think that she needs to be fixed.  As she said, she was made this way, and “I am comfortable with God’s creation.”  It wasn’t a romanticization of disability, but a realistic way of looking at it that understands disability not as a problem, but as a way of experiencing the world.  I’ve spent some time in a disability studies class, so I’m familiar with this perspective, but had never heard it from an Islamic angle before. CAMD’s position is that we are all created equal and therefore we all deserve accommodation and equal opportunities to be engaged in our communities: their slogan is “Nothing about us, without us.”

Last, Khedr talked about how Muslim women need to speak up for ourselves, especially considering that women represent 51% of humanity.  She encouraged us to stand up to all those who might try to speak for us – men (Muslim or not), non-Muslim women, even Muslim women who can’t speak for our experiences – and to become engaged in social activism.

Imam Magid Ali was the last speaker. His talk focused on consumerism and materialism more generally, with very little dealing directly with gender.  He talked about the dangers of over-consumption, and specially encouraged the audience to use Ramadan as a time to change our spending habits.  Definitely useful advice.

All in all, I was really impressed by this panel, which dealt with the complexities of gendered oppression, popular images of femininity, disability, and consumption, in ways that were critical and thought-provoking.  I hope to see more like this at future conferences insha’Allah (and I hope to see more female speakers at all panels, regardless of topic.)

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  • Ibn al-Halal

    It would be good to proactively request from the organizers of such conferences to have higher (meaningful) female participation–both as speakers and moderators.

    I’m sure that if they’re approached in the right way, they’d listen…

  • fathima

    i went to a conference some weeks back where one of the speakers presented a paper on the intersections of spirituality and disability studies, specifically within the context of her experiences with the catholic church and her use of a wheelchair. it was a fascinating study and made me want to learn more about issues along those lines.
    and Khedr sounds incredible. i wish i’d heard of her and CAMD before. it’s heartening to see this kind of work being done within the community.

  • NaksibendiMuslimah

    The issue of sisters being restricted to “women’s issues” at conferences, if they are asked to speak at all, has been discussed repeatedly and organizers of conferences have been directly approached on this matter many times. Frankly, it shouldn’t require as much conversation as has happened already and continues to happen. The organizers of the conference knew what they were doing. i would imagine that some presenters, like Imam Zaid probably also raised the concern directly. i personally have had this conversation repeatedly with publishers of magazines and newspapers as well and although it is always seemingly well-received, ultimately i am still pigeon-holed and requested to restrict my topics to things like hijab, homekeeping, parenting, and a wife’s responsibilities. It isn’t that organizers and publishers etc. don’t “know” that there is a problem. It’s that they seem to like to keep it that way lest we sisters start to step outside the box and expect equity or something.

    While questionning why after all this time and so many conversations conference organizers continue to treat sisters like tokens, we should also directly complain about how that program description was presented. Because reading it, i had the same feelings as you ladies, and i frankly would not have bothered to attend something that was described like that. There is no reason that a better, and more accurate, description couldn’t have been written. In fact, outside the Islamic community, it is NORMAL to allow the presenters to write, or collaborate to write, the description of what they plan to present.

    AlhamdulAllah, it sounds like the session was much much better than could be expected! And many thanks to Khedr for tackling the issues and speaking at length on the Islamic outlook on disability and her experiences. Unfortunately, the disabled people in North America deal with a lot of pressure to either stay hidden or to prove that they are “just like” everyone else, and this is also true in many North American Muslim communities. This is not a truly Islamic attitude to take, either ostracizing or romanticizing those of us who are disabled. i am proud to see a sister take up a position where she is able to publicly and eloquently address this matter, alhamdulAllah. May Allah reward her for the work.

    Thank you Krista for this interesting look at the conference!

  • debbie

    Amazing article!!!:)

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  • saliha

    This was such a refreshing read. Jazakallah khair for sharing it with us.

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  • Ginny Quick

    Assalamu alaikum, as a blind Muslim as well, I can definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by Rabia, in fact, that’s pretty much how I feel, blindness is a challenge, yes, an inconvenience at times, but even before I became Muslim, I was raised to view it merely as something to overcome or to be accommodated, not a “defect”. I am happy with how I am, and feel that God has made me this way for a reason, especially given the fact that I was born prematurely, and very well may not have been here at all. So being blind really isn’t a problem. Now as to whether or not I’d want my sight, that’s a hard question to answer, I saw a web video for a brainport, a device that is hard to explain but somehow uses tactile stimulation via the tongue and that someone interfaces withthe visual regions of the brain, allowing a blind person to get an idea of their surroundings, that’s a terrible description I know, but I brng this up merely to say that when I learned of this device, I was very excited about it, it reminded me of Geordi of Star Trek and his visor and I thought how maybe we’re not as far from that as we think we are. But anyway, I used to not think that I’d want my sight back, however, I’m not so sure. I’m happy with how I am, but the opportunity to see would also be a hard thing to resist especially if it meant that I’d be able to do something as simple as finding a coin I’d dropped. Anyway, sorry for the long comment. Assalamu alaikum and take care.


    Wonderful thought provoking article and I love Ms. Khedr’s speech! And you’re right I never thought I would hear Madonna being quoted at an Islamic event LOL!

  • Krista

    Thanks for all your comments!

    @ Ibn al-Halal: I know several people who have made requests to conference organisers about precisely this issue, including sending lists of possible speakers they should consider. So far, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Insha’Allah they will get the message eventually.

    That said, one thing that I forgot to mention in my post is that there were female moderators at several of the panels, so I was glad to see that at least, although it doesn’t make up for the lack of female speakers.

    @ Naksibendi Muslimah: Thanks for sharing your experiences. I don’t have a lot to add, but totally agree with you. And yes, I’ve heard that Imam Zaid and other scholars have also raised the issue of the lack of female speakers, but I’m not sure to what degree it has been a priority for them. Anyway, it continues to be hugely frustrating…

    @ Ginny: Wa alaikum assalaam. Thanks so much for your comment, and no need to apologise for it being long – it is really interesting to hear your thoughts on it. I should maybe clarify that Khedr did say in her speech that if the opportunity to acquire sight came up, she might consider it, but that it’s not something she feels a need to put a lot of thought into, or to actively seek out.

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  • TopSecret

    I highly doubt this would be the reason considering how liberal ISNA is, but perhaps they realized that women should not be speaking to mixed crowds and asked the sister to do a topic that would appeal more widely to sisters.

    I’m convinced after reading a few posts on MMW that it should be called MMC or Muslimah Media Complaints. that is all it seems to be. Lots and lots of complaining.

  • Sobia

    @ TopSecret:

    You are more than welcome to not read MMW. And it’s not complaining. It’s called critical thinking.

    And women can absolutely speak to mixed audiences. Didn’t Aisha (pbuh) lead an all male army in war? If a woman can lead a male army then I’m thinking speaking in front of a mixed gender crowd would be a non-issue.

    Can your misogyny be any more apparent?

  • Krista

    @ TopSecret:
    Although I vehemently disagree with your suggestion that “women should not be speaking to mixed crowds,” that did cross my mind as a possible reason why there were so few women speakers; however, there were several female moderators, so I don’t think that that was a perspective that influenced the conference organisers.

    Yes, sometimes MMW writers have negative things to say in many of our posts. As you’ll notice, MMW also covers media on Muslim women that we feel does a good job – it’s not all complaining. However, as a site that looks critically at the way that Muslim women are discussed in the media, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we might have negative things to say every so often.

    Moreover, if you look at this post itself, MOST of the post is talking about positive elements of the conference. Yes, there is complaining involved. There is also a lot of praise. You seem to disagree, and that’s fine, and you don’t have to read MMW if you don’t find value in our writing.

  • TopSecret

    Meow, I guess I hit a sore spot with that. Critical thinking eh?

    Can you convey the story of Aisha leading men into war? Do you ignore all other ayats and hadith that tell us not to speak to mixed crowds?

    And yes, I mostly stay away from your site, but its like looking at a car wreck, I just can’t not do it sometimes.

    • Fatemeh

      @TopSecret: And we’re done. Not nice.

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